I am heading in a polished silver Mercedes-Benz taxi to the Karemont night club at 10 Avenue Princesse Grace in Monaco, with the thoughtfully and intellectually witty, Vicky Coren, while at the European PokerStars Tournament earlier this month. We are talking about the untimely death of Sir Wiliam Ormerod, a very sad tale at that, kind of. Sir William, as she explains, was a gentleman who had many achievements in the field of molecular engineering, after leaving the field of theatre where he knew the great stage stars of his time.
After receiving his knighthood, Sir William donated his money to Wilton’s Music Hall, and Pocklington Arts Centre, among other places. Upon his death, Coren, a poker columnist for both The Guardian and culture observerist for The Observer, “(I very rarely write about the economic climate in Guam”) wrote about his passing, and noted he would be having a memorial service in his honor, to which one had to RSVP to Vicky Coren herself.
She had made the whole death of Sir William up, as well as his life, which she even created a Wikipedia page for and footnoted his accomplishments. As Coren says, “He never died because he never lived!”
She created the “investigative” hoax because as she explains, “A weird thing happened when my father died. (Alan Coren was a celebrity humorist in the UK.) We were having a memorial service and I was warned that there was this shady group in England who gate crashed memorial services of people they didn’t know to get free drinks. So as a journalist, I decided to set a trap for them.
After announcing Sir Williams' death followed by a “drinks reception,” I received all of these emails saying how fond they were of him, and asking for tickets to his service. One wrote, ‘I used to know him in Yorkshire in the 1960s. What a wonderful man.’ I got all of these anecdotes. I really wanted to go through with the whole memorial service. I thought we would lock the doors to the church and say, ‘We are all going to share our own memories of Sir William, and pass around the microphone.’ But the thing is, it got to being near Christmas, and I got into the whole spirit of forgiveness, and decided I was being too naughty. I mean it’s murky and tasteless; but, they just wanted a free sandwich.”
That’s Vicky Coren for you, wickedly funny with heart, and a first rate poker player to boot.
Not only did her father have the humor vein, but her brother does as well. Giles Coren is a columnist for The Times. Born to a middle-class Jewish family in North London, their mother was a doctor. Says Coren, “She would be up at seven and be at work for 11 hours and come home exhausted and covered in blood. Our father would get up at ten in the morning, go off to work whistling and come home drunk and happy at 4 in the afternoon. It really wasn’t difficult to decide what we wanted to do with our lives. Our father clearly had a great life. Only a fool would look at my father’s life and try not to copy it!”
In her father’s spirit at 14, she won a competition in the Daily Telegraph to write a column about teenage life for their "Weekend" section, which she continued writing for several years. Her entry essay was about growing up as an urban kid and how she hated the countryside. “Oh, I thought how terrible it was and how I had to listen to a Walkman to drown out all of the birds. I found the cows terrifying.”
While her parents acted very respectable, they still had to deal with her father’s past. “My dad came from a shady background,” Coren says as she lights up a litany of cigarettes time after time. We are sitting outside in the basking sun at the Karement off the Monaco Riviera where Coren will be practicing her lines for the EPT Season Six Awards. (Wouldn’t you pick the cleverly funny one to give away boring awards?) She continues. “ My father was the kind of guy who was the first person in his family to go to college. He came from a family of builders and plumbers, with lots of gamblers. But my parent’s journey was one to be respectable. They even changed the way they spoke. My dad became an establishment figure. Unfortunately for them, my grandfather was still in the background. So when he used to babysit my grandfather would teach my brother and I to play blackjack and poker. He was genuinely trying to win our pocket money. I was about seven and we got a pound a week as our allowance and it would be my grandfather’s absolute ambition to win that pocket money. It’s all in the blood. I was completely hooked at a very early age.”
A graduate of Oxford where she wrote her thesis on Y.B Yeats, it wasn’t much longer that Coren and a friend named Charlie Skelton began studying, well, pornography naturally, and writing about their thoughts on it for The Erotic Review. I ask her why she found porn so terrible and why she and Charlie had to go about and make their own movie. “Have you ever seen any,” she asks in her upper class accent, enunciating every word. “There is no story line, and the characters and dialogue are just awful. So we decided to assume it’s easy to hire people to have sex on camera.”
“Were you in it?” I ask the long blonde-haired possible porn actress.
“No,” she replies in mock horror. “I didn’t physically doooo the sex. We wrote the film and directed the movie. We really thought all that was needed was for someone to write a proper script with great characters. That went fine, but it turns out hiring people to have sex - if you’re kind of a bleeding heart liberal with no experience from the south of England - is almost impossible. So while our porn film is full of extremely ambitious and complicated dialogue, it is badly spoken by Dutch sex workers with nobody having sex at all. We couldn’t bear to ask them to do it as we thought it was rude. We were completely out of our depth. In a way it’s the greatest porn movie ever made, because it’s the most ambitious. But “The Naughty Twins” is in many ways the worst porn film ever made. You won’t see anything less erotic. Imagine your old granny cleaning the attic with a broom. That’s more erotic than our movie.”
From porn, she then turned her full attention to poker. Her poker memoir/autobiography For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker was published in September 2009. I ask what is her love affair with poker all about. “I appreciate that my journey has been quite strange,” she says. “Poker is like a love affair. Sometimes it’s going to be brilliant and wonderful and fascinating, and sometimes it’s going to be depressing and debilitating and infuriating, and expensive. Still, it’s with you for life.”
“How do you compare it to the relationships you’ve had?” I wonder.
“Well I haven’t gotten around to getting married and having children which my mother says I’m leaving terribly late at. She says, ‘Chop chop! You know the clock’s ticking!’”
“How old are you now anyway,” I ask Coren. To which she quickly replies, “I’m sorry, I think there was interference on the line.” She doesn’t talk age, and out of respectfulness to her I won't mention it, but, you can Google her age yourself, if you care to really know.
She goes back to the child topic again.
“It is one of the questions I ask in the book. ‘Do I play poker all of the time because I haven’t gotten married and I don’t have children?’ Or have I not gotten married, or had children because I play poker all of the time. It’s definitely a replacement. It gives me a life and a community, and it's something that I’m fascinated by. It takes up all of my time.”
Coren says she regularly stays up until 6 a.m. “Smoking, and drinking and gambling. But I like cooking and gardening too which makes me sound like a very strange mix of an old lady and teenage boy.”
Vicky Coren was the first woman to win on the European Poker Tour. She was the first player to win both a televised professional tournament (EPT London 2006 winning about a million dollars) and a televised celebrity tournament (Celebrity Poker Club 2005). She does not prefer women’s tournaments. But she has softened to the idea of them.
“Nothing is wrong with ladies tournaments, I’ve actually come around to them but specifically for women who want to play poker, and who play online but who think a live event is scary because a lot of men will be in it and men are used to it.
For me, once you get to a level where you think you’re a good winning player it worries me to have a handicap because there’s absolutely no reason why women shouldn’t play as well as men because they’re just sitting there playing cards. It’s about brain and guts, and wit and perception. And frankly its about deception and secrecy which women are better at then men as we all know. Okay, maybe the first time you sit down at a live event it’s scary and women’s events are good for that.
For me I don’t want to look like I feel can’t beat anyone, because I do and I want a total open field for anyone to play. For me I want to feel like anyone can take a shot, and I’m confident to play in that field. I think as a social thing women’s tournaments are fun. One of the fantastic things about poker is that literally anybody can compete seriously compared to most sport, if you believe like I do that poker is a sport. An 80-year-old guy in a wheelchair has as much chance as wining as a fit 20-year-old Swede. A woman can beat a man and an old person can beat a young person. The total equality of the game is a beautiful thing.”
All in all, Coren says all of this has been a wonderful ride. “I think I’ve had a great life. Of course, having children is an adventure I haven’t tried yet - I don’t know if I will, or not but I think that would be wonderful. I do know that if and when I have them, I have heard children are always awake in the middle of the night. ‘Goodness me,’ my friends will say. ‘I was awake until 2 a.m.’ For me, I would think that’s an early night!
Sue Carswell is a reporter/researcher for "Vanity Fair." She is the author of "Paying For Glory," and "Faded Pictures From My Backyard." Carswell is a former senior producer at "Good Morning America," former executive and senior editor at Random House Inc. and Simon & Schuster. She was a contributing launch editor for "O, The Oprah Magazine." She is a contributor for Wowowow.com. She lives in Manhattan where she is also a ghostwriter and speechwriter.