Poker belongs at the palace, not the lay-by

Vienna, Austria

You always remember the first time, at least according to the arbiters of obvious contemporary cliché. Yet my first time — on the European Poker Tour I mean — is actually not all that easy to recall, mainly because it has been all but airbrushed out of the long and storied history of the EPT.

In what must have been late 2004, I was working at the online arm of The Times newspaper in London when I received a phone call from a PR representative of PokerStars. He said he wanted coverage of a new venture called the European Poker Tour and in exchange for an article on the website, he would cough up €1,000 for me to play in one of the first tournaments. Was I interested?

Until that point, nobody had really noticed that I had been sneaking pieces about poker on to the then fledgling Times Online, not even the people I worked with. So after I had overcome the nagging feeling this was a mate winding me up (what the PR guy had offered was practically a dream come true), I then had to negotiate with my editor not only for the time off, but also the permission to publish something about a subject to which she was deeply indifferent. Eventually, we struck some agreement and a few months later I wound up in the Concord Card Club in Vienna and sitting down on the EPT.

My heroic charge to about 73rd place is probably not worth recounting here. I’ve told it enough times to people who’ll listen, and several hundred more times to people who won’t. The important thing to note, though, is how things have changed since those early days on the EPT, particularly since we’re heading to Vienna again next week as the tour descends on the Austrian capital for only the third time.

The tournament in the Concord actually turned out to be a one off. Although it was the home of the renowned tournament director Thomas Kremser, who was one of many poker fan boys’ earliest idols owing to his impeccable adjudicating on Late Night Poker, the club itself was a bit of a state. It was situated in a building that in a different life would have been a DIY superstore, a hangar-like structure in the industrial outskirts of the city. Next door on one side was a motorway and the other the kind of gentlemen’s club requiring only a credit card to leave patrons with a flush.

The poker organisation was first rate, but even during those very early days, it was clear the EPT wanted to move in another direction and haul poker away from its seedy side. Poker was beginning its transformation into something aspirational and hip. It was a game to be played beneath crystal chandeliers rather than clouds of cigarette smoke, next to marinas housing multi-million dollar yachts rather than Little Chef and a roundabout. The Austrian leg moved hastily to the grandeur of Baden and then on to Berlin in Germany. When we go to Vienna this time, we’ll be pulling up at the Hofburg Palace, arguably the grandest building in the city, where actual royalty once lived.

The Concord itself is still going, and I suspect it’s still a modest and decent place, serving a purpose as a card club for card players who neither need nor want five-star luxury. But it is also right that it has been left behind by the EPT, which tries to set the benchmark for what poker can be like at its most exclusive end.

I’ll hope to pop my head in at the Concord next week, to bathe in the warmth of a room that will no doubt remember with fondness that spectacular 73rd placed finisher. But it’ll only be when I sit at the palace and watch someone win close to a million euros that I’ll remember how poker really hit the big time.