As she drove me back to whatever the Burlington is called these days, I told Mrs Doke that today would either be the second worst day of my year (if I bust), or one of the best (if I made it to the end having finally cashed an Irish Open). Both parts of that statement reflect the special place the Irish Open has always occupied in the hearts of Irish poker players. EPTs and UKIPTs and high rollers are all well and good, but deep down in the gut, the Irish Open is the one we'd all love to actually win, second only to the WSOP main event.
As it was, I was wrong. After a promising start to day 2, my tournament returned to the now familiar script, the one where I just stop winning pots until all my chips are gone. But as I walked round the block to shake it off, I was surprised by how little there was to shake off. It hurt a little, but nowhere near as much as I imagined. Nowhere near as much as every other one of my Irish Open exits.
Maybe I'm just getting more jaded with age to the point where I recognize that getting too emotionally invested in any one tournament is a mug's game. Or maybe it's because, deep down in my subconscious, I recognise that the Irish Open just isn't what it used to be. Why is that? Well, let's rewind a little...
The first Irish Open I played was the 2008 version in City West. That year, sponsors Paddy Power guaranteed a prize pool of €3 million, making it (I believe) the biggest tournament in Europe that year. I'd never been in City West before, so I asked my wife to drop me at the gate, not realising it was a bit of a hoof from there to the actual hotel. As I walked up the long drive, I passed a gentleman in golf attire. He appeared bewildered by the number of cars speeding up the driveway, clearly greatly over par for what you would expect on a normal Thursday, so he asked me what this Irish Open was all about. I told him it was the biggest poker tournament in Europe.
"Poker, you say? The card game?"
"Never played it. Is it like whist?"
"A little I guess"
"How do people qualify for this Open?"
"Some qualify through satellites, but most just buy in, all you need is €4500"
"So anyone can play?"
"Anyone with four and a half grand"
That ended the conversation and I walked on at my own faster pace to join the registration queue. The next time I saw my new walking buddy, I had just left the front of the queue having registered, and he was joining the back of it, cheque book in hand, wondering if they took cheques. Back in 2008, anyone could play. The Celtic Tiger was on its last legs, but almost nobody knew that yet. We just thought the good times that had started over a decade earlier would last forever, and the prosperity we were enjoying to the point that spending €4500 on a game you didn't even know the rules of didn't seem particularly extravagant.
In the 7 years that have passed since that Irish Open where I was second person out (my golf trousered buddy outlasted me, maybe helped by having to have the rules explained to him every hand) and my poker hero (at the time) and (more recently) friend Neil Channing the last one still standing, the event has changed buyin levels and location, and struggled in the face of a crumbling Irish economy. The economy may have crumbled, and we would never again see a £3 million prize pool, but somehow against all the odds Paddy Power preserved the Open as one of the biggest events in Europe. As other Irish tournaments withered or even died, Paddy managed to keep numbers up somehow. Two years into the recession and after a venue change, over 700 people crammed into the Burlo to play the 2010 Open, which came down to a headsup battle between James Mitchell and currently reborn Paul Carr. The prize pool was €2,265,000.
The following year, with the recession at its worst, Paddy somehow got over 600 souls into the Burlo, and for once the Irishman (Niall Smyth) beat the Englishman (Surindar Sunar) headsup, and I was a little richer at the end of the tournament (thanks entirely to my share in final tableist Rob Taylor). This will always be the Open I have the fondest memories of (at least until I win one myself). Not just because the Irish guy won, or because I made a bit of money that weekend, but because I made my livestream commentary debut alongside Emmet Kennedy, Neil Channing and Rebecca McAdam, and commentated on most of the final table and all the marathon headsup battle.
Over the next few years, a new pattern emerged: I bust early, and spent the rest of the weekend doing commentary. In 2012, the prize pool dipped below €2 million for the first time, and Paddy bowed to economic realities by reducing the buyin to €2250. The Englishman (Ian Simpson) beat the Irishman (Mike Farrelly) again this year, and while the reduced buyin did entice a few more runners into the field, the prize pool barely blipped into 7 figures, and Simpson got less for his win than the third place finisher did back in 2008. Last year, Paddy faced an even tougher battle as Stars moved San Remo into a direct clash, making it almost impossible to lure top foreign players back.
Disaster was widely predicted, and some pundits predicted the event might shrink back into the 200 and something runner territory. The sponsors showed great imagination as they pushed every angle to satellite people in, and in a PR man's wet dream, a good looking well spoken and immensely likeable young lad from Ardee with the gloriously Irish name of Paddy Clarke entered a $4 Cheap Seats satellite on Paddy and ended up walking away with the title. This year the question was not would the Irishman or the Englishman win headsup, but which of the 8 Irishmen on the final table would. Numbers may have dipped below 500 for the first time, but it was the most Irish Irish Open I was ever at. There were grounds for optimism that this renewed local enthusiasm in conjunction with a recovering Irish economy could see the Open grow back to former glories. Paddy scrapped the Winter festival, all the better to give themselves a full year to satellite people into the Open. Satellites for this year started before last year was even finished. The consensus was that increasing the buyin back to €3500 and not clashing with anything else major would bring the foreign visitors back. It was widely expected the runners would hit the 500 mark again (in his last blog before this year's Open, John O'Shea who is normally a great judge of these things suggested 500 as the expected number), and maybe even 600.
But it seems like the sponsors dropped the ball in the runup to the Open and either got complacent, or simply failed to recognize the many negative signs. They discouraged players like myself from playing satellites after we'd won a ticket, apparently in the belief this would result in more unique qualifiers. It didn't. All that happened is less satellites ran (many at hefty overlays), less seats were generated, and even less people qualified. Live satellites fell by the wayside too. Normally in the early months of any year, casinos all over the country are buzzing with people trying to satellite their way into the Open. This just didn't happen this year. In the week of the Open, Paddy representatives were saying numbers would be up on last year, with more foreigners and as many Irish as ever. In actual fact, despite Paddy throwing some foreign dignitaries into the event to give it some cachet and a late promotional boost, numbers dipped to barely over 300.
It's easy to go on blaming the economy, but the economy is growing again. So is the poker economy. In 2012, with the recession at its deepest, only 85 runners made their way to Citywest for the JP Masters. The general consensus was "too near the Irish Open, can't compete as a result". That year, JP Masters got 85 runners, the Open got over 500. This year, JP had his Masters even closer to the Open and got almost 400 runners, while the Open got less barely crawling over the 300 mark. Take out the people Paddy stuck in to boost numbers and we could very well have been in the 200 and something zone gloomily predicted (but never actual materialised) in former years.
This felt like the least Irish Irish Open ever. Less than half of the people I played with were Irish, and when I asked players who would normally play this every year if they were playing this year, most shrugged their shoulders and said not unless they qualified. Gary Clarke surprised me even more when he said he wasn't even trying to qualify. When you lose someone like Gary, a staunch supporter not only of Irish events but events all over Europe, you have to start asking yourself where it all went wrong. When recreational players stop trying to even satellite in, you have to ask yourself why (for what its worth, most I asked gave one of two reasons: no buzz about the event this year, and too many crashes disconnections and other bad experiences with the Paddy Power software). It just seemed that Paddy (who it was rumoured had decided from a long way out that this year would be the last ever Paddy Power Irish Open) either gave up the ghost trying to promote the event properly, or lacked the imagination and competence of previous years in so doing. There are mutterings that Paddy has simply given up on poker, seeing it as something they can't make a lot of money from, so they don't want to make any effort developing or promoting it beyond simply having it as something sports bettors or casino players can try if they want to experience arguably the worst poker software in the world.
The day before the event, I had arranged to meet Neil Channing in a French restaurant. The best thing about the Irish Open has always been the chance to meet friends you only see once a year, or people you only ever talk to online. Our dinner escalated quickly and by the end there were 9 heads crammed into what looked like a tent in Chez Max. Everyone seemed to know already this was the last ever Paddy Power Irish Open, so it felt a bit like a wake for a once great event.
Other highlights of the weekend included tuning into the excellent live stream (with top notch commentary from Emmet, Lappin, Kowby and other guests), chopping the mini Open for almost ten grand having navigated a sub four big blind stack for several hours around the bubble, railing Kev Killeen to another amazing result, and meeting other visiting friends (Christin Maschmann is a courageous lady who not only risks her limbs in goal for a mixed handball team but also braved being the first person to share a drink with me after my bustout, I went for coffee with my regular satellite sparring partner Sameer, and for dinner tonight with my two favourite dealers Dani and Tonino, and Sue had me worried for a minute and laughing for longer at her "We can see you, you can't see us" stalker tweets). After the Open was done and dusted, we hauled our tired selves to the Farm, joined by the livestream crew and a teetotal Paddy Power representative. When he slipped out early (paying his own portion of the bill), it felt oddly symbolic, given that Paddy seem to be quietly slipping out of the building of Irish poker.
Afterwards in the bar, the talk was of what the Open once was, and how best to revive it. It would be truly sad for Irish (and indeed European) poker if Europe's oldest tournament were to wither further or die completely. The hope is that someone with a bit more imagination and drive than Paddy have shown in recent months will step in next year to start the revival. The fear is that this may indeed have been the funeral.