Thursday, March 22, 2018

Irish Open? What Irish Open?

"There was no Irish Open this year. What there was was a 1k reentry sandwiched between a very badly run Party Poker Grand Prix, and a badly advertised Norwegian Poker festival with a pile of events we can't even play"

This was the summary of a recreational player I know a few days after the event, and I was weirdly glad and relieved to hear his unprompted words. I was starting to wonder if the underwhelming reaction I and my friends had to this year's event in Citywest was just a case of pro ennui (or worse yet, grumpy old man syndrome), but in fact most of my recreational friends seem similarly underwhelmed.

Every year since I started playing poker a decade ago, the most exciting day of my year has been the day I play the WSOP main event, followed pretty closely by the day I play the Irish Open. The fact that I've never cashed either were the two biggest blots on my record.

The Irish Open has always been a lot more fun than the WSOP. You see all the major Irish faces, and many of my favourite foreign ones. The atmosphere is always a little special.

I have no idea why, but this year I was a lot less excited going into the event, and once it got going it felt like "just another tournament". A little over 24 hours later I found myself on the bubble for the first time in my life, and having safely navigated it my feeling was one of mild relief.

"So this is cashing the Irish Open? Well done: you've just added another min cash to your long list of mediocre poker achievements".

That's more or less what my inner voice was saying. Having waited so long to cash the Irish Open, I was surprised I wasn't happier about finally having done so. I felt a bit more emotion when I busted shortly afterwards, failing to win a three way all (AK v AJ and 99) that would have given me a great chance to go deep, which I guess is what I really wanted a lot more than merely knocking the event off the list of events I've never cashed. But even was the least disappointed I'd ever felt after busting the Irish Open.

Don't get me wrong though: I still enjoyed the event. Even a C- Irish Open trumps most events at their best, but in comparison to last year and other great Irish Opens it all felt a bit meh. The side event structures left much to be desired, there were some organisational and personnel shortcomings, and some of the events definitely lacked atmosphere (the Ladies in particular seemed particularly bad: numbers were disappointing and most of my friends who played it said it was the most unpleasant and hostile event they'd ever played in), but these are minor quibbles. A more damning concern was raised by the sponsors Irish pro (and fair play to Padraig for calling a spade a spade rather than a company silver spoon), and his sentiments were echoed by several other prominent figures from the Irish poker scene.

I can't really say for sure why the atmosphere was lacking this year. It's a good venue, many of the familiar faces who can be relied on in the craic department were present and accounted for, and numbers were certainly good (in purely numerical terms, it was the biggest Irish Open ever counting reentries). Maybe it was the move from the traditional Easter weekend, which forced it into direct competition with Paddy's Day and Cheltenham. But it seemed to me that more could have been done to encourage and build a better atmosphere. As a Unibet ambassador I'm undoubtedly biased but I know for a fact that the Unibet live events staff leave no stone unturned when it comes to trying to improve the recreational player experience, and I know for a fact their players appreciate that and Unibet events are second to none in the craic department. To give them their due, Paddy Power did an amazing job for years creating a uniquely Irish party atmosphere. It's great that a major online site are now on board, but I couldn't shake the feeling that this event was very low on their list of priorities. If the sponsors are seeing it as the fifth (or whatever) biggest event they're involved with in the month before and after, this tends to trickle down and strip much of the prestige from the event.

It may have been the least atmosphere ever on an Irish Open final table day, but for our group it was pretty damn exciting (at least until they got five handed). My close friend Sameer Singh wasn't staying with me as he had done last year when he came 6th (he won a package that included a hotel room this time) but he was making the final table all over again. It says a lot that his rail (our group basically) made up over half the total rail.

David Lappin and I agreed to do some guest commentary with lead commentator Andrew Hedley, but we made it clear our interest in the event would die with Sami. Andrew was fun to commentate with and was commendably bubbly and enthusiastic after a long week. Most people agreed he did a wonderful job, although he did come in for some criticism on social media, at least some of it unfair. Several people just didn't seem to like the fact that the lead commentator wasn't Irish, but that's hardly his fault. We can't all be lucky enough to be born Irish: some of us have to make do with being Scottish.

In the end, Sami bust in 6th again, and we spent the rest of the day in celebration and consolation mode. Well done to both Ryan Mandara and Ferdia O'Connell who chopped. It was clear to me from watching the early going they were the ones to stop, unless Sami got a stack going. Also a big well done to my Chip Race cohost David Lappin, who followed up recent online successes (winning the Unibet Online Series overall leaderboard) with his biggest live score in quite a while when he was second in the JP Masters. David is a very busy man on many fronts these days: attentive Dad, Chip Race supremo, Twitcher, but he continues to work hard on his game and it's great to see him getting the results he deserves.

For years, I've been moaning about playing too much live, but gone on playing every event on the Irish calendar. This year I finally decided to vote with my feet and sit out the rest of the events in Citywest. I'm still enjoying live poker, the Aussie Million was brilliant, as were the Unibet events I've attended recently, and as I said, even a C- Irish Open is still going to be a lot of craic. I'm just hoping that maybe the organisers will have a hard look at this year's event and find ways to make it better again next year.

In the sad disillusioned blog I wrote after the worst ever Irish Open, I commented on the absence of Gary Clarke:

"Gary Clarke surprised me even more when he said he wasn't even trying to qualify. When you lose someone like Gary, a staunch supporter not only of Irish events but events all over Europe, you have to start asking yourself where it all went wrong. "

Well, Gary Clarke wasn't there this year either. In 2015 main sponsors Paddy Power had already made the decision to pull the plug on the Irish Open, and their lack of enthusiasm trickled down. You need sponsors who are genuinely committed to making an event great for recreational players (not just one that looks great on Instagram). Do whatever is needed to get the likes of Gary Clarke back for next year please.

Related content:

- Interview David and I did with Jason Glatzer

- Me on feature of High Roller, Lappin in commentary box

- Me commentating on the Main final table followed by Lappin (and at the end Espen)



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