I was both surprised and heartened that my latest blog 'The Last Supper' provoked so much serious discussion in the Irish (and indeed international) poker community on the state of the Irish Open, calling into question some of the choices made by sponsors Paddy Power Poker. When I finished the blog at 5 AM less than 36 hours after the event, I turned my computer off and headed to bed, wondering if there would be any reaction when I woke up. As I brushed my teeth, my phone started to buzz with notifications of incoming tweets, Facebook messages, and text messages. It ended up being 6.30 before I finally got to bed, spending 90 minutes reading the almost instant reactions.
The blog was not intended as an attack piece on Paddy, or its poker team. While critical of this year's event, I did spend about half of it being complimentary, making clear my belief that historically, Paddy Power has been a good caretaker of the Open. This point was largely overlooked in the reaction so it bears repeating that Paddy took over the Irish Open when it was struggling, and its future uncertain, and transformed it into Europe's leading event.
Because of my age people often assume I started playing circa 1980, but as someone who only learned the rules in 2007 (inspired to do so after seeing the Irish Open on RTE), the Irish Open has always been the Paddy Power Irish Open for me. I first played it in 2008, when 667 players and a €4500 buyin created a 3 million prize pool.
That was the tail end of the Celtic Tiger but somehow Paddy managed to keep the show going during austerity. Numbers dropped and economic realities forced the buyin down, but the Irish Open remained a prestigious international event. Last year, following hot on the heels of UKIPT Dublin which took a lot of money out of the Irish poker economy (money that would normally have gone into the Open), and competing with EPT San Remo, it still got over 400 runners, mostly Irish. That was a significant result in the most difficult circumstances, so credit to Stephen McLean, Clodagh Hansen and rest of PP team.
I've already made the point in previous blogs that the decision not to allow multiple seat winners a cash in option on surplus seats pulled a lot of players out of online satellites, as players like myself simply dropped out once we had one. This at least was an understandably popular policy with recreational players fed up of turning up to satellites and seeing the same 5 or 6 pros (like myself) grinding them. However, ultimately all it meant was players showing up for satellites that didn't get enough runners to even start, and even less recreational players got in through online satellites than in previous years. This reduced liquidity in satellites was compounded when Ipoker downgraded the Irish Open, allowing other skins to opt out of offering the satellites. It's difficult to believe that Paddy as one of the big Ipoker skins could not have brought sufficient pressure to bear to reverse the decision, but it appears they just lacked the will to push the case for the Irish Open.
When I wrote my last blog, I didn't realise that as shambolic as the online satellites were this year, the live satellites were arguably worse. I thought the low number of live satellite qualifiers this year was just down to less interest generally in the Open this year. Since that blog, a number of satellite organisers contacted me to explain why for the first time ever this year they didn't run any. It wasn't primarily due to lack of interest (although in contrast to other years, their players weren't clamouring for them this year) but rather to another cost cutting decision Paddy Power made this year: not to guarantee live sats. In previous years, Paddy have worked with local organisers to guarantee live satellites, taking the hit if there was an overlay. This year, while any organiser was welcome to run a satellite and put a guarantee on it, if there was an overlay, it was down to the organiser. In uncertain times such as these, it is no surprise most simply declined to run a satellite.
When I ran discos, concerts and other social events in college, one thing I quickly learned was the importance of early adopters. If you were trying to shift 1000 tickets, you wanted to have shifted 100 in the week before the event. If only 50 had gone out, you were in trouble. The reason for this is the people who bought tickets well in advance, who told all their friends they were going, drove the word of mouth buzz that got the event into the consciousness of other people, translating into last week and last minute sales. 50 less early adopters didn't just mean 50 less people at your event: it generally meant 500 less. It was worth spending extra money and offering discounts on early sales to get that first 100 in. I learned the hard way there was no way around this. Even with the more attractive events that were easiest to sell out, you couldn't just say "It will be more economic to sell all the tickets at full face in the last few days".
Similarly, with the Open live satellites have always been the key. You run a satellite well in advance in your local town, two people qualify, and now that's two people going around talking about how they are going to be playing the Irish Open, inspiring others to either satellite or buy in. The first year I played, I think there were at least 400 Irish satellite qualifiers, less than ten per cent of whom qualified online. The others came from local live satellites dotted around the length and breadth of the country.
I'm reliably informed the Paddy Power team were disappointed to hear the negative feedback from me and others, believing that they had done a good job with a smaller crew than ever before, so I would like to point my criticisms are not directed at anyone in the Paddy team personally. I know Conor for years in his previous role as a poker dealer and have always got on very well with him. He strikes me as a fine lad who is passionate about poker. I have a good relationship with and opinion of Paddy Power Poker historically, and don't doubt the slimmed down team did their best. The fact that it was a slimmed down team underlines the diminished place of poker in the Paddy Power grand scheme. This I suspect is the underlying problem rather than any individual shortcomings. The event itself was well run, and the Paddy team did their best to increase the craic levels in difficult circumstances (difficult because so few Irish recreational players who have historically been the basis of most of the craic turned up).
The livestream coverage was great, both from a technical standpoint and in terms of the commentary. This created a marked difference in perspective on the event between people who watched it at home, and those who actually attended. A few days after the Open, I played the Fitz Mid Monthly tournament. Card room manager Denise told me they screened the livestream on the TV screens there and the atmosphere was so electric she thought it must be amazing in the venue so went down to check it out. When she got there, it was like walking in on a funeral. So back she went to the Fitz.
Instead of being disappointed at the negative reaction, I'd prefer the organisers to be disappointed so few Irish players showed up. Even as someone who only plays live locally once or twice a month, it was clear to me from a long way out there was no buzz this year, yet somehow Paddy Power seemed to be either in denial or totally out of touch. The week of the event they were predicting that Irish numbers would not be down and overall player numbers would be up. In actual fact Irish numbers collapsed like never before, meaning that even though Paddy achieved their stated aim of attracting more foreign players than last year, overall numbers were down roughly 100. It's understandable that Paddy as an organisation doesn't want to dwell on this or acknowledge they placed too much focus on promoting it overseas. Money spent flying big foreign names over and paying for them to play in the belief that this would add prestige to the event would, in my opinion at least, have been better spent locally. So the message they wanted to push seemed to be "What about that slowroll?" rather than "What about all those no shows?"
Poker suffers greatly from the fact that it has no real impartial media. Largely ignored by the mainstream media, it has a trade press that is financed largely by advertising, and as such is beholden to the big sites. So called news coverage generally amounts to little more than regurgitated press releases, puff pieces for advertisers, and thinly disguised commercials. Similarly TV coverage is largely in the form of subsidised programs, meaning sites rarely have to deal with any sort of negative (or even impartial) coverage outside independent blogs, podcasts and forums.
The three incidents that became the main talking points from the weekend illustrated just how unIrish this Irish Open was. These were the sexual harassment of Kara Scott by the so called "Mad Turk", Dan Harrington's demise being rather crassly celebrated by the Wolf (the Swiss businessman who was behind EPT Snowfest), and that slowroll by a player on the final table who seemed more concerned with hogging the livestream for his folks back in Germany than the reaction of his fellow players or the live spectators.
The last few years have been tough for the Irish economy and the local live poker scene, and we have seen numerous large buyin events on our shores with little or no Irish involvement. These have their part in the overall scheme of things and at least meant Irish based pros sufficiently rolled for bigger events could play some events without having to catch a plane. I just never expected the Irish Open to be one of those events that would be deserted by Irish recreational players.
Afterwards in the bar, genuinely interested parties discussed what could be done to revive the event as if seems likely, this was the last ever Paddy Power Irish Open. Opinion seemed split as to whether to reduce the buyin to $1k and shoot for 1k+ runners, or to increase it to EPT Main event levels and try to rekindle it as a major international event top foreign players flock to without having to be paid to do so. I'm not even remotely qualified to judge which of these two approaches is most likely to be successful, but I will say that given the choice between
(1) a 1K event that pulls a predominantly Irish field of 1000 runners (similar to the Full Tilt UKIPT Galway event)
(2) a 5K EPT style event with 500 foreign ballers and a handful of Irish pros
I would choose option 1 every time. I'd love if we got (as is rumoured) an EPT Dublin next year: I just think the Irish Open should be kept separate as a uniquely Irish event. There is no shortage of top class local talent in Ireland when it comes to organising events. Stephen McLean has done an amazing job with the IPO and other major events. JP McCann hosts one of the biggest poker festivals in the world here every year. Fintan Gavin has organized dozens of massive events here down the years. Dave Curtis oversees the massively successful UKIPT. Clodagh Hansen did an amazing job on the Irish Open in previous years before leaving to head up the MPN Poker tour. The hope is that fresh new online sponsors with the will to revive the Irish Open working in conjunction with local organisers who understand the grassroots can restore some lost lustre to Europe's oldest poker tournament.
In Nottingham this weekend where they were having their second thousand runner plus event in just over a month, rumours were flying that Rob Yong in conjunction with Party Poker are looking to try to do this. Rob has a better track record than any when it comes to running 1000 runner events, and while I would like to see the Irish Open become an Irish Open once again that pulls back in all the local recreational players, it doesn't really matter to me where the person who pulls that off comes from. The main imperative for whoever does take up the baton should be to get the Irish recreational players back on board. This year Paddy Power seemed to think that the way to restore prestige to the Irish Open was just to get some big foreign names over.
In my view, this was back to front thinking. At its best, the Irish Open wasn't special because a few big names were paid to fly in for the weekend. It was special because it was a uniquely Irish celebration of poker embraced by every poker player in Ireland, and it was this that made foreign players want to come and be part of it without being paid to do so. Paddy Power seemed to lose sight of that this year: hopefully whoever is in charge next year won't make the same mistake.