PokerStars UKIPT President Kirsty Thompson exclusive interview: “This tour is for the people”

Since its debut in 2009 the PokerStars UK & Ireland Poker Tour has quickly established itself as the UK’s most successful and prestigious poker tour. Starting with an affordable  £500+£50 buy-in, the first season drew some excellent numbers and created stars out of players such as Max Silver, Sam Razavi and Nick Abou-Risk who have all gone on to great success since. 

The decision was made to gradually increase the buy-in to £700+£70 in season 3 and numbers remained good, including the record-breaking 2012 leg at Nottingham’s Dusk Till Dawn that drew 1,625 runners and created a £1.1m prizepool. However, for season 4 PokerStars upped the buy-in to £1,000+£100 and there has been a very noticeable drop-off in the number of players attending the events. The £500,000 guaranteed prizepool has not been met now for three events in a row – Isle of Man, Nottingham and Edinburgh – creating sizeable overlays for the players and much discussion within the poker community. has been at the forefront of that, especially on Twitter (follow us @PokerPlayerUK) and has engaged in debate with leading UK pros such as Sam Grafton and Neil Channing along with recreational poker players that fear the UKIPT is now out of their price range.  You can read the article summarising the debate here

In a very creditable move by PokerStars the UKIPT President Kirsty Thompson agreed to an interview to talk about the recent disappointing overlays, why they have lowered the buy-ins for some events later this year and what the future of the UKIPT may hold…

PokerPlayer: The recent UKIPT events in Nottingham, Edinburgh and the Isle of Man UKIPT all had overlays. What do you think were the main reasons for that? 
Kirsty Thompson: The problem with Nottingham was that we had so many events in a very short period of time. We had the Isle of Man, London and Nottingham in the space of about nine weeks. One of the main reasons the UKIPT is so successful is because of the amount of qualifiers we can get online – having the market so saturated at that time (because there were so many different events going on) is no fault of anybody’s but in the future this will not happen again.

Also, any event before Christmas is always a risk, especially when it’s in the £1,000 region. People are saving for Christmas, trying to qualify for the PCA or Aussie Millions and that all harms the UKIPT. Also, while holding the 6-max event at Dusk Till Dawn was tremendously successful – and [DTD Owner] Rob Yong was delighted with it and wants to add it to his calendar – the standard of play in a 6-max event is generally higher and it hurt our numbers. But I was still proud of the Nottingham event. It’s always disappointing from the organisers’ point of view when you have an overlay but from the players’ perspective it’s the best thing ever. It’s free money from PokerStars. Any event at DTD is always amazingly organised by them and they are a delight to work with. It’s a great place to play poker. Our survey results for Nottingham were also excellent. 

The worry from a poker players’ standpoint would be that, despite UKIPT Nottingham being a great tournament to play in, the fact that it had a big overlay would stop you from experimenting with interesting concepts like a 6-max main event in the future…
My theory was that in the first three seasons of any poker tour the aim is to grow the tour, to get as many bums on seats as possible. I used to work with John Duthie [founder of the European Poker Tour] and he said that season four is the toughest, it’s like a second album! You have to change things up a little bit. We did the 6-max main event and the poker festival in Galway, which came from talking to the players – something we do a lot of. 

For example in Galway, we knew that the Races were really popular and thought it would be great to have a festival at the same time, so people outside of Ireland could come over and experience not just the poker but the town as well. I think that’s really important. We always like to do events in the centre of town so that people from Germany, France or wherever can actually see the city. It’s important for the players that there are things to do both inside and outside of the tournament area.

We will definitely keep experimenting with stuff. Obviously some things work better than others but there is no reason to stop experimenting. The players wanted a 6-max event and we always ask the players what they want to see. We didn’t hit the guarantee but I like to think that the players that did turn up were happy.

What other interesting ideas will we see in the future for the UKIPT?
I can’t really comment because we haven’t announced them. We have discussed a Turbo main event and an Accumulator main event too. We are consulting with the Hippodrome casino’s customer database to see what people want.

Last year you took the UKIPT overseas and had an event in Marbella, Spain. With the Estrellas Poker Tour already established in Spain how have you felt that this integration between two major tours is going so far? 
I have wanted to do a joint event with someone since season one. Its always been my dream. I remember talking to Jesse May about it before season one and he said that what PokerStars has that other companies don’t have is that we have national tours globally and that allows us to merge the tours. As far as I am aware we are the only company that is able to do that. Why wouldn’t you want to do that? We want to showcase the UKIPT to Spanish players and the Estrellas tour to UK players. Now, obviously, Marbella is not in the UK but it’s a real Brits-abroad destination. I used to live there and I know how British the place is. The players loved it, it was so much fun. 

Could you see a time when you take all these different regional European tours and have a ‘European championship’ of the £1k buy-in tours?
These type of conversations do always come up. It’s under the remit of Edgar Stuchly who is director of live events in Europe. There are no plans for it in the future. One of the problems with it is that we have different PokerStars clients such as .com, .fr and .es. How do we merge these and the liquidity to qualify the players?

Do you often find that you have great ideas but certain laws or problems that you may not even have originally considered stop you from doing them?
Absolutely. I used to work for the EPT and that was also a big problem we had there but we always tend to get around it. A lot of the events we have run with the UKIPT have been groundbreaking. A good example is that we actually changed the law in Ireland to run the Galway festival. I had to go to court.

You’ve made some immediate changes with the next Dublin event being a €770 buy-in. Why did you feel it was important to reduce some of the buy-ins for this season of the tour?
The reason it was increased to £1,000 in the first place was to create uniformity among the tours. All of the other national tours were a €1k buy-in and that obviously helps us when we run things like the Passport online that people can win and then choose Dublin, Valencia or wherever they want to go.

We spent a lot of time talking to the players again and for some events they felt the need to bring the buy-in down. If the players are saying that then we really need to listen to. The UKIPT is about bringing grassroots players through the ranks and introducing them to our brand. It gives the average Joe a chance to interact with our brand, which they would not be able to do on the EPT because the buy-ins are so expensive. 

Do you think that relatively small reduction in buy-in will encourage recreational players to play whereas there might be a mental barrier for those same players buying in for £1,000+? 
There is obviously a mental thing. It was £500 in season one and that was great because we’d get a huge amount of bums in seats. But when people are travelling for a week and even a three-star hotel ends up costing more than the buy-in [it’s not right]. The £700 number seemed like a good middle ground.

The £500 buy-in UKIPT had tremendous success and quickly established the UKIPT as the UK’s premier tour. Do you think you rushed into making the buy-in much larger too soon and do you regret that?
We raised the buy-ins to £1,000 in season four so I don’t think we rushed into it. I did request that we had the middle tier, £700, first in season three as I didn’t want to double the buy-in. I don’t regret it and I think we have learnt a lot from it. It did create bigger prize pools and from that we got more PR coverage and all that kind of thing. Also, even if we didn’t quite hit the guarantee we got 860 players to come over to the west coat of Ireland. That’s phenomenal – there’s no airport there, it’s a pain in the arse to get to and we still managed 860 players! I don’t see any of our events as being a failure, honestly.

Even the Isle of Man event was done for other reasons, to showcase the home of PokerStars. Although players love the gossip around an overlay I think the players do want the tour to succeed. With a €700 buy-in we hope we will get an extra 200 players. The satellites for that event have exploded.

Do you think that online satellites are the key to bringing players to these tournaments, especially non-pros?
From day one of the tour I always wanted the UKIPT to be about the guy who works at Tesco coming over to win £90,000. Obviously the pros still come because it’s great fun but this tour is for the people.

The UKIPT TV show was very well received by the poker community and general public. Were you disappointed when that was cancelled and do you ever see it coming back?
It was a great show – it wasn’t all just about the poker either, it was about the city and the community. It reminded me of the Late Night Poker days in many ways. It was about building characters up too. One of the reasons it was cancelled was that we just ran out of space. The tour was growing and growing and as you know a TV set takes up a massive amount of space. In DTD for example building that set was an absolute bloomin’ nightmare. DTD is a small, compact space and there is no way that we could have produced the TV show alongside a tournament with 1,600 players.

Obviously budget reasons are important too but I hope there is a chance it might come back. I’d love it and I think it was great. Nick Wealthall was great at presenting and I think it was a positive for the game overall.

How important do you think having a TV vehicle is when trying to create new stars such as Liv Boeree?
It definitely is important. Liv’s career was definitely helped by her TV background. In my opinion the future is more in webcasting than it is in TV shows. That’s something that we are seriously considering doing for a few 2014 UKIPT stops. At the end of the day a lot of friends and family follow the blogs but the viewing figures for our webcasts are unbelievable and it’s a great way to follow the tournament. The average viewing time for watching the EPT webcast is over half an hour which is massive.

There’s also a lot of interaction with the viewer when doing a webcast. Does this create a more valuable customer than one who passively watches a TV show?
Yes, definitely, and it’s your prime target audience too.

UKIPT Nottingham is coming up in May, once again with a £1m guarantee. After a huge success in 2012 was this always the plan once again for 2014 and do you view it as a major risk?
It’s Rob Yong‘s guarantee and that’s important to mention. We appreciate his support so much. In season three there were sleepless nights for weeks over that £1m guarantee! But then we broke it after Day 1B. Everything is a risk. Dublin is a risk. I’m saying to the team now that I don’t want to hear any of them say that we are going to smash anything! I don’t want to hear it. Nottingham is going to be a challenge but if anyone can do it Rob can do it.

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