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Late Night Poker: A Week That Changed The World

by Padraig Parkinson |  Published: Jun 20, '20


One afternoon, a little over 20 years ago, I wandered into the tiny bar in the Aviation Club for a beer and a bit of craic with the bartender. Shortly afterwards, I was joined by journalist and magazine editor Nick Szermeta and a guy he introduced as Rob Ģardner, who he said worked for Cardiff based TV production company Presentable. They seemed excited but who wouldn’t be on a trip to Paris that someone else was paying for?

As it turned out, they were there to break the news that Presentable had been commissioned by Channel 4 to film a TV poker tournament with a difference. Under table cameras would allow viewers to see everyone’s cards and poker would be transported from the backroom to the living room. Poker players would be stopped by complete strangers in supermarkets who recognized them from somewhere and asked if they had by any chance met them in The Algarve two years ago.

It got a bit hazy from there as we gave the red wine a bit of a lash, but a couple of weeks later, an invite to play in Late Night Poker 1 arrived in the mail. I decided not to play, as I didn’t want to show people how much larceny was going on. There was very little information out there on tournament tactics and I preferred to keep it that way. Laughable now. But not then. Of course, there was no reason why you couldn’t go on TV and mislead people, but I wasn’t bright enough to figure that out. No surprises there. It’s an Irish thing!

I wasn’t alone, and in a strange way, it greatly helped the popularity of the show that as a result a lot of amateurs that the viewers could empathize with were involved. It certainly helped to have the charming Lise Vigez aka “The Pink Lady” smiling at the table. Destiny played a big part with two megastars being born in the first series… winner The Devilfish and the now legendary commentator, Mr Jesse May. It could quite easily have been a lot worse.

I realized I’d fucked up after I turned down invites to the next 3 series when I figured out what was going on. The Fish, Vicky and The Hendon Mob were doing the smart thing commercially whilst I was “arsing around” in Paris. By the time Jesse asked if I’d play series V, I jokingly said I would if I could be put in the same heat as Helmuth (there was a little bad blood from the WSOP, but not much). He laughingly said ok. So, I flew to Dublin to hook up with my friend Frank McGuigan, who was coming to Cardiff for the craic, and US pro Melissa Hayden who was stopping off in Dublin en route from Vegas to Cardiff. Then, the wheels fell off.

I visited my mother in hospital where she was having tests. The news couldn’t have been worse. The cancer that she’d beaten ten years before was back. And way worse. Even I could figure that one out. I wanted to just go home to Paris and bollocks to late night poker. Véro, Frank and Mel talked me out of that, so I headed for the bar in Dublin Airport and then the bar in the Hilton (I think) in Cardiff. There, we hooked up with my friends Mad Marty and Katharine, who had become unofficial hosts of LNP.

Marty was becoming a specialist at finishing second in his heats, which was commendable. He was also the first and, as far as I know, only player to pay for his buy-in by stealing and selling 1,000 traffic cones from motorway roadworks in the wee small hours. This led to rather unfortunate consequences for a shocking number of would be commuters, but that’s a story for another day. We were joined by Helmuth, Negreanu and others for beer and a cash game. It was handshakes all around. Daniel won. I lost. Breakfast, a quick nap and the party was back on. Flood arrived and couldn’t help himself. He didn’t approve of people having fun as a rule. Frank and my good friend the legend Colette Doherty told me they’d told him now wasn’t the time to interfere. Funny, I thought I’d heard them telling him to fuck off. The ears can play strange tricks!

When I arrived in the studio later, it was all going off. Phil and I were to be in the same heat. Jesse May and Ian Dobson were acting as bookmakers and installed me as 2/1 favorite and made Phil a 5/2 shot. Phil wasn’t amused. Everyone else found it hilarious. Phil was banging on about his 6 bracelets. Nobody cared and bet on me just to keep the pot stirring! 

It didn’t get any better for Phil as he was drawn between me and my mate Kevin O’Connell. Kev is from Burnley and has so much money that he doesn’t feel the need to tone the accent down a bit to make himself understood. I helpfully translated and told Phil Kev agreed with the bookmakers! Oh God! On Kevs left was Willie Tan, whose English was also suspect. Talking to Willie was like trying to have a conversation with The Racing Post. On a good day. Anyway, off we went.

We were all having a great old time. Well, Kev and I were anyway. After some time, I knocked out Phil so Kev and I had to amuse ourselves by having the craic with Willie instead. Which was tricky, with the language barrier and all that. Eventually, I was heads-up with Ken Lennard, dogged him and went back to the socializing in the hotel. Unbelievably, Jesse and Ian lost on their bookmaking business. It was a glimpse of the future for Jesse. I should have known! Anyway they made me 2/1 for the 8 person final. What a dreadful price.

There was a shock coming. Winner of LNP IV, Hemish Shah, died. I had last seen him sitting on a chair looking like death warmed up in Binions. I joined him to see if he was okay. He had felt ill all night and was waiting to play the FT of the 5k Limit Holdem event. Unbelievably, he won it before spending several months in hospital before he died.

The final of NLP was delayed till midnight as Vicky, Joe Beevers and a few Presentable people took a helicopter to London to attend the funeral. It was all a bit surreal. It was like we were just going through the motions. After an extra five hours in the bar, some of us were for real. I spent most of the first couple of hours chatting to Joe, who was quite upset. We did have a laugh when, after Jacarama had changed headgear and spectacles half a dozen times, I remarked that if poker made it onto children’s TV, he’d be a big hit with the under-6 age group.

Then, we went on a break. Surrinder grabbed me and took me for a walk on a “lucky” route around the outside of the studio. He’s the most superstitious person I know, so I was kind and didn’t ask him why he’d been knocked out, if the lucky route was so lucky. I’m like that sometimes! Then unbelievably he stopped, pointed at a bright star in the sky and shouted “Hemish, Hemish. Send Padraig down the power!” Jesus! Then, Mad Marty appeared out of nowhere and gave me a pint of Guinness. You couldn’t make it up.

We went back in. The average stack was small relative to the blinds. I went all-in four hands in a row and took a lead I never lost. Someone had to do it! I guess I was lucky nobody picked up a hand they fancied. Before too long, I was heads-up with Koresh. Helmuth backed me at a ridiculous 1/3 with the lads. He won anyway! 

We had a good laugh with Jesse back in the hotel. There was still the feeling that LNP was changing poker in a positive way. We got a sign of the future when Joe produced a box of Hendonmob T-shirts which he was flogging off at £10 a pop. When the cardboard box was empty Mel, an excellent photographer, took a picture of me and Phil displaying the empty box. Then me, Daniel and the box. And so on. Then Frank, Mel and I headed for the airport with our suitcases, the trophy and The Box. The airport was nearly empty so we had photo opportunities with the Ryanair girls and the Rent a Car people with the box. And the bartender of course. Mel called it street art. We didn’t!

Things got a bit ropey when we put the empty box through the X-ray machine. Security guys were called. I was afraid Mel was going to tell them about our rights and get us arrested. If she had been born a few decades earlier, she would have marched with King. Amazingly, she let it go. She had now decided she was going to stop off in Paris to play poker for a few days on her way home. That mission lasted about twelve hours. Apparently, she had a few differences of opinion with the French. I was gutted I missed the show when she rang us from the airport and said she was going home. Lucky for her. Twenty-four hours later, she was home when two hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Centre Twin Towers and the world as we knew it changed forever.

From the book REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE by Padraig Parkinson

Padraig is currently involved with Jesse May in hosting Irish Pub Poker Tours for medium-sized corporate groups. For info you can contact him on Twitter @padraigpoker.

Any views or opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the ownership or management of
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