Interview: Victoria Coren

Interview by Nicholas Tufnell 13 November 2011

Victoria Coren is a British writer, presenter and champion poker player. Coren writes weekly columns for The Observer and The Guardian newspapers and hosts the BBC Four television quiz show Only Connect. Victoria is also a professional poker player, 2006 winner of the London EPT, sponsored to play tournaments by, playing on the international poker circuit and regularly on Channel 4 and Sky Sports.

As a broadcaster, she has presented Fourth Column and Off The Page for Radio 4 and two series of Balderdash And Piffle (about the Oxford dictionary and the history of words) for BBC2, as well as documentaries on language and surrealist art for BBC 4. As a poker and gambling specialist, she has presented Late Night Poker and The Poker Nations Cup for Channel 4, a series of World Poker Tour for ITV2 and the chat show Bar Beat for the Poker Channel, as well as providing commentary for The European Poker Tour and The Grosvenor UK Poker Tour (Channel 4), Ultimate Poker Challenge (Channel 5), Celebrity Poker Challenge (ITV1), The William Hill Grand Prix (Sky Sports), Celebrity Poker Club and Casino Casino (Challenge TV).

You’re regarded as quite a formidable poker player. What got you into poker and do you really stay up until 6pm playing it online?

Well…. I hope to. I play the big Sunday tournaments online, and they go on through the night until the morning – so if you’re knocked out before then, it’s bad news. As for how I got started, well, it’s a long story (quite literally; 339 pages) but the short answer is that my brother started playing when we were teenagers, so I decided it would be a good way to meet boys. And oh boy did I meet some.

Poker can be quite a male dominated game. Do you ever find this frustrating? Why do you think it’s still considered something of a novelty or taboo for women to play poker?

See above. I find it delightful. But many more women are coming into the game these days, which makes it a lot more fun. It is quite a male game in its essence – a combination of geeky and aggressive – but plenty of women find that appealing too, and I guess I must be one of them.

Your poker memoir “For Richer, For Poorer: Confessions Of A Player” is currently out in paperback. Could you tell us a little about it? Would it be of interest to people who don’t play poker?

It’s certainly supposed to be. Its two stories in one. The first is a life story, of how a nice girl like me from a literary background and a posh school got sucked into shady gambling underworld, fell in love with a poker player, got her heart broken, saw the world, won a million, that kind of thing. I’d hope that story would be funny and engaging and make sense to anyone who’s ever felt like a bit of an outsider and dreamed of running away to the circus. Then there’s a second story (literally a second chapter after each main one, in italics) which is a specific account of how I won a big tournament – which budding poker players might treat as advice for the game, but non-players can either read as a sort of weird poetry (much as I read the nautical stuff in The Shipping News or the match descriptions in Fever Pitch) or just skip completely if they want.

You graduated from St John’s College, Oxford. What did you study and did you enjoy university, or rather Oxbridge life?

I studied English. I loved that, loved the books, loved arguing the toss with my tutors and (don’t hate me) loved Finals. I also made some great friends for life. But I didn’t have the text-book “Oxbridge fantasy” time of punting down beautiful rivers on sunny days and going to balls. Does anyone really do that? For me, there was a lot of eating yoghurt in dark rooms, angrily reading Milton and making tearful phone calls home.

In your book Once More, With Feeling you wrote about your attempt to make the best hardcore pornography film ever. Could you explain why you wanted to shoot a porn film and what The Naughty Twins was about?

Jeez, this is another example of a no-win question: if I could answer that in a hundred words, it would render the book utterly pointless, and two years of my life wasted! In short, I suppose… it was partly because my best friend Charlie and I had a comedy job reviewing porn films and we thought they were all so awful that we could do a better job ourselves, partly because we wanted to prove that these things could be done in a fun and ethical way with nobody having a terrible time, and partly because a few years had passed since university, we were bored and we wanted an adventure.

You’re considered as something of a sex symbol by quite a lot of men (think ‘sexy geek’). How do you feel about this?

I’m very grateful. At university, when you’re meant to have the time of your life surrounded by a thousand potential partners, all of them young and brilliant and beautiful, nobody gave me a second look. I used to get drunk and ask people to kiss me. They all said no. So, if anyone asks me to marry them on Twitter or in the chat box on PokerStars, I always say yes.

Tell me about Sir William Ormerod…

When I was planning my father’s memorial service, we were targeted by a weird gang of “funeral crashers”: a bunch of dreadful people led by an unsavoury character called Terence Jolley, who bumble around the south of England pretending to have known dead people in the hope of cadging a free booze-up after the service. I got wind of it and wanted to keep them out of my father’s service. The problem was, I didn’t know who they all were – my father lived for sixty years and knew a lot of people, I didn’t want to accidentally ban real friends just because I’d never met them. So I invented a rich industrialist called Sir William Ormerod and dotted references to him around the internet to make him look real. Then I announced his death in The Times, and set up an email address in the name of Sir William’s grieving boyfriend Andrew. They all wrote to say that they had known and liked Sir William, told me anecdotes about time spent in his company, and asked for details of the funeral. So then I had them all identified and trapped. It was hilarious but, at the same time, kind of terrible. I told myself that I’d only done it for practical reasons, to keep them out (and then write about them in the paper, in the hope of warning other grieving people who might be targeted), but secretly I know I had another agenda, which was: don’t fuck with my family.

You present the BBC4 quiz show Only Connect. Is this simply a presenting job for you or do you enjoy these types of quizzes? If you were a contestant, how well do you think you’d do?

Ooh no, it’s very far from being a simple presenting job. I LOVE that show and I love every contestant who’s ever been on it or ever applied to be. Sometimes people ask me if I think they’re “weird”. But they’re not weird at all. They just wear jumpers and like classical music and hill-walking, or they collect butterflies or teach themselves Sanskrit. They only seem weird because everyone else on television is sprayed orange and trying to be a pop star or shag a footballer. The Only Connect quizzers are the standard-bearers for bright normality; they’re my heroes. If I went on the quiz myself, I think I’d do quite well – but then, I’ve had a lot of practice.

Your father was a much loved and well known writer, comedian and journalist. Do you consider yourself to be following in his footsteps?

Well, he was very funny but he wasn’t a comedian. He’d have called himself a humorist. I like to think I’m following in his footsteps, though not completely – he never gambled, for example, and that takes up at least half my life. But if I ever manage to make a decent joke on TV, or in a newspaper column, I know he’d love that and I feel very proud to be his daughter and aspire to some tiny success in a world where he was a giant.

You occasionally appear on comedy panel shows and you’re frequently described as witty. Do you consider yourself to be a comedian? It seems to be yet another male-dominated arena that could do with your expertise. Why do you think there are seemingly so few female comedians?

No. I’m not a comedian, though I do think jokes are the highest form of communication and the most generous thing that anybody could attempt. I think the lower number of female comedians (relative to men) is explained by the current world view that being funny, for men, is part of being sexually attractive, while for women it’s at odds – you know, as if making a joke is somehow aggressive, which is sexy in a man but not a woman. So a man can make a joke in mixed company and he’s ticking several boxes at once, where for women there’s some conflict in the mind. We’ll be past all that nonsense in another hundred years or three. But for now, if women grow up confused about whether or not they should try to be funny, there are naturally fewer of them who would discover that professional comedy is their vocation.

Do you have any big plans for the New Year?

I’ll probably drink through it.

Interview by Nicholas Tufnell