We speak to qualifiers and team pros about their first big live poker tournament
As the Main Event action continues at the European Poker Tour (EPT) stop in Barcelona, many of you will be watching the live stream and thinking the same thing:
I wish that was me playing.
You’re not alone. Playing in your first big live poker tournament is the dream of millions of poker players around the world. The best part is – as you might have seen on PokerStars Blog this week – that dream can become a reality.
We’ve talked to online qualifiers throughout the festival who managed to turn a small amount into a €5,300 Main Event seat, and in many cases even won a full package worth more than €10K, including hotel and expenses.
Some even went on to make the money, turning what was already a dream come true into a full-blown success story.
But what about those who didn’t cash? Are they hiding in their hotel rooms, crying into their pillows?
Far from it. As we’ve learned this week from PokerStars qualifiers and Team Pros alike, just because you don’t cash in your first big live tournament, it doesn’t mean your trip – or poker career – is over.
In many cases, it’s just the beginning.
“IT SHOWED ME WHERE I WANTED TO GO”
Lex Veldhuis remembers the first time he attended an EPT. He’d just finished watching Season 1 of the tour’s broadcast on Eurosport and felt inspired to play, so fired up some qualifiers on PokerStars and booked his ticket to London and his first big live poker tournament.
“It was amazing,” he says. “It felt like I was seeing everything that poker is in a microscopic way. There were so many people playing, it was so big, there was so much atmosphere, so many like-minded people who love the game.”
The problem was, as a cash game specialist at the time, he “didn’t know what he was doing” when it came to tournaments and missed out on the cash.
“But I thought it was magical and I knew I wanted to do it more,” Veldhuis says. “My first live experience showed me where I wanted to go.”
Your first big live poker tournament needn’t be where you set the world on fire – very few are. But at the very least you can use it as a litmus test and figure out if live poker is something you’d like to do more of.
Nicolas Carême, a poker pro from Nancy, France whom we met on the vineyard tour and tasting, is zero for two so far on his EPT trips (having won packages for both Monte Carlo and Barcelona in 2023).
Is he deterred? Of course not. He’s happy with the way he played, and if anything, is more determined to keep qualifying and have a deep run now than ever before. Plus, he’s had a fantastic time in Barcelona with his girlfriend.
“By winning the package I get to enjoy the nice hotel and these kinds of activities,” he says. “I think it’s really great.”
Making the money is just the icing on the EPT cake.
One of the main takeaways we got from talking to the PokerStars Team Pro roster about their first live poker experiences is that they used it as a building block to get better.
Felix “xflixx” Schneiders remembers his first time playing in Las Vegas like it was yesterday. “I thought I’d be crushing, but I got destroyed,” he admits. “Needless to say I was back next year and crushed it as I’d been working on my game.”
Veldhuis remembers a similar experience. “I remember I busted with ace-king versus pocket kings, and at the time I was thinking ‘Could I have got away from it?’” he says. “That’s a typical new player mentality, considering whether you should have thrown away a monster hand pre-flop just because you went on to bust with it.
“It just made me work all that much harder so I was ready for next time.”
Georgina “GJ Reggie” James told us she didn’t cash anything the first few times she played live, but she loved the overall experience, even if at first she was nervous.
“I made a string bet without knowing what that was,” she says. “But I didn’t have any expectations. It was just a fun, social experience for me.”
If you’ve come from the world of online poker, playing a live event might be the first time you’ve ever found yourself surrounded by fellow poker enthusiasts.
This is another fantastic element of live poker on tours like the EPT and PokerStars regional events: the sense of community.
“The people I meet and the overall experience is always more memorable than the poker itself,” says James. “The social side is definitely one of the best things about live poker.”
Ukrainian player Oleksii Natoptanyi was playing his maiden EPT Main Event here in Barcelona, having qualified online. He failed to cash, but hasn’t let that stop him from having an incredible time and taking part in the fun activities.
“It’s been so much fun,” he told us. “I love Barcelona.”
So, even if things didn’t go your way on the tables, you might leave with something even more valuable.
Fintan “easywithaces” Hand remembers his first live poker experience at a pub game in Dublin run by Nick O’Hara, now a senior member of the PokerStars tournament staff.
“I bluffed it off against a guy called Kevin Killeen, who I then ended up being great friends with. We even went on to live together.”
Killeen would go on to win a UK and Ireland Poker Tour (UKIPT) Main Event in 2014. Hand, meanwhile, final table bubbled the pub game.
“I loved it though,” he says. “It just made me want to play even more, even without cashing.”
This might sound strange, but sometimes cashing in your very first event can be a bad thing.
It’s easy to mistake luck for skill, especially in a game like poker where long-term success requires a bit of both. Early success that’s perhaps undeserved could lead to higher risk, as you end up overestimating just how good you are.
Thankfully for Benjamin “Spraggy” Spragg, he didn’t let his beginner’s luck go to his head.
After playing a bit in the student halls of Cardiff University, Spraggy’s mates convinced him to play a £20 tournament at the local casino. That was a significant investment for the student at the time.
“Pints were like, £1,” remembers Spraggy. “So I was understandably nervous.”
It turned out to be a £20 re-buy and everyone at his table went all in every hand to build stacks.
“I, a broke student, had one buy-in,” he says. But he picked his spot, quintupled his stack, and “ran as pure as I’ve ever run”.
Four hours later he was chopping the tournament for £660 – enough for 660 pints.
“Even if I didn’t cash, I think I was always going to keep playing and falling in love with poker,” says Spraggy. “It would have had to be an absolute nightmare experience to put me off from playing more.
“Remember, anything can happen in one tournament, as proven by me nearly winning! Your first attempt at live poker should just be about having a good time and enjoying the game.”
So if your first time at a big poker event doesn’t go the way you hoped, don’t sweat it.
If this is only the beginning, then there’s always next time.
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