Karl Mahrenholz: The changing face of the UK poker scene

‘I’ve got the biggest balls in Liverpool,’ said property developer Ian Nelson. He’d just doubled up during three-handed play at the first ever GUKPT main event final table, back in 2007. Nelson opened from the small blind with 7-6 and called all-in when the youngster Praz Bansi shoved on him – maybe one of his balls was crystal-coated after all as the A-6-7 flop hit him very nicely. This final table, the first of any recognisable poker tour in the UK, featured four professional players and five amateurs. Seven of the players were over 40 and I was the only person still in my 20s.

At the end of last year I final tabled the main event at what is now the UK’s biggest poker tour, the UKIPT. The official final table of eight were all professional players. Three players were in their 30s (now including me) while the rest were all bright eyed twenty-somethings. The trend is undeniable and this example serves as a strong anecdote of my own personal experience of playing poker in the UK over the last seven years.


Someone asked me recently how UK poker has changed during the time I’ve been playing. Has it got better? Is it thriving? Where is it going? These questions have all been answered well recently. Both players and operators are acutely aware of the changing ecology of the UK market and the need to stimulate and protect it. It’s a classic story of exponential growth and of saturation. I could have called this boom and bust but despite a lot of pessimism at the moment, the UK poker economy isn’t bust. It is, of course, constantly changing, but it’s no longer a cosy warm blanket for youngsters to wrap up in to protect themselves from the big bad world of work.

I have a good friend from university who always looked enviously upon my life as a poker player and regularly asked my advice if he should quit his job to take up the game he loves. Despite having enjoyed a great lifestyle since the time I left my regular career behind, my advice (even as far back as five years ago) was no. My advice now may be more like, sure – you take my job and I’ll take yours!

Level best

Young UK pro Alex Goulder wrote an interesting blog this month. He’s been a regular in the DTD cash games over the past couple of years. The way he describes the current state of play provides a good snapshot of the wider market. While we are all familiar with the increasing numbers of professional players, there is also a trend for such players no longer wanting to move up and challenge the next level within the game. They have seen many players win large sums before losing them again, and they’ve said to themselves they’re more than happy playing at lower levels, and consistently winning small amounts without risking potential ruin against bigger and better players.

Of course, this creates bigger problems for the ecology of the games as there is less and less new blood feeding the bigger games and less chance for the weaker players to win at the lower levels. £1/£1 is the only game that runs on a regular basis at DTD now, and this is the UK’s premier poker club…

The year ahead

I can relate this experience to my own. Over the course of the last seven years, I’ve played many EPTs. I’ve played main events in Australia, the Bahamas and, of course, in Vegas. I’ve paid £10k in cash to play a tournament in London several times. Which of these glamorous stops am I looking forward to in 2014? Stoke? Southend? Maybe I’ll treat myself to a trip abroad…to the Isle of Man! Like this new breed of cash game pros, I’m more than happy playing the smaller tours now. The standard is lower, the buy-ins more reasonable and the chance of good money is the same as ever.As more players think like me you have to wonder how the bigger tours will fair in the coming years. The last four London EPTs have seen attendances of 848, 691, 647 and 604. While still big numbers, the trend is there for all to see.

If in previous years you’ve been guilty of setting your New Year’s resolutions as ‘win the WSOP’ or similar, maybe now is the time to reflect on the current state of affairs and set yourself realistic and constructive targets for 2014. Avoid being results based and pick things you can control which will positively impact your play. Don’t just ‘join a training site’ but watch one video a week, take notes and really focus. If you’re planning to increase your online play don’t just try to ‘play 100,000 hands’ but make sure you are playing the best games, at the correct level and on sites that are rewarding you in the best ways. If you need help with that, or on any of your resolutions get in touch on Twitter @KarlMahrenholz. I just might know the best place to start!

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