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Poker Million
Isle Of man
November 13th -19th, 2000
November 2000
Feature by Richard Whitehouse 
A Sunday afternoon when the sun decided to shine after a month of rain and after a trip of 300 miles, I sat at the front of the ferry heading towards the Isle Of Man. One hours sleep didn't help the feeling of foreboding as the light of the day began fading into the Irish Sea. Eleven years earlier I had been to Douglas (the capital) to compete in a Backgammon tournament along with 350(!) other players and it was a roaring success that never was repeated.

Why? Well the only half-decent hotel was the host venue and they only had 100+ rooms that were hardly up to the international standard. Since that time, Stakis had purchased the hotel/casino unit and now it was Hilton, or Ladbrokes, or Gala, or whatever. My only thoughts were that no one was really ready on this Island for 200 irritating and irritated poker players to turn up, and that included Ladbrokes.

I checked in to the best hotel (Sefton) on the island that was a sensible distance away from the Hilton. It pays to try and find a way of getting good sleep when playing for a week or more and being next to people who come in and go out all night long is not the way. Straight away I was off to the playing rooms down the road and got into a "dealers choice" game. Many old friends were there and my feeling for the week turned into 'at least we're going to have fun even if its a disaster'.

Mood is important in poker and if you can't control yours then you're never going to be a success at the game. Fortunately I didn't have to worry about mine because in a hand of Omaha, with a board of Q-Q-4-4, two players from foreign lands decided to take-off against each other with a Queen each. Of course I had a pair of 4's and never did anything but call until I was all-in. Isn't that the way poker is supposed to be?

The first three days of the event involved qualifying for the big one and an Omaha (£500) event. There was no sign of a stampeed of Americans and although the organizers were continually tauting the 200+ figure for the £6000 event I couldn't see past the 140 mark. The dealers struggled to deal more than two cards to each player and what few Americans had turned up were on the edge of their seats with the alien procedures. Still it was all just holding together.

For a while the main feature was the £10,000 Omaha game at one end of the cash playing room. Ten Gs is a lot for a sitdown anywhere in the world and here it was more like 20. Multi-way all-in pots were the norm and the man from Greece, otherwise known as George (aren't they all), wasn't doing so well at the rate of about half a mil per week. Thankfully Slim turned up on Tuesday and the real circus began to roll.

What one man can achieve on the back of winning a one table poker tournament in 1972, that no one in poker cared for, is quite astounding and admirable. Anyone in the promotion business has to take their hats off to Amarillo "Slim" Preston because he never will. Ladbrokes and Matchroom promoters were certainly happy with their money spent on him. He performed for reporters and interviewers on cue and did the "Big Breakfast" straight from a poker session at the Vic.

Quite why the organizers were pumping up the hype on expected attendence figures was a mystery. None of the press were ever going to be interested in that so long as they could figure to get shots of Slim and Jesus and piles of cash and wacky stories. A Stetson in the Isle Of Man is worth two hundred anywhere else.

Back in the tournament room all my friends were winning their qualifiers whilst I came sixth from a hundred and missed out (got a few quid though). Also came 14th in the Omaha, just out of the big spot again. I did manage to get a bet on the total number of players and typically went all out for my guess when I could have got value from the layer, Dave Mosely, who thought 190 was good. I took 140 (+/-5) at 10-1. Not bad!

So Thursday was going to be the day of reckoning. The press conference had Barry Hearn leading the way with news that Ladbrokes had added a further £250,000 to the original gaurantee of £1m. So the prize fund was £1.25m and they would pay 20 places (with insulting amounts at the low end). The figure for the number of players at 1.00p.m. was 140!!! But of course with that added cash others jumped in. Stewards!?

With fever running high in the tournament room, one hand tables were being played (£600 for one hand against nine people - winner goes into the big event). It was crazy and just added to the "Dunkirk Spirit" as one player described the event. Final tally 156, although one player on the list was definitely in Melbourne, Australia, at the time of kick-off.

The first day of the big event went much more smoothly than anyone had predicted. The expected screams over mistakes were completely absent. It wasn't that there were no mistakes, for there were, but all the players just accepted it like they were sensible humans. No one was more surprised than me.

Barry Hearn played in the place of snooker star Jimmy White, who had to cancel at late notice. Barry enjoyed himself so much that at the dinner break he marched into the press room and ordered two bottles of red, from which he took a couple of glasses. Not the best prep. for a £6000 event but he was having the time of his life so what the hell. By the end of day One there were 99 players left, including all seven world champions, four of those well placed in the top 20. Barry made it too. The most notable exit being T.J. Cloutier who gave a lot of chips to Jesus.

Day two is always the big moving day, as antes rise and the action intensifies, players build up or dissappear. Banter of the good humoured sort flowed freely. As the day drew to a close we heard T.J. shout across to Slim, "you still here, you started with nothing at the beginning". Slim replied, "I had $17 and a bar of soap", where upon Jack McClelland injected, "and didn't use either one of them".

At 2:00 a.m. Saturday morning the 21st place man finished to leave no champs or famous players in the last twenty but one woman. There were four relative unknowns from the U.S. and it looked for all the world that the final could be a damp ending. Added to that the prize structure (£1m, £100k, £50k, £25k, £15k and £14k) was insuring that the final six would be heavily pressurized into making a deal that could potentially ruin the final televised event. After all, why play it out when you've already split the money up.

On the Saturday the 20 played down, first to nine for some pictures of the final table line-up, and then six for the television bit. With two tables left an incident occured that showed the reasons for the eventual winner. Duthie in last position flat called the blind only to see the small blind bet and the big one call. Duthie said "deal" and the man in the big blind position said "did you call". Duthie said "yes", and the dealer dealt the flop. Of course Duthie had not called the raise because he was in one of his trances, a factor that led me to believe that he could win the whole thing.

Jack the Mac turned up. Duthie got the chance to call the raise, which he didn't. The burnt card stayed where it was, as did all the dead players hands. The remaining pack got re-shuffled and the flop dealt again. No one raised an eyebrow of complaint. In Vegas a few people would have been shot.

And so the last day arrived. From here I'll turn you over to the report of the final day's action. Just click here.
So the Poker Million has been and gone and a few lessons were learnt by all people concerned and that includes me. I learnt that if you strand 200 poker players on a remote island they behave better than if they were at home or anywhere else for that matter. More importantly I discovered that if you do everything wrong until the last and get that right, then nobody cares about the rest - for now.

Ladbrokes Casinos paid out about £800,000 for the event and got tremendous publicity through all media outlets. Matchroom got a decent payday, especially Barry Hearn, and they learnt a lot about poker in a short space of time. Poker players found out that there just might be some gold at the end of a rainbow that they didn't even know existed. The rest of the country found out that "Who wants to be a millionaire" is rigged.

The TV coverage was a great success and even the Americans liked it despite having little representation themselves. After eight days of battling organisation and sleepless nights, 200 players and one hundred or so staff left the island drained and with a good memory. So what could be wrong with that?

Well, the problems created will not go away without real understanding of what they have in their grasp. To start with, no one wants to spend £800,000 again and someone has to realise that they don't need to and never did. U.S. poker players want value-for-money, a simple added prize fund of £250,000 would have had the island full. Sure you could knock some percentage of the room and air fares, but making them free this year has caused problems for next time.

This hasn't created a boom in the poker industry in the United Kingdom because the structure of poker will not change for some time and it has been that painful and old fashioned thing that has destroyed the community of poker players in our own country. Meanwhile if the Americans get it together then the top pros and celebs of the poker world will rocket into another media-circus driven world. Good luck to them.

What can be done to get poker going?
Until real changes come to casinos in the U.K. (I mean real) then the only step forward is Limit Poker. Without the birth of thousands of new poker players through the soft learning curve of limit poker then poker is going nowhere. Roy Houghton in the Russell Square casino has shown that new players can be created with a little work and a good idea. In a short time his beginners tournament and limit cash games have created 500 new players, some of which were at the Poker Million event!

So we wait for the fallout. It could be great, it could be disappointing. Lets hope that a sense of reality and a wish for more events like this one prevail.
Pictures from the Poker Million (2000)
Finalists Action Players
Nine Player Picture The Tournament Barry Hearn Plays
John Duthie Nine Player Table Noel Furlong
Teddy Tuil £1 million cash Johnny Chan
Ian Dobson Cool looking Phil Hellmuth Jr.
Tony Bloom and Ian Payne   Russ Hamilton
Gary Lent   Chris Ferguson
Barney Boatman   Amarillo 'Slim' Preston
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