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Play the hand you’re dealt

Last week I took a bunch of college students back to school. After three hours of poker, I stood up and walked away with 70 of their softly-bludged euros. It was a rare, rare win.

While I was busy fleecing them, we got talking about work, and the fact that I’m back freelancing again. The lads started asking me about what articles I most enjoyed researching. I’m not a big poker player, but when I mentioned a long feature on student poker, and promptly scooped another hefty pot of chips, there was a collective groan. He’s a fucking shark.

The article appeared on the front of the Agenda magazine while I was still a student myself.

Sunday Business Post, Feb 27, 2005

Poker School

It’s 7.30pm and the last of 270 students are trickling through the doors of the Gresham Hotel. Ten to a table, they sit and make guarded small talk, eyeing each other nervously.

With a top prize of €1,500 on the line, there’s little time for making friends, and everyone is anxious to get down to business. Niall Hughes of Trinity College’s Card Society announces to much applause, that the prize fund has reached €6,500.

Hughes gives a short rules briefing, explains the format for the night, and the largest student poker tournament in Britain and Ireland gets under way.

As the first hands are dealt around the room, the chatter dies to nothing, replaced by the clink of poker chips and deep, contemplative sighs as players study their cards before placing a bet.

A poker night used to represent a quiet night in, but its resurgence among college students has seen it rebranded as a lads’ night out.

The tournament is not an isolated anomaly, but indicative of a changing social landscape in Ireland. Gambling – specifically poker-play for cash – is fast becoming the new binge drinking for many of the college-going population.

That the game has found a new foothold in Irish campuses is no secret, but the momentum for a revolution such as this hasn’t appeared out of the ether.

Poker is enjoying an enormous resurgence in popularity worldwide. It’s a phenomenon that is being led, unsurprisingly, by the United States. Televised poker and the internet are largely responsible for the surge in popularity, but people are playing poker in any form they can get it.

The live game is as omnipresent as ever, but internet poker rooms now bring quick-fire poker and real-time cash tournaments directly into the home, using a decent dial-up connection.

The internet is awash with foolhardy beginners and undisciplined players, meaning skilled poker players can easily make $40 per hour preying on novices.

Breon Corcoran, commercial director of Paddy Power’s internet operations, estimates 100,000 people per day play online poker in the US, with up to 50,000 people playing at any one time.

The attraction for those who are looking to turn a profit out of the game is that you can play multiple games at one time, at a much faster pace than is possible at a real, or ‘live’ game.

Most sites necessitate that you download their gaming software and then make a deposit into an account via credit card, with which you buy your online chips. However, you can hone your skills on ‘play-money’ tables, for which there is no charge.

Players can bet as little or as much as they feel comfortable with, and there are hundreds of tables from which to choose in any given site.

Regardless of whether the game is real or virtual, it’s no less addictive. Its accessibility is luring an increasing number of people into frittering away cash without ever having to enter a casino.

Within the college tournament structure, addictive gambling might not be a problem just yet, but the potential for people to get hooked is still present.

The early dropouts in tournaments often go in search of a cash game to occupy the rest of the evening, or head home to play on internet poker sites, where there are fewer limits on what they can spend.

Commercial casino gambling per se is still illegal in Ireland, although card clubs and societies operate within the law by demanding that their patrons become members.

Online services operate in a grey area, offering gambling across borders with little or no regulation.

Some companies, such as paradisepoker.com, are fleeing recent restrictive legislation that prohibits this in the US.

But rather than having Irish and foreign bookmakers locate elsewhere, the government is actively trying to lure more gambling companies to locate in the Republic.

To this end, betting tax has plummeted from 20 per cent in 1985 to just 2 per cent now, as a result of amendments made by the then finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, in 2002.

Stephen Rowen, director of the Rutland Centre for Addiction, calls gambling the most expensive addiction in Ireland, yet one the government seems intent on fuelling.

Rowen classes Ireland as a “high-risk population’‘ in terms of gambling addiction, with growing levels of disposable income and more people living in the relative anonymity of cities.

He has seen an increase in the number of gamblers coming through the doors of the Rutland Centre.

Rowen attributes this to the ease of gambling afforded by the internet.

The typical Rutland Centre client is one who is a year’s salary or more in debt, and who seeks help only at that stage of the problem. Rowen says the rise in student gambling and the targeting of students as a market is a real cause for concern.

“The traditional age to start gambling is in the teens. It’s always worrisome when a population that is more vulnerable is targeted. It’s not unusual for under-agers to follow those who are a little older; big brothers and people they see as being ‘cool’.”

John (not his real name) from Gamblers Anonymous’ Dublin branch backs this up.

“I got hooked from the age of eight,” he says, “and any education I had went out the window after that. I didn’t stop until I was 43.”

Rowen warns that even those who see themselves as above addiction can fall prey to it. “These are not bad people. Everyone we work with is bright, intelligent, and able to orchestrate loans and finances to pay for their gambling.”

With that in mind, it’s not too long a path from the Rutland Centre back to the college campuses, where the bright young minds of tomorrow are gathering around card tables with startling frequency.

In Ireland, just as in the US, young, college-going males are leading the poker charge. Many of the players at the Gresham tournament developed their love for the game during summers spent in the US, and now play regularly back home. Poker societies in Irish universities have seen their membership balloon in the last year.

Subscriptions to UCD’s Pokersoc doubled this year to 480 players. Trinity College’s Card Society boasts the biggest number in Ireland, with 645 members – a number it expects to grow as the year progresses.

UCC is a newcomer, having founded its poker society only three weeks ago. On the first night,16 people showed up. A week later the capacity of the cards was reached, with 42 players, and the society had to turn away seven hopefuls. It now has 75 members on its books.

The college focus is on the live game, with face-to-face action in organised tournaments and weekly games. Most of these involve an entry fee, which is pooled to make the prize fund split eight or ten ways.

Players in the Gresham hotel tournament paid a €20 entry fee to have a shot at the €6,500 on offer.

A similar event in UCD in mid-February came close to topping that number, with the turnout taking the organisers completely by surprise. The top prize of €1,500 in cash at the Gresham event went to William Whelan, a 20-year-old commerce student.

Whelan plays regularly in the Fitzwilliam card club, but since Christmas, has “been playing more and more online.

“There’s nothing to beat a live win though, like last night. Biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever had.”

Whelan isn’t alone in seeing the internet as a potential goldmine. Aged just 22, student Cian O’Sheehan is a professional online poker player and co-owner of www.Poker.ie.

“I don’t consider myself a gambler,” Cian says. “I never play the Lotto or buy scratch cards, or bet on horses.”

What Cian does do, since putting his NCAD course on hold and quitting his part-time job in a video shop, is play internet poker for money full-time.

“My parents weren’t pleased. When I told them I wanted to leave my part-time job to play poker instead, they were concerned that it would develop into a problem. But to be a winning poker player, you have to eliminate as much of the gambling side of the game as possible.”

It is tempting to dismiss a professional, yet somehow ‘non-gambling’ card player as being knee-deep in his own denial, but the statistics indicate that he may be on to a bona fide winner.

Part of the attraction of poker is that, for a small buy-in, you can win your way into bigger and bigger online tables. Cash prizes apart, the goal is then to get a free ticket to one of the top tournaments.

According to Whelan, “$20 can win you a trip to Vegas worth something like $15,000’‘.

It is becoming more common for poker players to bridge the real/cyber world divide. Those who pick up skills and tickets online have a realistic hope of making the final tables in the big cash prize tournaments, where play moves at a more considered pace.

In 2003, the top $2.5 million prize at the prestigious World Series of Poker in Las Vegas was won by a 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee, Chris Moneymaker. It was his first live tournament.

Like local Bray pro, Cian O’Sheehan, he learned his trade, made his money and won his ticket to Vegas by playing tournaments online.

Moneymaker started playing on Pokerstars.com after watching Rounders, a film that stars Matt Damon as a reformed college poker addict who gets dragged back into the game to pay off a friend’s gambling debts.

Damon’s character in the film alludes to the skill involved in tournament poker, saying: “Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker every year? What, are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas?”

With a mixture of luck and skill, Moneymaker found himself propelled from the anonymity of internet poker rooms into that exclusive circle. He played alongside poker legend Johnny Chan and foot-high stacks of dollar bills that he would later walk away with.

Moneymaker’s success has accelerated the take-off of online gaming in the US.

From an industry point of view, poker is definitely an increasingly lucrative market.

Sportingbet, the world’s largest online betting provider, added paradisepoker.com, the third-largest poker site in the world, to its portfolio last year. The move signalled the growing commercial importance of the online game.

The rise in Irish poker play coincides with improving internet access and bandwidth, putting internet poker in a good position to change the way the game is played here.

The Gresham Hotel tournament was co-sponsored by VC Student Poker, a branch of the successful Victor Chandler gaming franchise. VC Student Poker brand manager, Rakesh Chablani (aged 25 and a former professional poker player) claims to have 4,500 registered student users, with 2,500 of these playing regularly.

Unlike other poker sites, VC has a site dedicated to students, and Chablani says that 90 per cent of the students that play through VC sites are “winning players’‘.

Irish bookmaker Paddy Power also wants a piece of the gaming action, and has launched Paddypowerpoker.com to that end.

Students, however, are not its target market, says commercial director Breon Corcoran. “We’re focused on providing a service for our existing customers. Our site means you need to have a credit card, and that’s not as prevalent among students.”

The Paddy Power site does, however, provide the low-stake betting that students tend to favour. UCD Pokersoc deputy auditor Bernard McGrath credits some of the growth in the society’s numbers to a recent change in the betting structure, designed to cater for this demand.

“Cash games are not popular with our members. Last year, they only played cash games, not giving too much diversity. We decided to incorporate tournaments into our weekly games, and they have proved to be much more popular,” he says.

Betting is done with chips supplied by the organisers rather than constant cash from the punter’s pocket, so you can enjoy the thrill of the game without having to pay out ever-increasing amounts of money.

“People pay an entry stake at the beginning of the night and there is limited opportunity to rebuy when that stake is gone.

“It is almost impossible for anyone to lose more than €20 a night,” says McGrath.

O’Sheehan of Poker.ie echoes this sentiment: “At the end of the day, it really isn’t about the money. If you happen to lose €20 in a night, that’s the equivalent of four pints. And no one would berate you for drinking four pints.”

Alcohol is something that is conspicuously absent from the university tournaments. The Gresham event had a bar extension until the wee hours, but the barman remained distressingly idle.

Beer glasses were a rare sight on any of the gaming tables, with players preferring water, minerals or Red Bull.

McGrath says UCD’s poker events no longer provide a bar.

“Sales were extremely low, probably because poker players want to keep a clear head. From the point of view of the organisers, it turned out to be more hassle than it was worth.”

In fact, anyone looking to dish the dirt on these young poker fiends will come up empty-handed. The visible part of the college scene is nauseatingly wholesome.

For the time being, it’s a lads-only phenomenon, and smashes the stereotype by being drink-free by choice and smoke-free by legislation.

More characteristically, students are generally not burdened with large wads of cash and are therefore reluctant to bet more than they can afford to lose.

The society organisers boast of job offers they have received as a result of their tenure, extolling the social virtues of the game.

“It teaches you absolute self-assertion,” O’Sheehan says. “You can’t play winning poker without being aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it.

“Because of the chance elements of the game, you need to develop great patience and discipline, and at the same time you are learning how to handle your money.”

Despite this, the stigma of poker as a furtive, backroom pastime remains, and many students won’t talk about their pastime because their parents wouldn’t approve. One student had study notes in front of him at the table, studying for an exam the next morning.

One college event organiser wished to remain anonymous, saying that despite being proud of his society’s growth, he wouldn’t feel comfortable mentioning his poker involvement on a CV, and would certainly never mention it at home. He had fabricated an alibi for being at the tournament.

But he might not have to keep quiet about his talents for long. In booming Ireland, gambling is a growth industry. The punters want it, the students want it and the government wants it. Further expansion in our colleges and online is certainly on the cards.

Poker face: Kevin O’Donovan

Age: 23

Occupation: MEng student in Engineering

Years playing poker: 1.

Favourite online poker site: pokerroom.com

When most people were heading to bed on Christmas night, Kevin sat down at his computer. Admittedly a little merry from the festivities, Kevin entered a $30 buy-in tournament on pokerroom.com.

“I play online a bit, but prefer to play for smaller stakes, usually, entrance fees of around $5 or $6,” he says. “This one was a bit more expensive, but there was a guaranteed pot of $50,000.”

Playing against 800 other online users, Kevin was still at his keyboard when people began waking at 8.30 the next morning. He had made it to the final table, coming second, and taking away a prize of $6,000.

“No one believed I’d won, and no one believed I’d get the money. They said, ‘I’ll believe it when I see the cheque’.”

When a player ‘cashes out’ for more than $100 on this particular site, the cheque is sent by courier.

“People just don’t trust the internet, but the cheque arrived in a FedEx envelope,” says Kevin.

However, he doesn’t trust the internet totally. “I only play poker. I would only play games against other people. There’s always the chance the computer can screw you if you play games like Blackjack.”

Kevin has been to card clubs in Dublin a few times, but plays most of his poker with friends or online, and has never played a live game for big cash.

“I don’t have the money. I spend about $50 a month online, and I use whatever I win to play more poker. The $6,000 has made the time spent looking for the right job a bit easier.”

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