Until the UK and Ireland Poker Tour was launched, the game of poker had got a bit samey for me. As a member of Team PokerStars Pro, I was travelling the world playing high-level tournaments where everyone seemed to be the same: young, male, clever, mathematical, dressed in sports gear, wearing iPods and talking about statistics.
Obviously not EVERYONE was like that. I'm not, for a start. Of those, I'm probably one out of seven - and I'm not as clever as I used to be, either.
But that was the majority. The international poker scene has been overrun by a Whizzkid Army: the new generation of brilliant youngsters who finish maths degrees (or don't bother starting them) and leap straight into making a fat living from full-time online poker, with the odd expensive foreign tournament as a fun break.
The UK and Ireland Poker Tour (or "UKIPT") reminded me what I got into poker for in the first place. Happening locally in the UK, usually on weekends, with buy-ins at a more affordable £500 (now £700) and plenty of opportunities to win seats on the PokerStars website for far less than that - for £1, or £10, or completely for free - these weren't events designed for "professionals". This was about the grass roots, the base principles: a wide range of people, all ages and types, from all walks of life, gathering together to play a game where everyone's equal across the baize.
Sitting down in the first event I played on the new tour, a couple of years ago now, I was teleported back to my early days in poker. This was what entranced me in the first place: the mix, the banter, the surprises, the mutual challenge, and the shared enthusiasm between people who might have nothing else in common at all.
I remember playing Day One of the UKIPT Nottingham in 2010, sitting next to an old fellow who mentioned how much he was looking forward to playing golf the next day.
"What about Day Two of this?" I asked.
He roared with laughter. "No chance! I'm only here for an afternoon's fun."
When a couple of teenagers on the other side of the table started chatting about PokerStars, the old chap said: "I don't know about these internet matches. They go on too late. And there are so many buttons to work out."
"Oh yeah", said one of the youngsters, rolling his eyes. "It's REALLY complicated."
"It's tiring!" said the old man. "I played one tournament, fell asleep halfway through, woke up suddenly at 1am."
The other players exchanged amused glances, looking at his stack of chips as a group of cats might regard a plump, slow-moving mouse.
"Was the tournament finished when you woke up?" I asked.
"Oh no", said the old geezer. "There were 20 people left. So I thought I'd better play properly. Won it - $32,000."
If poker teaches you anything, it is: always look below the surface.
Needless to say, this combination of people, locality, fun, chat and prize money has proved enormously attractive. The professionals have started flocking to these tournaments, including many from abroad, but recreational players are still winning seats online for nothing. The UKIPT is a phenomenon. This year's Nottingham event (starting next week) is so big that it's got three starting days and a guaranteed prize pool of £1 million. It's a major sporting event - but perhaps the only major sporting event where a total novice has a chance of beating a roomful of seasoned pros.
Me: I'm going up there knowing that even if I don't win a bean, I'll still have a brilliant time.
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