Friday, 1 November 2013

Stephen Bartley reports...

If we’re honest, nobody really loved playing EPT London at The Vic, right? Let’s not be too harsh. There is no other place like it to play poker in London at its most stripped down and earthy. But for a tour so big, demanding so much space, and with players equal in their demands for pampering, The Vic took only a few seasons to be outgrown. Alternative digs were required.

The London Hilton worked well for a few years. Spacious and practical perhaps, but never really what the tour was looking for. So while The Vic was a 1979 MG Midget, the Hilton was a Volvo Estate. Sure, you’d take both for a spin, but neither on a ten-day road trip.

So the official types went looking for somewhere else again, found it, and last month put it to use. The Grand Connaught Rooms, a Jaguar e-type to keep this analogy going, hosted the tenth incarnation of a stop that has featured each year. Thankfully it provided all the aplomb to which an EPT main event, with a first prize of £560,980, is entitled.


As a building it mixed Late Baroque with Art Deco, which one assumes was to the taste of the Freemasons who established the place a few centuries ago. The tournament room itself, while mirrored, chandeliered and ornate, was secondary. The best bit was the Covent Garden location, which, in contrast to the mini-markets and baba ganoush of the Edgware Road, provided all the skinny lattes, take-away sushi, and West End hit musicals a poker player could possibly wish for.

It also provided a final table that was first draft EPT textbook – a few guys you’d never heard of before, a couple you had, and one who you thought had fifth place sewn up. But in common with all EPT finals, it was not short on talent, provided a few surprises, and a winner of good standing.

That was Robin Ylitalo, a 27-year-old pro from Sweden. In that same text book Yliatal is listed under “relatively unknown but decent”. So unknown in fact that few at first spotted that he wasn’t unknown at all, having busted in eighth in Campione in Season 8. But the tour has reached a maturity now. Even deep runs are forgotten in favour of star quality. You need a little more these days, so Ylitalo set out to get it.

Coming into the final it was Australian Jeff Rossiter out ahead. That he finished in fifth place was down to a few things, but mainly good hands, specifically when Georgios Karakousis had even better ones.

It was Karakousis who played the central role at the final. For the two days prior the Greek businessman had dumfounded more than a few of his opponents, many of whom expressed their bewilderment as they walked to the pay-out desk. At first he looked unbeatable, then he looked like the kind of man who fills the fifth place spot: never good enough to win, but too lucky to go out in the early stages. Actually, he proved himself to be neither of those.

Having been larruped all day, the Australian was forced to bow out. When he’d found a hand, Karakousis found a better one. The same went for the others. So it was fifth place to Rossiter, not Karakousis, who would go on to meet Ylitalo heads-up.

Others tried and fell short. British player Kully Sidhu had the Karakousis treatment, getting his chips in ahead. But even then as he stood awaiting his fate, he looked like a condemned man. He was.


Jan Sjavik was familiar to anyone who remembered the Season 3 final, where he finished third after crashing out against the unstoppable force that was Victoria Coren that year. Sjavik, missing for the seasons since, was ready to try again, but fell short once more, as did Stefan Vagner, trying to record a first win for Slovakia.

But each of the final four was deserving of their place, notably Ludovic Geilich.

Geilich’s playing style was relentless and effective, while his nationality was either Scottish or German. But wherever he came from, the chip lead was his intended destination, which he reached as most players were pre-occupied with the bubble. From there he never really left the top five, reaching the final, only to run into his nemesis Karakousis once more.

If the Scot had underestimated the 65-year-old, it proved his demise. Actually Geilich did no such thing, but was instead was at the mercy of the Gods, just like everyone else. But in this last phase he cracked first; or fourth, to be specific.

His cause had not been helped by one player who had at times brought the tournament to life.

Leo McClean is a name of which we’ll likely be hearing more. From a 25p/25p home game, the young Englishman returned home with £250,000 in his pocket after a fairytale performance, most of which was played from behind a hood – the endearing habit McClean had of covering his face whenever he played a hand.

His friends, who had surprised him with a trip to London to watch, mimicked his little habit. Then, when his mother and father arrived to see him play the final table, they did too.

So when he departed in third it was to a delighted rail, who celebrated as though he’d won all the money in the world. Hoodie removed, McClean’s face regularly broke into a “holy shit!” grin, and rightly so.

It left Karakousis and Ylitalo to see it out, a short-lived heads-up affair, with neither, it seemed, opting to dig in for the long haul.
Ylitalo looked shattered but was delighted, in that slightly ordinary Swedish way. His game plan had been simple. Let the others run into the almost invincible Karakousis until something finally gave way. In the end everyone gave way, leaving the Swede to take him on. By that time Karakousis had nothing left, except a check worth £349,200 for second place.

The Connaught Rooms had worked perfectly. Sure, there were a few flights of steps to find the side event rooms. If you kept going upstairs and opening doors you eventually found the Super High Rollers, where Martin Finger would triumph, while Jason Lavallee put his second place demons to bed by winning the High Roller.

So EPT London has found a new champion, and a new home. Both are likely to stick around for a while.


Tags: EPT, London, Bartley, Ylitalo, Mclean