Dara O’Kearney: Back Playing Poker at the Battle of Malta

  • O’Kearney criticized the 2019 Battle of Malta, but organizers made improvements for 2022
  • Due to the well-run nature of the event, it boasted a fun atmosphere with plenty of bantering
  • O’Kearney’s own campaign resulted in his first ever live hattrick with three wins in one day
  • Due to a drop in player numbers, the Ladies Event seemed to be an ill-tempered affair
  • Overall, O’Kearney deemed it an outstanding event he would recommend to anyone
Malta flag
Dara O’Kearney reflects on his time at the Battle of Malta, an event that he believes has improved significantly since 2019. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

A big change

I’d only ever played the Battle of Malta once, back in 2019, and it was such a sh*t show I was pretty sure I’d never come back. The only reason I relented was I was in Malta anyway for the Unibet Open, and I was told organizers were taking on board the criticisms I and others raised back in 2019.

The schedule was well thought out and jam packed

If 2019 was the worst run big festival I’ve ever seen, 2022 was the best run. The improvements were really quite remarkable and across the board to the point it’s very hard to find anything to criticize about the event. The schedule was well thought out and jam packed, the floor staff and event staff as a whole were the best of the best, the procedures around registration and payouts were the best I’ve seen in a festival of this size, and the general atmosphere at the event was fun.

Some pros expressed displeasure at both the speed of the side events and the rake (expressed as a percentage of buyin). On the first point, I have come to the reluctant view that while pros benefit from slow deep structures and recreationals often express a preference for them, the reality is recreationals as a whole seem to prefer fast side events that are done in a day.

On the rake thing, I think it’s unfair on organizers to judge it only as a percentage of the buyin. While this is the logical framework for pros like myself to use since we compare it to our perceived ROI to determine how profitable an event is to play, tournament organizers incur the same costs on a 200 side event as they do on a 1k. So in a festival where most of the buyins are 300 and below to make them affordable to more recreational players, it can’t really be helped if the rake is higher as a percentage than in 1k events, but lower in actual amounts.

So let’s focus on the fun…

The fun

Badly-run events engender grumpy tilted players snapping at each other at the tables. By contrast, well-run events foster a fun atmosphere with relaxed players bantering at the table. I saw many examples of this at the Battle of Malta, so I’ll give my personal favorites. In one side event I played with a very formidable and funny young lady. When she eventually got coolered getting in A-J against a short stacked button’s A-Q, the button assured her:

The Jack is coming. 100%.”

When it didn’t and his A-Q held, she responded with a smile:

“100% you said. Typical man. Over promises, under delivers.”

On the bubble of the high roller, I heard a player tell another:

“My friend is all in!”
“But he had a huge stack!”
“Not that friend. Another.”
“Oh. I did not think you were the type of guy who would have more than one friend.”

In another moment I enjoyed, my close friend Daragh Davey told a tournament director who shall remain nameless (at his request) he wanted to stay to make sure the chip race was done correctly (in a side event he ended up shipping for over 17k). The TD then invoked the name of myself and my Chip Race cohost David Lappin in a presumed reference to our criticisms of the 2019 event:

“Of course. World famous Irish player here. If we get this chip race wrong we get 25 emails!”
“Umm… I think you’re mixing me up with David Lappin.”
“David Lappin, Dara O’Kearney, you’re all the same.”

The same TD had us all in stitches when he asked a player who was clearly stalling every hand in another side event how much time he’d taken. When the player replied with two minutes, the TD said:

“Two minutes? Two minutes! Oh you poor man. Must be very difficult decision! … You have thirty seconds, starting now.”

Humor and professionalism are very hard to combine. If there’s any question over your competence any attempt at humor can come across as disrespectful, but when you’re as good at this guy at both (one of the best I’ve seen), it’s a massive asset, relaxing everyone and defusing potentially tense situations. Another master of this who shall not remain nameless is my friend, the very funny GPI-award-nominated Andy Tillman.

My own campaign

I grinded the festival pretty hard, playing as many events as I could. As you’d expect there were good days and bad days. The best day was Sunday, when I cashed three live tournaments on the same day, the first time I’ve ever done so live.

I spun up a stack to have a chance at claiming bounties

It started with the mystery bounty. Having scraped through the bubble I spun up a stack to have a chance at claiming bounties, but lost it chasing those bounties in time to register the last Day 1 for the Main Event. I also scraped through that short stacked into Day 2 which started the same day at 8 pm. I didn’t manage to spin up a stack this time so had to be content with a min cash. The one consolation was I still had time to enter and cash another side event, giving me my first ever live hattrick.

My fourth cash came in the High Roller which started the following day. In this I struggled with a short stack for most of the day before a late rush saw me bag up 6/89 with 79 paid. Day 2 was a more frustrating affair. A succession of small pots in which I ended up with the second best hand and rising blinds saw me drift back to a short stack again, and I busted in 21st after my first call in and a call with K-J suit saw my opponent’s 9-7 offsuit hit a gutshot on the river to send me packing.

Flip flop

While overall the festival was a huge success, one notable exception was the Ladies event, powered by GGPoker-sponsored Fantastic Ladies In Poker (FLIP). Back in 2019, the organizers caused considerable controversy with a very questionable decision to make the male dealers deal the event topless. Thankfully there was no repeat of that, and instead they put a very generous guarantee of 25k on the event (which they missed by a considerable margin). Despite this, numbers actually went down. Speaking to one of the organizers after the event, he expressed surprise and disappointment that numbers had dropped from 2019 (when there was no guarantee), and that players travelling from the UK in particular had fallen drastically.

Based on accounts from my female friends who played in the event, it was a remarkably grumpy and ill-tempered affair, though the grumpiness did at least provide us with some quality humor from Kat Arnsby who can always be trusted for her honest reactions good and bad on Twitter:

Let’s talk about the old guys

One absence from the schedule that I only noticed when my buddy Buddy Villaluz pointed it out to me on Facebook was a seniors event. There was no shortage of seniors at the festival, but I think the organizers might be missing a trick by not having a special seniors event, as Buddy and others would then be a lot more likely to travel to the festival.

I love hearing stories of guys near my own age taking up the game

Speaking of old guys, I had the pleasure of doing some commentary on the final table livestream with Johnny Kelly (affectionately known as JK). Johnny told me he really only started playing in the last year and a half, but he’s putting a fair amount of work into the game (including buying my latest book, ‘Endgame Poker Strategy: The ICM Book‘). I love hearing stories of guys near my own age taking up the game and giving it a serious go, as a pet peeve of mine is how little effort the poker industry as a whole makes to attract new older players compared to the marketing spend directed at younger players. I guess the thinking here is get them young and you’ve got them for life, but on the other hand the older demographic tends to be the one that possesses more of the two things you need to play poker: disposable income and free time.

In any event, JK was a total natural taking to commentary like a duck to water, and was a delight to commentate with.

I’ll end with a final well done to the organizers for responding to constructive criticisms offered by me and others on previous events. I might not hold back when I genuinely feel some criticism is in order, but I try to make it constructive and like to think I’m fair enough to dish out praise too where it’s due. Criticism always stings and it’s to their credit that they responded to it in the best way possible to create a truly outstanding event that I would have no reluctance to attend or recommend to anyone in future.