Julian Rogers meets the main players behind the rise and rise of the world’s biggest poker tour
Back in 2002, the World Poker Tour (WPT) launched in the US, boasting head-spinning prize pools, extravagant final-table arenas and the venerable Mike Sexton calling the action. It was an instant ratings winner for cable TV’s obscure Travel Channel. Yet to label it a global poker odyssey was a bit of a misnomer as it barely set foot off US soil, leading John Duthie to think: ‘It wasn’t really a world poker tour, so I had the idea, “Why don’t I start a European poker tour?”’ At the time, Leeds-born Duthie was a director and producer of primetime serial dramas in the UK, although he shot to fame in the poker world after winning £1m in the inaugural Poker Million on the Isle of Man in 2000. ‘I’d played a lot around Europe and knew many of the cardroom managers, and I had TV contacts, so I thought I could get the EPT up and running.’
Staging big televised tournaments in some of the continent’s most glamorous locations doesn’t come cheap, so Duthie knew he needed a major online poker site to sponsor and bankroll the bold venture. He went knocking on doors and subsequently held talks with representatives from PokerStars, UltimateBet, Ladbrokes, InterPoker and PartyPoker. The latter was shaping up to table the most lucrative sponsorship deal, but Duthie secretly hankered for the signature of Isai Scheinberg, the reclusive founder and owner of PokerStars. Duthie felt PokerStars’ stellar software and growing reputation as a hub for tournament poker meant it could provide the ‘critical mass’ of online qualifiers he needed.
Duthie and PokerStars chiefs thrashed out the specifics during a 90-minute conference call, but attendee Nolan Dalla, PokerStars’ media director in 2004, admits he harboured concerns. ‘My scepticism wasn’t against John Duthie, but poker players don’t tend to be great business people and their ideas don’t tend to be that good,’ he says. ‘Even Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese never did that well in business.’ Duthie concurs, although he didn’t ply his trade as a card player: ‘I was a TV director and producer so people took me slightly more seriously. If you are a businessman and play poker as a hobby then you have a bit more leverage, but had I just been a poker player it probably wouldn’t have worked.’
A premium pair
According to Dalla, PokerStars was ‘desperate’ to appear on television and boost the site’s profile after surveying players for their views on the company’s image. ‘We were considered a conservative, stodgy company, kind of like a bank – not sexy,’ he remembers. ‘We were a very good company but everybody thought that PartyPoker was hip and fun.’ PartyPoker was the runaway leader in 2004 and its parent company, PartyGaming, was worth more than British Airways when it floated on the FTSE 100.
Brokering a deal with the embryonic EPT was a chance to suppress PartyPoker’s dominance and give PokerStars a leg-up in markets where the poker boom was on the verge of igniting. ‘Poker was so hot back then that we quickly decided this was a no-lose proposition for us,’ explains Dan Goldman, PokerStars’ marketing chief at the time. ‘PokerStars never let any grass grow under its feet and went from making the decision to signing within two weeks.’
Prior to inking the deal, Duthie crisscrossed Europe, confabbing with card room managers to entice them onboard. He soon signed up the ‘Vic’ casino in London, as well as casinos in Dublin, Barcelona, Vienna and Monte Carlo for the Grand Final. He wanted Amsterdam but the sticking point was the ties to an online poker room (there are no legal online poker sites in the Netherlands). Similar barriers blocked the inclusion of Stockholm and Helsinki, however Copenhagen was a goer.
When it came to France, Duthie ruled out Paris’ Aviation Club because of its cramped interior and the fact it was the WPT’s sole European stop. However, he’d previously shot an episode of ITV detective drama Agatha Christie’s Poirot in Deauville, so he was au fait with the chic seaside resort. Duthie met with bosses of the casino there – Casino Barriere – and sealed the deal.
Nevertheless, Deauville raised eyebrows. ‘Everybody said Deauville is the worst place you could go to try and be hip,’ Dalla recalls. ‘It’s not like the young people would go there. You’d probably go there to play golf.’ Despite some unease over Deauville’s inclusion, Duthie says the diversity of the final seven locations – the languages, cultures, cuisines and architectures – set them apart from the US-focused WPT. ‘All tournaments in the US look pretty much the same but each EPT event was unique.’
From the EPT’s mission control – Duthie’s kitchen table in Wandsworth – he set to work, forking out for 25 casino-grade poker tables and the construction of a kidney-shaped TV table housing eight ‘lipstick’ hole card cameras. Next, he bought an articulated lorry and hired drivers to transport the tables, bleachers to seat the onlookers, and other equipment to each tour stop. His experience of filming overseas proved beneficial. ‘I knew a lot about taking equipment across borders and moving things around the world.’
Overall, though, the logistics of the tour were ‘a nightmare’ at times, Duthie laughs. For instance, he would sometimes take all the EPT chips by plane and was forced to pay £800 in excess luggage for the first Copenhagen trip (each stop today requires 30 tonnes of chips). That year it snowed heavily and he endured a nail-biting wait in the Danish capital to discover if the lorry would negotiate the 800-mile journey, multiple border crossings and treacherous conditions. ‘I was incredibly worried it wouldn’t turn up, but luckily it did.’
Duthie sold the rights to broadcast the EPT to Channel 5 and Challenge TV in the UK, and, crucially, pan-European sports channel Eurosport. As well as being the EPT’s head honcho, he also appointed himself executive producer and hired TV production company Sunset + Vine to film each stop’s main event. Sunset + Vine had gained a reputation for innovative sports coverage, having integrated ‘Hawk-Eye’ and ‘Snickometer’ into Channel 4’s cricket coverage. Poker, though, was a whole new ballgame, says managing director John Leach. ‘I always remember John [Duthie] saying to us that the most difficult shot to film in a TV drama is one around a dinner table. It was a similar problem with poker.’
After trawling through 50 audition tapes, Duthie enlisted Caroline Flack as the EPT host. Chirpy Northern Irishman Colin Murray was recruited as commentator, accompanied in the booth by Duthie himself. But just getting the first 60-minute episode primed for broadcast was a mad scramble, Leach recalls. ‘The first Barcelona programme was due to go out in the first week in January and we were up all night on Boxing Day in the edit suite trying to get the graphics to work.’
Viewers watched 229 players pony up the €1,000 buy-in at Barcelona, which was won by Swede Alexander Stevic. Afterwards, Brits John Shipley and Ram Vaswani took down the successful London and Dublin legs respectively. Eventual two-time EPT champion Victoria Coren Mitchell attended that season’s previously maligned Deauville stop in a writing capacity and remembers a ‘very special’ atmosphere. ‘There was a sense of old European glamour and grandeur alongside a vibe of modern poker. America had dominated the market in live events for so long – this was something Britain and Europe had longed for.’ The Deauville doubters happily ate humble pie as an EPT-high of 245 pros, amateurs and online qualifiers entered. ‘Deauville did very well,’ says Dalla. ‘Every stop that first year surpassed expectations.’ Indeed, the Grand Final was the richest tournament ever staged in Europe with a whopping €2.1m prize pool.
Poker was exploding in 2005. PokerPlayer launched, late-night TV schedules were peppered with poker programmes and supermarkets were flogging home-game kits. ‘Anything that had the word “poker” in it sold,’ Goldman remarks. The EPT returned for a second season and this time the buy-ins were raised to €4,000, almost doubling total prize pools that year to €10m.
With poker fever gripping Europe, Duthie was frequently on reconnaissance missions to investigate potential cities and venues for the tour. ‘I was just travelling around to places that I’d never been to before, like Kiev. It was great to see these places and think, ‘the guys will really like this’. I always had a mental checklist.’ Indeed, Coren Mitchell credits Duthie with possessing an innate understanding of the poker player mindset. ‘Ultimately, it’s about player enjoyment,’ he responds. ‘It’s not just about the money.’
Soon, the likes of Prague, Warsaw and Dortmund were added to the schedule. By Season 4, the EPT boasted 11 stops, including the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. For Season 6, it reached 13. Total players that season surpassed 9,100, compared with 1,468 in the first year. Duthie was pinching himself. ‘I wasn’t surprised by the EPT’s success, but I was surprised at how quickly it overtook the WPT in terms of size and prize pools. It took about three years.’
Cash me out
However, in 2012 the EPT’s patriarch felt it was time to walk away. ‘I have this thing about life that you should try to reinvent yourself every five or six years.’ Duthie didn’t start directing TV drama until he was 33. Beforehand, he made furniture for a living. But he was missing his wife and kids with all the jetting around Europe for the events and scoping out prospective venues. He grew tired of the peripatetic lifestyle, illustrated by the fact he’d clocked up 1.2 million air miles. ‘The travelling was getting me down, I was never at home.’
Before his departure, he earmarked former executive director of Casinos Austria Edgar Stuchly as his heir apparent. In order to continue to improve the EPT, Stuchly took a knife to the schedule, slashing it to eight stops, with each boasting more poker tournaments to suit differing bankrolls. Its emphasis has been quality over quantity ever since.
This ethos, as well as putting the players’ needs first, partly explains the EPT’s continued prosperity. This September marked the EPT’s 10th anniversary and, coincidentally, Barcelona was the 100th tour stop. The €5,000 main event drew a staggering 1,496 players from 71 countries, while total prize pools reached an eye-watering €25.6m across 44 tournaments.
Up until 2014, the EPT had welcomed 180,000 players, created 39 millionaires and awarded over €535m in prizes. Yet despite the scale, success and popularity of the EPT, a modest Duthie tries to deflect the plaudits, stressing that the poker boom played a key role. Dalla, though, suggests Duthie possessed the Midas touch. ‘John never made a mistake. He had great leadership instincts and was absolutely correct that Europe was dying to have a major tour at the time.’
Looking back, Duthie says he doesn’t have any regrets, apart from sanctioning a free bar at Season 1’s Dublin stop. ‘It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. People were coming in off the streets [for the free alcohol] and there were fights and a bloke asleep on the bleachers. But it was very Dublin.’
Duthie, who is now a consultant for the EPT after taking a sabbatical, also points out that money wasn’t the driving force. ‘Sometimes I think I should be sitting on fifty million quid, but I’m not. My main objective was to set up a tour that was successful.’ He certainly achieved that.
Touring cards: The EPT’s key milestones
The EPT begins life in Barcelona. Alexander Stevic outlasts 229 players to scoop the €80k prize. Subsequent events visit London, Dublin, Copenhagen, Deauville, Vienna and Monte Carlo.
Gavin Griffin prevails in the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo. The American pro later becomes the first player to hold the Triple Crown – EPT and WPT titles and a WSOP bracelet.
The number of destinations mushrooms to 11. The Grand Final produces the largest prize pool for a European event, €8.4m, and winner Glen Chorny gets his mitts on a €2m share.
Astrophysics graduate Liv Boeree defeats 1,239 opponents in Sanremo – the largest main event field to date – to walk away with the EPT trophy and the small matter of €1.2m.
Armed robbers burst into Berlin’s Grand Hyatt Hotel’s casino and escape with €242k of the High Roller prize money. No one was seriously hurt and the thieves were later caught and jailed.
The EPT finally puts a hoodoo to rest and crowns its first two-time champion: Victoria Coren Mitchell. The popular UK pro was also the first female winner – way back in Season 3 in London.
EPT 100 in Barcelona is a phenomenal success, attracting a total of 18,000 entries in 44 events. ‘It was hard to keep track of all the records we broke,’ says president Edgar Stuchly.