The European Poker Tour (EPT) heads to Barcelona this month to kick off its 11th season, but in contrast with 99.97 per cent of the poker-playing public, I don’t like the stop very much. The thing is, there may well be the sun, the beach, the nightclubs and the enormous, great value field, but I got food poisoning from a squid-ink paella in Barcelona once, and only the cleaner of my hotel bathroom can truly attest to how deeply disturbing the experience was.
Jokes aside (and I can assure you, that paella was no joke) I have something of an instinctive, negative reaction when the subject of EPT Barcelona comes up. It is the result, I think, of spending too many days there during the early seasons when things were by no means as slick as they are now.
Some of the longest days and latest nights I have ever endured on the EPT occurred in Barcelona, mainly because the casino in Catalonia used only to open at 4pm and the tournament often didn’t get started until past five. There were long lines at registration, countless irate players and staff members, and tournament reporters left stewing as all the arguments played out, knowing that it was going to be about 5am before the day was done.
It often meant that my weeks in Barcelona were little more than one long bleary-eyed sleepwalk punctuated by sprints to the toilet. I was never keen to go back.
I am, however, showing my age because the tournament moved out of the main casino room several years ago and now takes place in an adjoining conference facility, where play starts at noon. Days in Barcelona are no longer than they are at any other stop on the EPT, and start at a similarly agreeable time.
Although live poker events in Europe are still typically reliant on a local casino’s licence in order to comply with gaming regulations, they have now often left the casino premises behind. During season 10 of the EPT, only the stop in Sanremo took place inside a casino building, while in cities like London and Vienna, there was not a slot machine anywhere even remotely close by.
It makes me wonder whether we might now start looking at changing the playing hours for poker tournaments too, reflecting the move away from a casino, and bringing them more in line with a regular day’s work in other professions. As far as I know, away from the small daily tournaments hosted in the big American casino poker rooms, noon is about the earliest tournaments ever start. But why not 9am or 10am?
There is an enormous movement among the best poker professionals towards healthy living – eating well, exercising plenty and cutting out the toxins – and the human animal fares better when it sleeps during the night and is awake during the day. The stereotypical image of the skeletal, gaunt 19-year-old nerd playing poker is gradually growing outdated; today’s players are athletes. There’s typically more of a queue at the hotel gym than in front of the big silver tray of bacon at the breakfast buffet.
There is also a popular move towards arriving late at poker tournaments, with registration often open now for the entire first day. It means that if anybody is truly glued to his or her bed, it’s still possible to saunter in at around noon and pick up a full stack. The bonus is that things will wrap up by about 6pm and leave everyone free to take their pick of the restaurants or head to the bars, without the scramble to the closest late option for some sub-standard fare. It is a consistent gripe that nothing decent is ever open when a day of tournament poker is over. The simple answer is to begin the day earlier.
Like most ideas toyed with by columnists, I am only about 50 per cent serious about this ever being considered properly. I realise that many players – whose opinions matter most – only got into poker so that they never had to be anywhere at 9am for the rest of their lives. But similarly if player power did decide to back a shift towards a 9-5 working day, I would like to think administrators would give it some consideration.
It’s not the way it’s ever been done before, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try. And I suggest Barcelona, if only to redress the balance from those long, dark early days.