A hugely unlikely double treble owed its origins to a conversation I had at 7 am in 1997 in a bar on the Champs-Elysées with George Geary, a Manchester player who had been a frequent visitor to the Irish Open in the glory days. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. We were just having a couple of beers after an all night poker game in the Aviation Club.
George was the ideal companion on a mission like that. I could only understand about half what he was saying at the best of times, which was perfect. On this particular occasion, he told me that Dave Gardner’s kid, Julian, would be the next English World Champion. I was going to tell him he should have said first rather than next and that there was probably a better chance of a giraffe winning the Grand National, but sometimes I can be really nice.
A couple of months later, Dave turned up in Paris. He told me Julian was the real deal and invited me to Manchester to meet him and go to a Champions League match with him. I was good with that! My first night there, Julian showed me the sights. Blackpool Casino. A nightclub. He even pointed out the North of England shoplifting champion. I thought that a nice touch.
We mainly talked Manchester United, but when Julian talked poker it was clear he was more than capable of thinking outside the box. We quickly became pals and met frequently in Manchester for football and Dublin and Paris for poker. In the 98/99 football season, Scott Gray joined us for European nights at Old Trafford and beer.
Over beer, Julian and I talked up United’s chances of completing the treble by winning the Premier League, F.A Cup and Champions League. When the conversation turned to poker, we all agreed making the WSOP main event final table would be a hell of a buzz. We never got drunk enough to think that within three years, we would be in line for a treble of our own.
United’s treble bid looked dead a couple of times. Only a last minute equalizer scored by Giggs saved the day in the home leg of the CL semifinal against Juventus, but the concession of two early goals in the return leg left United needing a miracle.
Enter Roy Keane. He drove United forward like a man possessed and, incredibly, they won 3-2 and booked their place in the final. They also looked buried in the F.A Cup semifinal replay. With the scoreline 1-1 and United down to ten men, Arsenal were awarded a last minute penalty. Bergkamp’s effort was saved by Schmeichel and the ten men triumphed in extra time thanks to a fantastic solo effort from Giggs. The treble dream was alive but they sure were doing it the hard way.
Scott and I headed to the WSOP (Julian was too young). The plan was I would play the main event for the first time. I had been doing well in Paris for three years and we felt the time was right to go for glory. Except I was suffering badly from nicotine withdrawal, which led to me spending most of the trip watching the NBA and drinking coffee with Noel Furlong, while Scott did the work. He was doing fine!
I had decided to shelve main event plans till the following year. Two Irish businessmen decided they wanted to stick me in despite my warning that it would be burning money. Obviously, they didn’t smoke! Four days later, I discovered we had been right about the final table buzz as I came third. Not bad for a guy who didn’t intend to play!
Scott and I decided to chill in San Francisco for a few days, but before we left town, we gave Carol, Scof’s partner in crime on the day shift in Binion’s during the series, $2,000 as a tip for the Mexican guys who cleaned the toilets and emptied the ashtrays. In a town that lived on tips they were the forgotten tribe. But the story didn’t end there. When we returned the following year, Carol told us that the guy who was supposed to look after the Mexicans had either skipped town or been abducted by aliens. So, we had to cough up again. Tough town.
The next morning, at some ungodly hour, we went to an English pub in the old hippy area in San Fran to watch United attempt to get a result against Spurs in the last league match of the season that matched or bettered Arsenal’s result against Villa. Leeds had done United a big favour by beating Arsenal the week before. As with the F.A Cup and the Champions League, United seemed to like living dangerously.
True to form, they went a goal behind. Several vodkas later, (downed by me, not United), goals from Beckham and Cole won the league for United. What a week! A bit later, we phoned Julian who’d been at the game, of course. In the Spurs end. Don’t ask! He didn’t know what had happened in Vegas. Different times!
We traveled to Dublin a few days later, where I stayed to sort out some bits and pieces. Whilst there, I made the mistake of socializing rather than attending the premiere of a documentary on the previous year’s WSOP, which was shown in a cinema on O’Connell Street. I didn’t know it contained a confession by Mad Marty that he had caused an eight hour traffic jam by stealing hundreds of traffic cones from motorway roadworks in the middle of the night to fund his Late Night Poker buy-in.
This confession made national TV when it was picked up by The Clive Anderson Show. Or that it showed Andy Black being interviewed in bed in Binion’s. These things happen. I was still in Dublin for the FA Cup Final. In contrast to the semifinal, this was an easy 2-0 win with goals from Man Of The Match Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes. In a later life, Teddy knocked me out of the Irish Open. I don’t care what he did for United that week in 99. He owes me!
It was on home to Paris for me. Champagne in the Aviation Club. Dinners and cocktails with Véro and friends in Bastille. All was good. I watched the CL final at home. Drinking tea. That looked a bad choice as Bayern scored early, and still held the lead going into the 91st minute. Then, it all went off. Following a United corner, Teddy scored! Thirty seconds later, another corner was headed on by Teddy and Solksjaer knocked it in! The Germans were in a state of shock. Me too! It was a magical end to a magical fortnight.
In 2000, Julian, now 21, made his main event debut. It was nothing if not spectacular. He trebled up in the first level which was impressive, but was out before the dinner break. So was I. A couple of the young English lads gave me funny looks, as though it was my fault that their man was out. That was pretty amusing as Julian quite rightly marched to his own drum. It wasn’t the first time the English planned to hang an innocent Irish guy!
It was 2002 when Julian next came to the WSOP. He arrived late with Kevin O’Connell as manager and mentor. Some might have thought this was like having the fox babysit the chickens, but for once in my life, I didn’t fall for that one. I knew of old that Kev was a lot more shrewd than he would like to have you believe. Did I mention that Kev was an old pal of George Geary’s?
Scott was also a late arrival, having been delayed at home and probably only came because his parents had booked to come, having caught the WSOP bug the previous year. His Dad was fascinated by the event. His Mum was partial to the 5 cent slots and the odd whiskey, both of which I believe you could find in Vegas quite easily!
I had already won my entry money to the main event, so Scott got busy looking after our interests in the cash games. He did however enter one of the last one table satellites for the main event, and won it with his parents watching. Once again, we had a man in the main event when that wasn’t the plan. That’s the Irish for you!
Julian and I had a good Day 1. Scott also got through, but only with two thirds of a starting stack and was putting on a moaning exhibition. I hadn’t had a drink since New Year, but the lads opted not to drink before the last level of each day and then to drink as much as possible. They were obviously on to something, as they both got through Day 2 and I didn’t.
I spent the next couple of days between the bar and the tournament room. I didn’t like watching too much, as I knew the game plan and it’s scarier watching than executing. I stopped by to check in with Scott, and some guy who looked like he might be fun was warning Scott that Daddy was going to stop the car! That was enough for me.
On another visit, I saw a crowd around a table and went to investigate. Helmuth was the attraction. He jumped up and jogged to the bottom of the room, lifting his knees so high that I was afraid he might knock himself out. Turned out he should have, because after a few stretches, he was satisfied we had all seen him and jogged back to his seat. He raised and some guy I’d never seen before stuck him all in. He thought a while and called. He was happy when he saw his AK was up against QT. Unfortunately, he got outdrawn though he took it well. Not too well really, I suppose. He nearly had a fucking seizure! The guy’s name was Robert Varkoni.
I was also there for an incredible pot involving Russell Rosenblum. Russell raised. Julian called. Flop was TT3. Russell bet and Julian moved all-in. Russell jumped out of his seat like he’d been shot in the ass. Arms raised, he walked away from the table asking the ceiling why was it always him and stuff like that. He turned around, said “Fold”, and then realised that Julian’s stack was smaller than he thought so then said “Call”. TD Matt Savage ruled the verbal fold was binding. Julian held 66 and Russell JJ. Some pots change lives. This one probably did.
Meanwhile, Scott was having a tussle with Ivey that they both seemed to be enjoying. Fine, if you like that kind of thing! When the dust settled, both of our lads had made the final table. They were short stacked but so was almost everyone else, as popular English player John Shipley had a third of the chips! Scott and I went to the bar. We were joined by our buddy, Mike Sexton. Mike asked if Scott would help him out by wearing a partypoker hat at the final table but confessed he had no budget to pay him. Scott agreed to wear it anyway as a mate. Couple of years later, guys were getting paid 6 figure sums for doing that kind of thing. A point not lost on Scott!
Next day, Jesse May and Véro went off to get some shirts with GO SCOTT or some such profound message printed on them. They arrived back with bags of second hand books but no shirts. I was afraid to ask!!
When play started, the large contingent of English fans were loud and enthusiastic in their support of their lads, but sportingly sang a few lines of Irish soccer anthem “Come On Ye Boys In Green” now and again in support of Scott, which was a lovely though not unexpected gesture. There has always been a great bond between the English and Irish players, despite the Irish claiming we hate them just for the craic! They loved Julian’s early double-up but were dismayed, as were we, when Shipley somehow finished seventh. Thankfully, he won EPT London shortly afterwards, which showed great strength of character.
Julian won a big pot with aces after dodging lot of outs on flop. Scott was grafting. They both made the final four. Then Scott, all-in with A9, was knocked out by Varkoni’s QT. There was a brief break to discuss a deal; but Varkoni wanted 1.9 million when first prize was 2 million! The first hand after that nonsense, Julian was dealt TT, Perry JJ and Varkoni AA. Julian folded and Varkoni knocked out Perry leaving them heads-up. That didn’t last long as Varkoni soon picked up his much loved QT and knocked him out too!
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