Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hometown hero and his proud Irish Mammy

A friend of mine who is even older than I am told me once that nostalgia is the most ridiculous and futile of human emotions, but still can sneak up on the best of us on occasion. One of those is when you suddenly start spending time in a place you haven't been in for 25 or 30 years.


When I first moved to Dublin 30 years ago at the age of 18, I was living in a bed sit in Rathmines watching my life savings slowly ebb away. The original plan was to make them stretch through my first year in University College Dublin on the basis that if I managed that a summer job would cover tuition fees and other expenses for the next year. But it turned out things like food and doctors were more expensive than I thought, and it quickly became apparent a plan B was needed. This was back when college fees cost about 4 months average industrial wage, so the idea I could make that and enough to feed clothe and doctor myself for a full year suddenly didn't seem feasible.

This week I moved into the Portobello grindhouse occupied by my Firm mates David Lappin and Daragh Davey. Just round the corner from it, 30 years ago, was the bookie that kept me afloat for my first year in college. He offered an interesting promotion that I immediately realised was exploitable. It was on so called Yankee bets, a combo bet on 4 horses (6 doubles, 4 trebles and 1 quad). Bookies love combo bets because the spread in their favour compounds (eg if the spread on each race is 20% in the bookies favour, on a double it's 44% and on a treble 72.8%). To persuade his punters to give him this huge edge, this enterprising independent bookie was giving money back if only one of the four horses won. So whereas you needed at least two winners to get a return with any other bookie, with this guy you were basically freerolling if your first horse came in.

Having learnt probability like a good student in secondary school, I quickly worked out that if you chose one odds on favourite and three long shots, you could turn the odds in your favour, since most of the time the odds on favourite would win, and occasionally one of the long shots. I sat down and worked out what the best prices were to maximise my expectation. Every day for the next 18 months I crossed Portobello bridge on my way to the bookie, where I would identify 4 horses likely to start at the right price. I wasn't even bothering to consider form, simply trusting the market and playing the odds. I think the bookie quickly realised I had found a way to exploit the system, because he became progressively unfriendlier with each visit. Eventually, after 18 months or so, I was simply barred. I responded by tipping off a few of the regs there to the "system". A few weeks later the promotion was discontinued.


After my first college fund disappeared, I was forced to find another. It came in the form of organising discos in the Mansion House. My partner in this was another hungry culchie. I needed a partner as I lacked social graces at the time and found it pretty difficult to even talk to people. Sam needed a partner because while he was good at this (talking to people) it was just about the only thing he was good at. Together we became the most successful event organisers in UCD over the next few years. One big breakthrough was when Sam somehow charmed the girl in Dublin corporation in charge of these things into allowing us to provisionally block book every major date for the next five years with no deposit. This not only meant that we had the most desirable student venue locked up for the prime dates, but anyone in UCD or any other college who wanted to run anything there on any other date had to pay us to step aside.

This proved very lucrative and comfortably paid our way through college without any major hiccup apart from a riot at one of our so called Matchmakers Balls. For non prime dates we needed a gimmick to persuade a thousand or so students to part with cash to cram into the Mansion House, and there was none more gimmicky or successful than our version of computer dating in these pre Tinder days. All ticket purchasers filled in a questionnaire which was then fed into a computer all the better to match them with the most compatible member of the opposite sex who had also purchased a ticket. Sorry, did I say computer? I meant bin.  There was a computer though. His name was Bill and he was from Dolphin's Barn. The algorithm he used to match up couples could not have been simpler: Pink numbers for girls, Blue numbers for boys. This worked well until that fatal night when Bill was unwell and sent his brother Ben in his place. Ben was a bit of a rebel who didn't like being told what to do, so he just kinda mixed the blues and the pinks and the boys and the girls into one big melting pot simmering to a riot. In these less liberated times, big lads from the country didn't take kindly to having their sexuality being questioned when matched with a guy from a neighbouring county, and it all got rather ugly.


Now out of college, this was my last year running events in the Mansion House. I had intended to quit, but the fact that I still had bookings for one more year coupled with the fact that Sam had not only emptied the joint account we used for the proceeds of our ventures but had sweet-talked a girl in AIB into allowing him a sizeable overdraft, one the AIB now made clear was on me (I did track Sam down and get the money back. He was living in Germany with his then girlfriend, the current Mrs Doke, but that's another story). On New Years Eve, I ran my last ever event in the Mansion House and in the early hours of 1989 I walked out of the Round Room there for the last time ever, until...

26 February 2014

Now on my 12th and 13th money making schemes, professional poker and staking, I dropped my stuff in the Portobello grindhouse, walked past the now defunct bookie that paid for my first 18 months in college, walked past Earlsfort Terrace which had been UCD Engineering school when I was there but is now the National concert hall to meet Timmy, Hefs, Richard Evans and a few other English lads. After a pizza, I walked into the Mansion House for the first time in 28 years.  It had changed a lot less than almost everything else in Dublin, including me.

27 February 2014

My day 1 was pretty uneventful. I started well peaking at 27k. Then Sam Razavi arrived at my table. A few skirmishes (including a rank river fold with an overpair: Sam showed the biggest overpair) saw me drop as low as 12k. I rallied from there to finish with just over 25k. Two other Firm members (Clayton and Nick) both played and got through with healthy stacks.

After close of play I late regged the 100 turbo side event. Since I broke into the top 10 on the overall UKIPT leaderboard I figure I should start grinding the sides. Late on in the money, there are 2 other Firmys still involved. Daragh Davey busts just before the final table, and for the second time in a few days I find myself at a live final table with Firm company. This time it's Padraig Dowling, who had made his debut in our colours the night before (cashing the 6 Max). I bust in 5th after Padraig cripples me (he ended up third). Never let it be said we Firm lads soft play each other.

28 February 2014

I'm lazing on the couch in the grindhouse thinking about going for a run when I get a text from Kevin Killeen, who is always the last Firm member into the fray. Kev likes to late reg live events at the last possible minute, something we weren't too keen on at the start but these days are happy to make an exception for him. However, it seems his Ma made him do some chores so he's running late even by his standards. I tell him not to worry, I will see to it that a stack is put out for him. To ensure this, I fire texts off to the other two Firm members playing today, David Lappin and Daragh Davey, and as insurance, to UKIPT supremo Dave Curtis.

After my run I head into town to meet the lads for dinner, as well as the spiritual Godfather of the Firm, Mick "Papa Dynamix" McCloskey. Everyone is up on starting stack except Kev who is down 100 at 19900, with Lappin leading the way looking like he might be headed towards the chiplead. The lads are all rushing back so I am left behind to sort out the bill, looking like a real Johnny No Mates.

I stroll back to the Mansion House and am astonished to find Lappin on the rail. He basically lost an enormous flip to Max Silver who now has an enormous chiplead and is the story of the day. Both Kev and Daragh make it through the day with healthy stacks so 5 out of 6 ain't bad.

1 March 2014

I'm pretty card dead for most of the day but manage to rock my short stack to the bubble. Shortly after it busts I'm moved to a pretty sick table sandwiched between Joeri Zanvliet and Jabracada. To make matters harder, a chipped up Daragh Davey who has just made a big hero call scowls the other side of Joeri. The banter is good at the table and I'm enjoying myself but I don't last too long. After Joeri raises in late position, I stick my 21 big blinds in with tens and find myself racing with his ace king for just over average stack. He pulls ahead on the turn and stays ahead. So, my sixth cash out of my last eight UKIPT main events, but a first final table still eludes me. All five Firm members who started the day made the money (a new record for number of cashes) but only Daragh and Kev got through to day 3. However both had good stacks so we were hopeful at least one of them could give us a final table sweat.

2 March 2014

Daragh busts early day 3 so there are 4 Firmys in the final side event and just Kev still going in the main. He ends the day as overnight chip leader. Anyone who thinks you need to gamble it up, get it in bad a lot and run like God to final table an event like this would do well to study how Kev got there. He chipped up steadily without ever having his entire stack at risk, paced himself through days mid pack for most of it, only hitting the front late on day 3. The lads all head off to eat leaving me grinding the side event on my own.

Paul Carr borrows my IPad to play the special Sunday 8 Million. He's convinced my IPad must be lucky and feels assured of the win, but unfortunately my run good on it doesn't seem to transfer. I end up on the final table (my third of the week so I'm really feeling like I have my live mojo back) and have great craic with the rail as Paul, Mark Buckley and a bunch of the English lads are joined by some after dinner Firmys. Everyone's pretty drunk but none more so than chip leader Jack Salter who describes himself as somewhat "tispy". He's still playing well and running even better and ends up shipping it (I was fourth).

3 March 2014

In early for the Kev rail. Pretty normal affair until Kev's friends from Balbriggan arrive in onesies looking like a Bloodhound Gang tribute. 

Ringleader is an irrepressible Fintan Hand, and the lads proved themselves in the chants department, some of the highlights of which were:
"T is for Torino"
"We don't take silver, we only take gold"
"Tompkins has a roll again"
"Can't stop the beard, can't stop the beard"

The last one was a reference to Kev's beard, which made him look like something out of a Dubliners tribute band. He started growing it on the first of January vowing not to shave until he banked a 50k score. Just as well he did as only two months in it was pretty bushy and by May he would surely have looked like something out of ZZ Top.

What's Hand up to now?

Watching Fintan in full flow (and he is a wonderful representative of the younger Irish generation, intelligent, hard working but also fun) and Kev's bemused reaction, I got the feeling that the half of Kev's life not spent thinking about or playing poker is spent wondering what on Earth his best friend is up to now.

Kev navigated nicely through with final table keeping out of trouble. Himself and Max Silver swapped the chiplead throughout and it was no surprise when they got headsup after Max busted a very game Chris Wood who also has a great UKIPT track record (Chris and the other Geordie lads centred around one of my favourite people Ruby hung back and cheered for Kev with us: it was pretty special to hear a bunch of Geordie voices shouting hoooooold every time Kev got all in against Max).

Just call me Jack Charlton...

Max held a 6 to 4 chiplead and when Kev politely asked Max if he was interested in flattening the payouts, Max politely declined. Collectively we have a fair amount of table time with Max so we endeavoured to make sure all the pertinent information was passed on to Kev before he stepped into battle headsup. I suggested the best overall strategy was a basic route one approach the polar opposite of which you would normally go with if you were playing a fish, to ramp up the variance preflop and look for any good spot to get the lot in first rather than get into a smallball post flop war with Max. The pattern of the prolonged headsup was Max won most of the post flop skirmishes but Kev won all the preflop wars. He had the best hand most of the time or was flipping, but having the best hand hold a few times is an under appreciated form of running good.

Keeping the head to get it in ahead...

Poker tests a lot of things and one of those things is your ability to keep your composure when things are not going your way. It wasn't looking good for Kev when Max took a ten to one lead at one point, but as Fintan remarked Max just couldn't seem to land the knockout punch and must have been starting to wonder if Kev's name was on the trophy. Kev hung in there admirably and when you do that things can change pretty quickly. He clawed his way back into the lead and then decided to induce a shove from Max with kq. Max obliged and when the hands were over Kev was in as good a shape as you could hope to be, dominating Max's q8. Once again Kev's hand held and the rail surged forward to hoist the hometown hero into the air. In the pandemonium one of the Balbriggan lads adopted a route one approach to divesting himself of the pint he was holding, simply chucking it into the air. Unfortunately it showered onto Max. A lesser man would have reacted ungraciously to having an ignominious shower added to defeat, but Max is a class act and took it in his stride.

Hometown hero and his proud Irish mammy

There's always something special about a hometown winner, especially when it's someone of Kev's stature whose talent merits success. No triumph would be complete without a proud Irish mammy on hand to witness it, and Mammy Torino was a wonderfully colourful addition to the rail. She has every reason to be proud of the job she has done rearing her son, who is the most self assured, composed, mature and intelligent young player I have seen.

Lappin recommends the bernaise sauce...

Post victory celebrations kicked off in Cafe en Seine and moved on to the Elephant and Castle, Lappin's old stomping ground (he worked as a waiter there for 7 years pre poker). From there we moved to a pub after which I bailed while the lads headed to Coppers.

As I walked back to the Portobello grindhouse through a part of Dublin I last haunted as a student struggling to find my first few money making schemes, I happily reflected that it had been a good week for scheme numbers 12 (playing poker myself) and 13 (staking others to do so). Did I ever imagine 30 years ago that the degree I was studying for would serve virtually no purpose (I never even worked as an electronic engineer) and that the real education I was receiving was the one I got in the bookie shop and the Mansion House, learning to think on my feet and find the edges that would sustain me financially? I don't remember but I think not. I think I saw the knack I was displaying for turning a buck as a short term reaction to necessity before I settled into 40 years of electronic engineering. Do the young bucks now making their fortunes from poker see it as anything other than the first scheme?


Very interesting read Dara, I'll look forward to the "Other Story" :)

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