Kill Them With Kindness
Wednesday, 17 June 2015
So says Dara O'Kearney.
Neil Channing. For me, when I think of the Irish Open, I immediately think Neil Channing. When people ask me what my first Irish Open was, I say 2008. But really, 2008 was Channing's year. 667 players stumped up €4500 a piece to create the biggest ever Irish Open prize pool of €3 million. I was the second player eliminated, Neil was the last man standing and walked away with a cool 800 grand. The Celtic Tiger was in its death throes even if we didn't know it at the time, and we would never see an Irish Open quite on that scale again.
Roll on a few years, the economy is banjaxed, austerity is the word on everybody's lips, I still haven't cashed in an Irish Open, but I do at least find myself commentating on the final table alongside Neil Channing. An epic headsup battle between a friend of mine (Niall Smyth) and a friend of his (Surindar Sunar) provides a classic clash of styles, generations and poker cultures, and it is Niall who triumphs. By this stage the general Irish economy is deep in recession and every other tournament in Ireland is either dead or dwindling, but somehow sponsors Paddy Power keep the Irish Open show on the road through difficult times, doing a remarkable job of getting over 600 souls to cough up three and a half grand.
Roll it forward a few more years to 2014 and it's widely predicted that the game is up for Paddy Power and the Irish Open. Domestic economic conditions have forced the buy-in down to €2250. What's more, the date clashes with EPT San Remo, and follows hot on the heels of UKIPT Dublin, which a lot of people are predicting took too much out of a depressed Irish poker economy for the Irish Open to have any hope. This combination means most foreign pros, including Neil Channing, decide it's not worth making the trip to Dublin this year. I hear predictions of 200 or less, but somehow Paddy Power pulls it together, the Irish public show up, and we end up with the most heavily Irish edition of the Irish Open since Paddy took it over. The foreign visitors may have stayed away, but the Irish public rallied to make the Irish Open a very Irish affair. Over 400 players sit down on day one, and when the dust settles, we have an all Irish final table for the first time. In a PR man's wet dream, a good looking well spoken and immensely likeable young lad from Ardee with the gloriously Irish name of Paddy Clarke entered a $4 Cheap Seats satellite on Paddy and ended up walking away with the title.
There were grounds for optimism that this renewed local enthusiasm in conjunction with a recovering Irish economy could see the Open grow back to former glories. Paddy scrapped the Winter Festival, all the better to give themselves a full year to satellite people into the Open. Satellites for this year started before last year was even finished!
The consensus was that increasing the buy-in back to €3500 and not clashing with anything else major would bring the foreign visitors back. With no UKIPT or other major tournament in Ireland this year, it was widely expected the number of runners would hit the 500 mark again. In the week before, Paddy Power reps were bullish, predicting a substantial increase in both overall numbers and foreign visitors. The latter materialised, but not the former: overall numbers dwindled to only just over the 300 mark, making it by far the smallest ever Paddy Power Irish Open. Side events suffered similar drops in numbers, and looking around the room, it seemed that this was no longer the Irish Open but just another big tournament in Ireland with fewer Irish in the field than foreign visitors. At every table I played at, there were more foreign players than Irish.
The atmosphere was more funeral than festival, with the rumour that this would be the last ever Paddy Power Open the worst kept secret in poker. But at least Neil Channing was back. We went for dinner the night before, and what was supposed to be a quiet affair escalated as people one or both of us knew to varying degrees showed up. Such affairs can sometimes be awkward with nobody sure what it is safe to say or talk about, but with Neil Channing, there is no such thing as dead air. After the other diners had made their excuses and disappeared into the Dublin night leaving only myself and Neil (and our partners) Neil suggested a swap for the main event. Stunned that a superstar of the game was offering a swap, and that someone as noted for his meticulous research was offering it to someone who had never even cashed the Open, I happily accepted.
My main event campaign was a dull one that involved dwindling on day one, and rallying briefly on day 2, before busting. I jumped into the Mini Irish Open, which Parky remarked after felt more like a traditional Irish Open than the main event (particularly with its faster clock and 15k starting stack: Liam Flood would certainly have approved). I came back to day 2 with three and a half big blinds to cries of "Why even bother?" from friends, and proceeded to somehow get myself into a threeway chop for ten grand. Around the same time, fellow Irishman and friend Kevin Killeen was chopping the main event headsup, for considerably more than 10 grand.
After dinner, we ended up back at the hotel bar where the last few mourners were paying their respects. I bought Parky and Mick McCloskey a drink, and Parky repaid me by filling me in on the history of the Open before Paddy Power stepped in and brought it to new heights, and his view on where it should go from here. He and his party had just come back from dinner themselves. Finding themselves in the same fine dining establishment as Donnacha O'Dea's party (who were celebrating the feats off the Don who rolled back the years and went into the final table as chipleader), Parky immediately saw the opportunity to get the Don to pay for their dinner. Sitting at the next table, they wolfed through the early courses to catch up with the Don's crowd, who had a significant headstart. Having caught up, Parky's table then dropped the pace of their consumption to that of the Don. A kind of Irish standoff ensued as both groups seemed to keep finding reasons to prolong the meal. Coffees were ordered, desserts requested, liqueurs procured, and still no sign of anyone asking for a bill. After what can only be described as an unseemly amount of time, Parky and his crew caved, asked for their own bill, settled up and left.
Parky had just finished telling me this story when who should casually stroll into the bar but Donnacha O'Dea himself. Without missing a beat, Parky shouted "Thanks for paying for our dinner, Donnacha". The Don was not stuck for an answer, as he immediately came back with "You left too soon, Padraig".