PokerStars is celebrating its 20th Anniversary: 20 years as the best known and most trusted online poker site.
To join the celebrations here at PokerStars Blog, we are looking back year-by-year on those two decades, noting the landmarks and remembering all the remarkable moments, fitting them into the wider landscape of poker’s sensational development.
Today we go back to 2004 when PokerStars put its weight behind a new series of tournaments across Europe. It was called the European Poker Tour (EPT), and poker fans of the continent rejoiced.
I received an email to my work account that I thought must be a joke. It was late 2004 and a London-based PR firm was inviting me to play in a poker tournament that cost €2,000 to enter. What’s more, they were going to pay for it.
At that point, the most I’d ever stumped up for a game of cards was about £100—and that was a mistake, having got carried away with rebuys in a £20 comp. But for some reason, this company seemed serious: they’d fly me somewhere in Europe, pay for my hotel, my food and drink, and sit me in a poker tournament alongside the best players in the continent. All I had to do was write about it.
This turned out to be my introduction to the European Poker Tour (EPT), an entity that would go on to play a significant part of my life for the next decade and a half. I was not alone. The EPT changed the poker landscape far beyond the geographical boundaries suggested by its name. In those early days, it brought together an old guard of European poker with the innovative young guns from across the world who were behind poker’s incredible boom. It eventually became the world’s pre-eminent poker tour, offering what was often a first taste of live, brick-and-mortar poker to the hundreds of thousands of players who had learned the game online. It played a huge part in creating global poker superstars, while raising the bar on what players could expect from a live poker experience. In many ways, it has still never been bettered.
Surprisingly enough, the EPT was always described by its innovator, John Duthie, as an experiment that nobody could be sure would work. But I have always disputed that. In my opinion, the EPT was always certain to work. Based on what I could see in the London card clubs at the time, and during increasingly common conversations about poker I had during the early 2000s, the appetite for the game was almost insatiable. It just needed an organisation with the ambition and the finances to back it, and the EPT already had that kind of heavyweight on board.
The PR company that emailed me represented PokerStars, of course, the online card room at whose tables I would occasionally showcase my very mediocre skills. The important thing was that so many other new players were also learning the ropes on PokerStars, and they were only too keen to play the satellite tournaments hosted online and to try and win a trip to places such as Barcelona, London, Dublin, Copenhagen, Deauville, Vienna and Monte Carlo. Everyone by now knew the Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer stories, and everyone of course still wanted to win the World Series. But that was a once-a-year opportunity and people were now playing poker 365 days a year. The EPT’s first season promised seven festivals, an average of one per month between September 2004 and March 2005. The ample online satellites meant that playing on the tour was a tangible goal.
The route into poker in those days was pretty much always the same, at least for those of us in the UK. You’d somehow seen Late Night Poker on Channel 4 (either told to watch it by a friend, or by early-hours channel surfing while drunk); you’d then played around a bit with friends in a home game. You’d then read a bit about it on an internet forum and maybe decided to play something like a £10 tournament in one of the handful of casinos who offered poker. (If you were in London, you maybe also got involved with the Gutshot Private Members Club, the ambitious but ultimately doomed poker room that tried to get a British court to rule that poker was a game of skill.)
At some point, you’d also set up accounts at any number of online poker sites and happily plundered bonuses. If you had any aptitude for the game, you could expect to make a tidy profit and gradually move up in stakes. If you didn’t, you could just write off modest losses as the cost of your new favourite hobby. And then you could just find another sign-up bonus and start the whole process again.
There seemed to be limitless money in the poker economy at the time, enough to allow everyone to dream big—and for many to realise those dreams.
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The vast majority of European poker tournaments at the time, even in the major casinos, cost no more than about €1,000 to play, and had field sizes of around 200. Some of the top pros might travel overseas to play the biggest events, particularly if they could find decent cash games, but typical fields were mostly locals. However, the EPT launched at a time when low-cost air travel was the only industry booming about as much as online poker, and the idea of hopping on a cheap two-hour flight, taking in a new city, and playing poker too, appealed to many. PokerStars was able to market the EPT as something entirely new: positioning poker as a game played in glamorous destinations, by young razor-sharp minds, and with lavish reward for its most skilled exponents. What was not to love?
For all that, much of what happened on the first season of the EPT was made up on the fly. Although casino operators and card club managers knew poker’s mechanics, they had perhaps never seen so many people pour into their tournament rooms. It was always cramped and chaotic; there were never enough seats in the tiny restaurants as massive fields went on breaks; and days had to extend to 15 or 16 hours to make sure a well-structured, deep-stacked tournament actually ever saw a winner.
Meanwhile some of the support staff were witnessing poker up close for the first time. Television cameras were in place for the very first EPT tournaments—poker as a TV spectacle was very much part of the long-term marketing plan—but most of the crew were accustomed to covering fast-paced sporting events. They now had to figure out the best way to capture the often purposefully imperceptible emotions of poker, while also learning the rules.
“This was a sport we knew nothing about,” said Dave Corfield, one of the first EPT cameramen, in a previous interview. “We were a group of television professionals who had shot sport all over the world and now we had a new brief, attaching ourselves to this thing called poker.” Corfield revealed that the crew had a copy of Poker for Dummies that they read during breaks.
PokerStars very much wore its heart on its sleeve throughout these days—or, rather, wore its red spade on everyone else’s sleeves. The EPT was a marketing juggernaut from the word go and it presented the company with every excuse to place its corporate logo front and centre. The red spade flew from banners hung from the ceiling, on billboards along roads from the airport and, of course, on an ever-expanding range of clothing and merchandise modelled by the Team Pros.
The former EPT media coordinator Mad Harper, who was there from the outset, used to tell the story of her involvement at the first tournament in Barcelona, when she had been instructed to hand a branded baseball cap to players when they were knocked out. Eager not to miss anyone departing, Harper’s presence was likened to that of the Grim Reaper: a shadowy figure hovering over the shoulders of the short-stacks, ready to pounce. But better that than someone went home without a branded souvenir.
My own presence was part of all this, of course. When that email dropped in, I was working for the website of The Times in London, updating the sports pages with breaking news and whatever the newspaper journalists filed from afar. I also had control of the “Sports Book” section, where we published horse-racing tips and other short gambling articles, mainly at the behest of advertisers. My passion for poker had seeped into my work and I’d been sneaking articles about the game on to the website for a few months. A few land-based bookmakers used to offer odds on the major poker tournaments, which gave me an excuse to offer my commentary on the field, to a readership sometimes sneaking into double figures.
Thankfully that meagre audience must have included someone at PokerStars and I had been added to a press list. For the PR company, getting poker coverage in The Times would have been quite a coup. Hence the invite to the EPT, hence my pleading with my editor for permission to go (granted, so long as any hypothetical winnings went to charity), and hence a very excited 1,000 words or so detailing a heroic charge to 78th place in the EPT Vienna Main Event. Despite numerous site redesigns and the introduction of a paywall, my article somehow still exists on The Times website. I’ve never written anything, on any subject, with quite so much giddy self-absorption.
By the time the EPT returned for its second season, following a largely similar trail through Europe, I now had a seat on the charabanc as a contributor to PokerStars Blog. I was kitted proudly head to toe in PokerStars merch and occupied what passed for the press benches. In Barcelona, the first tournament of Season 2, this meant an upturned crate beneath the stairs, which I shared with Paul McGuire, an American poker blogger. That was the extent of the press pack. I had to take the photos too (always terrible) and was also occasionally drafted in as the person to stand behind the dealer on the feature table, relating bet and pot sizes to the TV truck through a microphone. It offered an excellent view of the action but made writing live tournament updates somewhat difficult. (Like I say, we were still making a lot of this up as we went along.)
But the EPT soon settled into its rhythms and almost all the creases were ironed out. (By the time we reached Dublin, we had a press tent; by London, a casino staff room.) The organisers watched their baby grow with parental pride: more destinations, more tournaments and vastly more players and prize money. We gleefully saw players such as Jeff Williams, Gavin Griffin, Mike McDonald and Jason Mercier emerge from a sea of PokerStars qualifiers to become huge winners, while we caught a first sight of people like Patrik Antonius, ElkY and Justin Bonomo, who would go on to be megastars.
We began by writing with stupefaction about prizes in the tens of thousands and wondering how many cars could be bought or mortgages paid off. But we were quickly talking about buy-ins the size of annual salaries and routinely adding a couple of zeroes to all our previous figures.
Two reporting fronts opened before us. On the one hand, we could track these sensational talents changing accepted strategies, pioneering new approaches and making both themselves and the game far richer and professional than it had ever been before. On the other we could still reliably find some incredible real-life stories from the enthusiastic hobbyists who qualified to play on the EPT. Canadian line dancers! Former chess prodigies! A man undergoing medical tests to prove poker made you younger! And a veterinarian who met his future wife while euthanising her dog!
The EPT has survived a high-profile robbery and a global pandemic, as well as a one-year metamorphosis into something with a different name. (We don’t talk about that.) All the best elements remain in place, while the EPT experience now also includes, as standard, such incredible innovations as a daily webcast. (Coincidentally, its anchor, James Hartigan, was also a poker-playing journalist working in London in 2004 when he received an email inviting him to play on the fledgling EPT. Hartigan reported back to listeners on his LBC show about his trip to Deauville, a month before The Times’s intrepid reporter headed to Vienna.)
We’re hearing on the grapevine about plenty of new developments for the EPT to be announced soon. We, like the rest of the poker world, can’t wait to hitch a ride once again.
MORE IN THIS SERIES:
2003 – Chris Moneymaker wins WSOP, sparks ‘poker boom’
2002 – The year of WCOOP
2001 – Electronic poker before PokerStars