EPT11 Malta: A tournament six months in the making
The inaugural EPT Malta festival is gradually coming to a close, 12 days after the first players walked through the door at Portomaso Casino in St Julians to play a €200 super-satellite to the IPT main event. But by the time those earliest of early birds arrived, EPT Malta was already more than six months old for a team of about 15 people who had been working night and day to prepare for this event.
Ever since a contract was signed in October last year, confirming that a new venue would be added to the established EPT schedule, the events team of the European Poker Tour had been focusing all their efforts on Malta. It is difficult enough arranging an event like EPT Barcelona, a destination visited each of the EPT's 11-season history, but Malta presented a fresh challenge entirely.
"It's kind of like a puzzle, fitting everything together," Victoria Sinclair, the Event Manager for the European Poker Tour, said.
Sinclair oversees an events team that includes groups responsible for IT, registrations, branding and security, as well, of course, as poker operations. Before that first player arrived on the island more than a week ago, Sinclair had already visited three times, holding meetings with a long list of representatives of all interested parties in what is a major operation.
"We do meetings with security here; we do meetings with all the logistics, like the electricians here, various people in the hotel, in the venue," she said. "We're working with the casino and the hotel, so we're coordinating that from both sides, making sure that they're happy with our plans.
"We look at it and think, 'Will it work?' We ask things like, 'Where will the webcast go?' We have to work out what rooms behind the scenes we'll use, like the chip room. We have to think about security, health and safety, fire exits."
Sinclair said she also visits potential hotels to decide various accommodation options, and looks at bars and restaurants to ensure some 1,500 players arriving to town will be able to enjoy their time away from the tables.
Seven trucks trundled into St Julians this week in support of the European Poker Tour, three containing the equipment required for the EPT Live webcast and a further four bringing tables, branding, tournament screens, chips, speakers, computer terminals, trophies, etc., etc. Each lorry weighs 30 tonnes and takes ten days to get here from warehouse facilities just outside of London. It's a seven-day drive across mainland Europe down to Genoa and then three days on the ferry from there.
"We have to look at customs, getting things over," Sinclair said. "Are there going to be any issues with that? What chips are we going to use? Can we use our cash chips, their cash chips? Is everything going to be to do with the EPT or will we use some of the casino stuff?"
By the time the unloading of the lorries takes place, it will be too late if any of these questions remain unanswered. Toby Stone, the EPT tournament director, is also heavily involved in the early planning discussions in order to be able to produce a tournament schedule that works best for players and operators alike.
Sinclair said: "We'll look at how many tables we can fit in, where stuff can go because that allows Toby to prepare the schedule and maximise what they can do...We have to know about casino policies and let them know our policies, making sure we're all in agreement over rulings."
The demands of a major EPT festival are especially keenly felt in the PokerStars IT department, where technicians are required to build what amounts to a satellite office with a fully-functioning computer network.
At each and every event, Russ Lowe, the IT Manager for Live Events, needs to provide technical expertise to run the PS Live registrations system, the webcast studio, the staff room, press room and tournament room as well as the wi-fi network for the players. None of this wires itself.
Lowe is in the party that visits potential venues up to six months ahead of an event and will, in the intervening period, produce a a 20-page IT set-up plan listing every last detail. The document has intricate network diagrams, rotas and floor-plans, from which he can figure out the best way to fulfil the particular requirements of a poker festival. It's all very well suggesting, for instance, a registrations screen in a particular corner of the lobby, but Lowe needs to determine if there's a power socket anywhere close.
By that point, he will have met with the venue IT manager as well as a representative from a local internet service provider (ISP) to detail these particular demands. Typically he will have to buy in equipment to ensure reliability of the networks, often costing eye-watering sums.
In Malta, for example, Lowe had to fork out for two 100 megabyte dedicated fibre lines, bring internet connectivity directly to the EPT systems and bypassing the uncertain existing connections.
But even when everything has been examined to the most minute detail, something can crop up to thwart the best-laid plans. Here in Malta, for instance, the loading bay wasn't quite wide enough for all those equipment lorries to access, requiring a quick, last-minute re-jig.
"It's always the unknown," Lowe said, when asked what usually provides the biggest obstacle to a major operation. "But we've got so good at this that we've generally got contingencies in place."
The European Poker Tour prides itself on providing the best player experience it can, and it is now expected on most major tours that anyone in an event will have access to free wi-fi, to check up on the tournament via blogs and/or to whinge on Twitter about bad beats. The burden of providing this falls to the IT team and among the toughest jobs is the most effective distribution of wi-fi access points to ensure a balanced service.
If, for instance, everyone in a cluster of ten-handed tables tries to log on to the same access point simultaneously, they can be left looking at two-bar service while the final table of the six-handed event in the other corner of the room enjoys high speed treatment.
"All this floor space, if you put it on one floor, it's huge," Lowe says, referring specifically to EPT Malta, which has played out in two vast tournament rooms and some smaller annexes. "It's probably as big as the PCA. We are focused on player experience, it's something Edgar [Stuchly, EPT President] has really pushed on us, and it is difficult."
Both Lowe and Sinclair divide their time on site between troubleshooting the existing event and looking forward to the next. Sinclair, in particular, has spent long hours this week discussing the requirements for the Grand Final in Monaco next month. (It often makes sense to have meetings during EPT festivals as key staff tend to be in the same place.)
Although the full assessment won't be decided until debrief meetings, EPT Malta seems to have been a hit with both players and staff. "It's exceeded our expectations in terms of attendance," Sinclair said.
And between the meetings and the phone calls and the requests that continue to mount up, there's at least an occasional sliver of job satisfaction.
"It's satisfying seeing all the players enjoying themselves," Sinclair said. "If you hear players saying something nice to one another."