EPT9 Sanremo: The Learning Game's brightest graduate, Nick Abou Risk
A few years ago in Dublin, Ireland, a small gathering of poker players working for a major online poker site got together and began a home game, into which they introduced an unusual rule. This wasn't any kind of bizarre variant or run-it-eight-times nonsense, nor was it a way to punish bad play or magnify ill fortune through a forfeit.
Instead, the game that featured Nick Abou Risk, Max Silver, David O'Connor and Charles Fabian, among others, grew to be known as the "Learning Game". After any hand during the night, any player would be allowed and encouraged to set their cards aside and then turn them face up when the pot had been awarded. All the players would then deconstruct the hand and offer advice on the play, suggesting alternative lines or ways to think about the situation. The game still runs every Tuesday night - a "card school" par excellence.
"The idea is that everyone there can learn and improve," said Abou Risk, during a recent break in play at EPT Sanremo. "You can say, 'This is what I had, this is the decision I was facing, should I have played it differently? How would you play it? What factors changed that? What kind of a range do you put the person on? ... I think everyone has done a lot of learning and it's still a lot of fun."
The commitment to mutual self-improvement has paid off in spades for almost all of the players in the Learning Game - Abou Risk chief among them. The 27-year-old, originally from the east coast of Canada, has become the dominant force on the United Kingdom and Ireland Poker Tour (UKIPT), which is currently in its third season. Abou Risk won his first title in Edinburgh at the back end of season one. Then he repeated the feat in Galway, winning the first event of season two, before reaching the final table again in Galway the following season finishing seventh.
Season three is only four events old but Abou Risk has already visited a final table. Such is his standing, however, that when he could get no further than seventh (from a field of 698) in Galway, people thought something must be amiss. But Abou Risk simply shrugged, refocused and moved on to the next one. He is a beast at the tables, but one of the most mild-mannered, polite and articulate operators away from it.
The UKIPT is one of PokerStars' numerous regional tours, which ensure pretty much every corner of the poker-playing universe has a major yet affordable tournament swinging by at least once a year. The buy ins are cheaper than the EPT events, but the standard of play is creeping ever upward, thanks to players like Abou Risk.
The logical next step for the big winners is to move into the bigger events, and Abou Risk is here in Sanremo with his Learning Game cohort Max Silver, fresh from a 16th-place finish at the WSOP-E main event. (Silver has also won a UKIPT of course - he triumphed in Dublin, the month after making the same final table as Abou Risk in Edinburgh.) It is a different crowd on the EPT, allowing Abou Risk a measure of anonymity that he is no longer afforded on the UKIPT.
"Most people probably don't know [who I am]," Abou Risk said. "Sam Razavi is at my table, and he's pretty well known on the UKIPT, and I've got Shaun Deeb to my right but I don't think he knows."
The slightly tougher field has meant Abou Risk has been forced to adjust his game from the hyper-aggro style with which he terrorises the UKIPT. "Normally I'll play as aggressively as the table will let me," Abou Risk said. "Naturally I play loose aggressive, but today it's a semi-tougher table so I'm playing not as loose as I like to, but still fairly loose."
When we spoke during the first break of the day, Abou Risk was sitting with 35,000 chips, 5,000 more than his starting stack. At that point he was ruing the fact that despite making some big hands, no one had the second best to pay him off. However by the time we hit the publish button on this post, Abou Risk was out, having hit yet another big hand that was actually second best. His ace-king was not as good as Niclas Martinsson's aces. (By that point Silver was also out and booking a flight back to Dublin.)
No doubt all the players in the Learning Game know all there is to know about tournament variance, and Abou Risk is already preparing a return to the EPT in Prague, plus a handful of events next year. Meanwhile he intends to continue playing all the events on the UKIPT, where the wise money says he is due a third title someday soon.
Officially one of the most feared player at any table, it would not be at all surprising to see some EPT cashes beside his name very soon as well. "I like live poker," he said. "It's a lot of fun.
Keep and eye on the live tournament reporting from EPT Sanremo for all the news from the tournament floor.