Leading from the front, getting it in behind

Experience has taught me at least one thing: it always take me a while to re-adjust to playing live in Ireland after Vegas.

Doke's PocketFives Poker Player Profile

Click image above to check out my PocketFives player profile

Do you wanna be in my gang, my gang?

As you may have read elsewhere, I've been appointed the new Team Irish Eyes Poker captain. Click image above to find out more.

The end of the dream.....for now

Maybe I should stop writing mid tournament blogs as it never seems to end well.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Tragedy in Rozvadov

"A glorified truck stop in the middle of nowhere, a bunch of petrol stations, three brothels, a McDonalds and a giant casino. The whole area is so grim they start telling you there's a McDonalds over 50 kilometres away".

That's how I described Rozvadov, where I'd never been before, to a friend who has also never been (and presumably never will after that description). To be fair, that's a very harsh assessment. People come to Rozvadov for the poker, but they stay for the.....well, they don't really stay. Apart from one Israeli billionaire that various people told me came a few years ago and liked it so much (or his dormant gambling addiction became undormant) that he never left. I didn't see the gentleman in question myself so the stories may be apocryphal, but it is said he haunts the halls of the casino by day, and the parking lot in a camper van by night.

Once you've cleared security and the grimness of the rest of Rozvadov has started to recede in your memory, the casino itself is actually one of the nicest I've been in. The only big thing that could be done to improve it would be to outlaw smoking indoors. The decor is classy, the slot machines silent and most of the space is devoted to the poker. The buffet is also not only free and open all day but the quality is exceptional by casino standards. Until last week the best casino dining experience I'd had was at the Wynn, but for 40 bucks less than the 40 bucks you pay in the Wynn buffet you get much fresher higher quality food all day. Maybe crazy camper van man isn't so crazy after all.

When I planned this trip originally, and realised there wasn't an airport within a hundred kilometres of the place so I probably needed a driver, I twisted Mrs Doke's arm and persuaded her to accompany me. Normally she wants either sun or culture and preferably both in a place before she agrees to tag along. Rozvadov scores a big fat null points on both those fronts so I was careful not to oversell it.

"I hear it's a kip but it's near Nurnberg so we can always head there after I bust".

She was living for almost a decade in Nurnberg when I met her and pulled off the most successful resteal of my life, it's where I first visited her, so we both have happy memories of the place. As it happened Keith Cummins was heading over on the same flight and volunteered to hire a car and split costs. By now flights were booked so Mrs Doke gamely tagged along anyway.

We had to go to the casino to find out which partner hotel we were in. Thankfully this turned out to be the Park Inn in historic city of Pilsen (birthplace of the world famous Pilsner beer, and European Capital of Culture 2015). Annoyingly we had already passed Pilsen on our way to Rozvadov, so we essentially had to drive half way back to Prague. Easier said than done in a fog that reduced visibility to a few metres.

Like most people Keith drives the same way he plays poker (fearlessly, with his foot on the accelerator) and it's fair to say there were some hair raising moments (I assume this is why he's bald) like the one where he decided to pass some trucks just before the road narrowed to one lane. To be fair, we made it with almost two inches to spare. Mrs Doke still hadn't fully recovered at breakfast the following morning so she took Keith to task again about his driving but he was having none of it. He pointed out he'd never had a major accident, a point he immediately undermined with a story that involved him flipping a jeep into a ditch and which he concluded with the words "it's a miracle we weren't all killed".

Keith is great fun to be around though so despite the palpable risk everyone takes whenever they get into a car with him, I decided it was a risk worth taking tagging along with him on the drive back to the casino. But not before tweeting the following, only partly in jest:

On the trip to the casino I learned that when a Corkman abroad rings his Dad at home while speeding down a motorway, they will spend almost the entire conversation talking about how much the call is costing them both.

Before I started I was chatting to the legendary KevMath, who told me this was his first time in Europe. I commiserated and assured him Rozvadov was not very representative. Hopefully his next visit will be to somewhere like Paris, London, Berlin, Rome or even Dublin.

My WSOPE main event campaign was pretty dull for the most part, and the excellent PokerNews team seemed to catch all the major hands I played on the blog, so I won't repeat them here. My exit was one of those comedy of errors where one player's lack of focus has a Butterfly effect that causes another's demise at the hands of a third party who shouldn't even have been in the hand. After a tough but ultimately prosperous day one that saw me bag up over 90k, I had a miserable day 2 where I couldn't seem to win a pot. That's generally fatal on a day 2 even in a structure as good as this, and a few minutes before the end I was looking down miserably at 8 big blinds. A few uncalled shoves later I was no longer feeling as low and with 17 big blinds, no longer just shoving or folding. My happiness grew even more when I looked down at Kings under the gun and opened, feeling better about my prospects of getting action than normal having only recently been moved to a table that just seen me open shoving a lot since I got there.  I started to think this wasn't going to work out when it folded round to the small blind, who attempted to limp. When it was pointed out that I'd already raised he elected to put more chips in to make the call, which of course meant the big blind was priced in with any two cards, so he called too. Anyone who has been around the game long enough knows what seems to happen often in these spots. Mike Leah who had just been moved to the table certainly did, joking "Gg Dara" before the flop was dealt.

The flop was 986 with two spades, and after the unfocused small band checked, the big blind led tiny. With a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach I decided to think about what this could mean. I concluded that I have the best hand far too often to consider folding, and with so many draws on board had to try to protect my hand against two players with almost random ranges, so I shoved. When the big blind snapped I got the bad news that I was up against 75o (no spade) drawing to various runner runners. None of these materialised, so that was that.

I was obviously disappointed not to cash my biggest buyin of the year, continuing a pretty lackluster year for me live. However, I always try to focus on the big picture, and think that as long as I keep myself in the game to the point I can go on showing up at these events, it'll click for me some day. The fact that I'm having my most profitable year online in several is also heartening evidence that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with m game a few crucial won flips wouldn't fix I have a few more live outings this year so I will be attempting to end on a high. Next up is a 5k in Punta Cana in a couple of weeks, and then Unibet Open Bucharest (my favourite trip of last year) and another Unibet UKPT stop in Manchester. It's fair to say I'm a much bigger fan of Bucharest than I am of Manchester, but at least it's in the nicest casino by far, Manchester235.

Unfortunately this blog has to conclude on a genuinely tragic note. At breakfast the first morning, we had been told that one of the other players staying at the hotel, Emma Fryer, was in hospital for reasons unspecified. Later that day we heard the terrible news that Emma had died after the car she was travelling in crashed on the same route Keith had driven us the previous night. I didn't really know Emma but several of my friends did and by all accounts she was a great person and poker player so my thoughts and best wishes go out to her family and friends, and as a more fitting tribute to her allow me to reproduce the beautiful heartfelt words of our mutual close friend Daiva Byrne who was quoted in the PokerNews piece reporting her death:

My heart breaks to hear the tragic news regarding Emma Fryer 💔 She was such a wonderful person and an amazing player xxx

Monday, October 30, 2017

Incompetent travellers

In the early years of my career my constant travel buddy was Rob Taylor. Rob was a great friend, mentor and companion with only one flaw: he has the worst sense of direction in the world. Normally you'd need a bigger sample size to make such a big claim, but I feel in this case there's no need for such diligence, because on every single occasion Rob has a chance to pick a direction, he always chooses wrong. If he could only have chosen to always do the opposite of what his brain said, he'd have had the best sense of direction.

This was rarely an issue except when he was designated driver, which unfortunately was quite often given I can't drive. At my first EPT in San Remo I shared lodgings with Rob and a bunch of other Irish hopefuls. We flew in to Nice, and the other lads all left before us so Rob drove them to the airport, and somehow found his way back. Despite this dress rehearsal, it still went badly wrong when the time came for him to drive us to the airport. As we drove out of San Remo with the sea to our left, I made the fatal mistake of assuming the obviousness of wanting to keep the sea right there, to our left, and the multitude of signs indicating left for France absolved me of any need to tell Rob to keep left. As we approached the all important fork to the motorway I was lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that Rob was keeping to the left. Which he did, until the last possible second when his internal GPS kicked in and we veered right before I had time to react.

"Rob, we should have gone left"
"Huh? Are you sure?"
"Yes Rob. I'm sure"
"I think you're wrong"
"Rob, we want to drive from Italy to France. France is to the west of Italy. The sea is to the south. So which side should the sea be on?"
"The right?"
"No Rob. The sea should be on our left not our right"
"Are you sure? That can't be right"
"It is.  So which side is the sea actually on Rob?"
"The left?"
"No Rob. It's on our right"
"Are you sure? I think this is the right way?"
"Rob, every sign we pass is to somewhere deeper in Italy"
"So what do we do?"
"Get off the next exit. To the right"

We finally did this about an hour later, and more than an hour later we had snaked our way through some country roads back to and through San Remo, and we were approaching the fork where it had all gone wrong.

As we did so, my first thought was "Surely there's no need to tell him". My second was "This is Rob. There might be". So I watched him like a hawk. True to form, he veered right as I screamed. "LEFT! LEFT! OTHER WAY ROB!!!!"

We made our plane with seconds to spare.

I was reminded of this story in Brighton this week. The wonderful Donna Morton kindly offered me a lift back to hotel after I bust the main, with her travelling companion April. As we passed the exit we should have taken April said "We should have taken that exit" with the dignified resignation of someone who has witnessed many's the missed exit. Donna, with the dignified acceptance of someone experience has taught that her own sense of direction is not as good as that of her travelling companion, gamely accepted this and one full circuit of the roundabout later we were back on track.

That lasted all of thirty seconds when I again made the assumption that "the sea should be on our left" made it unnecessary to tell Donna which direction to take, because I basically never learn. Before we knew it we were back rounding the roundabout as Donna laughed raucously. So I basically learned that Donna is April's Rob Taylor, and April is her Doke.

Apart from going round roundabouts with Donna and April, the other most memorable thing about my trip was my starting table in the main. Initially I was sandwiched between Fredrik Bergmann to my right and my study buddy Daiva "Baltic Maniac" Byrne to my left, which if not great for my EV was at least great for my spirits as both are great company.

Then Daiva got moved and her place was taken by Will Kassouf, which caused a bit of a giggle as I'd been chatting with another table mate, Jerome O'Shea, about my recent piece about Will in Bluff Europe. David and I also interviewed Will for The Chip Race. It wasn't exactly a hostile interview but we also didn't hold back asking him about some of the criticisms that were raised about his behaviour at the table.

As a former barrister Will is well able to defend his corner and not to take it personally, and as I said in my Bluff piece I actually like Will a lot and enjoy having him at the table. Mrs Doke, not so much.

No cash for me this time but the trip was one of the most enjoyable and I think the tournament was the biggest success of the UKPT to date, so a big well done to all the other Unibet ambassadors and staff, especially Simon Steedman. Some people say the only reason Simon is in the job is because his Dad is rich and owns Unibet, but.......well, yeah, that's what people say.

Next up for me is a week at home on the online grind, before heading to Rozvadov next Saturday for the WSOPE main event. I have another week at home after that before Punta Cana, which will be quickly followed by the Unibet Open in Bucharest (my favourite event of last year) and UKPT Manchester.

Monday, October 23, 2017

A tale of two airports

When it comes to designing beautiful furniture, or a stylish scarf, you'd back the French to pull it off. But when it comes to designing an efficient hub airport, not so much. That's when you look to the Germans or the Dutch with their frumpy scarves and their functional furniture.

True to type, Charles De Gaulle has to be the most poorly designed airport in the world. There are a number of ways and shapes you can go when faced with the problem of putting a lot of gates in one airport and minimising the distance between any two random gates. The obvious solution is the cartwheel where the gates sprong out different spokes of the same wheel. You can also go for something more crablike like the Dutch:

Image result for amsterdam airport terminal map

The feckless child who designed CDG dispensed with all that in favour of:

I didn't realise how much of a pain this could be until I landed there last year with an hour and five minutes to make a connection to Tallinn. Lots of time, I was thinking. How wrong was that thinking. 25 minutes later the bus they downloaded us onto from the plane finally started snaking towards the terminal. 25 minutes later, it pulled up at a door that said NON SCHENGEN in big judgemental letters. 25 minutes later I was arguing with a security guy that I needed to be allowed to skip a long passport control queue to have any chance of making my delayed but taking off imminently flight. He was having none of me and directed me to the back of the line. We glared at each other both clearly thinking exactly the same thought ("in my country, they shoot people like you") before I surrendered faster than you can say Maginot Line.

25 minutes later, I'm weaving my way towards the Air France information desk to tell them I missed my connection. It's manned, or rather womanned, by an attractive example of French womanhood. There is no such thing as a poorly designed French female in my experience: they are the most attractive nation on Earth in that regard. But they can also be a little difficult at times.

After looking at me like someone who hadn't a word of English as I explained my situation, she snapped her fingers and said "Passport!"

I like a woman who can take charge, all the more so when she does so in a sexy French accent, so I happily obliged and watched approvingly as she scrutinised my passport and typed on a keyboard. Her beautiful face moved through disapproval, annoyance, confusion before returning to me suspiciously.

"It appears you made your connection"
"What....but....I......clearly I did not. I stand before you. You have my passport"

She looked back at my passport. Then the computer screen. Then me.

"You made your connection"
"I strongly disagree. Is there some other way you can check that doesn't involve the computer?"

She thought about it. Then some more. Then some more. Then she looked at her phone and nodded. With one hand she put the phone to her well designed ear, and with the other punched some numbers before lifting a solitary well designed finger to me.

She spoke in hushed French tones. I pretended not to eavesdrop.

"Seat 24D. Can you check it?"

She glared at me while we waited.

"D'accord. Merci"

I looked at her hopefully.

"It appears you missed your connection"
"I am aware of this"
"You had more than an hour"

Her tone was accusatory.
One thing three decades of marriage to a well designed French woman has taught me is that there is an art to arguing with them. That art involves not actually arguing (they love a good argument and will indulge and run rings around you just for fun), but rather self deprecating and deflecting without actually conceding.

I smiled confidently, thinking "She's French, I got this".

"Yes, but I am the world's stupidest Irishman in the world's stupidest airport"

I could see her almost smiling before she shrugged and started punching keys again. The world's slowest printer churned out a boarding pass which she handed to me. I looked at it gratefully.

"Um....this flight closes in 15 minutes and I have to go back through security"
"We may find ourselves back here within the hour arguing about whether I'm on another flight or not"

She finally cracked and smiled.

"We may"


This year I came via Frankfurt. I discovered to my horror I had less than an hour to make the connection. I'm screwed I thought, and less familiar and comfortable with the ways of the German Frau than I am with the quirks of the French Femme. All I could think of was getting shouted at and being called an untermensch.

As soon as the plane landed I got a text message telling me which gate I had to go to. Five minutes later they'd downloaded us onto a bus and I'd got a text saying the bus would take 13 minutes to get to the terminal. There were screens on the bus with gate numbers, and multilingual announcements directing us to look at them. Thirteen minutes later, I was walking through a sea of Lufthansa staff there to direct people to their gates. 10 minutes later I'm at the gate glaring at those fools who insist on queueing before boarding commences. 15 minutes later I'm in my seat on the plane looking up at James Walsh, who has just made a tight connection from Manchester. I don't even mind the fact that I'm on a plane full of Germans laughing at stuff I don't find remotely funny (the funniest joke by far was the guy who observed us all shuffling in and out of our seats to let people in before declaring "We are all playing plane dominoes" to raucous Germanic laughter).

At that moment I was simply in awe of and grateful for German efficiency.


The trip itself was a blast, with a great crew of people in a great little city. Clodagh Hansen and her staff excelled themselves again.

I bust last hand of day one after a frustrating day where I started well but didn't then kick on. I decided to reenter at the start of day 2 with 10.4 big blinds, one of a handful of what Mark Spurr called the crazies to do so. In most worlds I'm going to bust pretty quick, but I back myself to play that kind of stack optimally, and as I explained to my gracious host Hanno, most of the equity in tournaments comes from playing the latter stages well when you run well enough to get there.

It wasn't looking good as I dipped as low as 4 big blinds at one point, but I stuck to the game plane and notched up my first cash on Estonian soil. I continued to linger on sub twenty bigs the whole way. With 19 left I looked up at the clock to confirm we were on the first significant pay jump. I had 16 big blinds but felt like I might be the shortest, which Lappin quickly confirmed after a scout round the other tables. Then a loose young Russian min raises to 32k, an even more maniacal young Scandi makes it 100k in the small blind, and I have tens and 200k in the big blind. I know my hand is too strong to fold even with the pay jump, but I'm professionally compelled to do everything I can to lock up the pay jump. So I sit there looking tortured waiting for someone to call clock, at which point I'll run down the minute before min raising. I figure the "What on Earth is he doing? How much have you behind?" confusion will buy me some more time before I have clock called on me again, and we might get the ladder.

It doesn't come to that. Lappin pipes up:

"All in and a call on the other table"

As my table mates continue to humour my tank (I think the fact this was my first made them more forgiving) the guy on the other table busted. I waited a few more seconds to give them a chance to start processing his payout (I didn't want any ambiguity as to who busted first if I did bust), then moved all in. A minute later I'd won a flip and was feeling like I was in the tournament for the first time.

It's been a frustrating year live, with only one live final table all year. With almost an average stack now and a good seat I was feeling good about doubling my final table count for the year, but it was not to be.

After the maniacal Scandi raised I look down at Kings and threebet. He shoves and I snap. I very surprised to be behind and quite sad to be out in 17th, but happy with my performance and accepting of the fact that I'd run well to get this far, winning two flips and holding two 70/30s on the other occasions I was allin.

That left me free to fill my last full day in Tallinn as I pleased. I did some Chip Race recordings with David, and we were interviewed by Jason Glatzer for PokerNews about our podcast. Jennifer Tilly started a tradition of people asking "And do you play poker too David?"  when we interviewed her, one Jason continued much to my amusement.

David and I then did a stint in the commentary box where I got to see my vanquisher raise K2 utg, confirming my read of him as looser than Kat Arnsby's.......um...purse strings. After our stint in the box David scurried off to brick another side event (yes he does play a bit of poker) while I met his beautiful girlfriend Saron and their adorable son Hunter for dinner at Olde Hansa, a restaurant she fancied. The theme is medieval, with a menu of 15th century dishes, and nothing but candlelight as illumination. Saron is great fun to be with so this and the stroll back to the hotel through the old town was a real highlight.

Hanno very kindly brought me and James Walsh to the airport the following morning and we talked some hands (he also cashed, and on one bullet). We ran into the delightful delinquent Kat Arnsby fresh from her side event second place. She'd already spent much of the windfall on perfume (€650) and a kilogram bag of M&M's, which didn't stop her from loftily proclaiming "I'm thrifty. I spend very little money" as we boarded.

Next up live for me is the Brighton leg of the Unibet UK Poker Tour, where I'm looking forward to catching up with many familiar faces. I always seem to plan to end the year playing mostly blind but actually end up cramming in lots of live poker. After Brighton I have the WSOPE main event (my first trip to Rozvadov), Punta Cana, Bucharest and Manchester all before I head to the Aussie Millions in January.

Finally, massive shoutout of thanks to my host and sponsor Hanno Liiva for his generosity and hospitality in Tallinn, and everyone else who made it such a fun trip.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Intense and emotional in Vegas

After my close shave with US border security in Dublin airport, I was pretty relieved to touch down on US soil in Atlanta. I was hoping to hook up with local resident Breyer who I house shared with at the WSOP this summer. He had very kindly offered to pick me up at the airport and give me a whistlestop tour, but as it happened we arrived late and I had barely enough time to get between planes, as I bobbed and weaved my way through the airport, a runner in a race of moseyers.

I was the last to board, and as my eyes scanned the plane to locate my window seat the plane seemed full already. Then I realised my seat was obscured from view by two substantial ladies: I never learned their names so let's call them Waynetta and Waynetta's Mom (copyright the lovely Saron). They were mother and daughter (though I never figured out which was which). They were at least as disappointed to see me as I was to see them. Once we'd all gotten over our collective disappointment it took a few minutes for them to unwedge and hoist themselves out of their seats, and shimmy out into the aisle so I could gain access. Once I had I realised I was going to have to content myself with a lot less room than normal as the teo ladies overflowed from their seats.

So first world problems, which soon got worse. Waynetta and her Mom seemed to have a less than idyllic Mom daughter relationship, sniping at each other verbally almost non stop, until a full scale elbow battle broke out between them that had me assuming the crash position.

While I've been coming to Vegas for a decade, this was my first time there in a month without a J in its name. Noticeably cooler and less crowded, I checked in at the Encore, and met the rest of the Unibet team for some foods and drinks.

The poker followed pretty much the same script I've been working off live this year. Slow steady start, build a bit of a stack, then lose a couple of big pots to be in shove or fold mode, lose the first shove. I managed to stick pretty religiously to this script not once but twice (day 1a and 1b). Most of the pots and spots were very standard, and the few that were in any way interesting will be covered in the strategy segments of The Chip Race and my free strategy newsletter so I won't bore you with repetition. I will admit that by the end of both days I was as tired as I ever have been at a poker table, with the jetlag really biting hard. My podcast compadre David Lappin got here earlier but was in a similar boat as Rauno discovered when he went to join him in the commentary booth.


On Sunday David and I interviewed Andrew Neeme and my WSOP buddy Alan Widmann. I love Alan to bits, he's one of the nicest people I've met, and it will be very interesting to follow his transition into poker. After the interviews concluded, everyone left while I started my online Sunday grind, but Alan hung around a while to hang and rail. By now it was near the bubble of the main event, so I was getting texts from David while Alan was railing MethodSco. Sco was very short so Alan was relaying just how tight he needed to be on the bubble. Both got into the money.

After my Sunday grind was complete I went for food with David, Saron and Rauno, and then headed to the commentary booth with David. This weekend in Vegas will not be remembered for anything that happened in the Wynn or at the poker table but for something that happened at the other end of the strip. While we were starting our commentary stint, the horrific Mandalay Bay mass shooting was taking place. As news filtered through to us, we were unsure how much we could say but did our best (we come in at 7 hours 53 minutes): 

The upside of this heavily social media dominated world we live in is that information on events like this travels much faster than it used to. The downside is that it's not always reliable information and we see feedback loops fuelled by paranoia and embellishment spread like viruses on the social media. As reports of multiple shooters and locations spread, panic gripped the entire strip and all the major resorts including the Wynn were put on lockdown. Play in the tournament was suspended and the collective opinion was the optimal lime was for everyone to go back to their room.

Simon from Unibet trolled us back down to the lobby with reports of free drink being dispensed by the Wynn, a Sasanach ploy guaranteed to work with the Irish. It would have been a nice gesture by the Wynn but they were still charging $18 a Corona. We somehow ended up in a cash game with Alan, Sco and Djarii, which I believe was my first live cash session in several years (on an aside I played three short cash sessions this trip, three more than I have in most recent yeas, and achieved a decent hourly). I booked a decent win before heading back to the room to watch further coverage of the carnage. Even though it was happening about a mile away I might as well have been back home in the sense that my entire experience of the event was watching CNN and checking the social media. In the world we live in, it's not real until we see it on a screen and tweet about it, even if you know you could see the scene you're watching on your screen if you looked out your window.

My last full day in Vegas was mostly about the Chip Race. We recorded an amazing interview with Jennifer Tilly's lesser half Phil Laak, we also interviewed Sco and Djarii, and some strategy segments with Daiva who bossed a feature table that included Chris Moorman and Henrik Larsen with some interesting hands. Look for those in future episodes.

Daiva showed up for the session with what looked like cranberry juice and Perrier but was actually cranberry juice and vodka. The evening progressed with the lovely Saron and John  through Endless Pours at the buffet to cocktails at a cash table where I got to see Daiva's ditsy blonde impersonation (at one point she shamelessly asked the totally buying it guy to her left if an ace was a better card than a queen) and a hair raising check raise all in river bluff. She turned middle pair with two blockers to the nut straight into a bluff which unfortunately didn't work for her on this occasion (despite her blockers the guy had the nut straight anyway) but her ability to recognise the spot and her willingness to go for it indicates why she's a formidable force at any table these days. It was reminiscent of Fedor Holz turning tens into a bluff three handed in the finale of the Poker Masters against his German compatriots (which also didn't work in this sample).

A couple of hours sleep later I was very hungover and packing for my Uber to the airport. Unable to face breakfast I gave my poker son Rauno my breakfast voucher. 30 minutes later I'm waiting for him to turn up to share the Uber. It got there before he did so I went outside to stall. As I came back in to look for him, my bags were searched, a sad reminder of how the atmosphere in Vegas had changed over the weekend. An even sadder eerier one presented itself as I rode past the now ghostly empty Mandalay Bay, still officially a crime scene.

My thoughts and best wishes are with the loved ones of the victims, who will never leave our minds when we look back on this intense and emotional week in Vegas.

Friday, September 29, 2017

In praise of shouty women

The first time I visited the UK on my own was to visit my first girlfriend, Julie. I was 20 years old, and struggling through college on many different fronts: financial, social and academic.

After landing in Heathrow, a weaselly officious looking gentleman asked me the purpose of my visit. Confused and alarmed by the question, my response (a mumbled "Visit') apparently aroused more suspicion or maybe got misinterpreted as smartass sarcasm, because before I knew it I was in a small room being told the powers that the Prevention of Terrorism Act had over me. Terrified out of my wits, I had no idea how to even begin to argue my case.

Julie never claimed psychic powers, but she had a keen understanding of human behaviour, and her 177 IQ generally meant she figured stuff out before the rest of us even realised there was anything to be figured out. About the time I was being ushered into the small room, she was turning to her best friend out in Arrivals where they were waiting for a clueless young Irish man to emerge and saying "The poor fucker has got himself detained under the PTA".

A few minutes later she had somehow shouted and barged her way past security demanding to see me. God love the English, they have a sense of deference to their social superiors ingrained at an early age, and Julie was posh folk and had spent all her life ordering less posh folk around. As such I saw her before I heard her, as did the two officers in the small room. Suddenly they looked more terrified than me.

The door flung open and Julie made a gloriously shouty entrance.

"I KNEW IT!" she crowed triumphantly to the doubting Thomases in her wake.


Closing in on the officer in charge, the one who had pulled me aside, with her piercing blue eyes, her tirade continued.


I was almost disappointed they went with the Release Right Now option, as I was totally enjoying the spectacle. I followed Julie and Sara out to the car meekly, without a word being said, unsure as to how much of the anger Julie felt was towards me.

In the car, she cracked a rare smile.

"Are you ok, Daraling?"

I muttered something about yes and sorry.

She laughed.

"Don't be sorry. That was fun. I thoroughly enjoyed that"

I flashed back to that day in Dublin airport yesterday as I was ushered to one side by US border security in the Preclearance area. I was slightly alarmed as it appeared to have been triggered by me telling them how much cash I was carrying, which was below what I knew to be the limit that requires declaration.

I was told to fill a form and wait to be called. I breathed a small sigh of relief when it was a female voice that called me, as one of the ways my own peculiar brand of sexism manifests itself is a lifelong belief that females are much easier to reason with or at least get on the good side of when dealing with authority.

The charming young lady asked me a number of detailed and pointed questions as to how I made my living and the exact details of my relationship with Unibet and the purpose of my visit. I did feel a sudden pang of alarm when she whipped on the rubber gloves, but it turned out she just wanted to count the cash I was carrying. She then explained that because Unibet was not an American company I didn't need the kind of clearance foreign athletes need to ply their trade in the US, but had they been I would. She asked if I had any American sponsor or had ever been approached by one. I could have said that was unlikely given the legal status of online poker in the Land of the Free, but that would have been the smartass answer, and smartass didn't feel like the way to go here, so I stuck to a simple negative.

As she escorted me out of the interrogation area she chatted amicably about what it's like to be a professional poker player. She seemed genuinely intrigued, and I was genuinely relieved to be on my way to Vegas without having to unleash my secret weapon (another shouty woman, this time in the form of my French wife who I had already primed to come back to the airport and start shouting and barging if necessary).

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Bunny boilers

Most UK and Irish poker players have very fond memories of the PokerStars UKIPT tour. Myself included. What many may not remember, either because it was before their time or they have simply forgotten, is that the first season was a pretty dismal failure. Satellites didn't run, it struggled for numbers, and failed to appeal to both recreationals and pros alike with small prize pools and tiny side events.

I gave up on the tour a few stops in after a particularly grim stop in Coventry. When the highlight of your week is almost getting stabbed in an underpass, it seems like a good time to call time on following the tour. I shared a cab to the airport with a Stars employee who was in charge of the tour. He admitted frankly the tour was failing and grilled me for my thoughts on why and what could be done. I answered honestly and made some suggestions, specifically that bigger side events were needed to encourage more serious players to travel, and if they allowed multiple seat and packages to be won players like me would grind satellites and provide more liquidity to ensure they ran.

Back then, players like me and Stars staff both felt like we were on the same team, so when I was asked for input, I didn't just say what was in my own interest but what I genuinely felt was best for everyone. Stars encouraged and fostered a relationship with high volume grinders. Myself and David Lappin were invited to a get together with other grinders and Stars staff in Galway where they plied us with food and booze, solicited our feedback and ideas, and wrote it all down. It was there I first met other grinders I played against every night for the first time like Timmy and Hefs. At the Isle of Man stop we were invited to meet live events staff looking for further feedback. I'm not saying the subsequent success of the tour was all down to this, but it surely didn't hurt. David suggested new formats for satellites that proved popular, and I put forward the idea of a leaderboard which encouraged people to grind satellites and side events with new vigour. UKIPTs were always a pleasure to attend because you ran into a wide range of recreational players only some of whom complained about bad beats at the hands of SlowDoke and PHISHINBOY, and Stars staff who were always friendly, solicitous and expressed admiration for our results and work ethic.

After the tour took off, it seemed our feedback was no longer needed or heeded. The first major mistake Stars made was moving the buyin up to over 1k. That proved a step too far, moving even the satellites out of the reach of recs. The satellites became less attractive for everyone, and there were some I played only because I was chasing the leaderboard. Stars staff starting joking that I was to blame for the overlays. As the satellites got smaller and smaller with more regs, many smart recs began to realise they were a heavily losing proposition for them. Internally in Stars, it seemed that people needed scapegoats, and instead of putting their hands up and saying "We messed up increasing the buyin", it was more prudent to blame the satellite grinders. "Those guys are stopping recs from qualifying" Never mind the fact that they were still heavily incentivising us to play the satellites with an expanded leaderboard prize pool and other perks.

This spin started to percolate out to recreationals. It was essentially a PR own goal: "No point playing satellites any more, they're full of sharks" This was even before the Stars brand started to turn toxic after the Amaya takeover. Cuts across the board made UKIPT stops less glamorous more miserable affairs. That exarcerbated the decline of the tour, sending it into a death spiral.

The Amaya strategy was quickly revealed to be to squeeze as much profit as possible from everywhere, accompanied by propaganda that this was in the best interest of recreationals (more rake is better) and that anything that was bad for pros was good for them. The vast majority of recreationals are far smarter than the spin merchants gave them credit for and saw through this nonsense, and the cancer that had killed the smaller Stars regional tours spread to their flagship EPT brand. Contempt for the customers and their experience plumbed new depths in Barcelona last year, and continued into Prague.

After Prague I (and most of my friends) just gave up on AmayaStars live events. I haven't played a Stars satellite this year and don't intend to. This made the recent oddly worded PR statement from Stars on their reasons for restricting multiple seat and package winners all the more bizarre.

To be fair to the Amaya propaganda machine, they have managed to ram the idea in that grinders like me were killing their satellites so effectively that immediately after releasing this latest propaganda piece, a number of players tweeted to the effect that it meant I was scouring Situations Vacant for a new profession. The reality of course is that I had already found one, at the start of this year, when I announced that because I would no longer be playing many satellites (nor any on Stars), I was finally willing to share the secrets of my success in a course* I was developing. I simply shifted my volume to other sites and normal mtts, and at time of writing I am having my best year online since 2013. in truth I wish I'd stopped grinding Stars satellites years ago.

After Barcelona last year I compared what was going on in Stars to my local shop when I was a child which went into terminal decline under new management. Right now, it seems like Stars response to dwindling numbers and increased customer dissatisfaction is to simply change the name of the shop, and when sales still continue to decline, to blame it on ex clients who had already moved our business elsewhere.

Let's clear something up though. I understand that Amaya is a business. I understand they have a fiduciary responsibility to make as much money as they can for their shareholders. I don't think we have a right to expect that "the good of poker" (whatever that might be) be their objective. If they came clean and said "look we paid too much for Stars and we need to increase profits to get our money back" I'd say good luck to them. What irks me is that instead of saying that when they increase rake, reduce benefits and make the customer experience worse for everyone, they lie and they misdirect and they try to distract us with chests and they insult their customers. They insult those of us who paid them millions in rake down the years and provided much needed liquidity by suggesting we did something underhand profiting at the expense of recreational players. They insult the intelligence of recreationals peddling this nonsense.

I totally accept that they have the right to change their satellite policy without regard to how it affects me and my kind (which it doesn't since we moved our business elsewhere already). I even accept that it might work as a long term strategy to encourage more recreationals back to the pool. But I have my doubts. I wonder where the liquidity will come from. It's not just me and my kind who have dropped out of the satellites: now any recreational is forced out of the pool after they lock up their first seat. And let's make something else clear: it wasn't just pros who benefited from being able to win multiples. Many good recreational players enjoyed the chance to make money in satellites, and cleaned up in them too. As a direct comparison, the first stop after Stars announced their policy change (London) really struggled for satellite liquidity and they ended up qualifying LESS unique players than last year. You can't blame me and David Docherty for that overlay, guys.

Talal Shakerchi pointed out in a recent Thinking Poker podcast interview just how much the general view on Stars has shifted in the last five years. Five years ago they were the good guys. If you went on 2+2 and started a thread complaining about Stars, almost all the feedback would be pro Stars. Now they are your psycho ex, blaming all their current woes on a former lover long since departed. A lover they courted vigorously and seductively, and then turned bunny boiler on us when we wouldn't just lie down and agree that more rake is better.

Stars may have changed the shop name (and rumours suggest they are about to change it back to EPT), but until they stop blaming ex customers and start focusing on providing better service to existing ones, the decline will continue, and we can expect it to get ugly.

* I naively assumed when I announced I was developing this satellite course that it would take a few weeks for me to develop. It ended up taking 6 months and as announced here I recently delivered it as a webinar. The reaction has been overwhelming, I sold out 4 sessions and could go on doing more but endlessly repeating the same material isn't appealing to me, so instead I recorded the last webinar and it is available to buy at $75. Send me the money (Stars (SlowDoke), Party (okearney), ACR (Doked), Paypal, Skrill, Neteller or bank transfer (details on request)) and an email confirming you've done so at dokepokercoaching@gmail.com and it's yours.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Leaving Las Vegas (for now)

It's a Wednesday afternoon in Vegas. I'm sat at a poker table playing my last event of the WSOP, the Little One Drop. Late the previous day I bust the Main event, and sulked off home. I know from past experience that it's not a good idea to play something else the day I bust the main, but I wake up ready to get on with life the next day.

After I fold my latest garbage, I look down at my IPad to read the latest updates from the main on the WSOP blog. I read that the WSOP's favourite pantomime villain, Will Kassouf has just bust the main much to the delight not just of his own table but pretty much the whole room, who stood and applauded his demise. I know Will quite well (we even had him on the Chip Race) and have almost found him friendly and likable so I'm thinking "Kinda harsh", when I hear a familiar chirping voice above me.

"Well look who it is! Mahvellous. Now we've got a game"

I look up and do a double take as I find myself looking at the same face from my IPad. Will, obviously made of sterner stuff from me, has gone straight from having his demise greeted by a standing ovation to late regging the Little One Drop. The next few hours, I'm treated to the Will Kassouf show, essentially a rerun I've seen many times already, with little or no new material. 9 high like a boss. Good fold. Save your money, I know I'm ahead. You've only got one out if you call, the door. Coconuts. But a handful of fans on the rail lap it up like the greatest hits of a declining lounge nostalgia act.

I'm card dead through it all, until I find a good spot on the button. 17 big blinds, ace queen suited, a late position raise, I'm all in.

Will has the chips ready to call the open but stops in his tracks when I shove. He starts the speechplay, designed to figure out where I am on my range. I say nothing. He rabbits on, looking for a reaction. I'm now certain I'm ahead or at worst in a flip. Any better hand has called by now, and probably had to at least think about three betting the open rather than preparing to snap call. So I try to look nervous to get the hands I dominate in.

Eventually he does call, and it is a hand I dominate, ace two suited. I'm quite surprised to see this hand. I figured I could get some worse aces in, but not all the way down to ace two. But I know from past experience that while Will has a lot of strengths, basic understanding of preflop equities and short stack play is not one of them. This is a pretty common leak a lot of live pros have. I know that Will doesn't really grind online, so despite having live results stretching back a decade (at time of writing, he's averaged roughly 7 live cashes a year over his career according to Hendon Mob so he also hasn't a ton of experience deep in big tournaments), he doesn't find himself in these spots as often as your typical online grinder who plays twenty thousands tournaments a year. He's also never played headsup (except his match with Stacy Matuson last year in Rozvadov where he was roundly trounced and surprised viewers by how weak he played), which is where a lot of grinders build their short stack shove/fold range muscles.

An online grinder probably finds himself in this spot a few hundred times a year, so he quickly learns A2s is an awful call. The problem is you are just dominated so much, but even against an any two card shove, A2s isn't much better than a flip such as queens against ace king. Against my actual range in this spot, A2s is more than a two to one underdog, because it's dominated so often.

As I prepared to table my hand, Will made another comment that suggested he doesn't understand preflop equities: "Just don't show me an ace". Apart from the fact that any ace I have dominates him, so do all my pairs, which should also worry him. Against my hand, he has only 29% equity, but even if I roll over pockets fives, he's still worse than a two to one dog.

Online players quickly learn this the hard way if necessary, but live the sample is never big enough. You don't find yourself in the spot often enough to have a huge incentive to go off and study the exact equities. You make the call once, and you might even get lucky and win and think you made the right call.

Which is what happened on this occasion. He flopped two pair, turned a house, and as I shook hands and wished him continued good luck he said something to the effect that he was sad to see me go as I'm a nice guy.

Hopefully he still thinks that.

Last chance salon

I fired another bullet at the Little One Drop the following day. There's not much to say about it except that it ended appropriately enough in another lost flip near the close of play. A ten on the river brought down the curtain on a pretty miserable WSOP campaign for me.

I've compared a long WSOP campaign to a typical Sunday online in the past, but there are some crucial differences. In point of fact I actually play at least twice as many tournaments in a Sunday as I did in my 6 weeks in the desert. The WSOP tournaments are also obviously a lot bigger and more prestigious, and take longer, so it's harder not to get emotionally invested when it's the thing your entire day is based around, and the highlight of your year, rather than just another box on the screen to be quickly replaced if you bust.

Another key difference I only became aware of as the barren summer went on was how much harder it is to keep perspective on the big picture when you're showing up day after day to do your job as well as possible, and not only are you watching it end every time in a bad beat or a lost flip, but all around you players who put a lot less hard work into their preparation and honing their skills are luck boxing their ways to big stacks and scores. It is of course the height of silliness and futility to envy the success of others in poker (unless they are better than you and your jealousy drives you to work hard to emulate them), but it's also human nature. Entitlement tilt and a sense of injustice is very hard to shake off when a little voice in your head is saying "You worked harder than anyone preparing for this, you've logged tens of thousands of hours of study to get to this point, you've whipped yourself into better physical shape than most guys half your age, only to show up here, lose all the key flips, and go home poorer". But that's poker, and if it weren't so it wouldn't be long term profitable, because the weaker players pouring alcohol into themselves at the table while they splash around making bad play after bad play wouldn't keep playing if it wasn't possible for positive variance to paper over all their flaws in the short term.

In the long term, I've been amply rewarded for my efforts in poker. I've made millions online, chopped a WSOP event, a Super Tuesday, a European Deepstack, come close to winning an EMOP a UKIPT a WPT and a GPPT, won two majors and six online Triple Crowns, and a few weeks before I headed to Vegas final tabled a SCOOP. This year's WSOP is but a  fraction of 1% dip in a career graph that has trended up and up over a decade. I've been a bit spoiled by my last three campaigns which each included a deep run (2nd, 9th, 13th) to the point that this campaign feels a lot worse than it actually was. Five cashes, but only one day two.  But if I'd won even my fair share of flips I'd almost certainly be looking back on this campaign as a latest career highlight, and patting myself on the back for having executed so well. I take a lot of consolation from the fact that as bad as it felt to run that bad, I never let it affect my actual play. I went the entire series without a single major mistake, and kept the minor ones to a  handful. I found some very good folds, calls and raises at times when I could have just let myself think "What does it matter? I'm still going to lose the key flip or get a bad beat".

As I left the house where I had spent the previous six weeks, I could still feel the disappointment at how it had all gone down, a painful contrast to the buoyant optimist who walked into the house looking forward to spending the summer with Andrew and Carlos. When I got to the airport, the contrast switched to one with the feeling of accomplishment I felt leaving Vegas in recent years after successful campaigns. But then I remembered my first two departure lounge experiences in McCarran airport. Back then, I felt not just disappointment, but fear. Fear that I wasn't good enough to make it ever in this game. Fear that my livelihood was under existential threat. Fear that I would be one of the ones who wouldn't be back the following year. Fear that I left as a loser, and a loser I would remain.

This year I leave a loser (in the sense that I lost money this year in Vegas), but a winner in another sense. Knowing that I've made enough money in my career to allow me to keep coming back every year for as long as I want on my own terms, without having to beg for a stake or worry that my losses could threaten my financial wellbeing or that of my family. Knowing that I'm still good enough to compete with the best. Knowing that I still want it enough to keep working as hard if not harder than ever before.

Several years ago, I wrote that every year in Vegas there are players having their last Vegas without realising it.

I feel pretty confident that I was not one of those players this year.

Unless I die.


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