You could pitch a show called Comedians in Kitchens playing Cards to a big streaming service tomorrow and chances are it would get picked up. There’s just something about getting a bunch of comics together and letting them talk that we as viewers can’t get enough of, particularly if they’re already mates and aren’t sensitive to some friendly ribbing.
Naturally, a poker game is the perfect setting for such hilarity, and from sitcoms like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie to the YouTube series Poker Table, we’ve seen that plenty of comedians play poker, albeit behind closed doors.
But a few weeks ago, successful British comedian Rhys James–who you may know from his UK tours and regular appearances on TV shows including Mock The Week–took his poker play public by streaming on Twitch.
“I was getting more into poker during lockdown and I started watching Lex [Veldhuis], Fintan [Hand] and my new nemesis, Spraggy, quite a lot,” says James. “I’m big fans of all of them, I think they’re great. Poker is the only thing I watch on Twitch, to be honest, so I thought I might as well try to get some subscribers and subsidize how bad I am, then maybe I could break even.”
But James’ Twitch Poker career kicked off with a bang when he took down the Hot $33 for $2,345. “I only started playing well when I started on Twitch,” he adds. “It was a perfect crime.”
At the beginning of the UK lockdown, James set up a weekly online Home Game on PokerStars (with a Zoom call alongside it) for around 25 of his friends, all fellow British comedians. The game has now run every week for a solid year and one day James turned up on the Zoom call wearing a PokerStars hoodie.
“I play far more poker than them and my PokerStars rewards points were going up and up, so when I got to turn up on that zoom call after about two months wearing PokerStars merch, minds were blown,” he says. “It was purely for the laugh of that.”
James first discovered poker at school, playing with mates around the dining room table with “one of those revolving poker sets that never had enough chips”. When he was on tour with friend and fellow UK comedian Adam Hess, the two of them would often go to casinos and play live cash games after their gigs. “We’d only play in fun games with drinking, just splashing about essentially. But then I started playing online a lot more during the pandemic because crucially, I have nothing to do.”
Aside from online Zoom gigs, the British comedy circuit has been on hiatus during lockdowns. James first performed stand-up as a 17-year-old at an open mic night. “It was me and a bunch of emo bands,” he remembers.
But it went well enough for him to pursue it when he went to study international relations at Manchester University. “I just did stand up the whole time, I didn’t care about getting my degree,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly academic, nor was I very social because I was just going to comedy clubs and doing gigs. It was pure perseverance.”
As Joe Stapleton pointed out when James appeared on the Poker in the Ears podcast, James’ start in comedy sounds a lot like the start of a poker career. If you have success in the first game you play, you’re far more likely to pursue poker than someone who lost. Likewise, if you bomb on your first comedy gig, you’re less likely to try stand-up again.
When James left university he had three years of solid gigging under his belt and continued to pursue a career in comedy. “When I left I was able to start getting paid work doing proper gigs, but in terms of breaking through and getting TV opportunities, that didn’t come for like six or seven years,” he says.
Again, this may sound familiar to young poker pros who used the buffer of university life to get good at poker when their burden of responsibility is at its lowest. When they leave, they’re often ready to pursue life as a pro poker player.
On Twitch, James is able to combine two of his favourite things: being funny and playing poker. But he wasn’t simply streaming for the laughs. He had a goal.
“I moved house around a year ago and bought a sofa, but I didn’t do the research and go sit on a bunch of sofas. I needed one, so I just bought one,” he says. “Turns out there isn’t a worse year on record to have a sofa that’s terrible. It’s awful and I’ve done nothing but sit on it for 12 months.”
Having just moved house again, James decided he’d raise the funds (£5,000) to buy his dream sofa by playing poker. Then he started running deep in the Hot $33.
“I thought I could probably get a few hundred quid for the sofa fund if I quickly streamed this,” he says. “Then it was the final table and I was guaranteed a minimum of like £400. I went into it thinking, just take as much as you can, just ladder as much as you can. I basically folded my way up and people were playing very loose on that final table.”
this is the extent of joy I can summon https://t.co/ytnAKLNUBJ
— Rhys James (@rhysjamesy) February 24, 2021
When James took it down for $2,345, he achieved a third of his sofa goal, a goal he’s since had to reconsider.
“As I moved this week I have since measured my space and that £5,000 sofa is far too big, so I have essentially completed this challenge by accident. Luckily, I also need a washing machine and a new boiler.”
When comedy gigs come back, you can expect to see James back out on the road. “I was three-quarters of the way through a tour when lockdown happened, so I’ll finish that,” he says. “In the long term, all British comics want to break America and do Netflix specials and stuff like that. It’s very hard to get those things but, you know, I’ll try. I’ll keep trying.
“Maybe I’ll win enough poker money that I can just buy Netflix.”
And maybe then we’ll get to see ‘Comedians in Kitchens playing Poker’, hosted by Rhys James.