EPT8 Madrid: It's all about the title for Craig Hopkins
Craig Hopkins has been off the EPT circuit lately, having last played EPT Barcelona. The break is nothing to do with any loss of form at the tables, more a run of form off them.
We've written stories about Hopkins before. It started back in 2008 when he finished fifth in the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, the year in which Bertrand Grospellier took the title. Back then Hopkins was breaking through as a full time player but was also about to break through as a part time football manager.
"It's a bit tricky really because I'm running this football team," said Hopkins, who's here with his wife Lindsey who is pregnant with twins, explaining his absence. "We're doing quite well."
Hopkins is co-manager of Derbyshire side Heanor Town Football Club of the East Midlands Counties league. Let's be clear about this - this isn't the high profile, high glamour, high priced game you see on television. Teams at this level attract crowds that are considered good if they reach three figures. Two clubs are "Miners Welfare" teams while another, Thurnby Nirvana, must lay claim to footballs most original and optimistic name in their pursuit of perfection.
No, this is the hard core, hard tackling, hard luck world of lower league soccer, where players, young and old, look for career redemption on the field, while looking for their travel expenses redeemed off it.
In the space of a few seasons Hopkins has put together a competitive team made up of young players keen to get stuck in, albeit with a couple of exceptions.
"We've got a goalkeeper who's 39, but still very fit," said Hopkins. "We've got a centre forward whose 47 believe it or not, and he's still unbelievably fit. Ask anyone who knows non-league football, they'll know Neil Grayson."
With the help of veterans strikers like Grayson (a former semi-professional for England), Hopkins and his joint manager Glenn Kirkwood, have steered Heanor Town to the top of the league, one point ahead of second placed rivals Barrowash Victoria, and eight ahead of Oadby Town; so far scoring 99 goals and, with seven games left in the season, looking to beat last year's tally of 118.
It's this run of form (Heanor are also in the semi-finals of the league cup), that has caused Hopkins' absence from the poker scene. At this rate it could keep him out even longer.
"Whether I play any more tournaments this year depends on how we do in the next two or three weeks," said Hopkins, who qualified for EPT Madrid via Steps. "If we're still in with a chance of winning anything I don't think I'll play."
So what do his players think of the managers' attempts to climb poker's career ladder.
"Most of the players don't know I'm here, they'll just know I'm not at training tomorrow night," said Hopkins. "My mate, (Kirkwood) plays on PokerStars as well. He'll be texting me to find out how I'm getting on. A few of the lads like poker but most don't know."
While it may not be crunch time yet for Hopkins in Madrid, back in Heanor they're gearing up for a thrilling season finale.
You can take the manager out of the game, but you can't take the game out of the manager: Hopkins flashing signals to the rail
"We should have won the league last year," said Hopkins. "We were top with five or six games left and we blew it. So this year we're just going to make sure we try and win it first." It's a prize that will guarantee promotion and plaudits for Hopkins and Kirkwood.
How does his managerial style compare with his expertise at the poker table?
"We like to play 4-4-2," said Hopkins. "Two attacking wingers; we like to play two centre forwards, one quick one strong; two player in centre midfield, one who can play and one who can tackle; we like two full backs who like to get wide and get forward. We like to play attacking football."
For the poker analysis Hopkins had to think for a moment.
"Probably a little on the conservative side at the moment," he said. "I'm trying to play more hands, trying to improve. My football style is a little more flarey than my poker style."
Either way Hopkins is poised for further success, be it at the poker table or in the dugout at Heanor Town. It may just be a matter of which comes first.