UKIPT Tour de Force

UKIPT Tour de Force

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Since the UKIPT burst on to the scene in December 2009, PokerStars’ regional grassroots tour has gone from strength to strength. We spoke to President of the UKIPT Kirsty Thompson and host Nick Wealthall to find out the secret of its success.

Let’s start with you, Kirsty. The UKIPT was your brainchild. Tell us how it all started.

KT: I worked for John Duthie on the European Poker Tour as his business development manager. Through that, I went to all the events and met up with the PokerStars senior staff, including Jeffrey Haas who was looking at branching into different regions by opening up regional tours, rather than just having the EPT, APPT and so on. He was interested in doing a tour at the time in France, Germany and also in the UK.

I used to be a croupier and had worked in poker at that point for 14 years, mostly from a live background. He asked me to come in and give him some advice on setting up a UK tour. So I went into the office and spoke to him about it and I said we should incorporate Ireland into it, which made it different to what everyone else was doing in the UK. The big conversation was whether we partner with a casino group or launch on our own. My advice was to launch on our own so we wouldn’t be tied to any particular casino group, which meant we could go anywhere we wanted to go.

That involved working with Dusk Till Dawn who have only one property but are the biggest card room in Europe. We definitely wanted to be involved with them. And also, by going to each city in turn, we could partner with the best casinos. It gave us much more of a marketing strategy, rather than just going where the players are. We knew that we’d be doing online qualification – that was a big thing. It needed to be a grassroots tour about acquisition.

We decided to set the buy-in at £500 which allowed the pros to buy-in and also for us to have qualifiers who get there for a minimal amount. We had a lot of freerolls and we built partnerships with offline casinos to host live satellites to build the tour gradually. In the first season, we actually ended up being the biggest poker tour in the UK and Ireland, in player numbers, by our fourth event.


Do you remember the early conversations about structures? What were the considerations there?

KT: We wanted to offer people a live poker experience which was of a high standard. We basically modelled the whole structure and the festival idea, having side events happening every day, on the EPT. Give grassroots players the experience of playing in an EPT. A lot of people who cashed in the UKIPT ended up playing in the EPT. Take Jake Cody. He cashed at the UKIPT Galway and used that money to buy into EPT Deauville and won it.

The payouts are quite flat. What's the thinking behind that?

KT: We did a lot of player research and that’s what people wanted. A lot of the pros don’t like it the way it is at the moment, but after each event we send out surveys to all qualifiers. We do find the qualifiers and grassroots players prefer flatter payouts as they’re more likely to get paid out.
The other great thing you find with the UKIPT is that when people cash it actually makes a difference to their lives rather than becoming part of a bankroll. I’ve known people to have their first holiday in 15 years, pay off their mortgage, etc.

So it’s a more democratic distribution of wealth…

NW: It’s the most socialist prize pool in the world! There are lots of reasons it’s been successful, but the main thing is that it’s been designed with the casual poker player in mind. In terms of it being a grassroots tour, it’s the most accessible big tournament event in the world, in terms of how cheaply you can qualify, how friendly it is when you get there and how easy it is to play in the structure.

How much of the field is made up of PokerStars qualifiers? How important is that and how does it affect the dynamic and atmosphere of the tournament?

NW: I don't know the numbers – Kirsty will know exactly – but I think the fact that people who have day jobs and who just love poker can come to a big event gives every event a real buzz.
For a lot of the people who are there, if they have qualified for a small amount of money, they've already won. You’re sort of taking part in a celebration at a UKIPT. They’ve already got a weekend adventure. I think it has a massive effect on the atmosphere. It makes the event different to other tournaments as you have so many qualifiers who have qualified for such small amounts.

KT: There was a 52% increase in Season 3 of players qualifying online via PokerStars.

Is that a deliberate change of policy from PokerStars, to inject even more qualifiers into the tournament?

KT: There have been situations where we’ve had to change venue as we had too many qualifiers to fit in the venue. I would never turn anyone away from a UKIPT. We’ve never said we’ve sold out. We’ve never done that. For Season 4 we've deliberately chosen massive venues. We had to say no to a couple of venues that weren’t big enough. We’re also doing big festivals next year, which we've never done before, including a three-week festival in Galway.

How has the tour evolved over the first few seasons and how do you see it developing in 2013? What exciting things can we look forward to?

KT: Basically, the first three seasons, the plan was to grow the tour and become as big as we possibly could. For Season 4 my whole strategy was to make it fresh and jazz it up a bit. We’re doing things that we’ve never done before, like having an event in Marbella. We’re teaming up with the Estrellas Poker Tour for a joint event. It’s obviously something that PokerStars can do that no other company can do as we have so many regional tours around the world. Maybe we’ll partner with the IPT in the future. We're doing a lot more social and fun events to encourage weekends away; that will encourage more qualifiers as well. We’re looking at doing a six max event as a main event.

NW: While freshness is very important, continuity is also very important where personnel is involved, especially roles like the host. It’s easy to think just freshen this up! (Laughter)

KT: Get a younger model in!

Tell us a bit more about your role as host, Nick. What do you do exactly?

NW: When the tour was first formed, Kirsty came to me and said we’re going to be a success but we need some eye candy (laughter), make the tour more attractive… sexually! (More laughter)
I was brought on as host, basically to look after the media side of the tour, to represent it in terms of writing about the tour and promoting it; being the face of the tour for web or TV stuff; being one of the people who would have contact with players and obtain feedback, to find out what players thought of various things and help PokerStars with the decision making process.
In the first season we did the web show, in the second season we did TV, the third season we did a web show again. My main role is media and promoting the tour generally.

Unlike the EPT, there have been repeat winners and a lot of repeat finalists. Any theories why?

NW: I think it’s the statistical variance. I hate to be boring. There are plenty of very good players who haven’t had massive success in UKIPTs. It’s possible that there are slightly more qualifiers as a percentage, so perhaps the overall level of play is lower than an EPT, so good players can exploit it more.

What have been your favourite moments of the last three seasons?

NW: I think the events are very people driven and we’ve been lucky, as we’ve had a lot of different types of characters who have done well and gone on to bigger things. Also, there have been a lot of really nice stories; people who would never have dreamt of winning a UKIPT. Take Robert Baguley, the guy who won the £1m guaranteed event at Dusk Till Dawn. He’d never played in a tournament that had more than a £50 buy-in before and suddenly he’s winning one of the biggest tournaments in the history of UK poker. All of the best moments are stuff like that.

KT: Wojtek Barzantny, the guy who won the online event, and then won again in Bristol a few weeks later. That was impressive.

Is the success of the tour down to the online qualification PokerStars provides?

NW: PokerStars is obviously the powerhouse of the industry so that provides a level of qualifiers through the site that perhaps others can’t, but I think there's a lot more than that.
The buy-in and structure are perfectly pitched. The players know that when they come to a UKIPT they're going to have a good time. If anyone reading this hasn’t been to one yet they should come, even if they can’t play in the main event. There are plenty of affordable side events and the atmosphere is fantastic. It’s very friendly. Most people are on a weekend pass, drinking themselves to oblivion while playing cards.

I think, if you’re going to have a successful tour, it has to have an identity and a reason for people to go beyond just the cold, hard numbers. The UKIPT has a tonne of them. It’s perfect for the market. It’s exactly what poker players in the UK and Ireland want.

Tags: kirsty thompson, nick wealthall, interview, ukipt