As preparation for the so-called Ireland v England (or was it UK? There seemed to be some confusion on that point) headsup clash in Galway, I'd gathered what information I had on my opponents (two of whom I've played thousands of hands online with) and got David Lappin to act as a sort of sparring partner (we played 5 headsup games with him attempting to ape the styles I'd likely be up against). Having gone to the trouble of this preparation, I therefore wasn't thrilled when told just before kickoff in Galway that the original draw had been scrapped and it was now just a straight knockout, with each Irish player facing a UK opponent. I understand this made things a lot simpler for the organisers who were worried about long waits between rounds and players losing motivation in their third match if they had already lost the first two, but things turned even worse for me when I learned my one off opponent would be UK captain Jake Cody. My only significant table time with Jake live was in a UKIPT High Roller in Nottingham a few years ago (which he won!) and I was so impressed by him on that occasion that I generally provide it as the answer to the question "Who is the most impressive player you ever played against?" whenever asked.
After learning my draw (and receiving commiserations from teammates, the tournament director and dealers), I tweeted it and jokingly added the hashtag #FML. This hashtag apparently led some on IPB to believe I had mentally lost the game before it even started, but nothing could be further from the truth. While I'm not deluded enough to believe I would ever be a favourite against Jake, I have enough experience of headsup to know that the better player doesn't always win, or even close. At worst, I felt I had a 40% chance or so of winning, and felt if I could keep it close until the point where the effective stacks dipped below 20 big blinds, it would essentially be 50/50. The fact that there is no such thing as a dead cert when it comes to headsup was illustrated by some of the other matches. On paper, EPT London champion Steve O'Dwyer (arguably the strongest player on either team) looked like a lock to win his match against Sin Menis, but to her credit Sin pulled off an upset. On any given day anyone can beat anyone else in headsup, and I wouldn't have stumped up €1100 of my own money to play the event if I thought I was drawing dead. (And on another side note, last night I got headsup against Steve on Full Tilt for a UKIPT seat and managed to win).
While it was billed as a team event, and they did kit us all out in matching tracksuit tops, my view (and I suspect that of nearly all the other participants) is that it wasn't really. Certainly it felt nothing like the last team event I played in, the European Nations Championship in Cyprus, where no money was on the line and only national pride to be played for. At the end of the day, we all chucked €1100 into the prize pool, which was to be divided among the top 4 individuals, with no team prize. So in reality we were all playing for each other's money, including that of our "teammates".
Normally my strategic approach to headsup is low variance small ball, designed to maximize the opportunity to exploit any skill edge over my opponent. With no such edge in this case, it seemed the plan might be to do the opposite: bloat pots preflop to try and negate my opponents post flop skill edge, and ramp up the variance. All good in theory, but with zero practise of this type of game, I didn't fully execute this plan, tending to revert to type in the heat of battle.
The format was best of 3 matches and things started poorly in the first when I decided I was going to check call all the way to the river with a one pair hand, which might have worked if Jake hadn't hit the river. On the event blog the blogger noted I looked uncomfortable when Jake did bet the river, and on reflection I should have found the fold as I felt deep down he had got there. That left me with half a stack. There I remained for the next hour or so as we traded blinds back and forth without either of us making any real headway. By the end of the hour, my (half) stack was now 20 bigs, so when Jake raised the button (which he was doing 80% of the time), A3s was strong enough to shove. Unfortunately my first such shove found him with a hand, and his queens held.
The second leg started much better for me, and I gradually chipped up to close to a 2:1 lead. However, I wasn't able to finish him off over the next hour, and as the blinds rose to the sub 20 big blinds effective zone, Jake seemed to get the better cards to claw his way back to parity. Looking down at a succession of 4 and 5 highs I couldn't even defend my big blind, and when I finally did with Q6s I flopped middle pair on a T62 board and we got it in. Unfortunately my timing was as bad as the first game: Jake had kings this time and held.
At the risk of sounding like one of those football managers who insist the scoreline didn't do their team justice, I felt the match was a lot closer than the glib 2-0 scoreline would suggest (our match was one of the last to finish). That said, I wouldn't dispute that Jake deserved to win: he played flawlessly, and I didn't. Apart from the bad hero call in the first leg, I don't think I misplayed any hands but reviewing the match afterwards in my mind I wish I had gone for a strategy of 3 and 4 betting more to push Jake out of his comfort zone. Jake never once 4 bet me all match (he did peel a lot of my 3 bets though, following a smart strategy of trying to keep the pots small preflop), so it would have been profitable for me to 3 bet more, and 4 bet (that said, Jake's obviously good enough that if I had increased my 3 and 4 betting frequencies he would have made the correct adjustments).
Lappin was a late call up to the team and got pitched in at the deep end against Max Silver (he also lost 2-0), and Daragh Davey would probably have been viewed as favourite to beat Marc Foggan but also went down 2-0, so it was a bit of a whitewash for the Firm unfortunately. Overall, the team only won 5 of the 16 first round matches, and all fell in the second round.
Galway's not a bad place to be at a loose end, and we went out to dinner with some English friends (Jamie Burland, Kevin Willians, and Dave Nicholson). Kevin made it to the final (losing to Gus Hansen), Dave fell in the semi final, and Janie in the quarters, so all three were pretty bouyant at dinner.
The poker village is a pretty special venue: fair play to Fintan, Dave Curtis and Kirsty Thompson for pulling it off. With the UKIPT main event only a few days away, there is a lot of speculation over a likely overlay. With less than 400 online qualifiers to date it's difficult to see where the additional 600 players to make the guarantee are going to come from. Some are speculating they could come up as many as 400 (players and grand) short: my own feeling is 200 is more likely. But I will be stunned if they manage to make the guarantee at this point.
As much as I love an overlay (and down the years a fair chunk of my online profit has come from selecting games with overlays), I don't think it will be good for Irish poker overall if Full Tilt take a bath on this one. If it causes major sites and organisers to strike Ireland (or at least the part of it that isn't Dublin) off their list of places you can hold a major tournament, it will be a blow for the live scene here that is already struggling to support events with a buyin of 500 or more. While I admire the ambition of putting a million guarantee on the event (all the other UKIPT legs including London are half a million), it was always going to be a stretch, but given the way these things work, I suspect if Full Tilt do end up footing a considerable overlay, the message that will go out will be "stick to Dublin for the big events".
If that happens, this Galway festival could be a once in a lifetime opportunity for Irish players to experience something like this. Nicky Power summed it up perfectly in his blog by saying that that being the case, Irish players should do everything they can to get there by hook or by crook. It may very well be the last million prize pool tournament with a 1k buyin we see in Ireland in our lifetime.