Irish poker guru Padraig Parkinson buys us a pint and we ask the questions: “I was in Vegas for seven weeks at the World Series and I’m fed up talking bull***t to all those people”

Larger-than-life Padraig Parkinson takes PokerPlayer down the boozer to explain why Ireland is the true home to the spirit of poker

There are some animals you can only really ever understand in their natural habitat – just ask that Attenborough bloke. For Padraig Parkinson – the lion king of Irish poker, that’s either at the card table or in a boozer. Option one being prohibitively intrusive, we settle for the next best thing: a bar only a chip’s flip from the baize of the Irish Poker Cup.

‘Fancy a loosener, Parky?’ I shout as my voice echoes around the smoke-filled room. ‘Course,’ comes the snarling reply, Parky’s heels now turning his attention to a very attractive young lady pulling the drinks. ‘Double vodka and coke please sweetheart, and have one yourself,’ he roars, followed with a wink so well practised it’s probably subconscious.

Today, Parky’s dressed all in black, like some Celtic Johnny Cash, fidgeting with his smudged glasses and flicking his long hair. He’s all nervous energy and machine-gun patter. The barmaid – half his age – pretends not to be impressed by the sheer force of the man’s personality. But she’s fooling no one. As Parky holds centre stage, heads begin to turn and a gaggle of half-cut onlookers assemble close by. Parky is here to talk about poker, and the crowd can sense he’s got a story to tell.

It’s kicking off!

‘Well, if you want to talk about poker, this is where it all started,’ rattles off Parkinson matter-of-factly. ‘It was here in Ireland. Irish bookie Terry Rogers went over and met Benny Binion at The Horseshoe. He brought hold’em back to Ireland. We’re a load of gamblers here, so it was like football coming home! You know, poker isn’t all about a whole load of people who started playing on the internet. Poker is a big grass roots sport and this is where it started.’

Cheers break out around us in the boozer, known locally as a ‘craic-house’. Another round of sweating, vodka-laden glasses appear by magic. It definitely seems that Padraig – which rhymes with Yorick of Hamlet fame – is indeed a ‘fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy’.

‘I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Hanlon’s Corner, but that’s where it all began,’ continues Parky, raising a glass from his bar stool. ‘That was where the great Jimmy Langan and Don Fagan learnt to play poker. Terry Rogers used to have the Eccentric Club. Liam Flood was the secretary, but he was completely incompetent and couldn’t be trusted with anything. Jim Delaney was the treasurer – but he couldn’t be trusted with his own money between buying the paper in the morning and buying lunch. That’s where poker in Europe all started. You have to know your history in this game.’

Parky’s personal poker history kicked off in the hallowed halls of Trinity College, Dublin, in the 1970s, alongside Donnacha O’Dea, John Callaghan and the late Ramin Sai. As the first poker clubs in Dublin opened – places like The Eccentric, The Jackpot and The Griffen – he abandoned any pretence of attending lectures or aspiring to a nine-to-five job – and went pro. ‘They say in Ireland that when your job starts to interfere with your gambling, the job has to go. That’s the course I followed,’smiles Parky today.

The early years were tough, not least because the small pool of card players in Ireland were extremely sharp. Beating people like O’Dea on a regular basis was never going to be easy. The pubs were something of a distraction, too, as he now readily admits. To break through in the pro game he started playing almost exclusively in the United States, a career that peaked as the third-place finisher in the 1999 WSOP main event, which was won by fellow countryman Noel Furlong on a final table that also featured Northern Irishman George McKeever.

Parkinson also achieved great success on TV, wining Late Night Poker Series 5. Originally, he didn’t want to appear because it meant showing his cards to the audience. Once over that hurdle, he faced another: not realising the great Phil Hellmuth could see his hand during his heat. He’s since gone on to be one of TV’s most well-loved poker commentators.

Homeward bound

Throughout the 1990s, Parkinson received the nickname ‘Cantona’ for his ability to drift in and out of the game, only to do something inspirational on a whim. He also based himself in Paris after getting married to French poker player Veronique. This self-imposed exile ended only just recently.

‘I spent most of my time playing on the US tours and I don’t make any apologies for that,’ explains Padraig. ‘That’s my game. But any time there’s a big event in Ireland I always turn up. This is probably the first event all year I’ve actually paid to enter with my own money. I was in Vegas for seven weeks at the World Series and I’m fed up talking bullshit to all those people. Now, you come to Ireland and sit down at the table and it’s amazing. The people here; it’s not just that they are nice, it’s that they love the game and respect it.

‘Last night, I probably got the biggest chip lead the European tour has ever seen, but it didn’t make any difference to me. This was a team event. I was on a Bosman transfer and moved from Galway to Dublin – without even being able to stop for a pint in Kilkenny on the way! It doesn’t matter what team you play for, it’s about pride. You won’t find this anywhere else in the world. The whole 32 counties are here. No one cares about anyone else’s politics or religion. No one gives a fiddler’s fuck really! There’s a load of teams from Northern Ireland, and no one cares about anyone’s background; catholics and protestants are all together. Look at Ivan Donaghy and Paul Lecky; I’m not even sure which one of them is kicking with which foot – they’re both giants of the game. Who cares what religion they’re from? They’re great pals. You know, they say life reflects poker, but sometimes if life could look at poker – just for five minutes – the world would be a better place.’

We stop for a refill. But life isn’t always an endless stream of Vladivar for Parkinson. Not quite always, anyway. There’s the WSOP, for starters. ‘The World Series is a very strenuous event,’ explains Padraig. ‘When I do it I don’t have a drink for five months. I go for a five-mile walk every day. I eat salad – the whole lot. I’m a complete pain in the arse. Everyone laughs at poker being a sport, but it’s an endurance test at the WSOP. You’ve got to be strong and live with all the stuff that happens on a day-to-day basis. I ended up being $150,000 up this year, and winning is the vindication of everything I do. I understand what the odds are and the privilege of reaching the final table. I even met Steve Davis during a piss break.

‘But yet…….’ Hmmm, Parky’s attention span is now drifting off. Not maliciously, not even intentionally. It’s just that he loves talking, he loves the craic and he’s being drawn into another two conversations, which he probably finds more interesting than talking about himself. ‘But yet what?’ I ask, forcing him at least to finish his sentence before we get on with the job of abandoning the false formality of an interview and getting down to the serious business of drinking.

Happy Days

‘Sometimes you’ve got to get back to your roots,’ he reflects. ‘You can always make the old excuse that you’re always on the road the whole time; that it’s another hotel room and all that bollocks. But, it means a lot to me as an Irish player to play here. In France, I couldn’t be bothered to leave the flat. I would play online. One of the reasons for making Ireland my home again is that I don’t want to play on the internet. At the end of the day, maybe it’s not so much about how much you’ve won or lost but rather that you know where you came from. Cash games in Dublin might be 10% the size of the States, but going out and playing them here might be more important than anything else. Home is Dublin and coming home is just great.

‘I’ve probably wasted a lot of my life and spent my life with people who have wasted theirs, but I don’t have to apologise to anyone for that. I had a talent and maybe I abused it. But I’ve done good things too. My biggest day in poker wasn’t beating lifestyle problems or coming third in the WSOP main event, it was when all the Irish poker players got together and played for charity. We raised £50,000. Nobody gave a fuck whether they got a mention or not. That happened in Ireland – and I’m proud it happened here. Poker’s a wonderful fucking game you know. Now what can I get you?’

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