EPT10 Prague: What's the secret?

EPT10 Prague has been a monster, and its success raises a very important question: why? Although the EPT remains exceptionally healthy across the continent, it is rare to see such sustained growth.

The stop in Barcelona continues to break records, but player numbers at other key destinations such as London, Sanremo, Berlin and Monaco have plateaued slightly. So how has Prague done it? What is the key?

As you might expect, there is no clear-cut, single answer. There are several factors in play. But over the course of this week, PokerStars Blog has conducted an investigation into the massive success story that is EPT Prague in an attempt to explain its unique and record-breaking triumph.

Setting out the case

Prague joined the EPT in season four, when 555 players created a prize pool of €2,530,240 and Arnaud Mattern became the inaugural champion. Through Seasons 5-7, player numbers were consistent (570, 584, 563, respectively) as Salvatore Bonavena, Jan Skampa and Roberto Romanello claimed the crown.

But all of a sudden in Season 8, numbers rocketed to 722. We then had a further massive leap in Season 9, when Ramzi Jelassi topped a turnout of 864. And now this week, we broke the 1,000 mark.

Whoever emerges triumphant from today's final table will have won the fifth biggest EPT Main Event of all time, behind visits to Barcelona in Seasons 9 and 10 and two trips to Sanremo, in Seasons 5 and 6. (The PCA is removed from all calculations in this article.)


The heart of Europe

According to Ondrej Drebota, a poker consultant in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it is worth examining the poker landscape between 2010-12 in particular in order to explain the regional boom.

"The first reason is that there used to be more EPT stops but PokerStars decided to reduce the number and keep only those which looked really good and which performed well," Drebota said. "This was the first step which helped Prague to gain more players."


Ondrej Drebota surveys the EPT Prague tournament room

In Season 6, the European Poker Tour went to 12 destinations in mainland Europe including Warsaw (Poland), Kyiv (Ukraine) and Vilamoura (Portugal), which have since been dropped. In Seasons 7 and 8, we also paid a visit to Estonian capital of Tallinn, and once to Loutraki in Greece.

By EPT standards, none of those events attracted enormous fields. But with them removed from the schedule, players local to all those areas went looking for an alternative destination for what is for many a one-a-year excursion. Although mistakenly (and often pejoratively) referred to as Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic is actually in the geographical region of Central Europe, and the distinction is crucial.

Prague really is close to the centre of the continent and resultantly attracts one of the most diverse selections of players on the tour. It is close to everywhere.

"Prague is the heart of Europe," Drebota said. "From every country among our close neighbours there is a direct connection to Prague. So also the location is very, very important."

He added: "If you had this event on the same days, the same time in Hungary or Bulgaria, you would not receive the same amount of players as in Prague. It's easy and it's cheap."

Of the 864 players who came to Prague last year, there were representatives of 63 countries. A core group of players from the established poker nations of the USA, Canada, the UK and Germany tend to visit every stop on the tour, and organisers can expect approximately 10 per cent of the field will come from each of those areas. (There were also 63 countries here this year.)

But in Prague, it's also worth printing up menus in Kazakh, Lithuanian, Albanian, Armenian, Moldovan, Macedonian, etc., native speakers of which can also find easy passage to the Czech Republic. As we discussed last year, the pie-chart of nationalities in Prague is a kaleidoscope of colour, where "others" (ie, the grouping of countries sending only one or two players) is the third biggest section on the chart.


Breakdown of player nationalities from EPT10 Prague

It is also, of course, notable how relatively few of the field here come from the Czech Republic itself. While the massive numbers in Barcelona owe much to the hordes of Spanish players -- 105 of the 1234 (9 per cent) who played the first stop of the EPT Season 10 were from Spain -- Czechs get nowhere close to matching that in Prague.

Only 34 of the 1,007 players here (3 per cent) are from the Czech Republic, a total that has not changed dramatically through the years. There were 17 Czechs in Season 4, 20 the following year and precisely 34 in Seasons 7, 9 and 10.

The Russian invasion

Anyone who has played a multi-table tournament on PokerStars over the past three years -- at any level, from freerolls through micro-stakes and upwards -- can't help to have noticed the number of players appearing at the tables from Russia. Any trend that occurs in the western world will almost certainly make it through to Easten Europe a few years later, and Russian poker is currently at post-Moneymaker levels.

There's a fascinating comparison to be made between Russian players and Czech players in Prague. While, as stated, the Czech totals have remained steady, the Russians started low and have flown through the roof. In Season 4, only six Russian played EPT Prague, but this year there were 127.


Player numbers from the Czech Republic, Germany and Russia, year-by-year. Click for larger image

Regulations in the former Soviet states means it is difficult to arrange an EPT event in either Russia or Ukraine (Kyiv in Season 6 remains a one-off) but Russians have begun to treat Prague as their home EPT. It is closer to home than any other destination, both geographically and culturally.

Something for players of all levels

A couple of years ago, the EPT bigwigs had a brilliant idea: to send the various PokerStars regional tours snaking across the local markets and then end them at the EPT. The United Kingdom and Ireland Poker Tour (UKIPT) thus now has its finale in London; the Estrellas Poker Tour winds up in Barcelona and the French Poker Series lands eventually in Deauville. The festivals, combining two tours, are immense.

Although it doesn't get enormous press attention in the western poker world, the Eureka Poker Tour is one of the most successful regional tours on the planet. Annually since March 2011, the Eureka has spread its wings through the so-called "Eureka Zone", encompassing Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Latvia and the Czech Republic -- ie, the Balkans, the Baltics and Central Europe.

Its player numbers have been increasing year-on-year and the Eureka Main Event at this festival -- a €1,100 buy-in tournament -- brought 1,315 players to Prague. Many of those were online qualifiers, on a major spin-up, and some loitered for the main event.

More significantly, however, any travelling pro in two minds whether to hit a poker festival can often be persuaded by such a spectacular array of side events. If you're an MTT expert, wanting to take on an enormous field for a significant payday, then the knowledge that you can play two 1,000+ player events back-to-back can tip the balance in favour of attending.

One need only ask Stephen Chidwick. He would have certainly attended the Main Event, winning countless packages online, but he also came ahead of time to play the Eureka -- and just happened to make the final table there too.


Stephen Chidwick: Eureka and EPT final tables

It doesn't end there for the Czech Poker Market, however. According to Drebota, there are many thousands of lower-stakes players who can also find what they are looking for in this country.

Festival Pardubice, held in the town of the same name about 120km east of Prague, is actually the biggest poker event in the Czech Republic, outstripping even the EPT. It is a 12-day monster, scheduled directly after the World Series of Poker, offering a similar atmosphere to the Vegas-based jamboree for a fraction of the price.

Drebota said that players watch the action from the United States on blogs and online streaming channels, then get an immediate chance to leap into something similar. The buy in is €112 but more than 1,500 players showed up, including Czech high rollers dropping in by helicopter and the top Slovak players renting a Hummer limousine filled with a harem of models to accompany them to Pardubice.

"I really like to bring this experience to the small players," Drebota said. "Players that only have a few dollars can't go to play Eureka or the EPT, but at this event he can have a very similar experience to what we are having here in Prague. You have to focus on every single level."

Prague: The most beautiful city in Central Europe

Late on Saturday morning, the Team PokerStars Pro Henrique Pinho was sitting at a poker table in Prague awaiting Day 2 of the EPT Main Event. It was cold outside and Pinho was even wearing a leather jacket indoors.

In his native Portugal, the temperature was round about 17°C (63°F), yet here he was in the Czech Republic, braving the bitter weather for a poker tournament. Yet he wouldn't have missed it for the world.

"This is my third time here," Pinho said. "I really, really enjoy it in Prague. It's one of those cities where I have so much fun...I've brought a small entourage of friends."

There's no getting away from it, Prague is a beautiful place -- so much so that even poker players notice. Such is the nature of the EPT that going deep in an event can often mean staying in one building for an entire week, barely poking ones head outside. But it's characteristic of a visit to Prague that conversation with anyone -- from Glen Cymbaluk to Duncan McLellan to anybody -- will quickly move away from the tables into restaurant recommendations, sightseeing tips and tales of pints of beer costing less than, say, a bottle of water.

"Prague before Christmas is just amazing," Drebota said. "The players come here and play some poker, then they can go outside and have some beer, go party. We have some quite nice clubs, we have some beautiful girls here."


Prague at Christmas

Cost also plays a part. Drebota added: "Also it's very important that it's much cheaper here than in London. It's much cheaper here than in Berlin. It's much cheaper here than in Barcelona, Monte Carlo. You really can't compare. This is our biggest benefit and players know it, players appreciate it."

People not involved with poker often snigger that players can part with buy-ins up to €100,000 and then quibble over a hotel bill, but it is crucial to the success of any travelling pro that they manage bankroll and expense accounts separately.

"Definitely [players care about price]," said Drebota. "And the quality of services. If you play this kind of tournament, you expect a certain level of services...Compared with all other stops, everything is much cheaper here. If you go outside the Hilton, you can have a beer for £1, and it's a half litre. It's not a small beer. Players really appreciate this."

It is, therefore, something of a perfect storm. Here in Prague, we have a breathtaking city at the perfect time of year. We have a tournament drawing on players from across numerous booming markets. And we have people in charge who know how to make the most of it all.

And that's before we even mention Rafa Nadal...

Many thanks to Mad Harper and Jan Kores for statistics and charts.

For coverage of Day 6 of the EPT10 Prague Main Event, head to the EPT Prague Main Event page. There's hand-by-hand coverage and chip counts in the top panel, plus feature pieces below the line.

There's also full cards-up coverage on EPT Live.

The €10,000 High Roller also plays to a winner. Follow that event on the High Roller page.

All the information about this festival can be found on the main European Poker Tour website.

Howard Swains
@howardswains in European Poker Tour