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How Europe’s First Female Poker Champ Made History and Learned to Compete With the Guys

6 minute read

British journalist and professional poker player Victoria Coren Mitchell made poker history for the second time in her career on Sunday, when she won the European Poker Tour and became the first person ever to win the tournament twice. The first time she broke records was with her win in 2006 when she became the first woman to take the title.

Though she might not be a household name in the U.S. — yet! — Coren Mitchell is a prolific writer, penning columns in the Observer and books such as 2011’s For Richer, For Poorer: Confessions of a Player. She’s also a part of British media royalty: her father, Alan Coren, was a legendary journalist, she’s married to comedian and U.K. television star David Mitchell and her brother, Giles Coren, is a writer for the London Times. With her latest poker victory, she’s also one of the all-time top 10 female earners in the game.

Coren Mitchell spoke to TIME about her win, learning the game and why you shouldn’t play poker with your spouse.

TIME: Victoria, hello. Congrats on your second win of the European Poker Tour!

Victoria Coren Mitchell: Oh, thank you very much.

When you won back in 2006, you became the first woman to take the title. Now you’re the first person – man or woman – to win it twice. How does it feel?

It feels incredible. I can’t really believe it. Obviously, when [I won] the first time and I was the first woman to do so, that was great too. It was a different sort of barrier to break. [This time] there were 97 EPT champions – only three of them women—all fighting to be the first one to win twice. I don’t think anyone thought it would be me who would get there – including me.

At one point during the tournament, you were in eighth place. When did you know you were going to win it?

When I knocked out the player who came third, Jordan, the American guy, I had a wave of thinking, my God, I’m going to win. We’d been playing for six days – it’s a long tournament – and at no point did I think I was going to win it. I had the lowest chips when there were 16 of us and I had the lowest chips when there were eight of us. To find myself with just one opponent when I had most of the chips, the writer in me thought, what kind of story would this be if I didn’t win it now?

I’m generally a pessimist and I try to be self-deprecating because that’s the British way, but when there were two of us, [I knew] that I was playing really well. Also, what they call Heads Up poker — where there are just two people at the table — I’m quite good at. When the play started I felt in control and I did think, I can outplay this guy. So when I won I was actually quite calm. I thought, yes, that’s what was supposed to happen. It was only the next morning when I woke up that I thought, what on Earth happened there?

In addition to being a champion poker player, you’re a busy journalist with columns in the Observer and British GQ and regular appearances on the BBC. What do you consider your primary job?

I really don’t know anymore. I don’t if I’m a writer who plays poker or a poker player who writes. I don’t know whether TV fits in at all.

I do feel incredibly lucky to be making a living at things I love doing. I never wanted poker to be a job. That’s partly because I love it and it’s fun and I didn’t want it to stop being fun and partly because, I suppose, something in me doesn’t feel right about calling poker a job. It’s not grown-up enough. But it’s a hobby that takes up an enormous amount of my time.

So when you fill out, say, customs forms when traveling you can just put “luckiest person alive” under occupation.

[Laughs] The problem with that is I’m really frightened of flying, so if I put “luckiest person alive” on a form before getting on a plane something terrible would happen.

You are a pessimist.

[Laughs] I really am!

Speaking of professions, you come from a very prominent family in British media – how did playing poker even come about?

Back in the old days, my brother [Giles Coren, writer for the London Times], who is three years older than me, would play poker with his friends in the kitchen and I just wanted to meet boys. I was at an all-girls school and I thought if I learned how to play this game, I’d get to spend time with boys and figure out what they’re like. Then I found that I was absolutely gripped by the game.

It happens or it doesn’t with poker. My husband [David Mitchell, the British comedian and star of Peep Show and The Mitchell and Webb Look] tried playing poker and he just found it really stressful. He didn’t enjoy it. People do or they don’t and I really did. I sat down to play cards with my brother when I was about probably 14 and I never really got up from the table.

So if your husband finds poker so stressful, I guess that means he never plays with you?

I don’t think that would be good for a marriage to play poker against each other. I mean, some people would say marriage is one long poker game against each other but I would say in the Mitchell sense, it wouldn’t be a good idea.

One final question: what’s your number one poker tip for beginners?

My number one tip is never play for an amount of money you can’t comfortably afford. That’s not just a moral thing — obviously people shouldn’t do anything they can’t afford and that doesn’t matter if it’s buying a car or a pair of shoes or getting into a poker game. But also, from a practical point of view, in poker you can’t win if you’re frightened. So you’ve got to play for an amount of money you can lose without it damaging you, because otherwise you’ll play scared and it’ll come to no good.

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