Sunday morning. Above a pub in Brighton.
I wearily drag my head from my pillow after four and a half hours of fitful sleep squeezed into one of three bunks wedged into a tiny dorm as humid as the Amazon and with the odour of Satan’s arsecrack. I turn yesterday’s underpants inside out and shuffle into them, muttering under my breath about the leaking shower cubicle that submerged the clothes had I intended to wear today but which now lie, in a shapeless, soggy mess, under the bed – a bed that couldn’t have been less comfortable if the mattress had been made from wasps. I hastily throw my things into my bag, which reports a damp squelch as they land, and shuffle along several streets until I reach the car, which needs to be moved before traffic wardens arrive. With 90 seconds to spare and wardens already visible at the top of the street, I pull away and wind my way to the Marina for day two of the Unibet UK Tour, arriving with time to spare before the start of play. Five hours and fifty minutes before the start of play to be precise.
I spend several hours shuffling around supermarkets, perusing tat at car boot sales, eating bad food and, more enjoyably, playing an impromptu game of outdoor table-tennis with Jonny, my travelling companion. I soon discover that Jonny is a much better player than I am and I find myself chasing ping pong balls all over Brighton, vainly trying to get points on the board. Eventually it’s time to make for the casino, where I arrive tired, dishevelled and now uncomfortably sweaty from my futile ping-pong endeavours in the bright sunshine. Following an up and down day 1b I have a meagre 10BB stack with me as play begins.
Some seven hands later, in roughly the same time it takes to make a small lunch, I get it in with AQ against AJ, find myself on the pointy end of a four flush and head back to the car for a 350 mile drive back to Gateshead. Thanks to traffic and roadworks, the journey home takes exactly the same amount of time as it did on the way out. Nine hours. Nine sodding hours!
I pondered on how much time I might have wasted by merely playing the event for much of the journey home. Was it really worth the bother? It was probably due to tiredness but I hadn’t particularly enjoyed myself. The event itself was well organised and there were plenty of nice people and good conversations but lengthy drives with long delays and poor sleep in crappy locations don’t make for a great mood or, more pertinently, great preparation. I actually fired two bullets at this event as I was eliminated 15 minutes from the end of play on day 1a after I rivered the nut flush but failed to notice that the board had double paired, paying off an opponent who could only be holding a full house. I was furious with myself for handing over my stack so cheaply after a full day’s play but hindsight tells me that it was almost unavoidable as I was more fatigued than a rusty Vauxhall Viva by that stage.
From a monetary perspective, even for a player such as myself who primarily plays $7 and $15 STTs, an 18 hour round journey for a poker tournament just doesn’t look like a valuable use of time. I’d qualified for the tournament with €500 packages – £220 buy-in plus expenses dependent on the exchange rate – through satellites for which I hadn’t paid a penny, so there is a strong appeal to play live tournaments on that basis. The $13,000 first place prize is appealing too but cashing (and particularly winning) live MTTs through satellites is an incredibly high variance route. A bink would be nice but, as with most tournaments, anything outside the top six isn’t a particularly big return comparative to the buy-in. A cursory glance at the numbers shows that it’s not really the most efficient route to profit.
I spent nine hours driving to Brighton before I even began playing poker. That’s nine hours I could have spent playing my normal online game instead of subjecting Jonny to much of the more obscure end of 90s Britpop through a car stereo. For the sake of argument we’ll say I play my lowest stake of six $7 S&Gs an hour and I have two breaks of one hour each. That’s seven hours of play staking $42 per hour. At the current exchange rate that’s a kick in the arse under £32. Over the course of the day that’s a total stake of £224 – almost exactly the same as the Unibet UK buy in – that I can invest as I sit at home clicking buttons and eating curry in my undercrackers. I don’t always eat curry in my undercrackers; sometimes I use a plate, but that’s another story.
There should, of course, be an overall higher % return from MTTs in comparison to STTs but even with 50% ROI over four days of travelling and playing an MTT compared to 5% ROI in the same period for online STTs, the difference between £110 and £48.80 is still clearly negated by lost rakeback, travel and accommodation costs subtracted from the package and time spent playing satellites in the first place rather than the ‘bread and butter’ games. It’s ultimately a lot of effort for very little reward. On the face of it, live events look like they’re more trouble than they’re worth.
A week earlier the Unibet Open took place in Malta. I didn’t qualify for that one but I went anyway thanks to Jonny – who did qualify – and his generous offer to let me roomshare with him. The buy-in for this event was €1,100 and is very much a flagship event on the Unibet calendar. The package, which is pretty standard for this type of event, is worth €2000 and includes the buy-in, four nights in a five star hotel and €250 in spendies. I’d personally run up a tidy little bankroll from scratch on Unibet and, never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, ears or most other orifices, I took the opportunity to take cheap flights out, tag along for a few days and treat myself to playing the €250 two day side event. In short I was able to experience a large event with top players from around Europe, enjoy the local sights, take advantage of the hotel facilities and put away far more free drink than can possibly be good for me. I was able to relax and enjoy myself. That, for me, is the the most significant thing.
As far as I can tell, live players are almost always either going to be playing below their potential profitability or well out of their usual buy-in and therefore at a much higher standard. Given the nature of the event I recognised that I fell into the latter category, but to be fresh and well-rested didn’t just mean that my decision making at the table was better that at Brighton, it meant that I was able to enjoy playing poker. My primary motivation at the table may be to make money but big live tournaments such as these are, surely, special events that poker players should embrace. Even if it dents the hourly rate of the grinder (and ultimately hits the rake of the host company), the exposure the host receives is good marketing and therefore good for the poker ecosystem. As players we all get to enjoy a few days somewhere nice while we’re at it.
I’ll definitely continue playing satellites as a side project to my standard games but my experiences this year have taught me that the tournaments need to be accessible and when accommodation isn’t available with the packages then something comfortable needs to be available locally within my budget. There may be a sizable difference in prestige between the Unibet Open and the Unibet UK Tour but they’re both good events and they’re both enjoyable if you can travel and rest without stress.
So I’ll keep looking to win tournament packages despite the high variance involved. I’ll continue to take shots at prizes that dwarf the $62.51 I receive for winning a $15 S&G into insignificance. After all, when you play them by the dozen, S&Gs are duller than an appearance by Coldplay in an episode of Last of the Summer Wine, and it’s nice to have a side project to keep things varied. Above all though, I think I’m one of millions of small stakes players who are following dreams. I may never see €65,000 like Martin Soukup did in Malta and I may not even hit the £11,000 that Chris Cooper and Aidan Ball chopped in Brighton but there are a lot of very attractive satellites to get to a number of appealing tournaments. With a bit of work and a bit of rungood I might just hit a cash place big enough to make a reasonably significant difference to my life and, even if never get further than a min-cash, I intend to have fun on the way.
I didn’t trouble the cash in the €250 event in Malta by the way. After resolving to play tight at the outset and assess the field I found myself with AKs, QQ and JJ in the first orbit and found myself 3-betting people all over the shop. I immediately developed an image as an aggro-lunatic and spewed half my stack to boot. The turbo structure meant that it was a short journey from there to a short stack and a very standard elimination. Still, there’s always next time.