I've never compiled a list of my favourite countries to go play poker in, but if I had it's pretty safe to say Spain would not make the cut. Over an admittedly small sample size I've had many of the worst experiences in my poker career there. In San Sebastián I felt I was basically cheated out of a tournament by the most bizarre ruling I've ever seen. In Marbella I saw maybe the worst dealers I've ever seen (and I'm someone who has been to the WSOP, notorious for some awful dealers, seven times). On my first trip to Barcelona, I was violently ill all week, but still in better shape than Mrs Doke who was confined to bed for the week. In previous trips, I've also had to contend with some of the worst organisation, longest queues and most crazy chip denominations. Factor in that I'm the opposite of a sun worshipper, not a fan of Spanish food or wine (particularly the tapas concept), bullfighting, machismo or many of the other things that Spain is famous for.....well, let's just say Spain is not exactly my sort of place. It's also one of the few places in Europe I can go where the language is a very real barrier (I speak no Spanish, Mrs Doke is fluent in four languages but Spanish isn't one of them, and Spaniards notoriously speak less English then almost every other European nationality).
All that said, Barcelona is easily my favourite place in Spain, and the Stars Barca festival that starts with an Estrellas and finishes with an EPT is now the biggest, best and arguably softest in Europe.
The trip got off to a bad start that had me muttering "typical Spain" before we'd even left the airport when the taxi driver tried to shake us down. He told us there was an additional 20 euro charge for.....something. When we pointed out there was no mention of this on the Fare sheet, he suggested we get out of the cab. We did. Our new cab driver more or less confirmed that what had been attempted was a dodgy shakedown.
The goodFrom a poker point of view, the trip was a success, both in terms of how I felt I played, and the outcomes. I notched up my first two live cashes since Vegas, from five tournaments.
My first event was the Estrellas main event. I barely won a pot and was gone by the end of day one. Not much else to say about that one.
Next up was the Seniors. This was my second old folks event, the first being the WSOP. Given my experiences on my debut, where I lost half my stack within twenty minutes due in large part to an overly aggressive approach and only prospered when I nitted and nut peddled it up, I went with a very different strategy this time of nitting it up from the start. The table played a lot crazier than my WSOP table, meaning I maintained a single digit VPIP at a ten handed table where the second tightest player played well over half of hands. Most pots went something like limp, limp, 8x, call, call, call, fold (guess who?), call, call, call, call, and had a stack to pot ratio of about one before the flop. I managed to chip up early by having the best hand when I bet or raised, but then a big one where a guy who raised big in early position with 64s and called my big squeeze hung in grimly with a gutshot and got there on the river. With my stack suddenly shallower, I ended up flatting a raise with jacks hoping to induce a squeeze behind. Mr 64s obliged and when I reshipped he snapped with a legitimate AQ and won the flip.
Next up was the last flight of the Barca Cup, which was like a fast motion action replay of my Estrellas main.
My last event before the EPT main was a 10 am satellite to the main event. This was effectively a 500 euro cubed. Lappin and I targeted it as likely to be soft (how many regs are likely to get out of bed for a satellite?) and it was. We both got through the satellite despite never having more then about two thirds average.
I'd originally intended to play 1b mainly cos all the other lads were playing that day, but Tim Davie persuaded me to switch to 1a on the grounds that he was playing it, and it would be softer. It was, and Timmy is one of my favourite guys to hang out with. He even got out of bed one night and caught a cab back to keep me company so I didn't have to dine alone when all the other guys were occupied: above and beyond the call of duty.
Thanks in large part to Timmy's persuasive powers, I bagged up exactly double starting stack, at a soft table by EPT standards, after an uneventful day where I chipped up gradually without major incident.
After a day off (another advantage to playing 1a) and a very enjoyable one hour run around Barcelona, it was back for day two. It proceeded very similarly to day one, and despite having the tournament chipleader and one other giant stack at my table I chipped up to almost 170k, well above average, without ever being at risk.
So onto day three.....well, I'll get to that later, after I say what else I thought was good. For a festival of this size, Stars for the most part did a very good job organisationally. The queueing process was mostly smooth (more on the hiccups later), the dealing was as sensationally good as ever (Stars really do hire the cream of dealing talent for EPTs), and the atmosphere overall was both professional and fun. Stars parties seem to have gradually withered over the years, to the point that I usually don't even go to them any more. I'm not naturally a party animal, but any party that includes my friend (and my number one favourite person I've met through poker) Daiva is likely to be a fun event, and thanks almost entirely to Daiva and her friend Sandra's company this was easily the most fun I've ever had at a party.
Aseefo joked that we (him and me) are naturally the kind of guys who end up in the kitchen at parties. This is true, but somehow with Daiva and her friend there I was transformed into the guy who gets to hang out with the two most beautiful girls at the party. A tough job, but somebody has to do it, right? It was also fun hanging with Aseefo (who set himself up as our unofficial photographer), AnOnlineGuy (that's his screen name, I'm bad at remembering real names), his lovely girlfriend Lucy, and Timmy.
This was a less withered Stars party overall, with the free booze flowing all night. Free booze and a horde of poker players is not without its problems though. After 20 minutes of frustration at being ignored by bar staff, I gave up. Daiva then volunteered, and returned about 20 seconds later with our drinks. It seems the advantages of being a drop dead gorgeous leggy blonde extend to priority at the bar: who'd have guessed it?
I also had the pleasure of being on the feature table on day 3 with the lovely Leo Margets to my immediate left. Apparently in her start of day interview Leo said she was looking forward to talking to me about running (she's a very accomplished marathon runner) and we had a great natter about her marathon and my ultramarathon experiences.
The badBuried in my praise above for the organisation overall, I did note that there were still some hiccups with the queues. The lads all went down the day we got there to pick up their Estrellas tickets (I was too knackered with no sleep in 30 hours that also included a 27 mile run) and came back with horror stories. My only bad experience came after I busted the seniors and went to reg the last flight of the cup. After finally getting to the top of that queue, I was told this was not the queue for online buyins (even though it had been every other day) and directed to the back of that queue. After a while in that queue another security man came over looking confused asking in pidgin English if we were all there for the 50k High Roller. Unsurprisingly, most of us were not: we'd all been lied to that this was the online buyin queue. We were assured that it was not, and directed to the back of.....the original queue.
Clear mutiny spot. After some angry Russians had a shout off with security, it was decided that we would be allowed to some degree of priority in the queue. Daiva had a similarly bad experience when she regged the Ladies event, the queue for which was swamped by people trying to reg the Cup flight which wasn't due to start until several hours later, and people regging the High Roller who were basically being told to skip to the head of the queue. I've had enough arguments with other players as to whether players should be allowed to skip the queue just because they are regging an event with a high buyin to realise that my personal view that they shouldn't be allowed to do so (for the same reasons people with more items in their trolleys, or more expensive ones, don't get to skip the queue in the supermarket) seems to be a minority one but at the very least it surely is not a good idea to relegate the ladies to the absolute bottom rung of the queueing ladder (particularly at a time when Stars is at least paying lip service to the very admirable goal of attempting to level out the gender imbalance in poker), and tournaments that have already started or are just about to start should be given priority over tournaments that are hours away.
During the EPT main event, I tweeted that the tournament clock update process was several pegs below what I'd expect in a 20 euro freeze out in my local casino. The prize pool and number of places being paid wasn't announced until day 3, quite near the bubble. This really isn't acceptable in the biggest tournament in Europe. After the bubble burst, the clock didn't seem to be getting updated after bustouts. During William Kassouf's bustout, I glanced up at the clock to see if we were near the first payjump. Noting we were still a few away, I then watched as the number of players remaining suddenly reduced by 7, through the pay jump.
The significance of this may not be obvious to casual players, but experienced players know how important this information is, and therefore how important it is that this information be accurate. Experienced players know they are supposed to pass marginal spots near pay jumps, and also to stall. After Kassouf busted I told him he'd laddered, because I knew he had been paying close attention to the clock (and a lot of his antics seemed to basically be a stalling tactic) but hadn't looked at the clock since his allin had been called, so hadn't seen the apparent spontaneous combustion of 7 runners. He said "no way". This illustrates one of the reasons why it's vital that the clock info be up to date (at least around a payjump): players will understandably stall thinking it's in their interests to do so not realising they've already laddered so gain nothing by stalling. Encouraging players to stall is good for nobody. Players also have a right to know the instant a payjump is passed so they don't pass marginal spots they would only pass because of the payjump.
The next payjump was even worse. We came back from a break with the clock saying we were on an exact jump. The clock remained unchanged for the next 30 minutes despite the fact there were clearly several bustouts (including two at my table alone).
Any half Lebanese half Japanese lawyers abaht?Undoubtedly the main talking point of my time on the feature table (and one of the main talking points of the whole festival: one clip of him in full flight went viral) was the performance of one English solicitor called William Kassouf. Most countries have at least one incessant chatterbox who gets in people's heads and tilts them (in Ireland, we call it a Phil Baker), but William takes it to a whole new level, tilting even the rail! I got numerous messages from people (including Mrs Doke) saying they had to mute the livestream and even Kevmath was unusually harsh in his assessment
In William's defence, I would like to point out that while his chatter was almost incessant (which is enough to tilt a lot of people in itself), when you listened to what he was actually saying, you'd be very hard pressed to find anything offensive. He seems to have a few stock phrases in several languages, an ability to mimic accents (pretty well for the most part), and everyone is targeted indiscriminately (including himself: at one point when he was down to 3 big blinds he quipped "folding 3 big blinds like a boss"). Comedy is notoriously hard to execute successfully, and even professional comics often run into people who just don't find them funny. William clearly divides people down the middle: for every "Will someone tell him to shut up?", there seemed to be a "This guy is great to watch".
I think it's fair to say that people who take their poker seriously and are drawn to it as a strategy based game that rewards study and discipline were overwhemingly in the Nay camp, while people who primarily enjoy poker as a spectacle and for a bit of fun and a gamble were predominantly in the Yay camp. But here's something to think about: those of us in the serious camp hoping to make a living from the game we love need people willing to punt for fun, and if guys like Kassouf draw more in, that can only be good, right?
In terms of the table itself, Kassouf didn't seem to affect the pros much one way or the other (Leo seemed somewhat underwhelmed by it but certainly didn't let it affect her play), but at least two of the amateurs to my right were very tilted by the whole spectacle. One of the more surreal moments was when Kassouf, who was clearly stalling to try to get his three big blinds into the money (and to be fair, unlike most people who do this surreptitiously, he was quite open about what he was doing), had clock called on him by the only other player at the table who was also critically short (he didn't seem to understand that the stalling was good for him too).
After we moved off the feature table, I dwindled a bit more waiting for a spot. With Cerny and Dong Kim to my immediate left I had to open up my ranges as far as what I was prepared to get in or induce with, so when I found ace ten in the cutoff, I raised hoping to have the chance to call a shove from one of the two guys. Dong shoved, but with an actual hand: kings no less. I flopped a gutshot to go with my overcard, turned a double gutter, but missed the river. While I'd have loved to go deeper, no regrets as I don't think anyone in my seat could have gone much farther, and it's always good to notch up an EPT cash.
By now I was struggling a bit with a cold (I always seem to pick one up in Spain), so took the last day off. The festival itself was an incredible success overall so the quibbles above notwithstanding, full credit to Stars for what is the closest thing we have in Europe to the WSOP experience. There was a real fun atmosphere throughout and thanks again to everyone who made it fun for me.
Back home, it's back to the online grind. I was lucky enough to bink the Hot 55 on my first session back, and a couple of satellite wins on Sunday made it a good return to the online felt.
Next up is the MPN Dublin leg. I'm playing 1A on Wednesday (and 1B and 1C if that becomes necessary:)) in what looks like being the start of a great festival. See some of you there hopefully.