EPT11 London: On Firm foundations, the future of poker in Ireland

Poker players pride themselves on their powers of observation, but one of the most significant moments at the UKIPT/EPT London festival this week went unnoticed by all but a very select few.

Up in one of the tertiary tournament areas in the Grand Connaught Rooms, during the late stages of a small buy-in UKIPT side event, a final table of nine was set when a short-stack went broke in a totally standard spot.

There was almost no money jump between tenth and ninth, and almost no discernible reaction from eight of the remaining competitors. However while the tournament organisers began the redraw for the final table, a 25-year-old Irishman named Daragh Davey took himself into the corner of the room to pump his fists in jubilation.

Nobody else in the tournament even saw him, much less would have understood what the fuss was all about. But for Davey that was the moment when he could feel confident that approximately 16 months of obsessive calculating, focus and application would finally bear fruit.

"Everybody was just, 'OK, final table, nothing's changed.'" Davey said. "But for me, it was huge."

At the end of the festival in London this week, Davey will almost certainly be crowned as the Player of the Year for Season 4 of the United Kingdom and Ireland Poker Tour (UKIPT). A ninth-place finish or better in that small tournament meant Max Silver, Davey's closest rival in the leader board, would need two sizeable results from only a handful of remaining tournaments to hunt him down. That was difficult even for someone of Silver's abilities.


Daragh Davey running up a stack in the Isle of Man


Davey knew he had taken an almost unassailable lead in a race that started in London in April 2013 and visited Marbella, the Isle of Man, Galway, Dublin, Edinburgh and Nottingham, among other destinations, during a 13-stop marathon.

It tested players' abilities through all poker variants and across about 90 tournaments. It awarded a prize of buy ins and hotel accommodation for every stop of Season 5 on the UKIPT - potentially invaluable for a professional poker player in these volatile times.

"What I think is the greatest achievement of it is that it's not the measure of one bit of luck in one tournament," David Lappin, a friend and colleague of Davey, said. "The person who wins a poker tournament is probably the person who ran best that day. The person who wins a 16-month leader board over 80 or 90 live events, he probably ran decently during that whole period but that's still a bit more of an iron man. It's a bit more of a test."

Davey confirmed the importance of the stability the leader board triumph would offer. "There's huge financial relief because straight away I have my buy-ins for the main tournaments I play every year," he said. "Knowing that I don't have to buy into [the satellites] is a pretty big relief. In terms of winning the leader board, and the notoriety, it's pretty cool."

Arguably the most impressive factor in Davey's run is that in many ways it was only to be expected. Davey is a member of a collective of Irish players known colloquially as "The Firm", along with the aforementioned Lappin and Dara O'Kearney. Despite involvement in a pastime that is by its nature filled with variance, the members of the Firm have spent many years figuring out ways to reduce luck's influence to a bare minimum.

They are involved in coaching promising players, then staking them into tournaments and cash games, both live and online. They spend many hours discussing not only hand strategy but also the most profitable approach to the business of poker as a whole, examining the fine print of leader board promotions, for instance, and honing game selection.

They operate as a small business, analysing applications for new recruits, plugging leaks to optimise returns of existing colleagues, and offering what amounts to a support network for people involved in what can often be one of the most solitary and soul-destroying pursuits.

"Even just the day to day slog of being a poker player can be quite volatile," Lappin said. "There are a lot of chats over coffee, pep talks back and forth to each other. The camaraderie that we get from having this kind of collective is massively valuable because inevitably twice or three times a year you're going to go on a bad run. And when that happens it's a really lonely game, and you do feel very much on your own when you're down-swinging. And to have that kind of collective...it does even out that variance, that we have that sharing policy. It's morale as much as it's anything else."

And here's the thing: it works.

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David Lappin: Firm foundations

Lappin and O'Kearney both also had a decent run in the UKIPT Leader Board this year, heading to the season finale in London in sixth and fourth place, respectively. One of the Firm's current horses, Kevin Killeen, won UKIPT Dublin in February and is making a deep run in the EPT Main Event. Jason Tompkins, a former Firm member who now lives in Australia, has also made final tables at both the EPT and WSOP.

And that's just in the live tournament environment. Despite recorded winnings of about $400,000 in bricks and mortar games, O'Kearney is best known in poker as "SlowDoke", the moniker with which he has become an online satellite monster on PokerStars.

Such is his dominance in these particular games that O'Kearney had essentially locked up the UKIPT "Online Qualifier of the Year" prize about six months ago, and had won 87 packages even before UKIPT London, pushing beyond 100 in the past month or so. (His closest challenger, uWannaLoan?, had 53.)


Dara O'Kearney: In less familiar, live, environs

The prize for topping that leader board was an additional package, plus a seat in a special Champion of Champions tournament hosted here in London. Although O'Kearney (and Killeen) both swung and missed in that event, losing out on the chance to lock up a Season 5 passport to Dean Hutchison, their very participation offered further proof of the Firm's merits - and further evidence of their fierce competitive spirit.

"I was gutted," O'Kearney said afterwards. "In terms of equity, this is the biggest tournament that I've played in the last couple of weeks. Apart from the money, I would have loved to have won it just to have that on my CV."

O'Kearney, who is now 49, came to poker relatively late, taking up the game in his early 40s at the end of an somewhat unconventional athletics career. He graduated from running "regular" marathons to races over 50 or 60 kilometres and then to six-hour and eventually 24-hour races. The stamina he built up, both mentally and physically, is now put to use at the poker tables in what can often be formulaic situations.

"I developed an ability to do something really boring for a very long time, which is what poker really becomes beyond a certain point," O'Kearney said. "Poker is much more exciting when you're learning the game and you have to think about more situations, but when you reach a certain level, a lot of the situations are automatic and you're doing the same things over and over again, particularly when you're grinding online. [It's beneficial] just having the mindset that you're actually able to do that without losing your mind."

O'Kearney and Lappin founded the Firm three years ago in Dublin after they were introduced by a friend and fellow poker player Jono Crute. They immediately discovered a shared outlook on the game, content to treat poker as career in which they could hope to make a decent living doing something they enjoyed, rather than chasing the bright lights and unrealistic dreams that have cost many others their livelihood in poker.

Davey, who was a low-to-mid stakes live cash-game grinder -- a "live nit" in his own words -- became the first player O'Kearney staked - and for reasons beyond his raw ability.

"I thought that he had the right temperament, that he would handle the swings, the lifestyle in general, and learn really quickly, not get upset if he had a long bad run," O'Kearney said. "Basically it was just stability of temperament, which a lot of the other guys who would have been seen as really talented players at the time didn't have. And they're gone from the game now because long term that's more important than how good you happen to be at poker at that precise moment."

Lappin agreed. "The amount of guys I've seen come and go over the eight years I'm playing, who were much better poker players than I am, much more creative minds," he said.

Davey added: "It's hard work. Somebody can be a far better player than you and you can make more money than them if you work harder. I don't think any of the three of us claim to be the best. We're not even anywhere close to it."

Yet within their own parameters, the Firm are indeed doing something exceptional. They have managed to develop a safeguard against being chewed up and spat out by an industry that can often be as ruthless as it can be exhilarating.

"That's what I think is brilliant, when you see poker players having ostensibly normal lives," Lappin said. "That's actually the stories that should be championed. If a few hundred people in Ireland and Great Britain can make a living from it, and apply it to making the lives of people around them better, and having a steady life, I think that should be the objective, from my point of view."

Follow our coverage of the EPT London festival via the main EPT London page, where there are hand-by-hand updates and chip counts in the panel at the top and feature pieces below. And, of course, you can follow it all live at EPT Live.

Howard Swains
@howardswains in European Poker Tour