The Tao of Pauly … Barcelona and the Early Days of the EPT

Gran Casino

The European Poker Tour reached its 100th event. The cliché fits. Time flies. It really feels like yesterday I was covering the 2005 Barcelona Open, the EPT’s eighth overall event. Only a couple months earlier I was an earnest rookie at the 2005 World Series of Poker wandering around the Amazon Room’s poker tables in serpentine patterns. All of a sudden I’m in Spain popping my international cherry at the Casino de Barcelona for the EPT’s second-season opener. I was a stranger in a strange land, sheepishly navigating an overcrowded poker room while trying to put faces to long, vowel-heavy Scandinavian names. I had to remind myself to stop ogling the waif-like supermodels on the rail that were paying little attention to the actual tournament and spending more time contributing to the soupy clouds of secondhand smoke.

At the end of the 2005 WSOP, Mad Harper insisted I fly out to Barcelona a few months later to cover the start of second season of the European Poker Tour. Mad, a British ex-pat living in Spain, was the media coordinator of the EPT which completed a successful seven-event inaugural season. Still in its infancy, the EPT had a cozy and intimate vibe. It was an all-hands-on-deck atmosphere with everyone pitching in to run a tournament while simultaneously filming a TV program. The EPT’s elite staff reminded me of a Special Forces unit that traveled from country to country overcoming language barriers and local customs to achieve a strategic objective … only to pack everything up and do it again in a different city and country.

When I emailed EPT creator John Duthie inquiring about media credentials, he simply said, “Approved. See you at the Casino de Barcelona.” And that’s what I did. I booked two weeks in Europe and traveled light — just me, my laptop, a camera, a small bag of clothes, and “How to Talk Dirty in Spanish.”

Mad Harper scooped me up at the airport and made sure I got to the Princess Hotel. She introduced me to a slew of smoking hot Spanish girls as a “famous American writer.” The ladies give you a double kiss when they meet you, even if it’s the first time. A few of them laughed as I tried to extend my right hand to shake hands. I looked and acted like a total dork.

Las Vegas has really only been a cultural icon and gambling Mecca for roughly 50 years. Barcelona, on the other hand, has been an influential city in Europe since its inception in the Middle Ages. I had always wanted to visit Barcelona, but it took a poker tournament to finally draw me to one of those bucket list destinations.

The Casino de Barcelona is a few blocks from the zoo, located along the beach. Unlike the easy accessibility of Vegas casinos, you need to show your passport to officials to gain entrance to the casino. You also have to pay a nominal fee, which supposedly kept out the riff raff, but the media got free admittance with their press pass. The security guy slowly handed me back my passport. He was suspicious, “What is an American doing covering a poker tournament in Spain? He must be CIA.”

Casino de Barcelona closed at 5 a.m. and opened around noon, a far cry from the 24/7 balls-to-the-wall philosophy of Las Vegas. As the staff prepared to open the doors, a scrum of hardcore gamblers (mostly poker players) gathered outside the entrance in an anarchic mob. The concept of an orderly queue was foreign to the locals, so when the door opened, the scene resembled an apocalypse movie with a frenetic mob shoving and clawing to get inside. I got caught up in the middle of the fracas and had not thrown so many fierce elbows since the last time I played pickup basketball on the West 4th Street courts in NYC.

You know poker is reaching a boiling point when multiple fights break out to just get on a wait list. Yes, the crest of the Moneymaker tidal wave and poker boom had officially crashed down on the shores of Spain. Poker fever engulfed the modest-sized room at Casino de Barcelona and the demand for cash games with limited seating peaked at a level of insanity when everyone risked physical harm and sprinted downstairs to put their names on the board. Otherwise, they might have to wait several hours for an open seat.

The buy-in for the 2005 Barcelona Open was only €4,000 (compared to €5,000 today) and by the time cards were in the air, the poker room was packed with EPT circuit regulars and a slew of Spanish locals. The record-breaking field was 327 players deep, but due to space constraints the majority of alternates were unable to get in. The total prizepool exceeded €1.3 million Euros, which at the time was considered a smashing success. At the 2013 EPT Barcelona, the prizepool swelled to approximately €6 million and the main event was expanded to seven days to accommodate 1,234 runners.

Only a handful of reporters were on site and we were huddled underneath the grand staircase behind the TV table’s set. I was the only American in the makeshift media room. With the exception of Brad Willis from PokerStars Blog, I was one of the first Americans to cover the EPT. I drew peculiar looks whenever I opened my mouth and my boorish American accent tumbled out.

“What the hell is an American doing in Europe covering a European poker tournament?” That was a very good question which I kept asking myself mainly because the EPT was not aired on television in the United States. Even during the height of the poker boom and pre-UIGEA, the EPT was not on the radar of programming execs. So in one way, I was blazing a new trail because I got a front row seat to watch the premier tournament players and future breakout stars in Europe, while my American colleagues were focused on the WPT and WSOP.

One of my British colleagues was thrilled I flew out to Spain to cover the EPT. “The Scandis have been dominating the last year. We need some fresh blood in the field to shake things up. Need some Yanks from Vegas to come out and give these crazy Scandi kids a lesson or two.”

A small bar was located a mere 30 steps away from the poker tournament. Since it was a Friday night, casino patrons dressed up in their most formal outfits like tuxes for guys and glamorous cocktail dresses for the ladies. In Europe, I’m a walking fashion disaster and the worst-dressed person wherever I went (sporting a thrift store tweed jacket, most likely donated by a college professor, and a wrinkled dress shirt). Even the working girls on the boardwalk were wearing Chanel dresses. I was clearly out of my league and had moments when I felt like the grubby Charlie touring Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

The 2005 EPT Barcelona marked the first time I met Rolf Slotbloom. I was a huge fan of his Omaha strategy columns. Rolf wore a Saville Row suit that cost over €1,000 with a black tank top and no tie. Yeah, Rolf was rocking a designer wifebeater underneath his fancy suit. He had a small pony tail like one of those henchmen from the original “Die Hard” films. Back home in the States, I was surrounded by wiseguys at the Borgata wearing non-matching track suits, or guys at Foxwoods clad in T-shirts, jeans, shitkickers, and backwards Red Sox caps.

In 2005, Brandon Schaefer was the darling of the EPT’s first season. Brandon was a breakout star after winning the EPT Deauville and he just missed a second title with a runner-up finish at the Grand Final in Monte Carlo. Just hanging out with Brandon in Barcelona made me cool by default in the eyes of everyone at the EPT.

I crashed the luncheon for players. These days PokerStars throws a swanky welcome party for every event, but in 2005, players were treated to a gourmet feast before the tournament commenced. On a gigantic screen, I watched video highlights from the first season on the EPT with Brandon featured heavily along with Isabelle Mercier. 2005 was probably the apex of the frenzy over Mercier, a former lawyer from Montreal who became the poker room manager at the Aviation Club in Paris. It was approximately one year after she won WPT Ladies Night, which helped land her a sponsorship at Stars. A disproportionate amount of women play poker and poker rooms are notorious sausage fests, so women are easy to spot, but the moment the ebullient Mercier entered any room around the world, everyone froze in their tracks and stopped playing to catch a glimpse of her alluring beauty.

While waiting for the tournament to begin, I drank a cup of coffee and jotted down notes on initial impressions of my first EPT event. Like an angel descending from the heavens, Isabelle Mercier appeared out of nowhere. She pointed at the empty chair across from me and in her soul-melting accent she asked, “May I sit?” I nodded making sure I kept my jaw clenched so I didn’t unleash a river of drool. She slid into her chair and offered to buy me another cup of coffee. I looked around and noticed several other empty tables, so she had a choice. I’m sure she sat there because she knew I was safe and harmless and working, whereas if she sat alone, it would attract a wave of undesirable men trying to hit on her. Yet then again, holy shitballs… Isabelle Mercier actually opted to sit down with me while 40 or so onlookers had the collective thought, “What the hell is Isabelle doing with that American douchebag?”

They had a point. “Why me?” I thought. “Ah, who cares because Barcelona is awesome and I’m never going back to America. The WPT and WSOP might be more popular back home, but I never once had Isabelle Mercier buy me coffee and there’s models everywhere that smoke like chimneys and drink wine for breakfast.”

On the first day of the 2005 Barcelona Open, one of the execs at the EPT invited me to emcee the TV table despite the fact I had zero experience. I always wanted to be a sportswriter, but not a commentator. EPT founder John Duthie did color commentary for EPT episodes, which occurred in post-production, but the TV crew needed someone to announce the action while the tournament was in progress. Usually EPT tournament director Thomas Kremser handled those duties, but he was dealing with a delayed start when significantly more players turned up than the initial projection and almost 100 players were added to the waiting list. I shared announcing duties with Howard Swains from PokerStars Blog. When I explained my nervousness (stemming from lack of experience) to John Duthie, he said he had full confidence in me. “It’s good to hear an American voice do poker. It’s proper. When you hear a documentary, you expect to hear a British voiceover. With poker, it’s natural to hear an American voice. It sounds right.”

A production assistant with a headset handed me a PokerStars polo shirt and a microphone. I swapped shirts and headed to the feature table which included: Gus Hansen, Brandon Schaefer, Theo Jorgensen, Pascal Perrault, Christer Johansson, and an online wunderkind from Finland named Ilari “Zigmund” Sahamies. It was a surreal experience during the first day of action in Barcelona. I split time between announcing the TV table (giving the railbirds my best Johnny Grooms imitation) and live-blogging from the media area underneath the grand staircase.

During my stint at the TV table, I had an amazing view of Gus Hansen catching runner-runner quad queens and viciously snapping off Daniel Larsson’s pocket aces. Daniel had four-bet preflop and Hansen called. With a queen on the flop, Hansen bet out, Larsson raised and Hansen called. The turn was a queen and both players checked. The river was another queen. The ever-cool Gus Hansen gave off a rare tell; his right hand was visibly shaking when he reached for chips. Hansen bet enough to put Larsson all in, but despite Hansen’s shaky grip, Larsson called with pocket aces. Gus tabled the case queen and won the pot with quads. While raking in chips, Gus semi-joked, “It was hard to go away from flopping top pair.” Gus Hansen would end up as the Day 1 chip leader and he advanced to the final table.

Early on Day 2, Carlos Mortensen bubbled out in 28th place. By the time the final table of eight was set, Hansen was second in chips behind Johansson. Also advancing to the final table were Patrick Martensson, Jan Boubli, Romain Feriolo, Anton Bergstrom, Dario Alioto, and Patrik Antonius. Yes, that Patrik Antonius. It was the first time I had ever heard of the ex-tennis pro from Finland. Zigmund was the crazy Fin everyone was talking about, but Antonius flew under the radar. Although Antonius did not win this event, the final table was another minor milestone in an eventually lucrative career.

I recognized Johansson because he had won an event on the World Poker Tour, along with Gus Hansen. Everyone else was a mystery to me, especially the youngest player at the final table Martensson. On his bio sheet, Martensson mentioned he was Sweden’s Monopoly champion. Several press outlets printed that nugget of information (including yours truly), but years later I discovered that Martensson fudged his bio sheet. He did not have anything interesting to add to his bio, so his friends encouraged him to make up something bizarre … and he came up with the Swedish Monopoly champion.

Hansen busted in fifth, Monolpoly kid went out in fourth, and Antonius finished in third. Jan Boubli caught a queen on the river to come from behind to knock out Johansson in second place. French ex-dentist Boubli remarkably held off a final table full of Scandis to win the EPT Barcelona. Boubli has always been a well-respected pioneer in the French poker community. Although Boubli was the oldest player at the final table, he outplayed all of the young guns from the Nordic countries.

At the start of the second season of the EPT, I was witnessing the changing of the guard in Europe. By 2005, British, Irish and French players were no longer the most skilled players in Europe. A new fearless and aggressive generation from Northern Europe had arrived onto the scene. Online poker thrived during long, dark depressing Nordic winters, so by the time the thaw arrived, another fresh batch of players had caught up to the pack. Hansen had already made waves on the WPT, but it was only a matter of time before Zigmund and Antonius became household names in North America.

I consider myself fortunate that I got to witness an important moment in poker history those few days in Barcelona in 2005. The EPT got off to an auspicious start, but by the end of the decade, PokerStars shed its growing pains and its powerful brand had expanded into an international behemoth with major tours spanning the globe.

It’s been nine years since I covered my first international event and first event in Europe. Since then, I’ve reported on tournaments in over a dozen countries, but you’ll never forget the first time you left “home.” For that simple reason, the EPT Barcelona will always hold special place in my heart. Happy 100, EPT.

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September 2014