Revitalized Estrellas and EPT Events Break Records in Barcelona

  • The Estrellas Poker Tour Main Event turnout of 6,313 is the largest field in EPT history
  • The EPT Barcelona Main Event drew 2,294 entries, the most ever for an EPT Main Event
  • Rick van Bruggen won the Estrellas Main Event, beating Jack Sinclair heads-up for €600,000
  • The winner of the EPT Barcelona Main Event will cash for a stunning €1,714,000
  • The quality of the EPT dipped when Amaya owned PokerStars, but Flutter has righted the ship 
Casino Barcelona
The EPT Barcelona Main Event drew 2,294 entries, shattering the European Poker Tour’s previous record for a Main Event. [Image:]

Coke wars

Walking through the departure lounge in Barcelona Airport, a thirst came over me and I stopped to get a Coke from the vending machine. I twisted open the bottle, took a slug, closed it and, with a bag on my shoulder and another wheeling behind me, made my way to my boarding gate and an area with plastic chairs. It was busy, but I found a seat. I put down the bottle, took the bag from my shoulders, took off my jacket and looked around for a screen displaying my flight status. It was still ten minutes until boarding, plenty of time.

I sat down, took out my phone and began scrolling through Twitter. After a few moments, the man in the seat next to me leaned forward and picked up my bottle of Coke from the ground. I assumed it had fallen over and he was going to hand it to me. I smiled, but he didn’t smile back. It was a strange interaction, made weirder by the fact that he didn’t give it back to me. Instead, he opened the bottle and took a few slugs. I stared at him incredulously and he just stared back. I thought:

Who the f**k does this guy think he is, drinking MY Coke?”

He put the bottle back down on the ground. I shook my head. “F**k him,” I thought, and I picked up the bottle, opened it and took a swig. He glowered at me and I shot him a baleful stare as I put the bottle down. Immediately, he grabbed it, opened it and drank deep from it, multiple glugs. There were only a few mouthfuls left. He screwed back on the cap and burped, before slamming the bottle back down on the ground. “The f**king cheek of him,” I thought.

It’s important to point out that this happened in 2011, at the absolute height of poker’s “click-wars.” As far as I was concerned, he raised, I three-bet, he four-bet, and there was no way that I wasn’t going to get in the last wager. He eyeballed me. Eyeballing him back, I opened the bottle and unscrewed the cap. Bringing it to my lips, I thought: “Yeah, that’s right… I’m all-in,” and I gulp-gulp-gulped down every last drop.

He snarled at me, I exhaled at him in disgust, and then we sat there, silently, for five long minutes, occasionally throwing the other a withering, trenchant glare.

Fond memories

This wasn’t my first heads-up contest in Barcelona. In September 2009, on my very first proper poker trip, I chopped the Main Event of the Full Tilt Espana Series, a result which gave my poker career an early boost. Previous to the result, I was grinding it out on the 45-man SNG circuit, having built a modest role from almost scratch. After that touch, I was able to take on more variance and play bigger games online, resulting in three of my four biggest online years.

In fact, I have a lot of fond poker memories from Barcelona. In 2011, I was back in Barcelona, attending my first Unibet Open. I didn’t know it at the time, but Unibet Poker would be a big part of my poker future as I signed with them as a brand ambassador in 2017. This September in Malta, I will play in my 26th Unibet Open.

 they chopped me up in a spot where the pure triple up would have given me a big stack and a real shot

In 2014, I went deep at EPT Barcelona, busting out with pocket queens against two guys both holding Ace-King. A King in the turn meant that they chopped me up in a spot where the pure triple up would have given me a big stack and a real shot. (I’m not still bitter about that, I swear.)

In 2016, my friend and top Irish poker player Nick Newport had his biggest ever result when he came fourth in the then-record setting Estrellas Main. At the time, Nick was a member of “The Firm,” a collective of poker players staked by myself, Daragh Davey, and my fellow VSO News contributor Dara O’Kearney. There were 3,447 players battling it out in the Main Event that week and, with his pals on the rail, Nick won a whopping €202,420 ($205,768) for his efforts.

Last Sunday, I returned from another record breaking Estrellas festival and another successful, if a little bittersweet, trip to the Casino Barcelona. This time, six starting flights meant entries galore and a new record field of 6,313. I got through to Day 2 on my third bullet, survived Day 3, and made it halfway through Day 4 to eventually bust in 26th place, just when the €600,000 ($609,924) first prize was coming into view.


Those who did make it to the final three tables redraw included Andy Wilson, a GTO prodigy from the UK who is destined to become one of the game’s elite, and Jack Sinclair, WSOPE Main Event champion and former WSOP finalist. The two would clash with 11 left, Sinclair coming off best in a “classic” flip, his Ace-King spiking against the deuces of Wilson.

That put Sinclair firmly into pole position at the final table, but he would ultimately have to settle for 2nd and a €377,000 ($383,236) payday. Taking home the lion’s share was the Netherlands’ Rick Van Bruggen, who finished the job in clinical fashion.

This week is the European Poker Tour’s turn to break records with 2,294 entries in the EPT Barcelona Main Event, 328 of whom made it to the money yesterday after three players were eliminated on the bubble. A winner will be crowned on Sunday evening and that person will take home an eye-watering prize of €1.7m ($1.73m).

At the close of play on Day 2, notables still in the mix include Scott Margerson (993,000 chips), Artur Martirosian (814,000), Antonio Buonanno (622,000), Steve Warburton (575,000), Seth Davies (480,000) Gaelle Baumann (408,000), Paulina Loeliger (306,000), Stephen Kehoe (456,000), Timothy Adams (387,000), Baard Dahl (378,000) Xuan Liu (302,000), Mateusz Moolhuizen (359,000) Stephen Chidwick (148,000), Alex Kulev (238,000), Stefan Schillhabel (222,000), Jack Sinclair (208,000), Ben Spragg (144,000), Conor Bergin (96,000), David Peters (36,000) and Michael Wang (322,000).

The rise and fall of the EPT

The brainchild of John Duthie, the EPT began in Barcelona on September 18, 2004. The festival series quickly grew into the largest poker event in Europe. In 2004, the Main Event had a €1,000 ($1,017) buy-in and a field of 229. The next year that swelled to €4,000 ($4,066) and 327. Between 2007 and 2009, the buy-in was €8,000 ($8,132), but in 2010, it settled into the familiar €5,300 ($5,388) price point where it has remained since.

Through the decade, the field sizes continued to grow, with 1,082 players in 2012, 1,496 in 2014, and 1,785 by 2016. By this time, PokerStars under Amaya was an altogether different animal than it had been under the Scheinbergs, and the EPT reflected that, with worsening structures and less consideration given to player experience.

failing to realize the knock-on effect of treating its loyal customer-base so poorly

At the time, Dara and I wrote several blogs criticizing the company’s pursuit of short-term gain to the detriment of player experience. With rake increases, reduced loyalty benefits, and a sharp drop off in customer care, the company believed that it was doing the right thing for its shareholders. Its corporate leadership were short-sighted, however, failing to realize the knock-on effect of treating its loyal customer-base so poorly.

PokerStars leaked market share and for the first time, attendance at live events began to dip. It scrapped the regional tours and then, in 2017, retired the EPT, rebranding the tour as the PokerStars Championship. Numbers dropped again, prompting PokerStars to reverse course. Like Bobby Ewing in the shower, the EPT returned in 2018, but by then, numbers had fallen even further to 1,474.

A squeaky wheel

In 2019, Flutter Entertainment took the reins and it felt to the poker world that PokerStars and the EPT were back in safe hands. Employee bonuses at PokerStars were no longer linked to profits, but rather to customer satisfaction. Most, if not all, of the draconian Amaya-era policies were stricken and there was a genuine excitement about the 2020 season.

the EPT is delivering record numbers at all of its stops

Unfortunately, as we all know too well, live poker events were sent into hibernation during the COVID lockdowns. That led to even greater anticipation for the 2022 season and, to be fair, the EPT is delivering record numbers at all of its stops.

More importantly, PokerStars is listening to the players again, absorbing and seemingly reacting to customer feedback. While there have been a few minor hiccups along the way, I want to give credit where it is due. If you’re going to be a squeaky wheel when things are bad, you should also be vocal when they are good.

Coke wars revisited

“Flight EI1234 is boarding now at Gate 21,” rang out over the Tannoy and, with that, my Coke-guzzling nemesis stood up.

“That makes sense,” I thought, “the guy who steals another guy’s Coke is bound to be the same guy who boards first to make sure his bag gets a good spot in the overhead compartment.”

Bilious with rage, I sat and waited for the queue to abate, muttering expletives to myself.

“Final call for flight EI1234. Could all remaining passengers please board now at Gate 21.”

I stood up and put on my jacket. I picked up my shoulder bag, threw it over my shoulder and suddenly, my heart sank. There it was: an almost full Coke bottle on the ground by my feet, MY almost full Coke bottle sitting right where I had apparently left it.

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