APPT Auckland: Poker's newest pearl of the Pacific

Albert Einstein once said: "It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely." That's a pretty good description of New Zealand. Welcome to Auckland, one of world's most remote cities, for the second event on season three of the PokerStars.net Asia Pacific Poker Tour AKA the SKYCITY Festival of Poker.

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The city skyline overlooking the stunning Auckland Harbour

How remote? Try a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles or 23 hours from London via south-east Asia. Even neighbouring Australia is more than three hours away, separated by the expanse of the Tasman Sea. It's not the easiest place to reach and, not surprisingly, New Zealand is recognised as one of the world's most recently populated landmasses.

The first New Zealanders, the Maori, migrated here from their ancestral Polynesian homeland of Hawaii more than 1,000 years ago. It would take more than 800 years before New Zealand experienced any significant European or "Pakeha" migration.

More than any other major city in the country, Auckland (home to 1.4 million people) beats to a Polynesian rhythm, with its populous a cornucopia of European, South Pacific and Asian cultures combined with a strong indigenous Maori heritage.

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The Maori influence permeates all layers of New Zealand culture

Appropriately for an island nation, New Zealand's largest city embraces its waterfront location, sprawling over a narrow isthmus between the Waitemata and Manukau Harbours. Indeed, no part of the country lies further than 120 kilometres from the coastline. This is also a highly unstable land - geologically speaking. The North Island is dotted with several active volcanoes, and the nation is regularly shaken by quakes and tremors, giving the "Shaky Isles" one of their many nicknames.

Against this dramatic backdrop, the region's best poker players are again descending on SKYCITY Casino in Auckland to battle for one of Australasia's most prestigious poker prizes. SKYCITY isn't hard to find - it sits at the base of Sky Tower, the southern hemisphere's tallest tower at 328m (taller than even the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Sydney Tower). In addition to the Sky Tower, the complex (refurbished just three years ago) includes a large theatre, a convention centre and hotel, six bars, seven restaurants and more than 100 gaming tables.

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There's barely a spot in Auckland that you can't spot the spectacular Sky Tower

In the 12 months since the inaugural SKYCITY Festival of Poker, the casino's reputation has grown in leaps and bounds in the domestic and international poker world. SKYCITY has kept apace with the demand for poker from local players by introducing new events with prize pools suiting players of all levels.

The 18 tables used in last year's tournament have been rebranded as part of a new, dedicated poker area, which has hosted three new events - the Auckland Anniversary poker tournament, North Island Championships and the New Zealand Poker Open.

Last year, 306 players generated a prize pool of more than NZD $900,000, with Wellington's Daniel Craker taking home the first prize of more than $NZD 250,000, making this the biggest tournament ever played in New Zealand. With satellite events packed and numerous top regional pros expected to buy in directly, the 2009 field could well surpass last year's tally.

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New Zealand's most recognised poker player, Lee "Final Table" Nelson

Players will soon be converging be making their way to tonight's player party, where they'll have the chance to rub shoulders with such luminaries as Team PokerStars Pro: Australia players Grant Levy, Eric Assadourian, Emad Tahtouh and Tony Hachem, Kiwi poker icon and PokerStars sponsored player Lee "Final Table" Nelson plus Team PokerStars Asia duo Celina Lin and Bryan Huang.

Assuming my fellow APPT reporter Landon Blackhall has survived flinging himself off numerous edifices around Auckland (after all, this is the world's adventure sports capital), we'll be back at 12.15pm tomorrow for the first of two day-one flights in the 2009 PokerStars.net APPT Auckland. The Main Event buy-in is NZD $3250 (NZD $1 = USD $0.72 or AUD $0.83 approximately), and Auckland is GMT +13 hours.

And don't forget that you can follow all the APPT action at our Chinese (click here) and Japanese (click here) language blogs.