Friday, December 2, 2011

Rigged in Riga

Humans have a basic need to socialise and form bonds with their work colleagues and peers. We all need to be able to talk to people who understand the specific stresses and challenges of our chosen profession. These peer groups essentially function like modern tribes, with their own language (or jargon: a non poker friend commented once to Mrs. Doke that after I started playing, "all your husband's Facebook and Twitter messages seem to be written in a code only other gamblers understand") culture and customs. This need is so strong that neither distance nor isolation can prevent it. Truckers turned to CB radio, while online poker players use Skype.

What makes poker almost unique is that the peers with whom you form these tribal bonds are also your biggest competitors: the ones trying to crush your dreams and take your money. It's not unusual for, say, boxers to form close bonds of friendship after they've knocked lumps out of each other, but it would be unheard of them to travel to the fight together side by side in the same car or plane, and back home after one had crushed the dreams of the other. But in poker, well, it happens all the time, and we develop protocols, customs and psychological defences to deal with being on both the giving and receiving end.

It happened to me and my friend Phil Baker recently. Phil picked me up in the early hours, we travelled on a plane together to Riga, knocked each other out of a couple of tournaments, and then travelled back home together afterwards.

A good contingent of Irish travelled for the EMOP grand final in Riga, and all the advance buzz on the city itself was negative. When people who come from Tallaght are telling you Riga is a horrible unhospitable and dangerous place, you do start to be a little afraid. On this occasion however, the collective experience of the Irish who travelled was much more positive. No muggings or rapes to report, just plenty of good times and friendly locals.

Most of the Irish were staying at the Radisson, the official hotel where package winners were playing. Both Feargal Nealon and myself had transferred our packages won in Clontarf castle for Barcelona (I got mine at the last Team Irish Eyes member standing, and Feargal hacked his way round a golf course to get into a freeroll which he duly won). The bigger buyin here meant hotel was no longer covered, so Feargal sourced a cheaper option nearby for us.

We were met at the airport by a friend of Phil's, Artak, who used to deal in the Jackpot before moving back home. Artak gave us the local run down, but also started to wind Feargal and me up about our hotel, saying it was a fleapit located in the worst part of town (in actual fact, it was basic but great value, and the area was just round the corner from the Radisson).

We went to get something to eat in one of those cheap student places you find in most European cities that would be marketed as trendy organic something and charge ten times as much if they existed in Dublin or London. After an incident where one of our party who shall remain nameless broke protocol and started helping himself to the food being served, Phil impressed us with an intervention in flawless Russian. Whatever he said pacified the situation (he later told me it was along the lines off "Please forgive my dumb tourist friend, he's from Sligo").

One of the biggest problems of travelling to live events is it forces you to abandon your regular sleep pattern. Midday flights are the worst (effectively they're like 4 AM flights for normal people if you're an online grinder used to playing 6 PM to 6 AM and then sleeping until the afternoon). After conking out for a few hours, Feargal and I were up just in time to scoot over to the casino to play the supersat. We both went the route of maximum efficiency buying in late and busting early, though the nature of the competition was encouraging. I got it in with KQ versus a bare king high flush draw on a queen high flop. The flush draw called it off too, but got there on the turn. Not nice when they get there, but you don't want to be discouraging such "bravery" in the long term when you meet it.

There were two day 1's, and most of us decided to play 1A. With only 80 runners, this meant a high likelihood of being on the same table as some other Irish. I was plonked right beside Phil Baker, and across from Noel O'Brien. After one big hand early on where a local 6 bet folded kings to my 7 bet having put almost half his stack in before convincing himself I had aces, I lost a few small pots in the early skirmishes, and then a big one to Noel where we both had an overpair to the board on the river. His was unfortunately bigger than mine, and better disguised since he'd flatted it in the blinds. I was so unsure about the hand afterwards that I ran it by 5 different people who I regularly swap opinions with on hands, and my confusion was not helped by the fact that all 5 suggested a different way to play it (also different from mine). The sixth person I asked, Jason Tompkins, said he'd played it as I played. Since Jason's the only one who has played a good bit with Noel, I guess this made me feel better.

That left me with a reshipping stack just before dinner, and Phil seemed like a good target to come over the top off as he was opening most of the time it was folded round to him. I eventually reshipped AJ, and when Phil snapped I knew I was facing an uphill battle, as there's no hand Phil snaps with I'm ahead of, and not even that many I'm flipping with. Worst fears confirmed: he had AKs. I pulled ahead on the turn and thought I was still ahead after the river until Phil said "Unlucky Dara" snd I noticed for the first time he'd caught a runner runner flush. Phil's a gent and there was no boisterous celebrations or obvious delight at my demise (in fact he seemed more depressed about it than me) or IPB/Facebook brags. A more gracious winner you could not hope to meet.

The exit from any big tournament always feels a bit like a little death, and I never feel particularly social afterwards, so I just spent the evening in my hotel room grinding a bit online. Losing hurts, but then it's supposed to.

The following day was a day off with the 1B runners getting their shot. I ran into a good contingent of Team Irish Eyes players at the casino and

wished them better luck than the 1A contingent (only Phil got through, and he had only barely advanced on starting stack). I also had a good chat with Connie, who was telling me about some exciting plans for 2012. Watch this space. Unfortunately, 1B was an even bigger disaster than 1A from an Irish standpoint, with nobody surviving the day.

It was a big holiday in Latvia, their Independence Day, so myself, Feargal and Jason Barton's Da Les headed into town for the celebrations and fireworks. When we alighted from our cab to join the throngs heading to the river for the fireworks, it was like a scene out of Schindler's List, with everyone thronging in one direction towards the river. We stepped out of the Pied Piper rat like procession to have a few bevies. Like his son, Les is a very interesting guy who has been intimately involved in the snooker world (he was Ronnie O'Sullivan's de facto manager, and heads up the Players Union) and he had some very interesting insider insights to that world. We eventually tore ourselves away from the comfort of the bar as the fireworks were starting. Our view was obscured by buildings so we walked down to the river, arriving just in time to miss the last firework. We'd literally turned the corner to an unobscured view when the whole crowd started clapping and dispersed. Wp us.

I played the side event the following day, making the second last table, before getting it in dominated again against a very good young Lithuanian player. He was autoraising the button so I figured A9s was well ahead of the range, but he had AQ and held. Around the same time Phil got knocked out of the main (in a very creditable 13th).

On Sunday, I went for a walk round the park in the centre with Feargal. Very charming and surreal park: at one point we ran into a celebration by the lake (it looked like a birthday party) accompanied by a musical duo on brass and accordeon. The last official event on the calendar was a one day turbo on the Sunday. Most of us played this. I busted on the second last table (again!) and headed to dinner with Feargal. One very nice steak later, we were back at the casino. With a few of us hanging round at a loose end (there was no cash action), Phil took it upon himself to get a sit n go going. After some debate over the buyin, it was agreed to allow people to buy in for either 100 Lats (about 150 euro) or 200. I intended to go for 200 but my card was maxed out so I bought in for the lesser amount, something of a bad beat as I ended up winning the thing.

The structure was exceptionally good for a sit n go so it went on for hours. Given this plus the absence of antes, I decided tight was right. In the early going, the more aggro players were knocking lumps out of each other and taking the piss out of myself and Jason Barton (who was playing even tighter than I was). There was some great banter at the table, mostly centred on Phil. At one point Feargal sucked out on Noel and did a hilarious victory dance, which Noel took in good spirits. The "tight is right" school of thought was reenforced when the dust settled and the last three standing were myself, Jason and the tightest of the Scandis.

One final bit of Phil Baker hilarity to report: he pulled the funniest hit and run I've ever seen. While we were in the middle of our sit n go, a bunch of Chinese lads appeared enquiring about a cash game. Some of the live cash pros in our midst were licking their lips as the lads sat down at a cash table near us, but their enthusiasm evaporated when they saw everyone buying in for the bare mimimum 50 Lats. As I came back from a 5 minute break, I was surprised to see Phil sitting down at their table to play, as he was still in the sit n go. Before I had time to ask him what he was doing, he had straddled, everyone had folded, and he'd walked away thanking the lads for the game and the three Lats.



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