In an interview shortly before his departure as Irish football manager, Giovanni Trapattoni ruffled a few feathers with an off the cuff comment that "Ireland doesn't even have a football league". Strictly speaking he was wrong, but as anyone who has ever suffered through a League of Ireland match (once described memorably by one commentator as typically being "two bad teams having an off day") will recognise that in principle, Gio wasn't that far wrong. While it may exist, the idea of it offering up truly international or world class players is pretty ludicrous.
The fact that we have never had a top class domestic league hasn't stopped us from regularly producing players and occasionally entire teams capable of competing with the best in the world. But these players have always ventured abroad to play their club football. At the risk of ruffling a few feathers myself, I can't help but wonder if Irish poker is going the same way as Irish football.
I've commented before that Irish live poker, if not exactly dying, already has a cleric administering last rites. While people will probably always play poker in pubs and clubs, and there is certainly an appetite among recreational players for 100 quid games with decent guarantees, there are now almost no games on the Irish calendar worth travelling to. The domestic live scene is now like the League of Ireland: not only does it not attract top foreign players but even the top Irish players are looking abroad first when planning their schedule.
This point was driven home at the Winamax 6 max in the Regency. Over 1000 French players, and less than 50 Irish (three of whom were all Liam O'Donoghue, availing of the reentry option). When organiser Mike Lacey saw me arrive on day 1a with four other Firm members he said, only half joking, "Oh good, we might make double figures for non French". The fact that just about the juiciest live tournament this year in Ireland with guaranteed value in the form of almost 1000 recreational French players and a prize pool of over half a million euro for (I would have thought at least) an affordable buyin at a convenient location could only entice a few dozen locals to enter says more about the dire state of Irish live poker than any words in this blog could ever.
And yet, it's not all bad. When I started playing what seems like an age ago now but is actually just over half a decade, I remember noting that while there were several decent sized live events on the calendar that attracted top class foreign names that were also heavily supported by locals (this was before we all woke up and realised the Celtic tiger had eaten our children's futures), the Irish in the field thinned notably as you got to the business end. It wasn't unusual for a tournament that was 80% Irish in composition at the start to have slimmed to 50/50 by bubble time, 30/70 by the time the final table formed and for "best of the Irish" to bust in 4th or 5th. Now, the reverse seems to be happening. While the locals may have made up less than 5% of the field at the start, by the time it was own to the final eight, things had evened up and three Irish players remained.
How is it possible that standards appear to be rising while numbers decline? The answer, I believe, lies in online poker. While the live scene has stopped producing truly international class poker players, the online scene hasn't. If anything, in a perverse twist, the death of the live scene in Ireland has probably sped up the production of top class players. Live poker, with its slow pace, small player pools and statistically insignificant sample sizes, has always been a very imperfect breeding ground. Basically, variance swamps everything. Sample sizes are always tiny, so short term run good is a bigger determinant of visible success than anything else. There are live players (not just in Ireland but everywhere) who are widely seen as successful players (and they are in terms of their results over a tiny sample size) and therefore viewed by many as top class players who are technically atrocious. These players will never win online over any meaningful sample size, not because online is rigged, and not because online is different (it is, and there are certainly live skills that can increase a players edge live, but the reason these players lose online is because they simply aren't good enough).
Five years ago, around the time I went full time, I asked another professional how many players he thought there were in Ireland making enough money online in a year to make a decent living. He held up one hand with five fingers. If I were asked the same question today, I'd need at least twenty hands to answer in the same manner, as I suspect the number may have pushed into triple digits. While live pros tend to be recognised by ordinary players, the vast majority of successful online players would go unrecognised even in their local club. When I joined Jesse May to do some live stream commentary in Galway recently, he asked me if I knew anything about a couple of young local players who appeared to have no pedigree. I recognised them immediately as two of the top young players in Ireland (known to the few of us who do know them by their online screen names rather than the names their parents bestowed on them). They come from a generation that started playing online, and only after they had honed their games over millions of hands and thousands of online mtts did they venture out to play a live game (usually because they won an online satellite tournament). It's probably no coincidence that these players are more likely to pop up in places like Mountmellick, Clonmel or Drumlish rather than Dublin, as the total absence of a local live scene leaves them no alternative but online.
Irish online players punched way above their weight in WCOOP. Irish live final tableists at EPTs and WSOPs are still rare enough to be very newsworthy, but in WCOOP they just kept coming. One event had no less than three Irish on the final table, with Gavin "gavinator" O'Rourke and Big Mick G battling it out heads up (Marc McDonnell having come fifth). The following night was also pretty notable in that all three final tables that night had Irish participation. One of the young players I commentated in in Galway, uwannaloan, final tabled the Holdem event, while ledicus chopped the PLO 6 max. Throughout the series Irish players were going deep (Jason Tompkins fted the 4 max, while Niall Smyth got second in NL Omaha HiLo, while khopman chopped the an event on the final day of the series, to name but three). All of which leads one to suspect that while the Irish live poker scene may be the equivalent of the League of Ireland, online poker is breeding enough Irish players to allow us to punch way above our weight on the international stage. To misquote a well known advertising slogan, the future is bright, the future is online.