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Dreams of ‘Vegas’ in the Czech Republic

czech republicIf you talk to anyone involved with organising a major poker festival — the likes of Hilda Bramley or James White of the European Poker Tour (EPT), for example — they’ll tell you that the actual poker part is the easy bit. Once everyone is in town and the cards are in the air, they can relax (relatively speaking) for probably the first time in months.

The hardest aspect of putting on these enormous jamborees is all the logistical nonsense that goes with them: security, staffing, and block-booking adequate hotels for the players, who inevitably descend in their droves. Poker folk can be an extremely picky bunch and if you think players are prone to whine when a dealer accidentally short-changes on a colour-up, you should see what happens when the pastries at a breakfast buffet aren’t quite soft enough for their delicate little teeth.

It is only for non-poker reasons that the EPT will not yet come to Rozvadov, in the Czech Republic, which last week hosted its first Eureka Poker Tour event. The Eureka is one of PokerStars’ smaller circuits through Central Europe, the Balkans, and up into Latvia, an area ingeniously dubbed the “Eureka Zone”. It has been attracting increasingly sizable fields during its three-season life across one of poker’s most buoyant emerging markets.

The King’s Casino in Rozvadov, a tiny village close to the German border, has some of the best poker facilities I’ve seen during eight years on tours across the world. Without question, the wonderfully spacious card room, with capacity for 62 permanent tables and acres between them, could easily host tournaments with as many runners as the average EPT Main Event.

But the simple problem is that there’s nowhere to stay and nothing to do if you bust. The population of Rozvadov is only about 800 and away from the two small casinos, all that is on offer is a handful of massage parlours, a couple of no frills restaurants, a bare-shelved supermarket and a launderette. There’s also a petrol station, which accounts for the pervading truck-stop atmosphere. (Rozvadov is a turn off from the main motorway linking Prague with Frankfurt, via Nuremberg.)

Most of the PokerStars qualifiers for the Eureka tournament stayed in Marienbad, a 40-minute shuttle ride away. The EPT players, who demand five-star luxury and at most a three-minute walk in bedroom slippers to the tournament room, wouldn’t stand for it.

That is a great shame because this casino deserves all the plaudits it receives. Many have described it as the best poker venue in Europe and everyone involved with the Eureka was blown away by what they found. Indeed, perhaps it was the depravity of extra-curricular entertainment that served to highlight its many strengths as a poker venue.

The casino is the pet project of a man named Leon Tsoukernik, a Russian antiques dealer, businessman and poker enthusiast who not only has a passion for the game but a bankroll to do something about it. He built King’s on a vacant  plot and opened it ten years ago, since when he has continued to run it with evident pride. Tsoukernik is prone to drop in via helicopter from his house not far away, take a wander around, maybe sit in a nosebleed Omaha game, then jet off again. If he happens to be relaxing in the restaurant and a player taunts him that he should be sitting in a game, he reportedly invites his interlocutor to look around him and says, “I am playing all the time.”

King’s charges €20 to enter per day, but offers a 24-hour free buffet for all and drinks at the tables. There is also a separate restaurant, where the cheque may not be included in the entry fee but the cuisine is exquisite. The Italian chef runs his kitchen with as much hands-on pride as Tsoukernik lavishes on the rest of the establishment.

All the equipment is of the very highest quality: the chairs in the regular cash- game area would not look out of place in most boardrooms, while those in the high stakes section would suit a James Bond villain. There is a permanent rig for a feature table, meaning all final table players get to sample something of the poker high life, and there is free high-speed wi-fi throughout, which did not drop even once during the Eureka week.

The service is immaculate, and one hopes that once Tsoukernik makes real his plans for a sizeable hotel, his dreams for “Roz Vegas” will become much closer to reality.

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