Thursday, April 18, 2013


One of the things poker players occasionally debate after they've run out of bad beats and brags to swap is the importance (or otherwise) of trophies in poker. David Lappin once attempted to tilt an opponent headsup after a proposed deal had broken down by informing his opponent who had wanted the trophy in the deal that if he won the trophy, he would dump it into the bin in front of his defeated opponent, illustrating that he placed no value on the actual trophy other than the opportunity it would allow him to annoy his opponent who did.

While most recreational players place a lot of value on trophies and winning tournaments, most professionals would lean towards Lappin's more cynical view that it's all about the money and a trophy celebrating how well you ran in one specific tournament has little if any merit. I've heard stories of trophies being left behind in hotel rooms or surreptitiously deposited in bins in airports rather than pay the luggage fees to transport them home.

Prizepool? What prizepool?

This view was tested when several of Europe's top professional players assembled to represent their countries at the European Nations Cup of (Duplicate) Poker. Mainly because aside from trophies and medals, we weren't actually playing for anything. Well, there was qualification to the World championships for the top 6 sides, but for all we know that could be another tournament without a prizepool.

First of all, credit to Padraig Parkinson for assembling about as strong a team as he could for this event from those players who made themselves available for selection. Other national captains were not as successful apparently. When I saw the list of names on the French team, I was surprised that I didn't recognise a single name on the list, as I know pretty much all of the top French players. All became clear when Parky shared a bus from the airport with the French team, who informed  him that the team was selected on the basis of a live satellite played in Deauville (so essentially they ended up with 6 random players who happened to be in Deauville at the time, entered the satellite, and ran well in it). Other national captains apparently just selected all their mates. Others struggled to get professional players to turn out for what the Danish player at my table (Lars Bonding) kept referring to as "a play money event". Our team was myself, Big Mick G, Dermot Blaine, Eoghan O'Dea, Cat O'Neill and last minute substitute Rob Taylor (Cat's husband), with Parky acting as captain and substitute.

Team Ireland attempts a resteal v Team GB

Most of us got there on Thursday. Play wasn't scheduled to start until Saturday, but first item on the agenda was a demonstration and run through on the technology. As myself and Big Mick headed down for this, we ran into the Lithuanian lady on the UK team, Genting pro Daiva "Baltic_blonde" Barauskaite. I only knew her from online and had never met her before in person but she immediately introduced herself and was instantly charming. Thinking myself and Big Mick were heading straight to the demo, she ended up following us to Dermot and Eoghan's room when we went to collect them, joking that it seemed she might have accidentally joined the Irish team. We eventually made it down to the demonstration, which was straightforward enough and gave us no real sense of the many technical issues that would make the weekend's play rather challenging. Big Mick pointed out that the only thing the demo proved was how boring poker is as a game when there's nothing at stake.

Team talk

Parky had texted ahead to have the team assembled when he got there. We went out to a Chinese restaurant where despite being pretty inebriated, Padraig delivered some top notch thoughts and recommendations on what the strategy should be. For those unfamiliar with the duplicate poker concept, the basic idea is that each seat on each table gets dealt the same cards for every hand. So on hand 1, if you look down at K7o, you know that every other player in your seat on other tables is also looking at K7o. Flops turns and rivers are similarly pre-ordained. There are 6 players per team (one of whom must be a female), and each team has one player in each seat at different tables (which are therefore obviously all 6 handed). Each hand is scored by calculating the net amount of chips each team won or lost overall on that hand. The team who won the most chips gets maximum points, the team who won the second most gets one point less, and so on down to the team who lost the most chips who get the minimum points. Every hand counts, so effectively every decision by every player in every hand feeds into the overall result. The cost of a really bad error is to guarantee your team nul points on that hand, which is far more significant than what a well sized thin value bet or a good fold early in a hand stands to gain you, so the performance of each team was more likely to hinge on the weakest link rather than the strongest (a point illustrated by the fact that despite the UK winning two of their seats, they only came fourth overall). So optimal strategy seemed to be to err on the side of caution and take the low variance ABC route when in doubt. The other point Parky was keen that we all got was that since each hand counted equally, no one hand was more important than any other (the last time this event was run in London, a different scoring system basically meant it all boiled down to the hands that had the biggest movements of chips). So if you did happen to make a mess of one hand, you had to just draw a line under it and get on with it and play each remaining hand on its merits rather than chasing to try to make up for the mistake. The final point Parky was keen to stress was that this was essentially a satellite to the Worlds: as nice as it would be to win it or medal, the real objective was top 6 to qualify for Rio.

After an early night (the main thing we were worried about as a team was not the structure or the opposition but whether we would be able to perform at 9.30 AM, the scheduled start time. Nearly all professional players work the evening or night shift so 9.30 AM is like 3.30 AM for a normal person), we were good to go. There were some very mixed views about our chances. Chatting to the Lithuanian captain who I'm friendly with since we shared a livestream commentary gig, he was somewhat dismissive of our chances, feeling that a team of predominantly mtt players could struggle in a format where the blinds never increased and everyone's stack was reset to 200 big blinds at the start of every hand. This was a popular view: that players with experience of deep stacked cash games were what you wanted (this turned out to be more or less completely wrong as it happened, but it was the widespread view. As it turned out, a much more important skill was the ability to pace yourself and know when and how to reduce or increase variance, something all top mtt players understand). The Dutch captain was even more dismissive of our chances when he spoke to Parky. But on the other hand, when we tried to get on a team bet with the UK, Neil Channing turned us down after due consideration, opining that we would be favourites not only to finish ahead of the Brits but in his view to win the whole tournament. Never underestimate the shrewdness of the Channing when it comes to these types of assessments: while we led the way and moved slowly and safely to victory, the Dutch and the Danes (who on paper had the strongest teams, and mostly adopted a hyper aggressive approach) punted their way up down and around the lower half of the field.

Touch your screens and play

The first session set the tone for my table. The two most active players were the Estonian in seat 2 (who was opening most hands, not folding to 3 or 4 bets, and turning up with some fairly random holdings at showdowns) and Lars Bonding for Denmark in seat 3 who was 3 betting most hands. I was pretty card dead and the only tricky decisions I had were very marginal light 4 bet spots over Lars 3 bets. I erred on the side of caution and didn't get involved with the Q9s which I would have been more inclined to play in a normal mtt. The only big hand I played was a pretty gross one that illustrates that while duplicate poker is supposed to reduce the luck element, it certainly doesn't come close to eradicating it (it just makes some things like who wins a standard flip unimportant but makes other factors like team selection, table draw and timing much more important). Lars opened the cutoff, I 3 bets queens from the small blind, and he called. I cbet the 864 flop, he raised, and I shoved. Over the next thirty seconds, I went from hoping it hadn't gone all in on other tables and feeling pretty good about myself to praying I wasn't the only table where it did go in, as the board ran out 8647T to make the nines a straight.

So at the break I was eager to find out from my teammates how that particular hand had played out on other tables. I was somewhat relieved to find that it had gone in on most tables (usually on the turn, except on Rob's table where he had the nines and the queens butchered the hand by check raising the river all in), except for one table where the queens had somehow folded the flop (a bizarre fold to say the least) and another where the queens got away more legitimately on the turn. This illustrated how big a part luck could still play: the dubious fold on the turn with the queens probably ended up getting that player's team maximum points since he lost considerably less than the queens did anywhere else, and the nines on that table must have felt great but actually cost his team. Similarly, any player who managed to get away from the nines on the flop would actually have been severely punished by the scoring system.

The original rather optimistic plan was to play 100 hands per session, but problems with the technology (we were playing on smart phones) and the network made for very slow going. My table averaged 15 to 20 hands an hour (which is snail's pace 6 max) and it was clear as the weekend wore on that some players were getting increasingly frustrated by this. At the very start, Lars Bonding insisted that after each hand everyone had to carefully count the chips in front of them before verifying totals on their phones, but by the end of day 2 he was adopting a more whatever approach, allowing the dealer to verify for him to speed things up. So we ended up playing 66 hands in the first session (as we got more used to the setup this increased to 72 hands in the Sunday sessions). For most of this, Ireland hovered in or around the middle of the pack on the scoreboard. I pretty much expected we would if we stuck to our plan, as a softly softly strategy that lowers variance means you are more likely to be mid pack over a small sample size but hopefully towards the top over the entire sample.

This was borne out when after another solid second session where Team Ireland kept the mistakes to the minimum, we were provisionally overnight leaders. I say provisionally as the combination of the format and the technology meant that a lot of hands had to be taken out afterwards (basically if there was a cockup on any table like the dealer button being in the wrong place, then the hand had to be voided at all tables). As it happened, we lost the lead overnight to France, presumably because some of the hands where we out scored the French had to be voided. But we were still in a good challenging position and well poised to at least wrap up top 6.

Introducing a new poker concept.... bathroom equity

After the third session, the good news was we had moved back into the lead, but the other news was that it was the slimmest lead imaginable, and the top 9 had all bunched right up so even though we were now leading, a top six position looked a lot less certain than it had at the start of the day. I was pretty card dead for that session (by now as a team we were getting used to the idea that most seats were cold and there was generally one hot seat per session that got most of the cards and tricky decisions, so at every break you were keen to find out how your teammate in the hot seat had got on). The only spot where I got to exercise a bit of creativity was one that had nothing to do with cards or stack sizes or position but everything to do with bladder. The Serb to my immediate left had been requesting a substitute so he could take a toilet break for some time, and was becoming visibly more uncomfortable by the second as it took some time to locate the substitute. The sub finally appeared just after he had opened under the gun, meaning that he was free to go relieve himself once the hand was over. After it was folded to me in the big blind, he muttered "Please fold quickly". So I obviously threebet ridiculously light. After he squirmed and called and we waited 30 seconds for the flop to appear on screen, I started to move chips into the pot. Before I had announced the amount, he had already folded and was sprinting towards the bathroom. Lars Bonding, realising what had just happened, chuckled and tapped the table. He also suggested that my plan if I encountered any resistance had to involve a very long tank while making flowing water noises.

Poker is a game that tests every aspect of your brain, not just the ability of the rational part to process a wide variety of information and make good decisions, but also the emotional part which will determine how well you do so under pressure or after a setback. It's widely recognised that at the top level of the game, differences in technical ability are much less important than the ability to remain emotionally stable and avoid tilt. The French in particular appear to have buckled under the strain as they tumbled from 2nd to 9th over the course of the final session. These are the situations where you want a cynical hardened pro rather than a talented enthusiastic amateur.

In the hot seat

As we got into the fourth session, I realised that my seat was the hot seat this time around. So no pressure other than the knowledge that if I got too many big decisions wrong it could cost the entire team (Jesse May told me later that Parky exclaimed "oh Christ that's Doke's seat" on the livestream when it became clear that 5 was the hot seat. Luckily I played as well as I felt I could (which I pretty much always do under pressure) and I also ran well. It might seem odd to talk about run good in a format that is supposed to minimise luck, but as I explained earlier all the format really does is move the luck from flips and coolers into other things. One key hand starts with me three betting aces from the big blind after the loose Cypriot in seat 1 had opened and Lars had called on the button. They both called and the flop came jt4 with 2 clubs. After seat 1 raised my cbet and Lars folded I shoved. As the Cypriot tanked I knew I was ahead, but after he called and turned over k7 of clubs, I knew this was a massive spot, because it was difficult to imagine these two hands getting it in on most tables. Any reasonably solid player would just fold the k7s in early position (as our seat 1 Cat did), and any normal player would certainly fold it once the 3 bet came in. This made it very likely that on every other table the aces won a relatively small pot, but I was about to either double up if I held (probably scoring a maximum for the team) or get stacked if the flush got there (and get the dreaded nul points). So despite having played my hand perfectly, there was now approximately a 30% chance Ireland was going to be punished, and conversely that my Cypriot opponent would be rewarded for rashness. So I was a pretty relieved bunny when about a minute later a blank river hit the screen and my aces held.

A much less clear outcome arose when I got another big pair in the blinds. After seat 1 opened again and every single player behind called, I found jacks in the big blind. After my longest tank of the tournament I eventually decided that the big squeeze was the play here (a small squeeze was likely to get called in at least two spots and a deceptive flat could work out well if this was the one universe in eight where the jacks flop a set, but could get me into serious trouble in the other 7 universes where I don't. After I squeezed big enough to make it clear I was almost certainly committed, and everyone folded, I was left to ponder how the hand had played on tighter tables. If the jacks were destined to win a big pot post flop my squeeze would score badly, but if they weren't I might have scored another 14 pointer (apparently the jacks didn't win as big on most other tables).

In all the other big spots I faced in that last session, I erred on the side of caution as the main objective for Team Ireland was to lock down a top 6 spot.

As soon as the session ended I immediately tweeted that my seat had been the hot seat in that last session and I just hoped I hadn't got the big decisions wrong and cost us (for obvious reasons we were not allowed to tweet or use any electronic devices during sessions). So I may not have been the most elated man in the room when it was announced that we had not only won but had actually extended our lead in the last session (that would be either Rob Taylor who literally went ballistic with happiness or a similarly thrilled Big Mick G who had just scooped his seat, Player of the Tourney and team gold) but I'm pretty sure I was the most relieved. Before the announcement, we assembled at a table and waited nervously. Jesse May and Parky arrived and immediately ratcheted up the tension by offering different opinions as to who had won, Parky plumping for France while Jesse felt the UK had done it. Big Mick winning his seat (and then MVP) boosted our hopes, but then as it was announced that not only had the beautiful Daiva won her seat for the UK but also the lovely Barny Boatman his, we started to get a little paranoid that Jesse as livestream supremo might have been told something.

While we waited for the announcement we wondered among ourselves whether the order would be 123456 or 654321. In the end they went for an order nobody guessed, 321456, so the tension could not have been bigger after they announced Spain as third and Russia as second, meaning both Jesse and Parky had their picks in play. So maybe I wasn't the only member of Team Ireland more relieved that excited after they called our name and we found ourselves on our feet walking through the room to the stage.

Once we got there they gave us our medals and the trophy while Parky made a hilarious acceptance speech. No better man for these occasions.

The other teams were very gracious in defeat and the Brits in particular seemed to be rooting for us (team Captain Barny had tweeted Come on Ireland! before the announcement) and Big Mick justifiably came in for most of the praise. It was obviously a star performance by Finglas' finest and though he's a man of few words who generally prefers to let his play do the talking, when he does open his mouth he has the knack of summing things up perfectly as he did on this occasion when he tweeted:

" I've won a lot of money playin poker over the years but 2day was defo d biggest achievement/most rewarding day of my 7 year professional Carer winning player of the tournament and winning the tournament overall 4 ireland was some buzz. Great feeling. Come on d Irish!"

Video killed the poker stars

Team Ireland celebrated in time honoured tradition by getting extremely drunk and there was some good banter after Big Mick started joking about how he had won the cup for us with his MVP performance only to be cut down in typical Irish fashion ("ok, so you're the best play money player in Europe"), and a very drunk goose and worm arrived in the hotel lobby at 5 and proceeded to run around waving their arms and bumping into each other like a couple of apes who had just found fruit punch.

There was great reaction and well wishes from home (apart from one rather bizarre outbreak of team selection questioning on IPB after we won: I accept it's kind of normal to have these post mortems after a team loses or performs badly, but after being crowned European champions? Really?). On the subject of team selection I again applaud our captain for assembling as strong a team as was possible in the circumstances. While everyone who follows Irish poker could probably reel off 10, 15 or 20 names that merit consideration, the fact is not all of these could make it, or possibly even wanted to. Other countries struggled (or didn't even bother trying) to assemble a team of their strongest pros (many pros would never even consider giving up their time for a tournament with no prize pool) and we did better than most in this regard. And even some teams who did field very strong teams discovered too late that their hyper aggro style was disastrous in this format. Horses for courses, and the result vindicated that while several of the countries are stronger than us by almost any other yardstick, we got our tactics spot on. Other teams may have been stronger on paper but struggled adjusting to the scoring system or perhaps the "play money" aspect. One of the crucial aspects of poker is the knowledge that every decision has a monetary implication (see Big Mick's comment above after the demo). Take away this and you have a very different game (if you don't believe me go watch some play money games online and see if they play anything like real money games). As someone who routinely gives my money to other players to play (as a staker/backer) I'm acutely aware of this. The first thing I  need to know any player I'm considering is will he treat my money as if it were his own? If I think he won't then he's never getting a cent from me no matter how good he is. The same applies in my opinion to team competitions with no prize pool: you need guys who will give it their all rather than treat it as a play money game. It was noticeable on day 2 that a lot of teams were taking it less seriously, while others who had a bad day 1 decided the best way to get back into it was to just start shoving 200 big blinds preflop and hope for the best. There was considerable amusement on my table when on the second hand of day 2 after it was folded to the small blind and after he completed to 50, the Estonian big blind just shoved for 10k. The amusement gradually turned to something else when he repeated the trick several times in the first dozen hands. At the break it was confirmed this was a tactic the entire Estonian team was adopting, and the Russians were doing something similar. This brutal but effective strategy (which I had actually suggested to one of my teammates before the tourney even started might be effective and essentially a loop hole) saw both teams ascend the leader board. I wonder how the organisers who were trying to push this format as the ultimate skill game would gave felt about a team winning the Cup thanks to a strategy of open shoving 200 big blinds as a team randomly. I am a big fan of the IFP and their new president Patrick Nally as they attempt to promote poker as a skill game and create tournaments with added money (Patrick's done amazing marketing work for other sports and pointed out in his speech that poker is unusual as a sport in that not only does all the prize money come from players pockets but organisers charge them for the privilege and pocket any additional TV or sponsorship money). So some more tinkering with the format may be needed to re-enforce the message that this type if event enhances the skill element while diminishing the luck factor.

Gimme a B, gimme an M, gimme a G

I was rooming with Big Mick G this trip. For most of our careers we have been contemporaries and rival (although he's a good bit younger than me, he has actually been playing longer and a pro for longer). We both made our TV debut on the same episode of RTE's short lived Late Night Stars of Poker (where we both suffered the indignity of losing to a boxer who had never played before).

I'm a long time admirer of Mick's work ethic and disciplined approach. He also has a refreshing lack of egomania. Ego is a very dangerous thing in poker because it can make you believe you are better than you actually are and don't need to keep working harder to improve. The day you think you have cracked this game is the day you stop improving, and not too far from the day the game passes you by.

 Very likable  I would almost say Big Mick is the only major Irish player that I don't know anyone who dislikes him (I would actually say that if it weren't for the fact that the same can be said for Marc McDonnell). He's so modest and self critical that none of us had any inkling he was in contention to win his seat, let alone Player of the Tournament. But when he did he was so delighted he positively bounded through the room to the stage , mumbled a few incoherent words near the mike, and came running back to us beaming broadly. When he was called as Player of the Tournament he again charged the stage like the world's happiest gorilla. Not bad for a humble lad from Finglas dismissed by many (including the UK player at his table at the end of day 1) as "just a nit". So let's hear it for Big Mick G... the finest play money player in Europe.


Great read Dara, as usual.

Congrats on the win & nice to see Rob T involved..

Thanks as ever Thomas. Myself and Rob have been on quite a few teams together down the years, and quite a few winning ones


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