Roland de Wolfe

April Cover

01 April 2010

“I’m not sure readers will get the association,” says Roland de Wolfe, pointing at the enormous stuffed wolf we hired for his photo shoot. “Not that I know anything about journalism,” quips the former poker journalist.

“How much is it to hire a wolf anyway?”

“£750 for three days,” we bark.

“Oh, that’s good,” says Roland. “Maybe you can do a photoshoot with Paul Wolf tomorrow.”

Scouring the Hendon Mob website, we see that Roland is right. There seems to be a myriad of poker players with wolf-related surnames, including the hilariously named “Randy Wolf”.

There is, however, only one Roland de Wolfe: urbane and quick-witted, Roland surveys the world from beneath an arched eyebrow with that slightly off-kilter gaze of his. Today, he’s back at the scene of his most recent triumph, the Red Room at London’s impossibly swanky Les Ambassadeurs Club, where last month he took down the inaugural Les A London Open, sponsored by Mansion.

The London Open was a great little tournament – featuring a fast structure and a mixture of solid London pros, including The Hendon Mob, Willy Tann, Nik Persaud, Laurence Houghton and James Vogl. It was a pretty tough field for a £2,000 tournament. Roland turned up late, almost as an afterthought, got in as the last alternate, went on a rampage and nicked the lot.

He made it look effortless, like he did when he rampaged through the 400-strong field at the EPT Dublin in 2006, stopping only to pick pieces of the deck out his face along the way. Or when he won his first bracelet last year in PLO Hi/Lo, having barely played the game before. In fact, Roland de Wolfe has pretty much won everything going. When he emerged on the scene in 2005, the thoroughly bitchy poker world thought he was a flash in the pan; a “lucky” tournament player who wouldn’t stick around for long; a dilettante journalist with neither the self-control nor the raw talent to stay the course. Roland, of course, proved everybody wrong.

“That was important to me,” says Roland. “It used to be that 20 years was the ‘test of time’. Now, with the way the industry has changed, if you can stick around for four years, you’ve proved yourself. The games have got twice as hard, and they have every year since 2003. It’s much harder to survive now. The speed of change has been amazing.

“I’ve never been out of action, but I’ve been pretty close. I’ve always managed to bounce back and to knuckle down when I’ve needed to. But I should be much more financially secure than I am now. I’m happy with the amount of money I’ve got, but it’s been a bumpier ride than I would have wished for. But I guess that’s who I am. Sometimes the way you get the money is also the way you lose the money.”

“Roland will be broke soon, the way he’s going,” was a fashionable opinion to have circa 2006. Maybe it was part jealousy, rooted in the snidey perception of Roland as “lucky”, but there were also rumours of staggering losses at the blackjack tables.

“My struggles with table games, sportsbetting, Chinese poker and stuff are not really a secret,” he says. “I wish that was something that I’d steered clear from. I’m a lot better now, but you always have to be aware. The amount if money poker players lose on table games is crazy. My advice is to be disciplined and stay away from those games. If you can’t control what you do in the pit, then you’re in the wrong industry. Don’t gamble more than you can afford to lose and don’t waste years and years of your life sitting at a card table. Play and learn and use training sites and think about the game but don’t let it take over your life. Don’t make the mistakes that I and so many of my contemporaries have made.

“Success was all very sudden for me. I didn’t have the experience to deal with it, and I made a lot of mistakes early on in my career – bad investments, playing too high, playing for the wrong reasons – like I thought I had to – doing things for ego purposes. But now I’m much more comfortable in myself and much wiser in my dealings with people. I’ve been around the block a few times. I’m not the new kid anymore. Five years is a long time. I’ve reached a new phase of me as a person and as a poker player.”

Roland de Wolfe, it seems, has grown up

Roland was born in North London, into the celebrated de Wolfe music publishing house. He was a mischievous child, a “cocky little piss-taker”, in his own words, with little concentration when it came to schoolwork. As a kid he’d play table tennis and knock golf balls around with friends for money; as a teenager he’d play pool, or poker and pontoon in the back of the school bus, always “gambling on stuff”.

“I think I was predisposed to gambling anyway. I’m just the kind of person who does things better when there’s money riding on it – I need the added pressure, and I function well under pressure,” he says.
He also has an obsessive personality. “I had quite bad OCD when I was younger. I was always trying to get stuff out of my head – I would think about stuff for hours and hours. I knew it was bullshit and illogical. I’d get something right and then, half an hour later, I’d have to get it right again. Like when you know your door’s locked but you have to keep going back to it to check. I was quite severe when I was 19, and then again when I was 23.”

Channeling his energies into poker was a way of controlling his compulsive tendencies. Poker was always something he’d been aware of, but the first time he saw Texas Hold’em was on Late Night Poker and he was hooked. He made a few tentative trips to the Vic in early 2001, before becoming a regular fixture at the Gutshot.

“When I started working at Inside Poker – that was the time when I really had to learn the game and take it to a new level. I’m a poker fan, which a lot of poker players aren’t, in the sense that they’ll never be sitting down watching poker on TV, but I’m really into it. I watch as much poker as I can – I love it! I’m a real enthusiast.”

Roland was a natural and picked the game up very quickly: “Although I wasn’t a completely rounded player in the early days, I had enough. Tournament strategy, in particular, I picked up very quickly, and I threw myself into it.

The 2005 WSOP was my first experience of top level poker and I remember playing on the same table as Barry Greenstein in a side event, and he was very intimidating at the time, but I also remember being able to hold my own. I played against Mike Matusow and Jen Harman, too, and took a lot of confidence from that. I saw that the gap between playing a UK tournament and the World Series wasn’t as big as I’d thought it would be.”

“Then I went over to Paris. To my name, I must have had about £30,000. I put a third of myself in the tournament, which was probably 20 per cent of my whole bankroll, and just played brilliantly. Even now, with all the tournament success I’ve had, I think that was one of my finest performances. It was much better than when I won the EPT, because then I just ran really well and got lucky. But that first one, I played so good – I was young and hungry.

“So I landed on my feet. Suddenly I was getting invited to all these tournaments. I had money and a bankroll and the opportunity to keep learning because suddenly I was playing against the best players around every day.

“I could be exactly the same player and not have had those results, so it wasn’t my level of skill that got me there, but it was my level of skill that enabled me to roll with it when that luck appeared.

“Luck is a big factor. Luck decides who becomes a world famous player and who doesn’t. However, a player with a mathematical edge will always win. He might not come first all the time in high profile tournaments, but he’ll always win. I think there are players who are technically as good as me, who haven’t had the results, but there are far more players out there who are kidding themselves that they should have had results when they shouldn’t.”

Today, Roland focuses more on the big live London cash games than the tournament trail; the former is a subject he’s reluctant to talk about because it’s a private world – private games in private clubs. He feels there’s less to prove now, and besides, five years of travelling the world chasing glory is more than enough.

“I don’t care about the winning and losing of the money so much now. I’m sensible enough now to drop down in stakes when I’m losing. But it’s really, really tough. It’s a tough profession. Would I advise people to choose poker as a career? I would say don’t do it unless you’re going to be one of the best. Keep it as a hobby. The games are only getting harder. I’ve seen so many people crushed by this game.

“It’s a zero sum game, so whenever someone’s winning, someone else is losing. You just have to make sure you’re comfortable with what you’re doing. And if you’re not good at dealing with disappointment, then maybe it’s not the life for you.”

These days Roland is careful with his money, limiting the wilder aspect of his gambling nature to crazy prop bets with his friends, and endless abortive weight-loss bets. He had a bet with Peter Gold during the World Series in which they were permitted to eat only salad for a whole month. Unfortunately Roland went drinking one night and was discovered in the morning surrounded by Twix wrappers.

“Money is the tool of our trade and so you have to have the right attitude, which is, when you’re on the table, it’s the means by which you play the game, and you can’t think about what the money would buy you. Off the table, you can’t have the same blasé attitude because you need money to be doing your job. You have to be grounded and understand the real value of things. It’s kind of a dichotomy. You should always look after your money and be conservative with your bankroll because you never know when you’ll go on a downswing. I try to be generous, and generous to myself, but not reckless.

“I like the fact that I’ve set records and stuff,” says Roland, reflecting on his career as a whole. “I like to achieve that sort of thing – not that I care about what people think of me – that doesn’t really matter. I’d like to win another bracelet and another EPT. I’m still hungry to do that, but I’m more focused on just enjoying my life now. I really wanted a bracelet. That was always a dream of mine and getting that was immense. Anything else is just a bonus.”