Opinion: What to Expect From the Irish Poker Open 2024

International and colloquial, serious and mad, pure and impure

The French have a wonderful expression for the times when they can’t quite put their finger on something. Things have a certain “Je ne sais quoi” or “I do not know what” when they possess a poetic, ephemeral quality that eludes expression. The Irish don’t have a phrase for this experience. We are a poetic bunch so perhaps this is because we are all a country of smarty-pants know-alls.

smoky pokey card-rooms have been replaced by opulent ballrooms

I am not particularly romantic but I will admit that I love poker and possess a deep respect for the game’s historical consciousness. All over the world, smoky pokey card-rooms have been replaced by opulent ballrooms and colossal convention centers. Standards and expectations have risen as, for the last 40 years, the game evolved into an industry.

As poker has grown, its caretakers have taken on an added responsibility, particularly those that preside over tournaments with a long history. The Irish Open is one such tournament – international and colloquial, serious and mad, prestigious and for the Everyman. Hard-wired into its DNA, bubbling in its chemical make-up, deep-rooted in its legacy is something simultaneously pure and impure. It takes place this week in the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) and is expected to be a record-breaker.

McCann and O’Reilly have grown the Irish Poker Open year on year

The Irish Open is special but when JP McCann and Paul O’Reilly took it over in 2016, they inherited a tournament that was floundering a bit, declining in numbers and unsure of its identity. Paddy Power, a tremendous supporter of the tournament historically, was in the process of downsizing its poker team and converting poker to a minimal viable product. This reflected on a lack-lustre damp squib of a tournament in 2015.

McCann and O’Reilly immediately rebranded the tournament as a €1,150 buy-in unlimited re-entry. The lower price-point risked turning the tournament into a less prestigious event but the two men believed that this was the way to attract big numbers of players. Their gamble has paid off as the tournament has grown tremendously year on year – 802 players in 2016 to nearly 2,500 entries in 2023.

How will players respond to the Day 1 structure being sped up?

Significantly, however, there is now a new pressure on the Irish Poker Open. With the smart money on it smashing through the 3,000 barrier this year, will there be administrative issues? Will the festival lose that personal touch for which it is known? How will players respond to the Day 1 structure being sped up?

Potential to become victims of their own success

Across Europe, we have seen numerous festivals become victims of their own success. It’s not easy to run poker events with multiple Day 1s and thousands upon thousands of entrants. Standards can slip in various ways – from dealers/floor staff to the facilities to the need for alternates. The RDS is an enormous venue but can the Irish Poker Open deliver the same quality product when scaled up even more?

I suspect that it can and that McCann and O’Reilly are on top of it all. A deluge of players are on the way but they expect and are prepared for the flood. PokerStars and The Irish Poker Open have always the best dealers and floor staff at their disposal. In fact, Irish events in general are spoiled with many of the best dealers in the world.

The playing space at the venue has been augmented to incorporate a whopping 180 tables. There has never been any registration issues and the deployment of a new app system will hopefully make that process even easier. There is, however, one thing that gives me cause for concern and that is the pressure that the huge numbers are putting on the structure.

Níl fhios agam cad é

With the larger field size and no extra days in the schedule, it was clear that something had to give and it makes the most sense to cull from Day 1. Of course, you don’t want to put the players going deep through crazy long days but on the flipside, speeding up Day 1 does detract from the playing experience. It will be interesting to see how this change is received by the players but my personal view is that the early levels had to be reduced but the organizers have perhaps shortened them a little too much.

I would nonetheless advocate for allowing players to fire a maximum of three bullets

Another way to alleviate pressure would be to cap the number of entries permitted. Unlimited re-entry tournaments are certainly a big part of the poker landscape these days but I’d prefer to see a prestigious tournament like The Irish Poker Open impose a limit. While I absolutely understand that there is a commercial aspect at play, I would nonetheless advocate for allowing players to fire a maximum of three bullets.

On a final note, The Irish Poker Open event is being sponsored for the second year in a row by two titans within the gargantuan Flutter brand. Pokerstars and a rejuvenated Paddy Power Poker have absolutely pumped out the satellites, sending in excess of 700 players to Dublin. Last year, the Stars-ification of the Irish Poker Open had a slightly homogenising effect on what is and should be a stand-alone annual poker extravaganza. This year, to its credit, Pokerstars has pledged to incorporate more local flavor and embrace the unicorn qualities of the oldest tournament in Europe.

I think there is recognition that The Irish Open is more poetry than prose, that it demands another ingredient, a touch of whimsy.  The Irish Poker Open needs a certain “Níl fhios agam cad é.”

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