The Irish Poker Festival: A New Generation of Live Poker in Ireland

  • Fintan Gavin, Ireland’s finest tournament organizer, is bringing bigger games back
  • The Irish Poker Festival will take place in Dublin between October 31 and November 5
  • It will offer a €3k ($3.2k) Main Event, the highest buyin for an Irish event in years
Irish Poker Festival
Fintan Gavin has organized The Irish Poker Festival, due to begin on October 31 in Dublin. [Image: Irish Poker Festival Twitter]

Then and now

I started playing poker in the summer of 2007. My brother taught me the basics one afternoon a few weeks shy of my 42nd birthday, and that evening my online career started.

to this day I have still never deposited online

I registered for all the free rolls I could find, including one with about 10,000 runners on Ladbrokes. Although I didn’t cash, I was hooked and the following night I conked my way to heads up, which I proceeded to lose. The £132.28 ($163.71) I got for second meant I now had a roll (to this day I have still never deposited online), which I gradually spun up playing low stakes limit cash on my brother’s suggestion (he told me afterward his logic was I’d lose the money slower playing Limit).

A couple of weeks later I made my live debut in Dublin’s premier card club, the Fitzwilliam. Again I ran well to get headsup with one of Ireland’s finest female players (then and now), Collette (affectionately known as Smurph). And again I lost (noticing a pattern yet?).

The first tournament outside the Fitz I traveled for was the Irish Poker Championship in Galway, the brainchild of  Fintan Gavin, Ireland’s finest tournament organizer (then and now). The tournament was directed by Ireland’s finest TD (then and now) Donal Mac Aonghusa.

If the preceding paragraphs have given the impression that the live scene in Ireland hasn’t changed much in the 15 years I’ve been playing, that’s a false impression. The personnel may be remarkably unchanged for the most part, but in most other ways everything has changed.

The heyday

At the start of my poker career 15 years ago, the Irish Open was the centerpiece of the Irish calendar, as it still is. Back then it was a €4,000 ($4,272) buyin and the first one I played had a €3m ($3.2m) guarantee.

At the time, the Irish poker calendar was mostly filled out with a good spread of events with a buyin around the €1,000 ($1,068) level. The year generally kicked off with the aforementioned Irish Poker Championship (IPC) in Galway, my first-ever big multi-day event. Next up was the European Deepstack in Drogheda (a €1,500 ($1,602) buyin back then), which gave me my first live win. The Irish Open was in April, and then came the JP Masters.  In July, we’d all head to Killarney for the Ladbrokes classic. Next up was the Macau classic, a €1,000 followed by Paddy’s second big festival of the year, the Winter Festival, and the European 6 max championship. The Fitzwilliam festival generally rounded out the year as far as higher buyins went. And that doesn’t even include foreign tours like the Unibet Open, WPT, UKIPT, EPT, Winamax, and EMOP that included Irish stops.

Live poker didn’t die but transformed into lower buyin events

Back then, smaller buyins in the 100-500 range were a rarity, so much so that the International Poker Open (IPO) marketed itself as initially “the people’s festival,” largely on the basis that it was the one festival with a Main Event buyin affordable to normal people. Another key difference to the landscape back then was that there were no re-entries. All the tournaments I mentioned were strict freezeouts.

After the financial collapse that signaled the end of the Celtic Tiger, these bigger buyins disappeared one by one until only the Irish Open remained (and it shrunk down to a €1,000 buyin), as foreign totes scratched Ireland off the destination list. Live poker didn’t die but transformed into lower buyin events in the 100-300 range.

A new generation

The smaller games may have attracted a new mass of players to the game, but the leap from there to European Poker Tours or World Series of Poker events is far too great for players to make in a single bound. This single fact may be the biggest reason so few Irish players have emerged on the international stage in recent years.

Recently, the Irish Open has been not only the biggest buyin Main Event but also the only €1k on the calendar. One man decided to change that this year, and that man is Fintan Gavin, the driving force behind the runaway success story that is the Irish Poker Tour. The date is October 31 to November 5. The venue is the 5-star Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge, next door to the RDS, where Stars held the last Main Event of comparable size in Ireland all the way back in 2015. On that occasion, the venue for EPT Dublin was the RDS, but PokerStars put the qualifiers in the Intercontinental, earning rave reviews.

The Main Event is a €3k ($3.2k), and the guarantee an aggressive €700k ($748k)

This time Fintan is going one better, having the tournament itself in the Intercontinental. The Main Event is a €3k ($3.2k), and the guarantee an aggressive €700k ($748k). When we spoke to Donal Mac Aonghusa recently for The Chip Race, he told us that he and Fintan were “only sweating that guarantee every day.” With satellites now running in various places they should get there, and a number of foreign pros I spoke to said they expect it to be the softest 3k this year in Europe so they’ll be traveling to it.

One of the major criticisms directed at the Irish Open this year was the lack of side events for every pocket. This won’t be a problem at the Irish Poker Festival, with the schedule containing the €550 ($587)-buyin €100k ($106k)-guarantee Grand Prix, the €750 ($801)-buyin €50k ($53k)-guarantee Dublin Poker Cup, and a €100k guarantee €2.5k ($2.6k)-buyin High Roller, as well as the Irish Omaha Championship (also a €2.5k buyin).

After almost a decade with nothing bigger than a €1k on the Irish live poker schedule, it will be interesting to see how this event does. Hopefully it goes well, and that encourages other tours like EPT and WPT back to Irish shores.

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