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One-Man Poker Wrecking Crew

The Story of Irish Legend Padraig Parkinson

by Jesse May |  Published: Apr 01, 2007


It was a moment to shatter the steeliest of nerves, on what should have been the tensest day of Padraig Parkinson's life. Here they were introducing the final table of the World Series of Poker, and Padraig was among the final six, his first time playing the championship event. The lineup included a former champion whom many regarded as the toughest no-limit hold'em player in the world, a genius thought to be the best player never to have won the title, and the chip leader, who, though Padraig's friend, was also his poker nemesis. By all rights, Padraig should have been thinking about the money, worrying about the pressure, or praying like hell for some good luck to get him through. But there stood Padraig, in the middle of a crowd with a big laugh and a smile, and the only thing he was thinking was, wouldn't it be wonderful if every day of living was this much fun?

And then, Tournament Director Bob Thompson took the microphone, and to the cheering crowd and cameras amassed for the final table of the main event of the 1999 World Series of Poker, he said the words that then and forever will send chills straight down Padraig Parkinson's spine.

"From Dublin, Ireland …"

It's coming up on eight years since Padraig Parkinson took third place in the World Series of Poker. It's about eight years since Padraig had the poker world by the scruff of the neck and was to take it by storm, ready to reap the accolades that had been his due since he was 18 years old, and everyone who had ever seen or played against Padraig had said was his for the plucking. It's about eight years since then and about six and a half years since I first met him, and here I am now in a hotel lobby in Dublin, waiting for Padraig to show. I'm waiting for either one of the best players in the world or the biggest waste of poker talent, all wrapped up inside the disguise of an Irishman. I'm here in Dublin for a walk down Padraig's memory lane. It's time to find out where it's all gone.

My throat hurts, my eyes hurt, my stomach is raw, and I look at the first cup of coffee of the day with something between trepidation and nausea. But it's time to visit Padraig Parkinson's Dublin. I vaguely wonder which Padraig will show up. He's a hard man, that Padraig Parkinson. One minute you're watching him play the game, and the next moment the game's on you. The longest with a grudge but easy to forgive, Padraig's a one-man wrecking crew of how great the game can be and how weak we all are. And in the midst of it all breathes a poker player, a master of a rare art, with a poker game that perhaps doesn't fit in today's current state of money thrown out of windows and down from high treetops, tournaments in which you can play 98 percent of the flops because the guy two seats to your left has wobbled eyes and a drool.

Of course we're in Dublin. Ireland is who Padraig is. This is where he began, and I imagine where he'll come to die - like an elephant. The Irish are the elephants of the poker world. And while they might not be the kings of the jungle, they are the last ones in the world you'd want to have stampeding toward your lawn. When Padraig talks about that final table of the World Series of Poker, it's hard to decide which means more to him, getting there as a poker player or getting there as an Irishman. He says to me years later, "Playing in America like I do, everyone's conscious of me being Irish. But nobody's more conscious of it than me. I'm very proud of being from Ireland … and that day, when Bob Thompson announced my name, it might've been the first time I ever realized just who I was."

Padraig's 30 minutes late, but that's expected. He'll let it go just long enough to send the plan out the window, to uproot us all from our trees and get us hanging on for dear life. With Padraig, you're always even money to leave the taxi outside with the meter running while having another pint of Guinness. The engineer always laughs when the monkey drives the train.

There are a lot of talented poker players out there. God, there's a lot of talent out there. People play hands so well and make reads so well that you just wonder sometimes if an ordinary man has a chance. But that stuff is all smoke and mirrors, just aces and kings, because when the pressure is on, you either crack up or you don't. And pressure hasn't cracked Padraig - not yet, anyway.

There's a story about the astronaut Neil Armstrong. This is not the story about the time Neil Armstrong went to the moon. This is three years earlier, and Armstrong was flying out in space with another guy when they ran into a bit of trouble. Their rocket ship went out of control and started spinning around, faster and faster. It started spinning end over end at the rate of one revolution per second, hurtling through space, and in 1966, this was pretty much a situation that spelled the doom and destruction of the occupants therein, because even though astronauts do not tend toward panic, there's very little anybody can do in the way of actions when your rocket ship is spinning in space at the rate of one revolution per second, except pray and try to keep from throwing up. But not Neil Armstrong. Armstrong just got himself on the radio and had a calm and leisurely discussion with the engineers in Florida about how he might fix the problem, and then he calmly fixed it. And to this day, nobody who was involved in Gemini VIII can quite figure out how the conversation and subsequent actions that took place happened while all the time Neil Armstrong was hurtling to his death through space, end over end at the rate of one revolution per second.

And in a nutshell, that's Padraig Parkinson. Padraig will be in the middle of a big tournament, facing a decision with all of his dough on the line and cameras all around, hard eyes staring at him, jabber mouths jawing at him, and the tournament director putting him on the clock, and Padraig will still find the time for wit and a laugh. And then he'll make the right decision.

I first met Padraig in Dublin. I met him over the course of an autumn and a winter, in Dublin, in Amsterdam, and on the Isle of Man. I met him, like so many others, when I was dead broke. Most people meet Padraig when they're dead broke, because he's a champion of the human spirit and believes only in the underdog. I had just gotten knocked out of the Irish winter festival by playing like an idiot. I had gotten bluffed so badly and shook with such complete fear against the likes of Betson, Bennett, and Furlong that I was standing around feeling like I wanted to cry. And all of a sudden, there was Padraig Parkinson, rocking back and forth from one foot to the other with his boundless energy. He had a pint of Guinness in each hand, but the way I remember it is that he had six arms and six pints of Guinness, and was drinking them all at once while telling me my life story. That's the force of his personality. He grabbed hold of me and took me off into the Dublin night. The evening was a sea of Guinness and a haze of, "You're a poker player." This is the life you've chosen, so get on with it. I can see Padraig staring at a pint and telling me the Irish attitude toward poker. "We don't," Padraig said, meaning the Irish and specifically Irish poker players, "look at this glass and try to decide whether or not it's half empty or half full. Because, half full or half empty, you know what the move is." And then he said, smiling, "Finish it, and order another." That's Irish poker. Leave the hand analysis for the anoraks. Forget it, and get on with the next one.

Padraig gallops into the hotel lobby, 90 minutes late. I could have told you blind what he's wearing: jeans and a black leather jacket, and a collared shirt with or without a black sweater. As usual, one corner of his shirt peers out from his trousers and lies under the bottom of his sweater cuff. He's talking to the front desk and shifting back and forth on his feet. We pile in our taxi for the day and head out.

We're standing in the Junior Common Room at Trinity College. It's just a room, a room with high ceilings, some tables, and a row of windows that look out over the beautiful courtyard of Trinity College in the center of Dublin. But this is where it all began for Padraig Parkinson, where he walked in the door while a student one day and saw a game of poker. "First time I played hold'em was up here in 1976," he says, looking around. Some student had gotten ahold of Amarillo Slim's book that Slim wrote after winning the World Series of Poker. "That book got passed around from man to man, and after that we all played hold'em. All that stuff about Terry Rogers bringing the game back with him from Las Vegas in 1981 and exporting it to Europe, well, this is the place that we first played hold'em." Once Padraig started playing poker, that was it; no more class lectures. "One day I got home and my parents said, 'We've had a phone call from Trinity. They haven't seen you since you registered and they want to know if you're still attending.' My parents told them, 'That's funny, he leaves here every morning.'"

In 1977, the Dublin poker scene consisted mostly of the game at Trinity College and the game at UCD, a rival university that was Donnacha O'Dea's old stomping ground. One day in 1977 cemented Padraig's reputation. "I borrowed a fiver off the girlfriend when I woke up. I busted the Trinity game, the UCD game in the Belfield bar, and the game afterward, and I woke up the next morning with one hundred and thirty-five quid." That was a fortune in those days, when "Guinness was 16p a pint."

"Everybody used to walk in here at 10 o'clock in the morning and we'd start the game. At 7 p.m. we'd adjourn to The Buttery and play until closing." Down the stairs from the Junior Common Room and across the courtyard, we make our way toward The Buttery, Trinity's long-sitting cafeteria and pub. Padraig points up to an overhanging window as we pass beneath it, jutting out from the stone building. "Sometimes we'd play up there, as well, in the Historical Society. The auditor at the time was Mary Harney, who became deputy prime minister of Ireland. She used to come in and see us playing, and say, 'You're not supposed to … aw, go ahead.'" Moving among the fresh college faces, one of them stops Padraig and pumps his hand. "Hi, Padraig, big fan, big fan. Are you in town for a game?"

The backrooms in The Buttery are ancient, with wooden tables and low curved ceilings. Padraig recalls the day he graduated. "A miracle in itself. My parents and I, we've gone over to The Buttery for a pint, and there was a whole bunch of lecturers sitting at a table. Not one of them knew me, which my parents thought quite odd, but there was an old woman who worked there, Angela, and she came over to my parents and said, 'You must be very proud. I've seen them all come and go here for 30 years, and it's always the people you think will turn out the worst that turn out the best.' I didn't know a single one of the lecturers, but I knew all the bar staff." Padraig laughs at the memory. "I was a man of the people."

It was at the Master Classics in Amsterdam, the first time that I ever saw Padraig Parkinson play poker. They were down to about five tables late in the second day of the main event, and I had been sweating Padraig from the rail. At the time, this was the biggest buy-in and prize pool on the European calendar, so the pressure was on and the atmosphere was intense. Padraig got his chips all in before the flop and quickly turned over two jacks. His opponent waited for five seconds and then turned over two kings with a flourish and looked at Padraig expectantly. Padraig just sat there chewing gum and staring straight ahead, and you had to be watching it to really feel what was happening. The flop had yet to be dealt out, but the man wanted some recognition that he had the kings, he had the kings against Padraig's jacks, and Padraig was all in and about to get knocked out of the main event of the Master Classics. But Padraig was just sitting there staring straight ahead in his chair; he was sitting there like the man had just turned over a deuce and a trey and Padraig was about to double up. Padraig was so convincing and the man was so rattled that he actually stood up and leaned over the table to look closer at Padraig's hand to make sure he wasn't hallucinating and that Padraig didn't actually have the aces. And when the dealer burned and turned a jack on the board, Padraig gave no reaction, like the jacks were a 99 percent favorite and not a 4.5-1 underdog. It freaked out the whole table, I can tell you. It was wild.

Later on in the evening, they are down to two tables and it's getting really tense. I'm standing on the rail sweating Padraig with Mike Sexton and Scott Gray, and Padraig, who's been raising pots all over the place, has stuck in a whole bunch of chips and now faces a reraise for his whole stack from a rounder to his left. About three minutes have gone by, and Padraig is sitting there staring at the man like he's just taken away half his family. Padraig's got wild eyes and he's counting his stack and staring hard at the man. Another two minutes have gone by and my heart is pumping like a freight train as I wonder how big a hand Padraig must have that he's considering a call for this long for all of his chips. I decide that he must have A-K or perhaps two jacks, and the longer he takes, the more the raiser is starting to shift in his chair and look around like he wants to find a vomit bag from the strain. And in the middle of all this, Scott Gray, who has half of Padraig's action in the tournament, turns to Mike Sexton and me and says, "I'm going to get another beer; does anybody want anything?"

"Scott!" I blurt out. "What are you doing? Padraig's in the middle of the biggest pot of his tournament!" And Scott raises an eyebrow and smiles at me, and walks off toward the bar, chuckling to himself. About two minutes later, Padraig flings his cards in the muck, but not before the reraiser has had a near coronary. Later on, when Scott tells Padraig what I said, they both laugh their heads off. You see, it was the first time I'd seen it. I didn't understand the plan. Padraig was never calling. He probably couldn't have beaten jack high at the time. Padraig never turned over his cards at that table, not one time, and he still cruised to the final with an average stack. It was just about then that I started to get a glimpse of what the Irish system of playing no-limit tournament poker was about. My eyes were to be even more widened.

We're somewhere in the middle of Dublin, at a bar called the Suffolk House. Well, it's not the Suffolk House now, but it was then. Padraig's telling a story about this very pub, and it's like the first time I ever met him. He's bouncing back and forth from toe to toe and it's like he's got six arms and telling us about when Alex Higgins came in one day with his cue. "And Besty came in another night …" It seems that a foolish barman refused to serve George Best on account of the barman deciding George had had enough. "As one," Padraig says, "every person in this pub, we put our glasses down on the bar and we followed Besty out. I'd have loved to see the barman trying to explain the next day about the empty till." It's one of Padraig's favorite memories.

One of Padraig's poker heroes is the late, great Irish player Jimmy Langan, who was a two-time Irish Open champion with a soft spot for anyone who was having a bad run of it. "Jimmy," Padraig says, chuckling, "used to take all the broke poker players and set them up in business. It was always a disaster, but …" and he shrugs his shoulders, laughing. The first year that Padraig made the final table of the Irish Open, 1992, Jimmy took it on himself to be Padraig's coach after he himself had been knocked out. "Don't ever get old," Jimmy told Padraig. "I used to play like you, in the middle of every pot." When Padraig reached the final table, however, Jimmy excused himself, saying, "Listen. You were born for this."

It's true that when Padraig reached the final table of the 1999 World Series of Poker, he and Scott Gray gave a several-thousand-dollar tip to the toilet cleaners at Binion's Horseshoe casino. And it's true that when Scott Gray repeated the feat in 2002 by reaching the final table himself, all of the Horseshoe's toilet cleaners went home the night before the final and lit candles for Scott. It's no small thing that what Padraig is proudest about in his poker career is the annual tournament that he organizes in support of Dublin's homeless community. In 2006, just under €50,000 was raised for Dublin's Simon community through Padraig's tournament, which saw poker players fly in from all over Europe to participate.

Much of Padraig's heart seems to be given over to the down-on-their-luck. Maybe it's because he has had no shortage of that experience himself. Padraig tells a story from the '80s or is it the '90s when he was broke, along with a gambler by the name of Mick Hoey. "Mick Hoey and I were skint. Well, we weren't skint, we had four quid. So, we're sitting outside the news agents and we're having a big row. I wanted to buy 20 cigarettes. Hoey wanted to buy 10 cigarettes and two scratch cards. He got his way, and I scratched a winner worth a hundred quid. So we went to the pub and had lunch and vodka and everything, and I'm still telling him how stupid this idea was. After lunch we still have eighty quid. So we go into the bookie's place. Hoey does his forty and I turn my forty into five hundred by backing the derby winner the year before he won the derby as the last leg of a treble. Now we've got five hundred quid and we're sitting in the pub and I'm still telling Hoey what a stupid move this was. And I go into the poker game and turn the five hundred into about twenty grand in under a week. I'm sitting in the cash game and Hoey is sitting behind me, and I burst out laughing every ten minutes because Hoey keeps muttering, 'If they only knew, if they only knew', because, you see, no one had known that we'd gone skint."

To understand how Padraig plays poker is to know where Irish poker came from. Irish poker is old-school hold'em; it's a game that is born out of the fact that there is no dead money, that the lineup is tough and everyone is playing like his life depends on it. There are no courtesy double-ups, there are no live ones, and the tougher the game, the more effective the strategy. The tougher it gets, the more they like it.

Padraig was deep again at the World Series of Poker. It was day three of the main event in 2001 and Padraig was in great form, as he always is around that time of the year. Padraig had quit drinking in March in place of a health kick, and he'd spent the last two weeks just hanging around Binion's Horseshoe, taking long walks and resting up. All of this was in preparation for the main event, as Padraig and Scott Gray had worked out long ago that the main event was a big bet worth taking seriously, and to get as far as they planned required training, like an athlete, to be in peak condition in order to go the full five days that winning then required. It was deep into the third day and Padraig was in good form, though short-stacked. He had been short-stacked all day, but then he was moved to a table that could only be called the table of death. Seated around the table, all with tremendous stacks, were Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Paul Phillips, Bill O'Connor, Tony D, and Carl McKelvey. It was, quite simply, the toughest players left in the tournament, all at the one table. Had it been the final table, it might have been the toughest of all time. And even though Padraig was the shortest stack at the table, even though he had no more than enough for one little move, for six hours he was such a thorn in the side of the rest of them that when Padraig did get knocked out, Phil Hellmuth jumped out of his chair and ran around giving high-fives. That's the sort of game Padraig plays. He worries the tough ones. The minute Padraig was knocked out, he was cornered by a camera crew and an interview team. Tell us just how terrible you feel, they implored. Tell us how bad it is to get knocked out of the World Series of Poker. Padraig just gave the interviewer a puzzled look. "Nobody's died here," he said. "I'm a poker player."

There's a story about the Irish in 950 A.D., during the time when the city of Dublin had been overrun by the Vikings. It seems there was an Irish poet who, angry that nobody was paying any attention to him as he sang in the hope of getting a few copper coins, decided to threaten the Vikings with satire. Now, satire had voodoo qualities in those days, and it was commonly believed that satire was so evil that a man could die from a satire made against him. So, the poet threatened the Vikings with satire, but he agreed to let them buy themselves off, two pence for good Vikings and one pence for bad Vikings. Needless to say, every Viking gave the poet two pence, lest he be thought a bad Viking and perhaps more suitable to have a satire made against him. To this day in Dublin, satire is no laughing matter.*

Padraig could be a hard twist with a grudge. The Irish usually are. They had been trying to get him to play in Late Night Poker, the world's first televised poker series, since its inception, but Padraig had always demurred - that is, until the fall after that 2001 World Series of Poker. Phil Hellmuth was playing, and Padraig agreed to play on the condition that he was drawn in Phil Hellmuth's heat. Phil was the first player knocked out of that tournament, eliminated by Padraig, first with his wit and then with his poker. Padraig went on to win the heat and then the tournament, which was fitting, considering that from start to finish, that tournament was like being in a rocket ship hurtling through space at one revolution per second. Padraig could be a hard twist with a grudge, but he's also fond of pointing out that he and Phil Hellmuth soon buried the hatchet and are now right as rain.

The final table had been delayed on account of a funeral in London of a former poker champion on that very day, so it was 3 a.m. on a Monday in the middle of an industrial park in Cardiff, Wales, and all eight players still remained at the final table of Late Night Poker V. The blinds had gotten big, very big, with the average stack only seven times the big blind and not much more than a double-up separating the big stack from the small one, who, as it happened, was Padraig Parkinson. The players had just returned from a 15-minute break in the green room, which was crammed to bits with everyone who had played in the tournament, plus a whole host of backers and hangers on, being that Late Night Poker was a huge event in those days. Mad Marty Wilson had disappeared out the back door an hour previously and returned balancing a full pint of Guinness, which he presented to Padraig without ceremony. And at 3 o'clock on a Monday morning in the middle of an industrial park in Cardiff, Padraig looked at Marty with unblinking eyes, and then grabbed the pint like it was Popeye's can of spinach and went back in the studio. Play resumed, and Padraig went all in before the flop on the next four hands on the trot. He started in the cutoff position and finished under the gun, and he went all in four hands in a row with absolutely nothing at no time and never got called, although it took 12 long minutes to play the four hands, as every player at the table knew Padraig was at it, and they had cards with which to call and then squeezed them for ages before mucking. With those four lots of blinds, Padraig went from short stack to chip leader, and that's how he won Late Night Poker V. I haven't seen that happen eighthanded on a televised final table before or since. After the tournament, there was general bedlam, what with everyone congratulating Padraig, and one of the young cameramen who was very eager about poker ran up to Padraig and said, "Mr. Parkinson. I just have to know. The fourth time you went all in, were you thinking that because you'd already done it three times in a row, the others would have to think that you had something?"

Padraig nodded sagely and let the man trot away before turning to me and saying, "I didn't have the heart to tell him. When I raised that fourth hand, all that I was thinking, I was still trying to work out where in the hell Mad Marty could have gotten hold of a fresh pint of Guinness at 3 o'clock in the morning!"

It was around 1994 when Padraig and Scott Gray got together. Padraig had gone broke in London and was waiting for a plane, when Irish poker player Colette Docherty sat Padraig down and told him that he could be a great player, but if he didn't get his act together, he'd be dead. "And I knew she meant it," says Padraig, "because she didn't have any agenda." As Padraig tells it, "Scott and I, we'd both been skint and we did this deal in March or April." They decided that if they could get $5,000 together between them, they'd pool the money and go to Vegas for the World Series of Poker. And so began one of the great partnerships in poker history. Over the course of 12 years, Padraig and Scott never had a losing year in Las Vegas. The first couple of years, they left the tournaments out altogether. They'd keep the money in action 24 hours a day; one would play while the other would sleep. They pooled their knowledge, temperaments, and money. And it worked. Boy, did it work. The World Series of Poker managed to pay for them, year in and year out, punctuated by Padraig coming third in the main event in 1999, and then Scott taking fourth in 2002.

Last stop. It's the site of Terry Rogers' old Eccentric Club, a landmark in Irish poker. But Padraig has to be nearly dragged to the door.On the bottom of an old tattered building, there still hangs a bright-blue sign, "Terry Rogers Bookmaker." I ask Padraig if he recognizes the place. "No," he says, and then disappears into the pub next door. Padraig's relationship with Irish gambling and poker legend Terry Rogers was rocky at best. "Terry was great," confesses Padraig. "Terry was great and terrible, all at the same time." Terry Rogers was largely responsible for spreading poker in Ireland in the '80s, and wholly responsible for starting the Irish Open, and if you ask Padraig, he'll admit that between winning the Irish Open or the World Series of Poker, he might have a preference, but it's close. He often says, "In 1999, I was third in the world, fifth in Ireland, and last in Galway."

The last 12 months have seen Padraig knocking on the door again. 2006 was his new attitude, long walks and serious poker, and he was rewarded with a deep finish in the Irish Open and a third in a big bracelet event at the WSOP. 2007 is the same again, but more earnest. Tomorrow will be Padraig's last Guinness before he goes into training. We're standing in the last pub, and Padraig is looking at his pint. "You know, I used to think I was gonna win the Irish Open two or three times. I remember Donnacha O'Dea, a few years ago, we're sitting in the Irish Open, and Donnacha looks at me and says, 'You know, I'm starting to think I might never win this thing.' And this is Donnacha, the most successful Irish poker player ever, the man. Donnacha's never screwed up. Sometimes I'd screw up just for the craic. I must've had I don't know how many chances to make a million. But Donnacha was right and I was wrong." We stand there for a while and then Padraig looks up. "You know, I only get pissed off twice a year: when I get knocked out of the World Series and when I get knocked out of the Irish Open." He stares into his pint some more. "But in 49 years, I've never been dishonest in my dealings. That ain't a bad thing, is it?"
Maybe this will be Padraig's year. What are the odds? I think I may just have a bet myself. spade

* From Literary Dublin, by Herbert Kenny; Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., New York, New York; 1974