From Macau to the Bahamas, poker tournaments with huge cash prizes are held every month in glamorous destinations around the world. For a growing number of players – both amateur and professional – poker tourism proves a thrilling way of combining holidays with making money. Globetrender editor Jenny Southan travelled to Spain to report from a Pokerstars Championship Barcelona, and pit her skills against some of the best.
It’s 2.30am and I am staring at a pair of kings. It’s a great hand, and I know that now is my opportunity to bet big. I am taking part in the €300 PokerStars Cup along with 3,000 other players – mainly men in sunglasses and hoodies. It’s chilly in the Casino Barcelona’s vast convention centre, where there are croupiers dealing cards at tables as far as the eye can see, and suddenly I get a rush of adrenaline at the thought – not about what I might lose – but of what I might win. In this particular tournament, there is a guaranteed prize pool of more than €8 million.
Unless you are a poker player, you probably won’t know that there is an official international circuit that sees thousands of card sharps gathering in casinos around the world to compete in tournaments. You might have heard of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas – that’s the big one (this year’s first-place winner walked away with $8.1 million) – but there are championships taking place every month in places as far flung and exotic as Monte Carlo, Macau, Panama and the Bahamas.
What’s more, they are not just one-off games – they are events made up of multiple tournaments, many of which go on for days at a time. The Pokerstars Championship Barcelona took place over 13 days between August 15 and 27, and attracted in excess of 6,000 players from more than 80 countries, who between them signed up for in excess of 50 events – from €220 PokerStars Open to the €10,300 High Roller.
Previously known as the European Poker Tour, online gaming site and headline sponsor PokerStars.es rebranded the programme as the “PokerStars Championship” from the beginning of 2017. The stops on the year-long tour typically last two weeks and feature as many as 100 tournaments that anyone can sign up for. Coming up next is the PokerStars Championship Prague (December 7 to December 18, 2017), and the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure 2018 (January 6 to January 14), which will take place at the Atlantis Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas.
Alongside the Championship, there is also the lower-stakes PokerStars Festival, which has week-long tournaments in places such as New Jersey, London, Rozadov in the Czech Republic, Vina del Mar in Chile, Marbella in Spain, Incheon in South Korea, Lille in France, Manila in the Philippines, Bucharest in Romania and Sochi in Russia.
The secret world of poker tourism
For the poker tourist, the main objective is not to be in the destination itself, although as games often take place at night, there is always time to lie on the beach, sunbathe by the pool, do a little sightseeing or eat in restaurants. Serious players don’t tend to drink while playing, and hangovers can severely undermine your chance of winning, so hitting the bars doesn’t tend to happen until you get knocked out.
In the case of the Pokerstars Championship Barcelona, which was taking place next door to the trendy Hotel Arts on the palm-lined Career de la Marina, I was staying around the corner at the swanky Pullman Barcelona Skipper hotel. Staying in a convenient location is essential, as you don’t want to be delayed in traffic getting to your poker game. And if you are heading home at 4am after a bad beat, you don’t want to worry about paying for expensive taxis.
It’s also a good idea to stay in hotels that provide room service, as poker tourists often end up needing to eat at random times of day and night, but Airbnbs can be a good option as having a kitchen allows you to cook. Being nocturnal, black-out blinds are essential for those who need to sleep during the day, and a good swimming pool and gym are seriously plus points – exercise refreshes the mind, and floods the body with endorphins that make you feel positive and confident.
In an interview with Globetrender, PokerStars Pro Vanessa Selbst talked about what her life is like as a full-time player: “One thing about travelling the world for poker is that because it’s a circuit and there are a lot of repetitious event, you come to feel like you really know the city so I don’t do a tonne of sightseeing. This is my 13th or 14th time in Barcelona so I have established routines – I get up in the morning, play tennis, go back home, chill out, have some lunch and then go play poker.
“This year is a bit different as I am travelling with my wife and she convinced me to stay in a hotel but what I usually do is rent an Airbnb, because I like to cook for myself. I eat a ketogenic diet, which is high fat with no carbs. I eat a lot of red meat, eggs and salad. I can’t have any sugar either so I try to avoid restaurants. Between that and playing tennis I don’t have a problem staying healthy.”
Globetrender also spoke with Jake Cody, another PokerStars Pro. He said: “I travel pretty much the entire year – I have an apartment in London and a daughter in Florida so I try and go back there every four or five weeks. I plan my year around the championships though – there are certain tournaments that are locked in.
“One of my favourites this year was a new stop for the PokerStars Championship, in Panama City, which I had never been to. I used to be really bad – I used to go to all these cool places and literally spend my entire time playing poker. I could have been in Birmingham. But now I try to see some of the touristy things. I treat these stops more as a holiday and see my friends.”
Cody said he also spends a lot of time in Macau, where he plays “cash games” (where you can put as much money in as you like and leave when you want) rather than tournaments. He said: “Macau is a strange little island with a big gambling community because you can’t really play poker on the mainland. It’s is like a replica of Vegas with all the same hotels. But it’s like a weird dream as it’s all in Mandarin. I just play very high stakes cash games, mainly against locals. It’s good fun but it’s one of the few places where, outside of the casino staff, English isn’t well spoken. You can be a bit out of your comfort zone.”
Does he have a routine? “This could be unhealthy for me but because I have been doing it for so long, I don’t really get jet lag any more because I am always up at strange hours. My body is always pretty confused. I could be in a tournament for 12 hours and then on to the next game – a cash game that goes on late into the night. In Macau, I have played in 40-hour sessions. The adrenaline keeps you going – you are ordering food to the table and, once every eight hours, you can take a one-hour break so you can run over to your apartment and try and sleep. It’s pretty crazy.” Why play for so long? “If you don’t put in the hours, you don’t get a good game,” he said.
Former field hockey player and Olympic gold medalist Fatima de Melo is also sponsored by PokerStars. How does travelling the world playing poker compare with the international hockey circuit? “It is very different. Obviously I was part of a team before so when I left my room there would be schedule for the day. I’ve had to rebuild my life around freedom. I’ve had to get used to being able to just walk down the beach for a run.”
How does she prepare for a game? “When playing poker, I always try to spend the day outdoors before a tournament – that helps me get fresh air and the blood flowing. I play tennis with Vanessa Selbst. We have played at the Monte Carlo country club, in Vegas, Barcelona, the Bahamas, everywhere. We always bring rackets. It makes me feel calm and you benefit from being fitter. If you sit at the table from noon until midnight, you want to be able to focus but if you are getting sleepy or your back is hurting, then it is going to influence the way you play.”
What about diet? Fatima said: “I always bring some food with me to the game – you can order food at the table but it is not always nice. In Malta they had this health bar with salads and juices but they don’t have that everywhere. In Vegas they have All American Dave – you can just text them and they send a runner to your table in the casino with your meal. You can get sweet potato with salmon and broccoli, for example. Really healthy food.”
Taking a seat at the table
As the PokerStars Cup in Barcelona didn’t start until 9pm, I had time during the afternoon to walk along the beach to meet a couple of friends for lunch. We sat out in the sun and drank beer and ate paella. Not poker players themselves, Larry and Lewis were planning a big night out but I had to be back at my hotel by 6pm to have a power nap, shower and head to the casino in good time for the start of the game.
I drank a Red Bull (sometimes I add a couple of shots of vodka to calm my nerves at the beginning) and, knowing I could be sat at the table most of the night, put a few sachets of instant Berocca in my pocket. The joy of playing multi-table tournaments is that everyone pays the same to play and starts with the same number of chips. When you have run out of chips, you are out of the game. The last person at the table wins the biggest portion of the money.
Frustratingly, the start of the PokerStars Cup was delayed by an hour, so I didn’t get to sit down until 10pm. There were big digital screens up on the walls showing information about the game – how many contenders there were (every time someone gets knocked out, the number comes down), what the levels were (the minimum bets are increased every 20 minutes) and what the average number of chips people had (we all started with a stack equivalent to 15,000).
You can tell who the Pokerstars Pros are by their branded baseball caps and T-shirts. These highly successful men and women are sponsored by Pokerstars to play in championships in return for them being ambassadors for the game. Today, some of the most famous Pokerstars Pros include Daniel Negreanu, Barry Greenstein, Liv Boeree, Jason Mercier and Vanessa Selbst.
Since learning to play poker in high school at around the time the film Rounders came out, Vanessa has gone on to win some huge prizes. In 2010, she won $1.8 million at the now defunct Partouche Poker Tour in Cannes, and then, in 2013, she won $1.4 million in the High Roller event at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. But she frequently walks away with more “modest” prizes in the tens of thousands. It’s not a bad way to earn a living.
One of the most legendary players is Chris Moneymaker (yes that is his real name) – in 2003 he won an $86 satellite tournament online at PokerStars, which earned him a spot in a bigger online satellite tournament with a first-place prize of a seat at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, worth $10,000. Not only did he win this seat, but he went on to claim first prize at the world’s most prestigious tournament, walking away with a cool $2.5 million.
It’s not unusual for online players to end up doing well in real-life tournaments. In this year’s Barcelona championship, 27-year-old Swedish warehouse worker Sebastian Sorensson won a first-place prize of just under €1 million after beating more than 1,600 players. Instead of having to pay the €5,000 entry fee everyone else did, he won a seat at the main event after playing in an €215 satellite tournament at home.
A PokerStars spokesman told Globetrender: “The possibility of being able to qualify online is one of the most important things. In Barcelona this year, we had online qualifiers for the two biggest events – the €1,000, which had 800 online qualifiers, and for the €5,000 main event, which had nearly 500 online qualifiers. It is the biggest opportunity for them to live the lifestyle. Some of them just won a seat but some of them won a package, with one week at the Hotel Arts, which is something most of them will never afford.”
Life on the road
In addition to Barcelona, I have played in poker tournaments in Monte Carlo, London and Las Vegas. In Sin City, most casinos hold tournaments several times a day, with entry fees between $50 and $250 for a few hours of play. While most gamblers come to have a flutter on the roulette or black jack tables between Cirque du Soleil shows, poker players need to set aside entire afternoons, evenings and even nights to being at the table. It requires dedication.
One company that has started capitalising on the poker tourism trend is Poker Travel, which “hosts quality poker cash festivals every weekend at a variety of exotic destinations around the world”. What’s innovative about it, though, is that it offers players who sign up the option of either a free hotel or a cash bonus for the number of hours they have played, so you can effectively subsidise your poker holiday. (Poker Travel makes money from a rake that is taken from every hand played in these cash games – in tournaments, players pay a one-off entry fee on top of their buy-in.) Coming up in December are events in Sofia in Bulgaria (complimentary player packages include three nights in a hotel, breakfast and excursions) and Bratislava in Slovakia (four nights in a five-star hotel, breakfast and two excursions).
Another event for dedicated poker tourists is the Caribbean Poker Party at the Level at Meliá Caribe Tropical in Punta Cana (November 19-25, 2017). It’s hosted by another online gaming site called Party Poker, and guarantees a $5 million prize pool for the main event (entry costs $5,300). Bigger still is the World Poker Tour (WPT), which, like PokerStars, holds regular tournaments across the world. Coming up are WPT events in India, Uruguay, Montreal, Japan, Berlin, LA and Argentina. You can even go on Caribbean poker cruises.
How has the social side of poker has changed over the years? Vanessa Selbst told Globetrender: “I was in the first generation of online poker players who were different to the old-school players who grew up playing in casinos. There was a bunch of us that were playing all these EPTs and the World Series – it was more of a party than a job. But obviously that was sustainable. It stopped being rewarding. After a couple of years, we had to make a decision about whether or not to get serious about the game. Some people left and got jobs but the people who stuck around are treating it much more seriously now.”
Fatima explained what drew her to the game after she retired from hockey at aged 30. “Poker fulfills my competitive side and the part of me that wants to improve. Because poker has so many dimensions, you can continue learning, so it stays interesting. With field hockey I quit because I felt I couldn’t learn any more. I also love the international environment that poker has. A lot of people who play poker professionally don’t have a boss that they have to wear a suit for. They are very much their own people who follow their own path so they are usually very interesting”
Playing your hand
It’s 2.35am and I have pushed “all-in” with my pocket kings. If can win this hand, I will become chip leader on my table. I stare at the baize, not making eye contact with anyone. A few people fold, one guy stares at me for a minute and then calls my bet. There is a big pile of chips in the middle of the table. The last remaining players also fold, so it’s down to me and him. I’ve been playing for almost five hours but the PokerStars Cup is a three-day tournament. I don’t want to go out this early.
At the same time, a good hand is a good hand. You can’t fold a pair of kings. You have to be assertive – caution doesn’t get you anywhere in this game. My opponent turns over his cards – two tens. I have the better hand. I am winning. Then the dealer turns over a third ten, striking a fatal blow. The chips are pushed towards him and, realising I am out of the game, get up and walk away. My saving grace is knowing I have another shot at glory in tomorrow night’s €550 Hyper Turbo tournament. Maybe this time Lady Luck will be on my side…