Monday, December 10, 2018


Luxury prison camp

I often get asked why Mrs Doke doesn’t accompany me on more poker trips. There are many different answers, one of which is she doesn’t enjoy them. She’s not that keen a traveller (she likes her home comforts and doesn’t like the bovine feeling most airports engender in her), and she really has no interest in poker beyond how much I lost today. She hates casinos and resorts, and she is no sun worshipper. One thing we both have in common is we are utterly useless at doing nothing. We are terrible chillers: with nothing concrete to fill a day, we climb the concrete walls.

Last year we went to Punta Cana, a luxury all inclusive resort. While everyone else oohed and ahhed about the place, what was Mrs Doke’s reaction?

“Luxury prison camp”

What she does like are big cosmopolitan cities with vibrant cultures and a bit of history: Rome, New York, Melbourne, Prague. So while all I would have needed to say to get almost any other female on the plane was “Bahamas in November” the only way I could win her over to the idea was 5 days with the Bleemers in New York on the way over. True to form, she loved New York. And her verdict on her Bahamas?

“Ten days of my life, wasted”

And therein we have Doke’s paradox: I wanted to marry her because (among other reasons) she was the type of woman who would never be happy sunning herself by the pool: yet I still want her company on trips such as these where there’s not much else for her to do.

Let's see the sea 

After a few days lying in bed reading the many books she brought with her to get through this ordeal, Mrs Doke decided it might be an idea to go look at the sea, which she has a genuine fondness for, and which she had found out was quite near (100 meters or so from the hotel). I accompanied her downstairs on this great excursion and steered towards the back of the hotel.

“Where are you going?”
“ the sea? You said you wanted to, right?”
“Yes but it’s at the back of the hotel not the front”
“We are walking towards the back”
“No we are not”

I was certain I was right, but even more certain this was an argument I could not win (she was citing many hours of consulting maps in the room, and the directions of that master of navigation that is Freddie Bergmann, a man who proved so unable to find his way out of the toilets at a players party in Bucharest that he had to be rescued by David Vanderheyden) short of slinging her over my shoulder and carrying her to the sea. It seemed wiser to play along for now.

So out through reception we walk. There’s no sea in sight, so she asks one of the receptionists how to get to the sea. The receptionist looks confused and says “Back through the hotel or from here?”
“From here!”
The receptionist looks even more confused, and tells us more or less that if we won’t walk back through the hotel, the only way to get to the sea is to walk around it. At least that’s my interpretation: Mrs Doke's is quite different so before I know what’s happening, we are walking away from the hotel back towards the airport on the exact same road we came in as I try every possible combination of words that mean “The sea is not this way” and Mrs Doke uses only one word to communicate that I am an idiot.

“But why can’t we even see the sea?”
“We can, you idiot”
“So where is it?”
“Well we can’t see it yet, idiot”
“But it’s supposed to be near!”
“Look at Google Maps on my phone. Here. Here. This blue dot is us, agreed?”
“And this is the hotel”
“Yes, idiot”
“And this is the sea”
“Duh, idiot”
“Ok. So the hotel is between the blue dot and the sea”
“So, idiot?”
“So to get to the sea the blue dot has to walk back towards the hotel, through it, and out the far side”
“No. It’s this way”
“I give up. I’m going back. You do what you want”

She considered her options, then followed me back sullenly muttering “idiot”

As we gazed out on the sea, no word of apology was expected or offered. I was still an idiot, albeit one who happened to be annoyingly correct on this occasion.

As we walked back to our room I pointed out that if we had kept walking in her direction we would also have hit the sea eventually, in 20 or 30 miles, so we were both right in a way.

This was not a helpful observation.



There seems to be a bit of a healthy rivalry these days in poker between the Americans and the Euros. The Americans, the birthplace and traditional superpower of poker, are a little less secure in their world dominance in these post UIGEA days. There was a time when going to the WSOP was the poker equivalent of an athlete going to the Olympics. It still is, but it’s the Moscow Olympics the Americans won nothing at (by virtue of boycott). They don’t boycott the WSOP, and they still win most of the bracelets, but there’s a feeling that that’s mostly sheer force of numbers. Ask any pro what accent they want to hear when the young unknown to their immediate left pulls down his sunglasses, peers at you and asks “How much?” and the answer definitely won’t be “German!” No sir: what you most want to hear is a y’all or a folksy American twang. Deprived of the ability to play a million hands a month online, the American player pool has been cut adrift onto its own evolutionary track. European regs openly joke about “dumpster American regs” (as Firaldo did recently on The Chip Race) and the Germans in particular do little to disguise their lack of esteem even for American legends and heroes such as Hellmuth.

The Americans though are are a wonderfully resilient nation. They still produce more poker champions than anyone else. Yes, population, but China. India. Russia.

At my day 2 main event table, Ryan Riess turned his head towards the 250k SHR final table and celebrated the fact that it was almost entirely American.

“Yeah! All Americans almost. We’ve been crushing the High Rollers lately. Team USA!”

His (American) neighbour Michael Gagliano seemed less ebulliently nationalistic.

“How many Euros even played? Not that many I think. It’s the Bahamas”
“All the shit Euro regs played it”

One day later, shit Euro reg Steffen Sontheimer was crowned champion, outnumbered but still slaying a table of dumpster Americans regs.

Let's hear it for the recs

I started as an online player. To this day, I see myself as an online player who plays a bit live. Live poker is the hobby: online the jobby. When I play live, it’s for a break, a holiday, or because I like the destination or the company (which was particularly good on this trip: shout-outs to Jason, Joy, Fay, Jamie, Ellie, Freddie and Tim who were all a pleasure to spend time with), or because one side effect of crushing online satellites is you have to go and actually play the target event.

These days satellites are not my bread and butter, and I could grind out a very good year online without ever going near one. I’m not as keen on travel as I was, and I have found other ways to give myself a break. The one appealing aspect that remains is the chance to meet and socialize with players I wouldn’t otherwise. Players I might interact with on social media like Jodi but it’s still nice to meet in person and get a little of their story. Sometimes I think the people I admire the most in poker are not the end bosses who lock themselves away running PIO sims 18 hours a day 365 days a year, but the true recreationals who play for the love of the game. It’s wonderful that someone can parlay a centroll into a holiday in the Bahamas rubbing shoulders with some of the superstars of the felt. I’m always grateful that so many of them see me as worthy of their time to come and have a natter.

This is something we should never lose sight of in all the bitching about structures and affiliate deals and preferential treatment for pros and overlays (real or non existent) and rake: the heart of live poker is recreational players playing for fun and having fun.

Social media

Social media and me: we go way back, let me tell ya. I was the first Irish poker player to get busy on Twitter. I remember the crescendo of mirth it caused among the pros of the day that I would waste my time on something so pointless so trivial and so clearly without a future.

Well who’s laughing now? The answer I guess is still nobody, since social media has devolved for the most part into pictures of food, chip stacks and girls in bikinis, or shouting about Trump or Brexit to the converted. It’s still an enormous waste of time, a time killer and a time sink, but it’s made us more connected than we have ever been. People come up to me all the time at poker tournaments and address me like an old friend while I stand there wondering “What is this person’s name? Have I ever even seen them before?” These are alarming questions for a man who has reached my age, as the inability to recognize the faces of old friends is a symptom of nothing good and many things bad.

Often though it’s just a case that I haven’t met this person before, but they feel like they know me because social media. And that’s a very cool thing, because the older you get the more tiresome it becomes to find an axe to break the ice.

Social media has reached the stage where you could be in the room where everything is happening, and still be less informed than the guy at home reading Twitter. Maybe I should give a concrete example: with nothing to do on a day off, I could go rail the feature table. I could walk around the poker room like a wannabe blogger looking for big hands. Or I could lie in bed with my wife, refreshing Twitter and Instagram. And guess which one will keep me the most informed?

Through social media I can learn that Jason Tompkins doubled through Jack Sinclair last hand of day one. Before I’ve even have time to message haha to Jack, I’ve seen his side of the hand on Instagram, met Jason on my stroll to the poker room, and we’ve run into Jack so I can deliver the haha in person. What a time to be alive.

Vouchers and Eastern European girls

Every time a player registered for a tournament the organizers gave them a card with Food Voucher on the front and 25 blank boxes on the back. These could be redeemed for food or water outside. Each box had a nominal value of a dollar, so if you bought a sandwich for 12 bucks, that was 12 boxes. As soon as I realized that a box was a buck, I found myself wondering why put a nominal value on boxes at all? They couldn’t be converted into anything other than corridor food or drink (though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that at least one poker player tried to change them at the Currency Exchange kiosk at airport: my money and boxes are on Allen Kessler) so why not just put the prices in boxes? There are crypto currencies with less intrinsic merit.

I was reinforced in my view after Parky came over to tell me about a guy who wouldn’t stop complaining about the price of bottled water to him. It turned out of course that he wasn’t really complaining about the water costing 7 dollars, since no actual money had changed hands: only about the number of boxes it cost him.

After chortling with Parky over this tale, I decided to tell one of my own. In the previous night’s side event I’d had my most entertaining bustout.

The action went mid position open, button flat, me shove small blind for 14 big blinds, original opener reshove for lots more, and shrug call from button. I turn over my aces, the original raiser ace nine double suited, and the button five three single suited in diamonds. At this point I paused in the tale to assure Parky this was not a bad beat story, to stop his mind from wandering back to his room.

The flop was a rather safe looking king king jack rainbow no diamond, a 5 rolled off on the turn, followed by another on the river. As I stood up to leave, the guy raking in the chips explained he’d only called because what he really wanted to be doing was talking to the Eastern European girls in the players lounge. He seemed genuinely sad as he said this, like his was the real bad beat here.

As I headed not to the players lounge to talk to the Eastern European girls but back to the room to tell my French girl how much I’d lost today, I reflected on the fact that people play poker for lots of different reasons, most of them entirely valid.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Wagner's theory of Irish efficiency

Wagner in Paris

In the early 90s I found myself in Paris as an IT consultant on a pan European project for a large American oil company that had their headquarters there. It was a challenging project, and one of the biggest challenges was the sheer number of different nationalities and work cultures involved.

I was the first Irishman brought in, but by the end there were more Irish working on the project than any other nationality. The English muttered darkly that our American boss was showing favouritism to the land of his ancestors. The French would raise their eyebrows and mutter “putain, encore un ivrogne irlandais“ every time a new Paddy was hired. The other nationalities saw no difference between Irish and English.

I liked our American leader, Mr Wagner, a lot. He had that refreshing no bullshit straight to the chase ethos so many Americans have. He had no technical knowledge of relevance to the project, but he was a great manager and judge of people. He knew who would tell him the truth, who would deliver what was asked, who would just waste his time and whose complaints to heed (and whose to ignore). Socially, he was aloof, very much an American abroad. He found it hard to separate work from play, he hated European sports with a passion, and he spoke no French. He interacted socially only with the Irish, coming along with us to the Irish pub (or bar as he called it) and pretending to care whenever Ireland played football (or soccer as he called it).

As the number of Irish on the project grew, I wondered if the English were right. On the face of it, Wagner didn’t seem like an Irish name, and he came from a part of the States few Irish had ventured. So I asked him jokingly one Friday afternoon over a beer if what the English were saying was true.

“No. I’m Wasp through and through. I never even set foot in an Irish bar before I got to Paris”
“Well the English think you’re prejudiced in our favour”
“Heh, I’m not prejudiced, I’m ......I’m .....postjudiced. I arrived here with all the usual American prejudice. English nobility. German efficiency. French flair. Italian ruthlessness. Irish drunken fighting idiots. That’s why I didn’t hire one of you lot until well over a year into the project"
“I’m honoured to have been the first drunken fighting idiot on the team”
“What I’ve learned though is there most certainly are national stereotypes: just not the ones I expected”
“Put it like this. If I ask the English on Monday morning to do something by 5 pm Friday, they’ll spend the rest of the day, and probably most of Tuesday arguing among themselves about who is in charge, who is second in command, the whole goddamn hierarchy. I’ll spend a lot of Wednesday and Thursday listening to guys not happy with their position complaining about their boss and the long hours he’s making them work. They’ll be there til 10 pm every night, and they will deliver something resembling what I asked for, which I’ll now have to get the Irish to fix”
“If I ask the French, they’ll spend the entire week arguing among themselves, and at 5 on Friday they’ll come to tell me what I wanted was either impossible or stupid, or both, and wish me a good weekend. If I ask the Italians they’ll spend the whole week arguing and threatening to resign. It’ll be chaos until a few minutes to 5 on Friday, at which point everything will somehow fall into place and the job will be done. If I ask the Germans they’ll spend the first few days arguing about and writing up detailed procedures, which they’ll insist I read and sign off on. They will get the job done but I’ll be hearing about it all week”
“And the Irish?
“From the outside, you guys will seem to be spending the week sitting around telling each other stories and jokes and going off to the pub every afternoon. But the job will be done the quickest smartest way with no fuss or drama. You’ll tell me Friday morning it’s finished, and then you’ll piss off to the pub. The French, English and Germans will complain to me that you drunken idiots are always in the pub while they’re slaving away”

At the time Ireland was the poor man of Europe, but Wagner boldly predicted that that would change. As such, e was the first person I knew to predict the Celtic Tiger, and when I met him in Vegas last year (now retired to Florida) he asked me how Ireland was these days (he worked there for a few years after Paris). When I told him it was booming again and we had the 4th highest HDI in the world (remarkable for a small island on the periphery of Europe with almost no natural resources), he smiled and reminded me he had predicted it all.

Back to Dublin

Over the past two and a half decades, I've seen many successful examples of Wagner's theory on Irish efficiency. I've seen RyanAir grow from a "no way that can work" startup to the largest airline in Europe (by fleet size), and numerous tech startups that have dominated the world. Every time I hear about an Irish success story, I think of Wagner's words to me 25 years ago. Most recently, the success of Unibet Open Dublin brought him back into my mind.

Thrown together at very short notice, Nick O'Hara and Brian Lannon did an amazing job pulling it all in place for the return of Unibet to our shores for the first time in seven years. There were understandable concerns over the venue (the Regency/Bonnington is a major turn off for many locals) but it was dressed up better than I could ever have imagined for the poker. The TV table (sadly lacking from many Irish events these days) added a real sense of occasion, McGettigan's is a great addition, and the event itself was impeccably run.

I arrived back from the Bahamas (that trip will be the subject of my next blog) Tuesday not having slept in over 24 hours. I did manage to grab a few hours sleep before the team dinner in The Church. Afterwards, the talented Elena Kask took this photo of Mrs Doke and I, both happy to be home.

The first event I played (but not for very long) was the tag team. I was lucky enough to be drawn with Instagram superstar STPeach, and managed to keep my perfect record of always being the one to bust the team every time I partner with a beautiful lady.

The next event I played was the High Roller. I was pretty card dead day one, but somehow bagged up the chiplead, mainly due to one massive hand. New Unibet Finland pro, Tuomo Niskanen, opened in the hijack to 900.

I considered flatting aces playing just over 25k but Tuomo is so aggressive I figured 3 bet get in was the best plan. To my surprise Keith Brennan 4 bet from the small blind, so now I'm loving life, and that's even before Tuomo shoved. After I reshoved Keith tanked before sigh flicking it in with kings. My aces held (Tuomo had ace king), as Benny Glaser and Espen Jorstad (both of whom were at the table) joked "You know it's an old nit when they tank kings".

I don't think I won a single pot on day 2 and ended up busting well before the money. I went back to the hotel (we were staying in the Skylon) for a run (my only of the week) before coming back to do some commentary on the DSO final table, rail Daiva who was playing Day 1A of the main, and most importantly of all, bring her coffee.

I played 1B, and was at a tough table all day, featuring John Keown (fresh from chopping the DSO), Jason Tompkins, an American Andrew Brokos lookalike called Jayson and several other strong local players.

John was joking with a foreign lady at the table that she was at a table of Irish legends when the third of fourth best tournament director in the room Kenny Hallaert appeared.

"Yes, a table of Irish legends.....and Dara O'Kearney"

Thanks Kenny. Here's a picture of Kenny doing what he does best.

I was happy to bag up just over double starting stack, below average but still competitive, for day 2.

Day 2 was something of a rollercoaster. I made a great start when I doubled up and bust the formidable Phil Huxley. I open AK utg, John Farrell flatted in the next seat, and Phil considered his options with KQo and just over twenty big blinds before shoving. I reshoved and held, but from there on barely won a pot and as I was moved to the feature table near the bubble, survival was the priority. Thankfully the bubble didn't last too long and I squeaked through. A few hands later, I shoved ATo into John Farrell's AQo. A few people watching the stream were surprised i wasn't sweating the result more: instead I seem to be casually chatting to Andy Black beside me. What was actually happening was I was giving Andy the address for the livestream: once I saw what I was up against I figured this was probably my last hand so wanted him to have it before I left. As I said before, having a full livestream is a very attractive selling point to Irish players, and even someone like Andy seemed genuinely excited to be able to tell his missus she could tune in.

After my bustout I did another commentary stint and signed up to do the night shift with Henry Kilbane so everyone else could go to the party. You never really know how you're going to gel with someone on commentary til you try it but it felt very natural and easy with Henry. I got lots of positive feedback from Irish players after who tuned in, so well done Henry. Shoutout to the Twitch chat too who were great fun: most of them were there for eventual winner Paul Jux Holderness (congratulations to him) who it turns out is a YouTube sensation. I was a little sceptical at first as it's not a world I know much (or anything) about but he's clearly a big deal and his fans were great fun.

My roommate for the week Mick McCloskey was still in at the end of play. It was too late to head to the party, and it ended just in time to see Emelie Svenningsson win the Ladies event. The event itself was a massive success, attracting more runners than the Ladies at the Irish Open this year and almost double what the Ladies in Killarney got. Daiva has done a great job drawing in ladies of all levels: personally I always root for the grinders and the workers, and Emelie falls in that camp, putting in volume online and working on her game (she even bought my satellite webinar).

Sunday was mostly about railing Mick, and other socialising. His hand histories are always interesting to say the least:
“So this guy opening all sorts open and I call 99”
“What positions Mick?”
Long pause during which Mick looks annoyed like it's a stupid question....
“He’s in the cutoff and I’m button”
“What are the stacks?”
Mick looks really annoyed with this stupid line of questioning.
“No fucking clue. Flop is Q56 and I check”
“You're the button????”
“I was a blind”

(All good photos in this blog courtesy of Tambet and Elena Kask. All the bad ones like this are mine)

When I got up that morning I sent various friends "What are you up to today?" messages, including Alan Widmann.

A few hours later, Alan duly shipped the last event of the weekend, to his obvious delight. It was his first win in a live tournament. Alan works tremendously hard on his very popular Twitch stream and YouTube channel (anyone who thinks that isn't hard work really doesn't understand how much of a grind people like Alan, Sco and Djarii put in), but also makes the time to work on his poker and grind as much as he can online, so I was delighted to see his effort pay off, as were the rest of the Unibet team. A great finish to a great festival.

Afterwards, there was some backslapping for McCloskey who came fifth in the end, and he was going around telling everyone that would listen (and that could decipher his accent) that maybe he should be the Irish ambassador having final tabled the last two Unibet sponsored events here. I'm not sure the Unibet budget could afford the amount of drink vouchers he'd need.

I was pretty shattered by now so after hanging out with whoever didn't have an early flight the next day, I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. During the week, I did an interview with blogger extraordinaire Christian Zetzsche, the first part of which has already appeared (I think the plan is to make it a three parter). I told Christian that I'm having my best ever year online and the plan is to finish strong on that front. Also check out Christian's excellent piece on Freddie Bergmann.

The last time the Unibet Open came to Dublin, I think only 6 Irish played it (and I staked two of the others, so effectively half of the buyins were mine), which might explain why it took 7 years for them to come back. With this event being organised at such short notice, and a lot of locals not to crazy about the venue, I was very worried we could see something of a repeat with a low local turnout. So I was thrilled that so many Irish players did turn up and play. We ended up exceeding all expectations: 99 more than the last Unibet Open Dublin, 86 more than Malta, and even ten more than London.

It was also great to see so many foreign friends make the trip, many to play a buyin level they normally wouldn't travel for. Andy Hills and his lovely girlfriend couldn't play the main due to other commitments, but came midweek for some side events. George Devine and his lovely wife could only come for the weekend side events. A special shoutout to all the people who took the time to come and say how much they enjoyed the Chip Race and the blog, and how they'd been deciding factors in getting them to travel. Jack Sinclair and his wife Feargus (who shipped the superstack) also made the trip: two top lads to hang out with. KevMath was also making his first appearance on our shores: what a legend, and he left having secured his first Irish flag. And what can I say about the son-in-law I never had Timmy and his partner in crime David Docherty (who did a great stint in the commentary box when he correctly deduced the bubble must have burst when I shoved ATo) except it's always great to see them.

Also a special shoutout to the tireless Unibet live events crew. Live events head Nataly has assembled an all female crew that is the best in the business and underlines that when Unibet talks about QueenRules, it doesn't just apply to players. Mai, Kasia and new girl Sophie were a closeknit team working their socks off to make sure everything was perfect. Special shoutout to Shirley Ang, who doesn't work for Unibet but comes in for every event to bully, cajole, persuade and (very occasionally) charm the ambassadors to do what's needed, make sure the livestream is top class, pick feature tables, and sort whatever shit arises out. Nobody works harder at a poker event than Shirley whether she's there as a blogger or a coordinator: she's a perfectionist who can't stand sloppiness or half measures and will make sure everyone does their best. She's also essentially the sweeper or libero of the operation: if someone messes up, Shirley will step in to clean up. Terrifying, terrific and effective all at once, one of my favourite images of the week was her literally dragging Lappin by the arm through the poker room to make him do her bidding.

All the Irish I spoke to afterwards were glowing in their praise and hopeful we wouldn't have to wait another seven years. After the event, I was talking to Nataly about how well it had gone. She said
"I guess we have to come back?"
"Be rude not to"
"A crime not to!"

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Shamefully slow in New York

Jen Mason

Jen Mason was at my starting table at the recent IPO. I pointed out that she had also been at my first table in the European Deepstack (the first major live event I ever played) a decade ago.

“That’s the one you ended up winning, right?”
“Yes but that’s not why I brought it up. It’s striking how little you’ve changed, something which definitely can’t be said about me”
“You’ve had an awesome life though”

Jen Mason wins at everything, including compliments.

Typical Americans

We go out to eat our first meal in New York this trip to an Italian restaurant with our friends Russ and Nancy, and their running friends who are in town for the marathon. The waiter is having a language off with Mrs Doke (which he lost). It turns out he was born in Italy, and grew up in France before moving here. That life trajectory has equipped him to excel in the related disciplines of condescension and snootiness.

The Americans want to order wine. He scoffs that it is more correct to choose what one wants to eat first, as that should dictate the wine to choose. The Americans order a nice Chianti.

“Typical Americans”

Everyone decides what they want to eat, but some of our hosts want to make minor adjustments to their dishes.

“Typical Americans”

The Americans don’t rise to the bait, maintaining their silence. But their faces say “Just get our food, buster”

Shamefully slow

We are in our first Uber of the trip. The driver eyes us up and down, then throws out a probe to Mrs Doke (I’m buried in my phone as always).
“In town for the marathon maybe? Did your husband run it?”
He looks at me again.
“I guess he’s a bit too old?”
“No! He runs a marathon as training every Wednesday!”Oh.....”“It’s just that he doesn’t want to run a time much slower than his peak. Much much slower. Shamefully slow”

Mrs Doke giveth, then snappeth away.

Making a play

We went to see the excellent new play “The Ferryman” on Broadway with the Bleemers Russ and Nancy. After the show I return from the bathroom to find one of the ushers trying to shoo Mrs Doke towards an exit.
"I'm waiting for my husband. He'll be here any minute"

She doesn’t see me as I approach so I decide to stage an impromptu mini play of my own, whispering to the usher “I’ll take her from here. Her husband died almost ten years ago, it’s very sad”.

The usher’s expression instantly transforms from one of impatience to extreme sympathy.

As I lead her away, Mrs Doke glares at me and the usher suspiciously.

“Why is she looking at me like that all of a sudden?”
After three decades she knows me well enough to suspect I must have done something. But not well enough to know exactly what.

We love New York

I’ve been coming to New York for over 30 years, since my very first trip abroad as a student on a J1 visa. It’s one of my favourite places, and also one of Mrs Doke’s. I’m not entirely sure why. Yes, the food is great, and yes the entertainment options are phenomenal, and sure you can’t turn a corner without seeing something iconic....but that’s every major city, right?

Maybe it’s the people, who are both real and friendly, a point reinforced from the moment we stepped off the subway from the airport. As we tried to work out how we were going to get three large bags up to the street without Mrs Doke having to do any heavy lifting, literally the first passerby offered his assistance.

Maybe it’s the many happy memories. In 2005 I took a short cab ride from the Bleemer apartment to Central Park. Two weeks earlier, I’d crossed the finish line in Dublin in my last ever marathon, disappointed with a time that was ten minutes outside my best. The worst part was I could find no reason apart from the one I could do nothing about. My training had been perfect. I was injury and illness free. The conditions were perfect. I made no pace or other errors in the race. I had no digestion problems, and I slept well the night before. So I shrugged, and told my Raheny team mates that I’d just run my last ever marathon. At 40, age had finally caught up with me, and I would never be able to match the time I had run a year ago no matter what I did. The thought of a long slow decline to shamefully slow was not an appealing one, so it was time to move on.

But before I did that, I decided to run one last race. I’d always wondered what it would be like to run a race even longer than a marathon, an ultramarathon. So I figured I’d give one a try, before I lost all my condition. The next major ultramarathon on the schedule was New York, and so it was that less than two weeks after crossing the line in Dublin terminally disappointed, I was toeing another start line in Central Park in what was meant to be my last race.

I distinctly remember looking around the starting line trying to see if I could “pick the winner”. There were quite a few sleek elite looking athletes, some apparently with their own film crews in tow, but I failed to spot the winner. Instead I had the consolation of being the winner myself, unexpectedly crossing the line about four and a half hours later in first place. Nobody was more surprised than me. It was the start of a brief but brilliant career: over the next two years I won more races, broke national records, became Irish 24 hour champion, represented my country at world championships, but none of those memories will ever top that “Holy shit I’m about to win the New York ultramarathon” moment.

I’ve known Russ for almost the full length of my marriage. So long he’s seen three different incarnations: we first “met” in the early days of the Internet. He shared my nerdy obsession for David Bowie and every aspect of his career and music, and we wasted more hours arguing about it than was sensible. After Bowie’s heart attack and decade long retreat from music and the limelight, my obsessive nature found a new outlet in competitive running.

We stayed at the Bleemers' apartment a few blocks from Central Park whenever I ran in New York, and as my running career wound down and my poker career ramped up, our excuse for visiting became a mid series break from the World Series of Poker.

So maybe it’s the people, or the vibe, or the food, or the shows and concerts, or the happy memories. More than likely though, New York is a favourite of ours just because that’s where the Bleemers live.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

High Rollers, Brighton and Millions

As many of my readers know, before I was a poker player, I was an international ultra runner. I won the New York ultramarathon, a 6 hour indoor race in the Czech Republic, a 100 km race in the Netherlands, and the Irish 24 hour running championship. Before that I was a decent marathon runner who won one in Cornwall. For almost a decade before that, I was a very average recreational marathon runner.

One conversation I had with a work colleague proved crucial in my transformation from recreational to competitive runner. It started innocently enough with me bragging (yes, even back then I was a braggart) about my endurance and how fresh I always felt after a race. My colleague, who had been a serious rugby player before a snapped Achilles' tendon put a literal halt to his gallop, was less than impressed.

"That's because you never push yourself outside your comfort zone"

He went on to lecture me that anybody hoping to achieve their full potential in any field of human endeavour needed to constantly challenge themselves and push past comfortable. I took his words to heart and started pushing harder in training and races, up to the point of exhaustion.

For some reason I found myself flashing back to that conversation half a lifetime ago as the dust cleared after my return from Vegas this summer. As I've already written in a recent blog, I didn't feel like my preparation thus year was the best, but was happy with my performance over there, and philosophical about the fact that it hadn't worked out this time. This was made easier by being at a point in my career where a losing Vegas makes no significant difference to my life. I was comfortable with whatever happened. Then I thought of this old conversation, and also the words of my old running coach.

"Losing is supposed to hurt"

My career in poker has not been without its periods of discomfort. I started online as a limit cash player, but quickly eschewed the easy regular profits from that to master a new format (sit n gos). When I reached the point I was making a more than comfortable living from that I left sit n gos behind. At the start of this decade I was barely rolled for $50 games online, but was playing higher online and much higher live (EPTs).

But the last few years have been undeniably comfortable. I've reached a point in my career where money can no longer be the only motivation. A new challenge is needed. I need to play games again where losing hurts, just to see what that feels like. I need to challenge myself to learn more so I can compete with the very best.

Two weeks ago I played my highest ever buyin, and bust eight from the money. Afterwards, as I remarked to Gareth James in a strategy video we made two days later, I felt physically sick. Once that cleared, I wondered if the experience would take a while to recover from before I could go back to grinding my regular games. The following day I got up and had my answer: I went straight back on the grind with all my customary enthusiasm.

So the plan for the next while is to try to kick things up a notch and compete at the highest level against the very best players. As such, my recent foray into the world of High Rollers was not a one time experiment: there will be other shots. If I fail I fail but will at least have the consolation that I at least tried. Because in my book, in all my books off all the different things I've done, not giving it my all is the only true failure.

Somehow We Always End Up In Brighton

Before I became a Unibet ambassador 18 months ago, I'd never been to Brighton in my life. Since signing, I've been there to play poker more often than anywhere else, including my home town of Dublin. Every trip there has been memorable in its own way. The first trip there witnessed the rebirth of the Chip Race. The second was memorable because I witnessed at first hand Donna Morton's ability to get lost at roundabouts. On the third trip I told Lappin a story from my childhood that proved unexpectedly popular when I blogged about it.

This latest trip was memorable too, mainly for the company as I met up with some old faces (Richard and ) and new ( and ), and the fact that Daiva made it all the way to the final table.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to stay for the full FT as my lift to Nottingham (Jamie Nixon) was leaving. Daiva nursed a short stack from a long way out: one thing we have common to both our games is that we don't panic or get impatient when we find ourselves short stacked. There may not be much perceived glory in getting the maximum out of a short stack as it won't win you many tournaments but it is a vital skill if you want to make money in tournaments in the long term. Daiva certainly did that nursing it all the way to seventh place.

(Photo credit: Tambet Kask)

DTD Millions

I arrived in Nottingham for the DTD Millions committed to staying for the full thing and intending to play a High Roller or two. Having built up a war chest of PPL from satellites over the previous few weeks, I even toyed with the idea of playing the 25K.....until I saw the field. I had decided pretty much to play the 10k High Roller unless I was still in the main event. As it happened, that unlikely event transpired.

I was sharing a room with Espen in the Holiday Inn (walking distance from DTD). It seemed the hotel was filled with poker players, which made for good company in the bar every evening (including Sam Grafton, Ryan Riess, Lithuanians Cimbolas and Merfinis, Niels, Kenny Hallaert, Aaron McBride and Shirley Ang). Special shoutout to Shirley who kept me amused, entertained and informed throughout the week.

Day 1 of the main was atypical (for me at least) in that it was all plain sailing. I got off to a good start when I got lucky against a short stacked Jack Salter, and bagged up 3 million (starting stack was 1 million) without major incident or setback.

Day 2 was a lot choppier. I dropped all the way back to starting stack before a double up late in the day got me back to 2 million.

I came back short on day 3 but an early double with jacks got me off to a good start, and I kicked on to be above average as the bubble loomed. I posted the most interesting bubble hand on ShareMyPair, and it generated quite a bit of discussion and disagreement on social media and beyond. A few people thought the hand was completely standard and uninteresting, which is clearly not the case as some absolute beasts disagreed majorly about how I should have played my hand. I think the reason for this was some top notch players don't understand how big a factor ICM plays in these spots and how much it changes optimal strategy. In earlier years I used to get frustrated over these spots where great played disagreed, and there was no way of knowing who was right.

These days, thankfully, we have solvers that can help, and after a few days playing around with it I had a clearer idea of how the hand should have been played, and why. I won't spoiler the results here as the hand will feature in the strategy segment of the next episode of the Chip Race (season 7 episode 5).

I got through the bubble safely and bagged up in or around average. Day 4 was a grim struggle for survival. I dropped as low as 6 big blinds several times, being forced to play even tighter than normal because of a 100K Last Longer promotion I was in. I played a crucial hand against Alex Foxen when I was short that I will look at in detail in next month's Bluff magazine.

Photo courtesy of Daiva

I clung on grimly and managed to avoid going bust with two pair on the feature table to make the unofficial final table. I came back 9/9 and managed to ladder one spot when Ryan Riess bust before me, but the miracle spin never realised. I was card dead for the two hours I survived and eventually busted shoving 87s on the button. As I said my goodbyes I gave Tom "Jabracada" Hall a hug and told him I was rooting for him now (which I genuinely was).

Although I was disappointed not to get a proper run at the final table, I was satisfied I'd got the maximum out of my tournament. I was very grateful to my boisterous rail that featured Daiva (who despite feeling poorly dragged herself out of bed to catch an early morning train from London, which for her is the equivalent of most people climbing Mount Everest :)), Barry and Gina Carter who travelled from Nottingham, Bergie, Espen and Jack Sinclair. Thanks to them and all who railed virtually: after a lacklustre 18 months life it's nice to put a couple of results together recently and prove there's life in the old Doke yet.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Dids and didn'ts in Vegas

Let's start with the things I didn't do in Vegas this year. 

I didn't get there in as good a shape physically as last year. I went into last year's WSOP running 40 miles every Wednesday and finishing it feeling as fresh as a daisy. This year a few weeks out, I was struggling through 20 milers and as I stumbled in the door hearing Mrs Doke say "That's the worst I've ever seen you: you look like you're going to die". I managed to get through a couple of 30 milers before getting on the plane to Vegas, but there's no doubt I should try to get in better shape for next year if I do go back. It's gotten harder with my other commitments and travel, but I have to try harder to get back my former fitness and lose some of my current fatness. 

I didn't schedule days off this year. At the end of the series last year, I found Andy Hills grinding a daily deepstack having just bust the main. When I expressed surprise at this, Andy said that he didn't really enjoy days off because he loved the grind. That made me think "I used to love the grind. What happened?

What happened is this. For the first few years of my career, I played very single day and didn't take a day off. If I was at home I played every night, and when I was away I played live every day. People started telling me I couldn't do this, that I'd burn out. I started believing these people. I started scheduling days off. Now I do accept that grinding 365 days a year probably isn't a good idea and I do need to take some days off: just not in Vegas. My best Vegas campaigns in terms of my overall play and state of mind have been the ones where I just grinded every day. It gets me into a rhythm, and stops me getting depressed about being away from home in a place I don't even like. When I take days off in Vegas, I'm just unhappy in a place I don't want to be not even doing the one thing I'm there to do. Both Daiva and Smidge told me this year was the happiest ever they saw me in Vegas, with Smidge adding "I don't know what you're doing different but whatever it is keep doing it". After giving the matter much thought I really think the difference was no days off. 

Despite not being in peak shape and not taking days off, I didn't feel like I ran out of steam during the WSOP. I didn't even feel tired. I made a concerted effort to eat better than previous years and to drink less. I got out for a few runs. While I played every day I did make an effort to socialise with people I like and don't get to see much if at all for the rest of the year. Apart from the usual crew I was lucky enough to hang with KevMath, Jen Shahade, Maria Konnikova, Liam O'Donoghue, Jamie Flynn, Andrew Brokos, Kenny Shei, Carlos Welch, Elena Stover, Dehlia de Yong, Alan Widmann, Eugene Katchalov, George Danzer, Tom Ward, Gareth James, Robbie Strazinsky, Shirley Ang, Mike Hill, Richard Pearson, Ben Morrison, Neil Channing and Jared Tendler. 

Ok now let's look at what I did do in Vegas this year. 

I did manage to build stacks early in a lot of events, something that has long been a weakness in my game. With no background in deep stacked cash, I've tended in the past just to nit it up in the early stages of tournaments when stacks are deep and focus on avoiding major mistakes, confident in my ability to play the later stages when the stacks are shallower well. While it is undoubtedly true in tournaments that it's far more important to play shallow stacks well, it's a bit of a cop out not to try to chase EV in the early stages.  So this year most of my theoretical preparation revolved around using the simulators to improve my deepstacked play. This seemed to pay off: as I said I built stacks early a lot and in most of my events I got to double starting stack in the early going. 

I did manage to keep playing my A game while running atrociously. I took on board the advice of Jared Tendler on this front, I ran constant line checks with my study buddies, and I posted a hand most days on ShareMyPair to get more general feedback on how I was playing (I strongly recommend you do this and solicit feedback any time you have concerns about your game). 

I did notch up 5 cashes in the series so I felt like I was consistently giving myself a shot to go deep. I got down to the last 100 twice, and the last 50 once, so I had a shot to run well and make another final table. Unfortunately I ran badly at the death, but all you can do is keep getting into position to give yourself those shots. 

I did get sick at the end of the series. After busting my last event I went back to the Big Brokos house and experienced tiredness and dejection for the first time all summer. I don't mind that: it was always similar after big races and if anything I always took it as a sign of having given my all and emptying the tank, so to speak. 

In the airport I struck up a friendly conversation with the Afro-American gentlemen at the check in desk who appeared to be a big fan of Conor McGregor. He asked me if Conor was a big deal in Ireland and seemed happy when I said yes. He said he had some issues but he was a real person which he liked. He asked if he gave back to the local community in Ireland. As I took my leave, he took my boarding pass back and replaced it with another. I flashed back to my arrival in Vegas this summer and Beatriz surreptitiously consigning me to a couple of lost hours in additional security.

This time however, the outcome was a lot happier. When I got to the plane I found I'd been upgraded. 

Thank you Conor. 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Sunglasses, Smidge and Uber

A lot of poker players these days look the same, dress the same, talk the same, play the same and act the same. But then there are the exceptions: the free spirits unaffected by peer pressure who are happy to plot their own course. One such player is Padraig O'Neill, known affectionately to his friends as Smidge (although Mrs Doke for a long time insisted on calling him Smudge, and it almost caught on). 

So I'm sitting in the Brasilia room of the Amazon playing the WSOP marathon and in the distance I see the familiar and distinctive shape of Smidge. His characteristic stillness and silence at the table, his distinctive stare down and facial expressions. But something is different: he's wearing sunglasses. Sunglasses! I know he's been mainly grinding online cash this past year and may feel a little out of touch with live tournament, but..... Sunglasses?!?!?  The trademark of the inexperienced recreational terrified he's giving off tells. 

I start looking forward to the break so I can take the piss out of his sunglasses. However, I get sucked into the last hand before the break and it extends well into the break. Smidge walks by and I nod at him. No acknowledgement from Smidge. He just keeps walking with that distinctive Smidgey trudge of his. Smidge is not an unfriendly man, so either he didn't see me through those stupid sunglasses, or he's so ashamed to be wearing them he's hoping I won't recognise him. 

I get back from the toilet race at the break barely in time for the first hand, so decide taking the piss out of Smidge and his sunglasses will have to wait til the next break. This time, I fold preflop so I'm able to get up and walk over to Smidge's table. It's his turn to be embroiled in the last game so I stand watching him play out the hand with all his customary betting motions, facial expressions and checking action. 

I remain convinced I'm watching Smidge until he takes off his sunglasses and starts talking Korean to another spectator. 

This year I took a lot less Ubers in Vegas than last year. There also seems to be a new culture where drivers are less keen to converse. Maybe this comes from most passengers not wanting to talk but whatever the reason, it meant I didn't gather enough material this summer to write another Uber blog. 

The one notable exception was that I got picked up one morning by Frank, who had picked me up twice last year and was one of my favourites with his natural enthusiasm and apparent joie de vivre. He remembered me, and  seemed a lot more muted this year, less happy with his situation, but we got off to a good start talking about water sports. Turns out his wife is American champion in one of the more obscure ones ("It's not as big a deal as it sounds. Only about 100 in the whole country do it". I told him the same was true of my ultrarunning accomplishments). 

At this point an ambulance sped by, siren blazing. 
"There goes the roofie patrol"
I had nothing to say so I said nothing 
"Man if girls would just watch their drinks better there'd be a lot less of it"
Growing increasingly uncomfortable at how the conversation had apparently turned to victim blaming for date drug rape, I remained silent. 
"I pick them up most days from the hospital near you. Good looking girls. They really should be more careful"
My desire to talk to Frank had by now entirely evaporated. I was afraid we might get on to mass shootings next, and find out it was mostly down to people not being vigilant enough looking out for bullets. 

I got out of Frank's car a little sadder. It was like seeing your favourite uncle for the first time in ages, but he's wearing a MAGA cap. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Girl power and Queen Rules

"It was very inspiring having Molly Bloom there for the Queen Rules. She talked a lot about empowering women and supporting each other and believing in ourselves" 
~ Daiva Byrne (Unibet ambassador)

The idea that we control our destiny is a dangerous childish notion parents sometimes plant early in the heads of their kids. As we mature and realise just how little control we actually have over all but the most minor details of our lives, it's easy to despair. Acceptance that we can't control what happens but can control our reactions and responses is an idea central to existentialism, Buddhism and sports psychology.

Molly Bloom is sometimes touted as a successful female role model in the poker world, and a poster girl for empowering women. At first glance it's difficult to see how. She is not a poker player. Her major role was to identify and attract rich successful men to play in a private (and ultimately illegal) high stakes game she ran day to day. She may talk a good game about empowering women and supporting each other, but there were no women in the game which made her name. At her trial, her (male) lawyer told the (male) judge that she deserved leniency because she had been ordered to run the game by her (male) boss. In the course of running the game, she ran afoul of (male) mobsters, one of whom broke into her home and put a gun in her mouth. She was ultimately brought down by a (male) US State Attorney. This was no poker queen, but a poker pawn moved by powerful sinister male fingers. This is not the kind of empowerment I (or any father) would wish for his daughter. Her story to the point she leaves poker puts the POW in empowerment.

She left the poker world deep in debt, her reputation and life in ruins, and a (suspended) prison sentence and community service. Her sentence would have been much harsher had the judge not accepted her lawyer's argument that she was but a pawn, a bit player, a powerless minion of powerful sinister men.

Poker has a desperate need for heroes and heroines. Maligned by the mainstream as degenerate gambling, it does itself no favours however in many of the heroes it chooses. It seems all a villain or a cheat has to do is go on a heater or win a big tournament to jump straight into the heroes camp. Past indiscretions and dodgy ethics get swept under the carpet in the rush to acclaim financial success. A seventeen second half-assed apology can be all it takes to wipe away past financial indiscretions. Having met Molly, I had mixed feelings. She is undoubtedly a formidable character but I just don’t see why she should be lauded in poker.

Molly's subsequent success really has nothing to do with poker or the unsavoury illegal underground branch of it in which she operated. She ultimately triumphed through her dogged response to abject failure and personal ruin. She spurned offers to write a sensational name-all book, and eventually found a publisher willing to let her tell her own story on her own terms. When we interviewed her in Bucharest for The Chip Race, my cohost David Lappin asked her how long it took after she published  the book for Hollywood to come knocking. Her honest and refreshing reply was that they didn't: she was the one who knocked. She chose Aaron Sorkin to transpose her story to the big screen because "his numbers were good". His proven track record to deliver at the box office and award shows sealed the deal for Molly. It was her journey and decisions after poker that promoted Molly from a poker pawn to a Hollywood queen.

Her transformation from poker pawn and spectacular failure to writing and movie success is an inspiration to many women and more than a few men. David and I were tickled to discover just how big a fan the normally inscrutable world class tournament director Nick O'Hara is: he was literally breathless at the sight and sound of Molly (okay, the poor guy had bad asthma but that simply added to the amusement). When Molly told the gun in the mouth story to a shocked press conference, the stunned silence in the room was broken only by an "Ah Jaysus" from Nick. At the end when Unibet Live events manager Nataly asked if anyone wanted a selfie with Molly, Nick bounded forward shouting "ME ME ME".

(Photo courtesy of Tambet Kask)

During the press conference, David asked her if she had been sent to prison for ten years (as she would have been had the judge not been lenient), would she have felt she deserved it. She turned the question around asking David what he thought. In the interview we did for The Chip Race, David asked if her whole career in poker could be seen as a sort of entitlement tilt response to have her dreams of being an Olympic skier crushed. She downcast her eyes and gave a very interesting response (which I won't spoiler here: you'll just have to listen to the interview).

On The Chip Race, David and I are always keen to promote gender equality in the game in any way we can. One way we do this is by positively discriminating towards female guests who are genuine role models. We will forever be grateful to Jennifer Tilly not just for being our first genuinely world famous guest (which afforded us enough credibility to attract other world famous guests) but also helping us behind the scenes get several other big (male) names. To my mind Jennifer is a supreme example of an empowered woman, not just directed by but also directing the actions of powerful men. We also recently interviewed the fiercely intelligent Jennifer Shahade, and as I told Jason Glatzer from PokerNews recently that one of my favourite guests ever is poker sensation and best selling author Maria Konnikova. Other firm favourites include influential industry insiders Kara Scott, my crazy wonderful friend Clodagh Hansen, the indomitable Kat Arnsby, Unibet's Nataly Sopacuaperu and Rebecca McAdam.

If my daughter were interested in poker, and asked me for a role model to aspire to, I personally would look no further than Daiva Byrne. Daiva works tirelessly to promote women in the game and the game to women. At every ladies event she hosts she pulls out all the stops to make everyone feel as welcome and as comfortable as possible. A uniquely friendly atmosphere characterises all her events. It may have been Molly giving the speech at the start, but it was Daiva who hung around afterwards to talk to every single participant after they busted. In less than a year she built a Ladies Facebook group from scratch to over 2000 members. She combines this with a successful marriage to John, and a dedication to working hard at her own game to continue to compete at the top level. In so doing she earns the admiration and respect of her male peers not just for her supermodel looks but also her technical ability. She often provides expert analysis on livestream commentaries (as she did this weekend on a couple of occasions alongside me).  She frequently contributes to the strategy section of The Chip Race (usually to discuss some hand where she outplayed David Lappin), and is someone I run hands I'm unsure about by.

That, to me, is real girl power that should be recognised and celebrated. In chess, the most powerful piece is not the king but the queen (the king is essentially a weakling not much stronger than a pawn whose strategic role is to be protected by the queen and other pieces). Unibet are trying to transpose this to poker with the Queen Rules where the queen outranks the king. They have found the perfect ambassador to promote this initiative in Daiva, a queen who rules.


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