As I mentioned in my comeback blog, I came back from the London trip feeling reinvigorated even if I bricked everything there. I hit the ground running when I returned to the online felt, clinching the fifth PocktFives Triple Crown of my career. More on that here in my latest PocketFives interview.
Getting there proved a bigger ordeal than anticipated. My Dublin Paris flight was late making it impossible for me to make my connection given a last minute terminal change for the Paris to Sofia leg. I won't bore you with the gory details: if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you'll already know the story, and if you don't, then read these tweets from bottom to top.
I'd never been to Sofia (or Bulgaria) before so wasn't really sure what to expect. The very few Bulgarians I know did their best to lower expectations. So I was extremely happy to find myself staying in a luxurious Radisson in a very nice part of town directly across from the parliament, with the casino, the hotel, the club where the players party and an excellent Asian restaurant all located in the same building. One of the occupational hazards of being a travelling poker player is that the casino is often in the worst part of town, so if you stay nearby you find yourself wandering around an industrial estate outside Nottingham or looking at a gasworks in Vienna.
On the poker front, things could have gone better in terms of results, but not much better in terms of how I played. I think my day 1 performance was by far my best since UKIPT Edinburgh late last year (which I personally rate as one of my best ever). I was helped to a degree by not having too many tricky spots and being card dead for long periods of the day. I also ran well with the few decent hands I did pick up, not just making the best hand but finding myself up against second best hands strong enough to make opponents decide to pay me off. But I think I held my focus and discipline well through the periods of card death (something that certainly hasn't always been the case this year), maintained my concentration allowing me to build up solid reads on all my opponents even when I wasn't involved in hands, and I maximised value with the hands I did make. The result was over five starting stacks went into my bag, almost double the average.
I ended up going to the Irish bar to celebrate with a good crew assembled by tour boss lady Clodagh Hansen, that included room mates Asif and Oliver Fabian, 32 Red poker good guy Nick Diaz (who put us pros to shame by shipping one side event and cashing the other), tournament director from Barcelona Gerard, gentle South African giant Mark (from MPN) and players Tony Rafter, Julie from Manchester, Rich and Twitcher James (thanks for the t shirt).
Although a text to Clodagh from the Irish pub confirmed we collectively drank the place dry, I managed to restrict myself to enough drinks for there to be no hangover the following day, so went back to day 2 highly hopeful of another good day at the tables. If day 1 was a steady cruise through relatively calm waters, day 2 was a much stormier affair. In the first hand of note, I found myself in a three way all in, with kings versus ace king and queens. While it was a relief to hold against the queens in the 175k side pot, it would have been a nice bonus to scoop the 150k main pot as well. Four times the average stack at that time would have been a real platform for an assault on the final table.
Not to be though, and onwards and upwards to over 200k. If day one was free of tough close spots, day 2 was chock full of them. I got beaten back down to 100k, then rallied back to 200k when I made my only real mistake of the tournament. It wasn't a big mistake, but after going through my usual post mortem with the Firm brains trust there was unanimity that I could and should have lost 30k less in one pot where I got rivered and knew deep down I had been.
That did some damage, and further damage was inflicted as I ran really bad as the bubble loomed. After my neighbour to the east had been crippled by a wildly optimistic river call and an even more optimistic preflop allin call, he started shoving any two. The first few times he did this he dogged his way to the win with less than stellar holdings such as j3o, so when he again shoved I reshoved jacks like it was the nuts and could only laugh when he tabled queens. That left me in the danger zone, where I remained for the rest of the tournament, surviving. I ended up busting six from the money in a hand that played like a comedy of errors.
I played two side events to add two non cashes to my record. While it would have been nice to collect at least one Bulgarian flag I was more interested in how I played, and apart from that one river mistake in the main, was happy I played four days of mistake free poker, read my opponents well, and avoided auto piloting. There were a few hands where I found non standard lines that were better in the specific circumstances, something I always pride myself on when I believe I'm playing my best. Had these been Stars events where 15% rather than 10% were paid, I'd have cashed the main and I think both sides, and in any case it's always more important to focus on performance rather than results. Getting my live A game back before I land in Vegas on the 16th of June is far more important then eking out a min cash or two in a smaller buyin event.
It was clear from the standard of local players that poker is pretty new in Bulgaria. Given that, the standard of the local dealers was surprisingly high. The tournament staff in general were pretty competent. The novelty of poker there did lead to some interesting practises though. For example, no seat cards. Rather than the traditional complementary "player gone, here's the seat card" / "you're moving table, here's your new seat card" system, eliminated players were simply scrubbed from the list, and when you were told to move, a "revised seat chart" with your new assignment appeared on the screens. The main casino manager doing registrations was very friendly and competent (with a remarkable ability to remember everybody's name and it's exact spelling), his assistants considerably less so, and the security staff were as bad as you'd find anywhere. Security seemed to change the rules of entry on a whim, and were very hands on if you were somewhere they didn't think you should be. So depending on your luck a typical experience was gain entry with a gruff grunt or a shout from security, be warmly greeted by first name by the manager, then get jostled or pushed from the tournament area by one of his assistants if you dared to go speak to a friend still in it. They were far more concerned about keeping people away from the tables than they were about keeping the tables balanced. For long periods in the main tables were a mix of six to ten handed, and the side events were even shoddier on that front.
My other major quibble was the flexibility of the smoking laws. Technically it's against the law, but the law really wasn't enforced. In fact, it was one of the smokiest environments I've ever played in, my clothes all stink after the trip, and my usual impulse to flee the scene of the crime after busting was heightened by a desire to breathe fresh air into my second hand smoke filled lungs and ease my burning eyes. Those quibbles aside, great venue, and the MPN and 32Red staff conspire with the regular players to create a friendly atmosphere that has long since disappeared from slicker tours like EPT and UKIPT. A big thank you to all already mentioned, and others like Phil Huxley and his partner, Sean and Florent from Cork and everyone else I spoke to.
The locals I interacted with were quite similar to the casino staff: polarised (either super friendly, or exuding extreme unhappiness). The overtly macho atmosphere is a bit of a culture shock. I don't think I saw a single female in a managerial or supervisory position while I was there, but obviously I only saw a small sample size and that may not be representative. Clodagh had some hair raising tales of what it's like to be a visiting female boss lady to tell. On the other hand, Sofia is a very pleasant place to spend time in with a unique feel and character of its own and lots of beautiful buildings and people to look at.
The next MPN stop is Tallinn in early August which will probably be my first trip abroad after Vegas. Before Vegas, the priorities are get some good online grinding in, keep working hard in preparation for Vegas, and a week's holidays in Rome for my wife's birthday will be followed by a Firm reunion in Malta for the Unibet Open.