The history of the Irish Open – Europe’s oldest poker tournament

Join us as we look back at the longest running tournament in Europe – the event that put Ireland on the poker map and brought no-limit hold’em from Vegas to Europe

You might know that the longest running tournament in the poker world is the World Series of Poker Main Event – first held in 1970 with just seven players. Not many Americans would guess the second though – the Paddy Power Poker Irish Open, which has been pulling punters in for the ultimate poker craic since 1980.

In Europe in the 70s, poker was dominated by draw and stud games. The seeds of change were planted when Irish bookie Terry Rogers stopped off in Vegas during a trip to L.A. in 1979 and stumbled across the biggest game of poker he’d ever seen. The World Series of Poker might have been a far cry from the glitzy multi-million spectacle it’s morphed into today, but Rogers hadn’t seen anything like it. The Main Event wasn’t a stud or draw event, but no-limit hold’em. Rogers knew this was the future. He befriended Benny Binion and vowed to return the next year.

The first ever Irish Open was held in April the next year. Won by Collette Doherty (who’s still playing today!), it was the only Irish Open to be played as a five-card stud event. Doherty won £22,000 but Rogers withheld half of her winnings and took her to Vegas the next month to play the $10k Main Event. She was the first woman to play it but didn’t make it past day one.

Meanwhile Rogers had set up a book, offering better odds than the US bookies on everyone bar Stu Ungar. Ungar had caught Rogers’ eye and the story goes that he was only offering 20/1 on an Ungar win and topping up on the 100/1 offered by everyone else. Ungar went on to win it and retained the bracelet the next year too.

Padraig Parkinson, a long-time player at the Irish Open and third-place finisher at the 1999 WSOP main event, says, ‘It’s typically Irish and typically Terry. He went to the world capital of gambling, strolled in and showed the Americans how to do it.’

They don't make tournament screens like that any more

They don’t make tournament screens like that any more

American invasion

This time round Rogers took no-limit hold’em back to Ireland with him and set about changing the face of poker in Europe forever. From humble beginnings the Irish Open quickly grew and Rogers managed to convince his new US buddies to make a rare foray across the ocean to play. In the early 80s, Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar, Amarillo Slim, Chip Reese, Tom McEvoy and Puggy Pearson all made the trip across the pond. This was no mean feat considering it was the first time that anyone had managed to persuade Ungar to leave the United States – he had to apply for his first ever passport – and Rogers was keen that they weren’t disappointed. He picked up the players from the airport in Rolls Royces and brought a white horse for Amarillo Slim who rode it out of the airport.

Rogers repaid the favour by taking a load of Irish poker players out to the World Series every year and almost brought the bracelet back to Ireland in 1989. After winning his first Irish open in 1987, Noel Furlong won his second in 1989 and made the tip to Vegas the next month. A record 178 players played the Main Event that year and Furlong made the final table, along with 1986 champion Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. Furlong was knocked out in sixth after being chip leader and history was made when Phil Hellmuth denied Johnny Chan back-to-back wins and became the youngest ever Main Event winner.

Things didn’t always run smoothly. In 1990 the Irish Open was held at the Green Isle Hotel in Dublin. In those days everyone bought in with cash and when his cashiers did a runner with the money, it left Rogers with no prize pool and lots of explaining to do – he personally reimbursed everyone to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds.

Parkinson says: ‘The funny thing is that one of those cashiers had already done a similar thing to him [Rogers]. He was already on his second warning! They caught up with them in the end but, don’t worry, they didn’t end up buried in cement propping up motorways or anything like that.’

1984 Irish Open champion Tony Byrne and friends

1984 Irish Open champion
Tony Byrne and friends

Floodgates

The Irish Open skipped a few years in the 90s when Rogers’ mother fell ill and in 1996 tournament director Liam Flood asked if he could take over. ‘No-limit hold’em was starting to spread across the continent but there was no Irish Open. I thought it should be started again as it’s the event that had introduced Europe to hold’em,’ says Flood.

The competition was duly resurrected at the Jackpot Club and was won by Flood himself, before being shifted to the larger Merrion Casino Club. In 1999, 76 players entered the Main Event and two side events were added for the first time.

Rogers sadly passed away that year but not before seeing his long-time friend Noel Furlong become the first Irishman to win the WSOP Main event, scooping its $1m first prize by beating Alan Goehring. And if that’s not a tribute fitting enough, the Irish stormed the final tables that year: Padraig Parkinson came third, George McKeever came seventh and Mickey Finn – the fourth player to win the Irish Open twice – came 14th. It was an overpowering performance by the Irish players. Terry was said to be ecstatic to hear Furlong had won and his legacy lived on as the Irish Open went from strength to strength.

The buy-in was upped to €1,000 in 2003, and 105 players (plus 21 rebuys) created a prize pool of €126,000. Former Hendon Mobber Joe Beevers took down his first major title and the €50,375 first prize.

Power of Paddy

In 2005, Paddy Power Poker became the headline sponsor and helped the Irish Open become one of the most prestigious events in the world. It made history in 2006 when it was the first tournament to have the final table shown live on primetime Sky Sports.

And in 2007 the tournament became the biggest, as well as the longest running, tourney in Europe. A week after the European Poker Tour final in Monte Carlo kicked off with a then-record 706 players, the Irish Open got underway on Good Friday with 708 runners. A serious buy-in of €3,300 ensured that the world’s best players were at the Double tree Hilton in Dublin to stake their claim for the €650k first prize. An unknown Danish player called Peter Eastgate came ninth – he went on to win the WSOP Main event and $9.1m the next year – and the final three were Sorel Mizzi, Roland de Wolfe and Marty Smyth.

De Wolfe won a coinflip – K-Q v 7-7 – to knock Mizzi out in third, giving the Canadian his first ever six-figure cash. De Wolfe was then just two cards away from taking Smyth out not long after. The money went in preflop with Smyth’s pocket Twos needing to spike another to stay alive against de Wolfe’s Threes. The deuce came and after two hours of heads-up play Smyth took the title.

Sole Survivor Niall Smyth won an incredible €650k back in 2011

Sole Survivor Niall Smyth won an
incredible €650k back in 2011

Sole survivors

The next year Neil Channing took down the biggest win of his career and created one of the most iconic Irish Open photos of the modern age (see top). At the start of the final table, Channing held over 40 percent of the chips in play and played aggressively and hit the cards to keep himself at the top. The elation on his face when his A-9 beat Donal Norton’s pocket Fives sums up the thrill of winning a major live event.

Incredibly Channing also picked up a £50k bonus after betting £500 on himself with Paddy Power at 100/1. Terry Rogers would have been proud.

The stars turned out again in 2009 with Phil Laak, Jennifer Tilly, Neil Channing, Marty Smyth, Andy Black, Jamie Gold, Dan Harrington and Roland de Wolfe ponying up the €3,200 for a shot at the title.

Paddy Power Poker spiced things up and put the emphasis back on the underdogs with a fantastic promotion – the Sole Survivor. Anyone who qualified for the Irish Open on Paddy Power Poker would be eligible to win, and the last qualifier standing would win a €100k package. Marcel Koch finished 16th that year for €17,900, but picked up the €100k package on top for the equivalent of more than sixth place prize money! Swedish pro Christer Johansson beat Kara Scott to take down the first prize and €600k.

In 2011, Niall Smyth became the first person to win the Sole Survivor promotion and the Irish Open title, pocketing a total of €650k for his weekend’s work. In 2012 Ian Simpson added £100k to his €107,500 for finishing fourth. He returned in 2013 and went one better – taking down the whole thing, winning another €260k and bagging an even bigger prize straight after. In the middle of his televised winner’s interview, Simpson called his girlfriend Emma over, got down on one knee and proposed. Thankfully, she said yes!

Last year, Patrick Clarke followed in Niall Smyth’s footsteps, winning €200k and the €50k Sole Survivor bonus. What’s more, he did it from a €4 online satellite. If you fancy doing the same this year, you can win your way into this year’s Irish Open for free in our exclusive freeroll. Good luck!


Irish Open Hall of Fame

  • 1980: Colette Doherty
  • 1981: Sean Kelly
  • 1982: Frank Conway
  • 1983: Jimmy Langan
  • 1984: Tony Byrne
  • 1985: Irene Tier
  • 1986: Bryan McCarthy
  • 1987: Noel Furlong
  • 1988: Jimmy Langan
  • 1989: Noel Furlong 
  • 1990: Liam Flood
  • 1991: Colette Doherty
  • 1993: Christy Smith 
  • 1994: Mickey Finn
  • 1996: Liam Flood 
  • 1998: Mickey Finn 
  • 1999: Liam Barker 
  • 2000: Alan Betson
  • 2001: Jenny Hegarty 
  • 2002: Nick Beirne 
  • 2003: Joe Beevers
  • 2004: Ivan Donaghy
  • 2005: John Falconer
  • 2006: Vincent Melinn
  • 2007: Marty Smyth
  • 2008: Neil Channing
  • 2009: Christer Johansson
  • 2010: James Mitchell
  • 2011: Niall Smyth
  • 2012: Kevin Vandersmissen
  • 2013: Ian Simpson
  • 2014: Patrick Clarke

Win your way into this year’s Irish Open for free in our exclusive freeroll!

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