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Cool Hand Luke

by Nicky O'Donnell |  Published: Feb 01, 2008


It's 9 a.m. on a Saturday in Merrion Square, Dublin. The €1-€1 pot-limit Omaha game at Cool Hand Luke's - which plays more like a €2-€5 or at times even a €5-€10 game, or higher - has finished up for the night and Luke cashes out the last few surviving bleary-eyed poker players. I'm one of them, and am down €450 for the night. Another player is up €3,500. Luke always asks, "How did you get on?" This is a question that can be met with a variety of responses, from a simple "not good" or "great" to a five-minute monologue of hand histories, bad beats, and a replay of the biggest pot of the night. No matter how you choose to answer, one thing is guaranteed: Luke will give up a very valuable part of his time to listen to your story.

On this particular morning, however, I'm getting more than my fair share, as Luke has agreed to give me an interview for Card Player. I've known Luke since I first started playing poker in Dublin cardrooms more than three years ago, but Luke has been involved at the very heart of the Dublin poker scene almost from the beginning.

"This is where it all started," he said, "right here in this very room. I was 24, had been married for two years, and had just bought a house. I was studying accountancy and working in a butcher's. I was looking for a second job. My mother had worked as a cleaner here in the Merrion and two of my sisters as waitresses. I started out working three nights a week as a cashier and also worked two nights dealing five-card draw. I could make more in a night dealing than working a full week at the butcher's, but we were always told there was no guarantee the club would stay open. I ended up taking a gamble and decided to work full time in poker. That was 20 years ago."

Although he didn't realise it at the time, Luke was honing his diplomacy skills long before he became a cardroom manager in an unlikely vocation at a butcher's. "One day, one of our regular customers came to the store and was standing there with a balaclava on. We knew it was him because he was huge. I mean, this man was built like a brick wall. We all just started laughing. 'Doesn't he look funny in the balaclava?' Then he produces a hatchet, gets one of the workers in a headlock, and goes for the till. At this point I'm still sort of laughing, because I know the man. I mean, he came into the shop all the time. I tried to break things up and he swings the hatchet at my head. He misses and hits me on the shoulder, but thankfully it was blunt. It still hurt, obviously. He managed to make off with about 60 pounds. Afterward, we realised one of the other guys working in the store was missing. We thought something had happened to him. Then there was knocking from inside the fridge. It was a bizarre and funny incident that I'll never forget. I've even met the man afterward on the street. Nothing was ever done about it. He was just a very desperate man who was down on his luck at the time."

Luke has always been a man of the people. He has a warmth and quirkiness about him that has drawn poker players in droves to his poker room. He always greets you with a firm handshake and a, "How are you keeping?" He has a knack of remembering everyone's name after his first visit.

"When I began working in the Merrion, I took an active involvement in the running of the games. Even when it wasn't really my responsibility, I would help out, sorting decks of cards, announcing 'blinds are up,' and even making rulings. Eventually, I ended up being in charge of running the tournaments."

In the late 1980's, Teddy Hickson - then the owner of the Merrion - decided that the best way to deal with the competition was to become the competition, and he formed a partnership with Brian Palmer, owner of the Jackpot casino on Montague Street, which was just a 10-minute walk from Merrion Square. The Jackpot then began running poker, which started to take customers away from the games in the Merrion. Many of the staff moved, but Luke stayed on.

Eventually, Luke was running only one game a night on a Saturday. "The Merrion was going down the tubes. Those were tough times," he recalled. The partnership dissolved and Luke was given the club to run on his own when he was 31. The game he ran at the time was a round of pot-limit hold'em, Omaha, and half-pot trebling stud. Things then started to pick up for the Merrion, because the Jackpot began focussing more on the casino again, running table games in a property across the road called the Colossus.

Eventually, the Jackpot's poker room was lying idle, and in 1997 Luke approached them to rent the room. To his surprise, he was offered a substantial wage to manage the poker room. He decided to take the club up on its offer. "At the time, I was also involved in a company laying pictorial driveways. Six nights a week I was running poker games, coming home at 2 in the morning and getting up at 6 to go to the other side of the city and work all day. It was too much. I packed in working on the driveways and focussed on poker again."

Running the Jackpot didn't turn out to be as lucrative a deal as Luke had originally thought. He soon left to return to the Merrion, but this time only as a dealer.

"I was dealing for tips, playing sit-and-gos, and delivering Chinese take-aways to make ends meet. I also drove a taxi for a while. At the Merrion, because I had previously been in charge, I was being asked to make rulings, and at first I said no, because it wasn't what I was getting paid for, but eventually I took the responsibility. I ended up running the poker room again. I formed a partnership with Collette Doherty, who moved from the Jackpot and ran blackjack tables, and for a while things worked very well."

Anyone who was anyone on the Dublin poker scene in the 1990s played in games organised by Luke Ivory. Luke even ran his own festival of tournaments in 1995, which he called The Real Irish Open. Padraig Parkinson and Scott Gray began their famous and successful bankroll partnership in the Merrion in a £50 game. Parkinson and Gray went on to make a lot of money as a result of their partnership, and both made the final table of the World Series of Poker main event - Parkinson third in 1999 and Gray fourth in 2002. Doherty was the first lady to play in the World Series of Poker main event and won the Irish Open twice. Parkinson and Doherty also starred in the Channel 4 series Late Night Poker. Andy Black and Peter Roche also cut their poker-playing teeth in the Merrion in games organised and overseen by Luke.

In 2002, Luke moved around the corner from the Merrion Casino to help start up a new members club called The Fitzwilliam. The success of its cardroom was primarily due to Luke's ideas, his hands-on approach, and his personal closeness to poker players that has earned him a reputation that's second to no other Irish tournament director or cardroom manager.

"I've spent half of my life among poker players. Many of them are very close friends. In fact, I've spent so much time with them that I see a side of these people that others don't. Some of them I know even better than their own families."

Earlier this year, Luke parted company with the Fitzwilliam Card Club, an event which was discussed at length among shocked Irish poker players on the poker forum at Few people actually know the full story, but the reasons behind the event are not as important as the fact that Luke was now a free agent and could finally set about making plans to open his own venue.

"I don't like things easy. I like things hard, because then I appreciate success a lot more. I want to run the best possible poker room. Give me the biggest poker room in the world and I will run it.

"At the time that I left the Fitz, the Merrion Casino had recently closed. I had no intention of starting up in the Merrion again until it was suggested to me. It had always been seen as sort of a white elephant. People thought it was bad news, but after a while, I thought, 'Why not?' So I took over the building and that's how the business came about."

Cool Hand Luke's is located in Merrion Square Dublin, formerly the Merrion Casino and host to the Irish Open between 1980 and 2002. The building consists of four levels. In the basement, there is a recently opened modern Internet cafe where players can play online or take a break from the tables to relax or go for a meal. On the ground floor, there are the gaming tables. The second and third floors are poker rooms. The building can host close to a 200-player tournament. Despite opening only in September 2007, the club is already hosting tournaments and cash games seven nights a week, a monthly €300+€30 freezeout, and has already held a mini-festival and plans to run many poker festivals throughout 2008.