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Back to the Irish Open

by Jennifer Mason |  Published: Jul 01, 2009


I often ask players’, for interview purposes or just out of curiosity, what their must-attend tournaments are in a year’s cycle. The one that crops up most often (if you discount the nebulous World Series of Poker) is the Irish Open, narrowly pipping the Amsterdam Master Classics to the title of best loved. There have been chaotic years, record-breaking years, cramped years, and highly efficient years (like the Paddy Power Poker sponsored 2009 event) but there is always a huge buzz about the Open, which has a long history of attracting players from around the globe.

Started long before fields topping 700 were imaginable in a big buy-in tournament, the original Irish Open was the brainchild of Terry Rogers, whose visits to Vegas had suggested that no-limit hold’em could very possibly catch on in a big way. While Benny Binion was slowly building the World Series into the monster it has now become, bookie Rogers was making influential acquaintances and getting some sound inspiration from the high-stakes poker games he saw going on Stateside, in between run-ins with the Las Vegas police department. A brief trip to jail along with Liam Flood for gambling of the wrong sort in Sin City in no way fazed the entrepreneurial Irishman, and he was to see his idea flourish before his death in 1999.

The beginning of the 1980s saw the birth of the Irish Open, and with early endorsement from Rogers’ high-profile American friends (including Stu Ungar, Doyle Brunson, and Amarillo Slim) it was soon attracting a lot of attention. Like a toddler with a healthy appetite, it was to outgrow its origins in Dublin’s Eccentric Club, and when Liam Flood took over as director, the Merrion Casino too eventually struggled to accommodate the keen hordes of players.

In 2006, I remember live reporting from the Merrion on the European Poker Tour, sat in a corner so tight I had to wait until all the players went on break before I could get out, standing meanwhile on a chair to get an overview of the action. The idiosyncratic venue had an awesome atmosphere, but it also appeared to be made mainly of stairs and had more tables than the playing areas (which resembled drawing rooms in a period drama, plus one cellar) could realistically hold. The one-way traffic to the smoking areas was reminiscent of the M6 at rush hour. Given that the Irish Open was about to break the European attendance record (in 2007), it needed a little extra room.

In 2009, Dublin’s Citywest Hotel gave the 700 tournament participants plenty of that, as well as a different band every night (we heard muted Beatles, gospel, and country music over the week through the walls of the conference centre), side games on tap, and a golf course, though I can’t imagine too many of them were up early enough to take full advantage of that. There was also a heli-pad for those rich enough to eschew low-cost air carriers, the short-hop taxis of European circuit poker. At least a good handful may have been keener on the private air travel on the way back — the final table had over €1.5 million to play for with eventual winner Christer Johansson scooping €600,000 and one of the most hotly contested titles around.

The mix of nationalities on the last three tables illustrates just how widely the Irish Open is now known and attended. English players Andy Bradshaw, William Kassouf, and Lee Brooke-Pearce secured three final table spots, hoping (but not quite managing) to repeat Neil Channing’s victory last year. Aggressive young Canadian Andrew Pantling had kept himself out in front of the field for much of the tournament and placed third, while Bulgarian star Atanas Gueorguiev took fourth, outlasting earlier chip leader Bradley Verburg.

American, Italian, Finnish, German and of course Irish players all took home a slice of the prize money, but it was seasoned Swedish pro Johansson who came back from drawing thin as a razor’s edge four-handed (all-in with queens versus Kara Scott’s flopped straight, only to hit runner-runner to give him the same hand) to winning the tournament after a dramatic heads-up.

Scott, a tough one to categorize for several reasons (she holds dual Canadian/British citizenship for one) has been in and around poker for a good while now, having worked on Sky Poker, hosted EPT Live, and played with success at last year’s WSOP main event and EPT Budapest, but her runner-up finish cements her place in front of the poker hole-card cameras as well as the TV ones. She had come to the final table expressing nothing but delight to be there, but taking the chip lead about halfway through to finally end up as the close-but-not-quite second place, was an understandable disappointment. The final included many a twist which will make the TV coverage of the event exciting, should anyone have missed the live streaming of the action as it unfolded.
06-07 CP Kara Scott

As always, the corona of craic around the Irish Open this year was just as frenetic as the action at the tables. Although the tournament area was wisely designated alcohol-free, there was a bar literally next door, and another two in the hotel. These were rarities in that they served (pretty much constantly) over all of Easter weekend, leading to early, sober nights being somewhat unlikely. After it became apparent last year that 700 intoxicated poker players found the sprawling, numerically-unorthodox room system overly complex (I know of at least one person who slept on the floor in one of the endless-seeming hallways), small signs had been placed at particularly confusing junctions to allow a more orderly return of guests to their correct rooms.

As globetrotters like Roland de Wolfe, Jamie Gold, and Phil Laak, hopped tables with Irish stars such as Roy Brindley, Dara O’Kearney, and Marty Smyth, the unique atmosphere of the Irish Open came from the way in which everyone; pro, qualifier, or railer, joined in the fun.

And where else would you find the man who bubbled the final table (Philip Baker) coming back as its MC in a tuxedo the next day? The Irish Open is a unique experience in the poker calendar, and this year proved that if corners are being cut during the economic troubles, Dublin’s flagship tournament is not among them. Spade Suit

Jen Mason is a part of She is responsible for its live tournament coverage in the UK and abroad.