Monte Carlo or bust: tycoon’s £850,000 gamble

Howard Swains and Alex Spence
The Times: May 14 2013

You don’t get to be one of London’s richest hedge-fund tycoons without quick wits and ice-cold nerves. But that did not stop Talal Shakerchi losing more than €1 million (£850,000) in Europe’s biggest cash poker game last weekend.

The Midlands-born financier was one of six high-rollers who staked €500,000 each to join an unofficial game at the final of the European Poker Tour in Monaco on Saturday night. With as much as €4 million on the table, poker experts said that it was probably the biggest sum ever wagered in a public game on European soil.

Rumours of the high-stakes game had circulated all week as the continent’s poker elite gathered for the finale of their annual season in a hotel overlooking Monte Carlo. It finally began on Saturday afternoon in a small room away from the television cameras and spectators that were focused on the official events.

Only a handful of people sitting on hastily arranged chairs were aware that two multimillionaire British amateurs and four of the world’s top professionals were playing for pots of up to €1 million a time.

Mr Shakerchi’s involvement in the record game is indicative of poker’s growing popularity among high-flying financiers, for whom the wild ups and downs of trading commodities and shares are matched only by the thrill of the tables of Las Vegas, Macau and Monte Carlo. The highest-stakes games offer the chance to test financiers’ wits and problem-solving abilities against some of the world’s sharpest minds.

Mr Shakerchi, 49, is little known outside the City but is regarded in financial circles as one of the best stock-pickers of his generation. Of Kurdish descent, he joined BP’s graduate training scheme in the 1980s and later worked at Old Mutual before setting up his own hedge fund, Meditor, in 1998. The secretive fund now has about £3 billion of assets under management.

He is worth an estimated £100 million, according to The Sunday Times Rich List, and is said to be one of Britain’s most generous philanthropists. He has won more than £1 million in live tournaments.

Saturday was not his night, however. Dressed unassumingly in a blue checked shirt, jeans and bookish glasses, Mr Shakerchi lost his €500,000 buy-in within two hours.
He reacted by calmly going to the bar for a Diet Coke. After talking to the casino host, he was escorted behind the cashier’s cage and re-emerged with two trays of chips, worth €750,000. Mr Shakerchi waited briefly on the sidelines before buying back in.

First to leave the table, around midnight, was Viktor Blom, a 23-year-old Swede regarded as one of the hottest talents on the European circuit. Mr Blom gave up after losing €400,000, then went upstairs and won £850,000 playing online. “So we are good on the day!” Mr Blom tweeted at 6.50am. “Now sleep.”

Next to call it quits was Sam Trickett, the UK’s biggest winner in live tournaments, with £13 million in recorded career earnings. He surprised onlookers by calling it a night after losing a hand to Mr Shakerchi.

Paul Newey, the other British amateur, who made an estimated £220 million fortune through a Midlands-based consumer lender, left soon after, saying that he did not want to continue with so few players left. His departure left Mr Shakerchi, Nicklas Heinecker, a German professional, and Isaac Haxton, an established American high-stakes player. They finished at 5.30 on Sunday morning, when the casino closed.

Mr Heinecker, having bought in twice, was up by about €300,000. Mr Haxton was about €1 million ahead. Mr Shakerchi had only €84,000 remaining — a loss of more than €1.1 million in a little over 12 hours. He politely declined to comment after the game.

Despite his losses, Mr Shakerchi is highly regarded by professional players. “Compared with most of the businessmen, he’s a good player,” said Faraz Jaka, an American professional. Nor is Mr Shakerchi one to accept losing, in finance or at the poker table, it seems. While official events continued, talk was mounting that the players were eager to restart the game.