“As you’re here I take it that you’re not £50,000 richer.”
“Did you win anything at all?”
“Did I bollocks.”
“Well, enjoy looking at spreadsheets for the next eight hours.”
And so began another long shift at the coalface of Excel.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Copenhagen as I’d won a package to the Unibet Open. The event took place at the same time as the EPT Barcelona, where Pokerstars had introduced a number of controversial changes, and Dara O’Kearney wrote an opinion piece which made quite a few waves within the poker community. I do have ambitions to become professional but I’m still effectively a lower stakes recreational player and, as I was playing a live tournament at the same time as it was all going off in Iberia, I thought it might be useful to put forward my own perspective as soon as I could.
So here I am, well over a fortnight later, striking not so much when the iron’s hot as much as striking while the iron’s cooled to a temperature you’d happily bathe a child in. Maybe it hasn’t yet cooled enough to be happpy bathing your own child but certainly enough for the over-indulged whiny little shits that you occasionally encounter on public transport and without risk of manslaughter charges if it all goes wrong.
The reason for the delay is because of an extremely annoying thing called work. It’s a very time consuming activity that the vast majority of recreational players undertake in order to avoid things like malnutrition, homelessness and grim death. For the professional, poker is their version of the ‘day job’ that everybody else does. For the majority of recs poker is a desired outlet away from the several hours a day getting paid for dealing with other people’s shit. Once the average person factors in things like cooking, cleaning, poker, sleeping, bouts of furious masturbation, washing and self-loathing weeping there’s not really much room left for self-indulgent scribblers like myself to write and publish bollocks like this. In short, most people’s time is a bloody precious commodity.
I took two days off work to go to Copenhagen and I had to fight for them. It would have been three days but for the fact that the Monday was a UK public holiday. My satellite win for the Unibet Open was a couple of weeks before the event and, as a public sector employee working in a large office, I wasn’t surprised when I rocked up at work to find that the leave allocation for a holiday weekend in summer at the height of the school holidays had already been taken. I’ve long since earmarked my work as the sort of place where creativity and imagination go to die but I’m fortunate that my own line management aren’t the kind of petty, smallminded arseholes who seem to be so prevalent in large offices; they were happy that the world wouldn’t collapse without me so they granted the time off. That said, I though I’d fare better by telling them that that I’d won a holiday worth €2,000 rather than use an opening gambit along the lines of, “I need to go to Denmark to play cards.” At the time it felt like I was spinning a bit of a line but, on reflection, it was probably the more accurate statement.
In their rush to pull in as much money as possible through live events it seems that Stars have forgotten that recreational players at tournaments are essentially day-jobbers on a jolly where they also play poker. An employee’s paid leave is the most precious time available so when we choose to take time off work, often away from our loved ones, we want a big experience. As appealing as the prospect of winning a lot of money at cards may be, simply having the opportunity to sit in a casino for hours on end just doesn’t meet the expectations. Once we’ve gone skipping out of work to attend an event we’re very definitely on holiday and I think I speak for the majority of non pros when I say we want – nay, demand – a bloody good time in return. It’s the reason people start sinking pints in airports at 6am. Poker is, of course, the central theme but the poker package is nothing without the garnish of high end accommodation, bags of freebies, player parties and affordable side events. Once you start stripping down the fun stuff you’re simply left with a poker tournament and we don’t need to book flights for that – there are plenty of them on the internet.
I remember seeing online satellites to a live Caribbean event when I started playing poker a million years ago and I was immediately intrigued. The chance to play poker for big money is one thing but the experience of doing it in an exotic location and staying in a flash hotel? Well, that would be a fantastic way to spend a few days and the chance of a deep run and life changing cash woud be brilliant in addition. Somebody with a better memory than me can confirm whether I’m right or wrong but I seem to remember sites arranging flights on your behalf too.
A glance at the current Stars lobbies for live satellites shows a lot of seat only arrangements or seat plus barely enough cash to cover the flights with. I’ll be the first to admit that playing for a fancy hotel and a load of ‘stuff’ may not be the most practical approach to cost but, as a prospective holidaymaker, a seat in a tourney with accommodation costs coming out of my own pocket reduces the appeal drastically. I wrote in my last blog about how the live game is to be celebrated on its own merits but as it’s not usually the most optimal option for either pros or recs, large events need to be about so much more than poker alone.
I’m not going to criticise Stars for attempting to innovate. I actually quite like the idea of bringing the regional events under one umbrella. It seems like a sensible, universal rebranding exercise and if it creates the opportunity for a broad satellite system then that’s good with me. Given the benefit of the doubt maybe they’ve also been unlucky with the decision to implement a 20% payout structure. Broader payouts could well have proven popular, particularly amongst recs, and as a satellite player with a comparitively piddling bankroll I wouldn’t personally be sniffy about taking $5,000 home with me. I’m inclined to agree that it’s generally a bad idea though, almost like the poker equivalent of a 0-0 draw, and hopefully it will be consigned to the bin.
On the other hand it’s impossible to see why a 10am start would be met with anything but hostility. If the entire audience is split between recs on holiday and poker pros then there can be no winners. Holidaymakers tend to dislike 10am starts in general and I’d wager most poker pros would need three hours of instructional videos and a number crunching app just to understand what 10am actually is. The drive for profit is understandable but the Stars approach not only seems to completely misunderstand the needs of its customers but they seem to have reached a stage where every move they make is (usually correctly) met with utter cynicism. The 20% payout and the 10am start may well have worked under other circumstances but such is the lack of trust in the Stars brand these days that people have read between the lines and concluded that earlier starts and more payouts mean earlier bustouts and therefore more players in other events and more rake to be, well, raked in.
Fortunately Stars appear to be an exception to the rule and their dominance of the industry magnifies the attention they receive. As Dara himself points out there are a number of enjoyable and well run events out there and I was fortunate enough to be at one. I busted early in the tournament thanks to a fairly unremarkable KK v AA situation but this gave me the opportunity to spend an exceptional weekend in Denmark with my wife. From the very beginning we were made welcome by the terrific Unibet staff and, like in Malta for the previous Unibet Open, there were plenty of activities like five-a-side football going on for those who’d busted the main event. There were also free drinks. I really can’t ever underestimate the importance of free drinks.
I was lucky. Other people have crap bosses. Other workplaces wouldn’t be able to afford to give extra people the time off. I’ll happily acknowledge that the logistics of arranging tournaments on these scales must be very complicated but I think there’s a point to be made about the problems that recs encounter and the attitudes of poker companies when people do run into trouble. It’s all good and well for a poker company to say that you must be able to play the target event but those in normal jobs are in Catch 22 situations where it’s wasteful to book time off if they haven’t won a package but if they do win one then they may not be able to get the time off to attend. That’s not a viable scenario for anybody who has spent time and money working their way through a satellite system.
Had I been unable to take time off work I have absolutely no doubt that Unibet would have allowed me to play the next event instead if I’d asked, even though it falls outside their terms and conditions. Given the tales I’ve read of inflexibility even when it comes to which day 1s people play, I’d fully expect Stars’ response to an identical request would be to instruct me to take my head for a great big runny shite. To put it a slightly different way, Unibet care about their players as they seem to appreciate that they’re the most important part of the poker ecosystem. Stars, like so many large organisations, seem to have reached a stage where their only interest is maximising short term profit and everything else is an irrelevance. They’re picking the fruits but they’ve forgotten that they need to feed the plant if they want more harvests. I don’t know how long it will take but I think their short-sightedness will kill them.
Satelliting to tournaments with high buy-ins is about so much more than poker when you’re one of the little people. Poker companies highlight big winners to create a glitzy image. If they’re going to create the image then they need to create the reality for the wannabes when they’re lucky enough to get a golden ticket, even if it’s a very obvious facade. Two weeks ago I returned to the office as a jet-setting, high-rolling, international poker player. It’s all nonsense but it was a fun experience and the time on the felt was only a small part of that.
If it were solely about the prospect of the outside chance of a big payday then I’d simply sit at home in my undercrackers and play the Sunday Million, perhaps even the Sunday Storm. I love live poker but if you’re asking me to travel half the length of a continent to get there then give me the provision for free booze, a plush hotel and a fancy-pants location. If not then bollocks to it, I’ll save my annual leave for some proper fun and stick to the online grind.