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Padraig Parkinson: "Poker Doesn’t Belong to the Superstars"
Quick question: Which came first, the Irish Poker Open or Padraig Parkinson?
The two are so wholly inseparable at this point that you might as well not bother trying to find the answer.
As Parkinson puts it, "The tournament is in my DNA."
An Irish Open attendee for as long as he can remember Parkinson is a Dublin poker institution and, as expected, was at the tables sharing the craic and doing his best to bring the iconic title home again this year.
Again, it didn't quite work out that way. But that didn't come close to stopping him and his tablemates from having a good time.
It also freed him up for a few moments to share some memories of one of the longest-running poker tournaments in Europe, why he thinks it's seen a dip over the past few years and what it stands for in poker history.
PokerListings: During the panel discussion before the tournament you said poker rules should be changed so you can win the Irish Open. How long have you been trying?
Padraig Parkinson: The tournament is in my DNA. I’ve been playing it for 25 years. God, maybe 30.
I started to play it back in the days of The Eccentric Club when they had maybe five tables going. At the time, if you were a poker player, that was synonymous with being a scumbag or a pedophile.
But it was great fun. I’ve followed the Irish Open through eight or nine venues. I’ve played with all the big Irish players and with lots of big players from overseas, like Mike Sexton and Dan Harrington, who we managed to bring here.
PaddyPower asked me to invite Dan Harrington to the Irish Open about eight years ago and after that he just kept coming back, even on his own money.
When Mike Sexton first came here, he was part of the gang that Terry Rogers brought over here. You know, there were Stuey [Ungar], Doyle, Amarillo Slim, Chip Reese and Puggy Pearson.
Terry brought them all over to play the Irish Open in 1981. None of these Americans had ever left the country.
PL: And he made all these guys come over here to play the first Irish Open?
PP: Yes. Terry was a big bookmaker and a very smart man. He was on business in the US and accidentally met Benny Binion in the Horseshoe Casino while the WSOP was going on.
They only had a couple of tables going on but Terry realized the potential immediately. Terry was a visionary, a bit of a nut job sometimes, but a true visionary.
He came back and started the Eccentric Club, with five or six poker tables, roulette and a blackjack table. But that wasn’t big enough for Terry.
That’s why he went back and brought the Americans. Terry Rogers is the one guy who brought No-Limit Hold’em tournaments to Europe.
No Limit Hold’em just had never been played in Europe before.
PL: And that’s how the Irish Open tradition started?
PP: Yes, and it’s been great fun from the beginning. You know, the Irish have a very swashbuckling attitude towards poker.
They do take it serious but they know how to party, too. And what happens at the table stays at the table.
And there is something the Irish Open has that you can’t buy, and that is tradition. You can add half a million to the prize pool but you can’t buy 35 years of tradition.
Especially players of my generation. We’ve seen so many players come to the Irish Open that we've since lost.
When I walk into this room I don’t just see poker tables. I see the ghosts. It brings back memories.
Irish poker players used to come from all sorts of backgrounds but generally fairly shady backgrounds, like pool halls and snooker rooms; there were a lot of hustlers.
Walking into the Eccentric Club was like walking into the middle of a Damon Runyon short story, with all these guys with nicknames where you didn’t even want to ask where the nicknames came from because you didn’t want to know.
And now, the young Irish players have bought into it. They really want to win the Irish Open.
Some of the internet kids come here who don’t understand what the Irish Open is about but there are some players from England who’ve come here for 30 years and played it more often than me.
I’ve always said, 'If you win the Irish Open before you die or you die before you win it, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you turn up here and try.'
You have to look in the mirror the next morning and be able to say at least you tired. Maybe you didn’t play well, but you were there.
PL: Something else that’s impressive about the Irish Open is that the inaugural event was won by a woman.
PP: Yes, Colette Doherty. Colette was, eh, I mean, she was a lady, but she was one of the boys. I used to play for years with Colette in the old days.
If you played with her and you left after 36 hours or less that was pretty much considered as a hit-and-run.
Colette was tremendous entertainment, a hell of a poker player, and she could swear with the boys, too.
I know only a few young girls are playing poker now, but Ireland has always had a larger number of ladies playing Hold’em. Although their average age would have been a little higher.
Colette was also the first woman to play in the WSOP main event, after she’d won the Irish Open. Terry Rogers talked her into it.
PL: And that in such a Catholic country as Ireland.
PP: Yes! (laughs) Maybe they went to mass first and then played poker, I don’t know. I guess they play on Good Friday because there’s nothing else to do with all the pubs closed.
PL: Why has the Irish Open been losing players for several years?
PP: The EPTs, for one, got bigger and bigger. And there are so many other tournaments today, too.
The Irish Open used to be the most go-to tournament of the year and we had 800 runners. But now there is such a big choice and many young players don’t care about the tradition.
I’m trying to teach them, though, to bring the message out, because I think even with all the competition the numbers should be higher.
The Irish Open is the tournament with the most history in Europe, and the one with the most fun.
PL: Yeah, where else can you find Sumo wrestling as a side event?
PP: Haha, right. … Now I forgot what I wanted to say. Yes!
There is something special about the Irish way to play. Irish poker comes from the pubs. It’s traditionally a game where you’re enjoying yourself and are seen to enjoy yourself.
You’re not supposed to sit there like in a dentist’s practice, and the guy in there right now is screaming because there are no anesthetics.
I was sitting at a table today where I hardly knew anybody and within 20 minutes we were all having a laugh together.
But in more and more tournaments, nobody says anything anymore. But that’s not live poker; that’s guys playing internet poker live.
In Irish poker you don’t berate other players about how they play their hands. And if you bust the worst thing you can do is show how devastated you are.
Instead, you put on a smile, go up to your room and then bang your head against the wall.
Afterwards, you meet at the bar with the other players and have a drink, and you talk about pretty much anything except poker.
PL: Do the dropping numbers also have to do with the economy?
PP: Yes. You know that Ireland was hit very badly by the economic crisis in 2008 and the poker economy was the first to reflect how bad things were in the country.
One day everybody had money and the next day everybody was broke. And the guys who still had money pretended to be broke in case someone tried to borrow something from them.
I think the mini main event showed the spirit of this event very well. You know, 10% of the buy-in but with the same structure as the real main event.
I firmly believe that poker doesn’t belong to the superstars. Phil Hellmuth deserves respect, but so does the guy who’s playing in the pub for €20.
We’re all playing the same game, and poker is essentially a grassroots movement.
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