Give me the Irish Open

April 3, 2012

The Irish Open. Just the mere mention of that phrase sends memories flooding down my spine. In many ways, my experience in European poker has been defined by the constancy of the Irish Open. Held in Dublin each year, whether the ramshackle nostalgia of the Merrion Club on Merrion Square, the Jury's Hotel in Ballsbridge, the sprawl of the City West, or late nights and rock and roll of the Burlington, it always feels the same. A joyous celebration of poker camaraderie and competition, with all welcome to share the dream of becoming champion of one of the oldest poker tournaments in the world.

I'm really not a veteran. When Irish poker history in the guise of Padraig Parkinson, Liam Flood, Don Fagan, and Scott Gray show their faces in the bar, I'm happy to be the kid among them, the fresh faced American who still likes nothing better than to nurse a pint while their stories of the old days fly. Yet when it comes to the modern era of the Irish Open, in the days since Paddy Power stepped forward to carry the name and television coverage has become the norm, I'm proud to say that I've seen them all and relished in every one.

It's impossible to talk about the Irish Open without talking about poker history, because poker history is what it is. It is the longest running tournament in Europe without exception. The Irish Open hearkens back to the days of the famed bookmaker Terry Rogers, who among other things was the first man to go to Las Vegas and book the World Series of Poker. If you make it to Las Vegas this year and travel down to the site of the original WSOP at the Horseshoe casino, there's a picture on the wall that shows Stu Ungar moments after his victory in 1980, where he defeated Doyle Brunson heads up to win the title. The picture is an iconic one, but only recently has it been re-cropped to show more of the setting. And now visible standing just behind Stu Ungar and to his left, with a smile like the cat who just ate a bag of canaries, is Terry Rogers himself. Because it was he who had just won all the money. Rogers had laid every player that year and got a skinner for the book when the unheralded Stu Ungar won. Terry brought tournament Hold'em back to Ireland with him, along with a whole load of the American's money. And a few years later, the Irish Open tournament was born.

My memories of the Irish Open are more modern but no less intense. The first year I attended it was still Noel Furlong's town, the man who struck fear with his brand of hyper aggression that predated the Scandinavians, and the courageous lunacy of European Champion Aiden Bennett who played No Limit Hold'em like Jack Nicholson's character from the film The Shining. Those tournaments took place on three floors of the Merrion Club, while in the basement a free buffet was put on for the dinner break featuring turkey, roast beef, and ham. I was at the Merrion Club on at least three occasions and never even once made it down to that buffet. Nobody else did either, because then you would have missed the craigh across the street at the pub, where a hundred gamblers would cram in on the hour long break for record numbers of pints and shots. For all I know, the basement buffet was only a rumor, as Padraig Parkinson still maintains that the turkey was the same as the year before, wheeled out as petrified stone but never eaten or touched.

I remember the year of Marty Smyth, how in his understated way he demolished a young Roland de Wolfe and a younger Sorel Mizzi to take the crown. I remember being impressed that year by a curly haired Dane who got his aces cracked with two tables left, but still picked up his first live cash. It was only Peter Eastgate. The bar that year was something fierce, from first in the morning to last at night. And two buses were packed with gamblers and driven up from Waterford, to cheer on Nicky Power and The Fox who were also at the final.

I remember the year of the man named Vincent. When live poker on TV was nearly defeated by the dwelling tactics of Ian Woodley and there was a thought that the game might actually never end. Who could forget the year of Neil Channing, a guy who truly appreciated the winning of the crown. No one could say he hadn't put in his time. Channing won that tournament with three tables left, as he raised six out of seven pots off the feature table to build a stack. Recent years have seen the Irish Open as a springboard for exploding talent like James Mitchell and Niall Smyth, tempered by the brave performance of Paul Carr, who showed the true spirit of the tournament by having absolutely no idea of the money difference between first and second but knew everything about history's place. And all the guises of Surinder Sunar, from the black and white pictures of him hanging the walls from the eighties with his flowing hair, to the many times when he'd manage six big blinds on the bubble by min raising and checking the flop. And then just last year after Day 1, when he told me he'd had a dream. And he nearly did.

I've sat at the bar many a time at three am with Paddy the Dentist, while he retells the story of the one forgotten champion and beer glasses clatter from every side of the floor. Or clinked tales with Paul from the north, or those from the west, and every one of the people for whom the Irish Open is as much a part of them as spring is to the trees. It's rebirth, it's tradition, it's renewal, and it's recall. Give me the pure pleasure of the Irish Open, give me an Irish brogue and pint of brown, give me the pure pleasure of watching a final table where first prize doesn't matter as much as a guy whose family is watching on TV, his friends are all on the rail, he hasn't slept more than three hours the last two nights, and it's Monday after Easter weekend at The Irish Open with a chance to join the immortals on the wall. Give me that, and know that the true spirit of the game lives on.

I was in Las Vegas the summer of 2003 when Irishman Rory Liffey had built a stack in the World Series Main Event. Sometime around Day four, Rory did a media interview where he was asked the obligatory question, what would winning the World Series of Poker mean to you, and what would you do with all that money? "Well that's easy," Rory said, in his earnest way. "It'll mean that I finally have enough money to spend my life trying to realize my dream of winning the Irish Open." Who could add more to that?

Pokerfarm Edit - Note. Players have just 2 more days to qualify for the Irish Open with Paddy Power through their last chance saloon promo. Dont miss their last freeroll on the 4th April at 9.30.

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