Green Cards

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Irish
Open, Rick Dacey raises his glass to the
longest-running poker tournament in Europe

He [Rogers] went to the world capital of gambling, strolled in and showed the Americans how to do it

In 1981 a larger-than-life bookmaker called Terry Rogers held a no-limit Hold’em poker tournament and called it the Irish Open. The locals hadn’t seen the like of it before, but now, on the eve of its 25th anniversary, it’s the longest running poker tournament outside of the World Series. It’s also responsible for bringing no-limit Texas Hold’em from the vibrant Vegas strip to the stuffy casinos of London and Paris, and into home games across the land.

As you might expect, in the past quarter of a century the Dublin-based tournament has seen more than its fair share of colourful characters, shaggy dog stories and piss-ups. And it’s understandably become one of the favourite competitions for UK players. Because while the sun and surf of Aruba is all well and good, you’ll be hard pressed to find a pint of Guinness anywhere.

But the idea for the tournament took shape a long way from Aruba or Dublin, when Irishman Terry Rogers was in Los Angeles on business in the summer of 1979. The Dubliner decided to swing by Las Vegas on his way home – not an unsurprising diversion for the flamboyant bookie. And what he stumbled upon was a growing tournament dubbed – in a gloriously over-the-top and typically self-important American way – the World Series of Poker.

Place your bets

Although the WSOP Main Event back then was a long way from the 8,000-odd runners of today, the Irishman became enamoured by the balls-out betting of a new style of poker called no-limit Texas Hold’em. He’d never seen anything like it before in his native Ireland, where Stud and Draw ruled the roost, but Rogers knew a thing or two about giving the punters want they wanted. He opened a book offering far better odds on the action than the yanks had previously experienced (maintaining a healthy 20 percent edge of course). And they bloody loved it. And Rogers? Well, he fell in love with Hold’em and the Main Event.

Padraig Parkinson, a long-time player at the Irish Open and third place finisher at the 1999 WSOP Main Event, says, ‘It’s typically Irish and typically Terry. He went to the world capital of gambling, strolled in and started showing the Americans how to do it.’

After his initial visit to Vegas, Rogers returned time and again over the next few years, forging a good friendship with the notorious Benny Binion – the former bootlegger who ran the WSOP at his Binion’s Horseshoe casino. Benny was a seven-time murder suspect who kept a revolver in his pocket and a shotgun in his car – he’s the kind of person that a Conservative MP would refer to as ‘unsavoury’. (We on the other hand slotted Binion in at number two in our Top 10 Poker Legends– PokerPlayer, Issue one.)

Rogers hit it off with Benny famously. And it was a friendship that was to come in very handy when he and fellow bookie Liam Flood were collared by the American taxman in Vegas.

Flood, now a highly regarded tournament director and poker player, recounts: ‘Terry was making a book on the World Series. I wasn’t actually involved – but I had been the previous year – and I’d just dropped in to see the action at the World Series. I sat with Terry at one of the card tables where he was doing business and because he was busy I helped out for a short while. Unfortunately it was at that point the IRS [Internal Revenue Service] arrived to “interview” all of us. We were subsequently handcuffed and taken away to Clark County Prison.’ You might think that odd for Vegas, but while it’s a place that actively encourages gambling, running your own unlicensed and untaxed betting shop is not the kind of thing the authorities are likely to let slide.

While getting hauled off by the Vegas fuzz would make strong men weak at the knees and weak men blub like they’ve just lost to a one-outer on the river, Rogers and Flood were obviously made of sterner stuff. But then again, being mates with Benny Binion did have its advantages, as Flood explains: ‘It was a good experience because I knew that we wouldn’t be staying banged up for long. I knew that Benny Binion was going to get us out one way or another. We were never going to get charged.’

That said, it’s all well and good having someone to get you off the hook but it helps if they actually know that you’ve been nabbed. ‘Terry and the boys were in there for about 12 hours but I was held for 14 because nobody else knew that I’d been arrested. I wasn’t meant to be involved!’ Luckily for him someone realised that the tall Irishman was missing and he was released shortly after.

First crossing

In order to build excitement and buzz around his idea for the Irish Open Rogers took Collette Doherty, winner of a 5-Card Stud tournament he held in 1980, to the next WSOP Main Event, having withheld half her $22,000 winnings for the buy-in. Doherty became the first woman to play in the World Series.

And in 1981 Rogers brought no-limit Texas Hold’em action back to Ireland. And where the Cadillac of poker goes, its stars can always be found clambering into the backseat. Terry brought some of the biggest names of Vegas to play the Irish Open in the early 80s: Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar, Amarillo Slim, Chip Reese, Tom McEvoy and Puggy Pearson were just some of the platinum players that made the journey across the pond. This was no mean feat considering it was the first time that anyone had managed to persuade Ungar to leave the United States and Rogers was keen that they weren’t disappointed. He picked up the players from the airport in Rolls Royces and brought a white horse especially for Amarillo Slim – whether this was something prearranged for Slim to win one of his proposition bets is unknown.

‘There were real characters in the early days. Every other guy was a maniac,’ recalls Parkinson. ‘It’s not like today with all these internet qualifiers who all look and act the same. I sat at a tournament with a bunch of Swedes recently and they didn’t speak for two hours. I knocked two of them out and then the others descended on me… but still didn’t say a word.’

The flow of personalities and players was certainly not one-way. Terry was very keen on getting his countrymen over to the World Series and dreamed of getting a fellow Irishman to win the Main Event. Although he’d have to wait a few years for that to happen Terry helped to lay the foundation for many of today’s successful Irish players. Noel Furlong, Padraig Parkinson, Donnacha O’Dea and Jimmy Langan were all players that cut their teeth at the Open, which Furlong and Langan both went on to win twice.

Jimmy Langan, a highly rated player who unfortunately suffered from manic episodes, was one of the many veterans of the Irish Open to descend on the World Series. The crowd hadn’t seen anything like him. ‘It was a sight to see. Jimmy bought all this cheap jewellery from around Vegas and every time he won a pot he’d throw it into the crowd to celebrate,’ recalls Parkinson, who insists Langan had acted like a gentleman – unlike some of the in-your-face players of today.

But the fine line between characters and criminality is one that has unsurprisingly blurred during the Open’s history. The chances of a poker tournament running for a quarter of a century without cloak-and-dagger intrigue is as likely as the Open winner refusing to buy the first round. In 1990 it was held at the Green Isle Hotel in Dublin, and in the days before internet qualifiers, who now turn up with just a slip of paper in their hands, cold hard cash was almost exclusively used to buy into the tournament. A big field buy-in would create a gargantuan stack of notes and in turn a big temptation for people with sticky fingers. But it must have come as a surprise to Rogers when his two cashiers decided to do a runner with the money leaving Terry with no prize pool and a lot of explaining to do. He personally reimbursed all the players to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds.

Padraig says: ‘The funny thing is that one of those cashiers had already done a similar thing to him [Rogers]. He was already on his second warning! They caught up with them in the end but, don’t worry, they didn’t end up buried in cement propping up motorways or anything like that.’

New lease of life

After that there was a lapse in the tournament when Terry’s mother fell ill, so in 1996 tournament director Flood, who was invited to host the first Hold’em tournament at the London Victoria Grosvenor in 1984, asked Rogers if he could take over. ‘No-limit Hold’em was starting to spread all across the continent but there was no Irish Open. I thought that it should be started again as it’s the event that had introduced Europe to Hold’em. It’s gone from strength to strength since then,’ says Flood. The competition was duly resurrected at the Jackpot Club, and was won by Flood himself, before being shifted to the larger Merrion Casino Club in later years. Flood expects this year’s tournament to be near its 350- player capacity limit and has been shifted to the Jurys Hotel to accommodate the growth.

The move to the new venue is one favoured by the 2003 Irish Open winner Joe Beevers, who says: ‘We [The Hendon Mob] always stay at Jurys. I love playing in Ireland and have had some of my best results there. Now I can just stumble out of bed and fall down the stairs, so this year it’s perfect.’

And according to Flood there’s a lot of stumbling that goes on. ‘It’s half and half to do with the poker and the boozing. When you’re knocked out the tournament there’s a lot of partying going on.’

The Irish Open is held on Easter weekend and traditionally all pubs in Ireland are shut on Good Friday. So you’re in one of the biggest drinking cities in the world and there’s not a pint of Guinness to be had anywhere… unless, of course, you’re somewhere with a hotel or casino licence. And like a lock-in, prohibition or the situation in film Whiskey Galore, there’s no better boozy session than one when you’re bending the rules.

Beevers elaborates: ‘I’d actually say that it was 100 percent about poker and 100 percent about drinking. Most people aren’t sat around with drinks while playing in the tournament but the attitude of players in Dublin is very different from London or Paris. People have a great craic. It really is unlike any other tournament.’

Beevers hazily remembers getting involved in a cash game a few years ago with founding member of the Merrion Casino, Michael Harbourne, and fellow players Jacarama and Julian Gardner. When the casino shut at 6am, chips, cards and players shifted to the hotel across the road where the staff pulled out a couple of breakfast tables, opened the bar and kept the pints coming.

By midday Michael Harbourne must have been wishing they hadn’t. Playing in a hand with Beevers, there was only 50 Irish pounds and a few drinks on the table when the river card was dealt. With no pairs on the board and both Harbourne and Beevers holding flushes the pot was raised and re-raised until there was 16,000 Irish pounds at stake. Michael eventually called with the nut flush and asked, ‘Have you got what I think you might have?’ Beevers showed the straight flush and claimed the pot.

Paddy power

Rogers sadly passed away in 1999 but not before seeing his longtime friend Noel Furlong become the first Irishman to win the WSOP Main Event scooping its $1m first prize by beating Alan Goehring. And if that’s not a tribute fitting enough, the Irish stormed the final tables that year: Padraig Parkinson came third, George McKeever came seventh and Mickey Finn – the fourth player to win the Irish Open twice – came 14th. It was an overpowering performance by the Irish players. Terry was said to be ecstatic to hear Furlong had won and it’s an enthusiasm that looks likely to live on through the legacy he created. Irish players have continued to feature strongly at the Main Event. Andy Black tore up the competition last year and looked likely to follow in Furlong’s footsteps and become the second Irishman to win the Big One, before a series of bad beats saw him eliminated in fifth.

Irish Open sponsor, which has signed a five-year deal to promote the event, is guaranteeing a 1m prize pool and juicing the pot with an extra 50,000. Domestic events both in the UK and the Republic of Ireland will continue to provide top quality Hold’em action and act as a premium breeding ground for future stars of the Main Event. And wherever Terry Rogers may be now, you can bet he’ll be running a book on the action.

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