Pickleman at the Unibet Open Warsaw

Pickleman at the Unibet Open Warsaw

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

About six months ago I wrote an article about the Unibet Open, London. I talked about wild parties, rock stars, and a feel to proceedings that was somewhere between the Olympics and the Oscars. This weekend I had my second drink from the cup, and I loved it. But whereas my first taste of the Unibet Open left me feeling hedonistic and carefree, my second has left me with a serious conviction: this is how a poker tour should be.

It’s as if the other poker tours on the circuit say to themselves: “OK, we’ll have a poker tournament on that weekend, but hey, while we’re at it, why don’t we throw in a party?” At Unibet the sentiment feels more like: “OK, we’ll have a party on that weekend, but why don’t we throw in a poker tournament?”

Yes, you’d be a fool if you thought there wasn’t a bottom line here, but even the sharpest cynic must understand that much of what a player gets at the Unibet Open goes above and beyond the call. Just like the concept of an hourly rate for a poker player, the bottom line for a business can be a slippery concept indeed. So praise be to Unibet for upping the ante here – in a time of financial crisis, they are the ones sticking to their principles of doing things brilliantly.

By contrast, anyone who’s ever parted with $1500+ for a WSOP tournament knows that if he expects to be treated even as a second class citizen, he’s in for a rude surprise. My message to Harrahs, PokerStars and the other overseers of bigger poker tours is this: mark well what Unibet is doing. Yes, you may have your bracelets and your million dollar prize pools, but the customer always votes with their feet, and eventually they will start shuffling over to Unibet.

Bracelets and EPT victories. It’s funny how the prejudices work. When I saw Marty Smyth on the Thursday in the Lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Warsaw, I simply assumed that he’d busted out of the EPT Prague early and had nipped round the corner to catch this event. Not at all. Marty is friends with the winner of the last leg of the Unibet Open Tour, Fuat Can, and had heard it was worth the trip. He opted to come here instead of the EPT event.

“I’d heard a lot of good things about this tour,” he tells me. “That it’s good fun and the fields are a lot easier than the EPT.” In terms of atmosphere, he draws parallels to the famously crazy tournaments in his native Ireland. “I’d recommend the Unibet Open to everyone back home – although everyone’s trying to win, they’re not taking it as seriously as the EPT. People don’t seem to mind getting busted out here because they know they’re going to have fun. So I’ll be trying to do more of them next year.”

When you consider that the registration fee is only €150 (it’s a €1500 event), the list of perks is quite staggering. A player party with two hours free bar on the first night, a goody bag on arrival, a full buffet every evening for dinner, and to top it all, a huge blowout at one of Warsaw’s top night clubs with free booze all night on the Saturday. My cab rolled back to the hotel at 6am, and I was certainly not one of the last to leave. The last time I was that drunk was . . . well, was the Unibet Open in London, actually.

I need to stress one thing here: these parties are open to all entrants to the tournament. There’s another way to put that. The chill-out room (replete with table footy, two Wiis, a bar, and plenty of plush bean bags and sofas) is called the players’ lounge. That’s right, not the VIP players’ lounge, just the players’ lounge. In other words, everyone’s a VIP. Each and every person in the tournament is assigned a country manager who is constantly on hand to make sure they have everything they need. And there are quite a few countries (the final nine had representatives from nine nations), so that’s a plethora of staff on hand to look after you.
At the EPT London? A sandwich and nowhere to sit down; and it’ll cost you a fiver for the privilege. At the WSOP? A cash game registration system that consists of a white board with marker pens.

At the eye of the Unibet Open whirlwind is the self-confessed perfectionist Ewa Kwiatkowska. Her story is particularly poignant given the location and the timing. Now the Head of Events for Unibet, Ewa started her career in the very casino where this Open is held. She was here at the beginning of the drive to make poker big in Poland (working as the Marketing Manager for the Casino at the Hyatt Hotel) and she is also here at the end: new legislation in Poland banning live poker means this is the last time Unibet – or any other poker tour – will come here.
The growth of this one event has been the epitome of Unibet’s success. From 120 players in 2007, to 270 in 2008, and finally this year, no fewer than 401 players. If I had one gripe from the entire weekend, it was that the Tour had perhaps outgrown its roots, and at times the casino groaned from the weight of people in the room.

Of course, this is just another challenge for Ewa, who envisions future tours taking place in chandeliered ballrooms in grandiose venues. Having run two Unibet Opens in Warsaw before being snapped up by her present employer, she has now run seven of these events (five of them working for Unibet). Her plans for the 2010 year are to keep the capacity, structure, and buy-in the same, but to improve the quality of the tournament and its media coverage yet more. The Tour will stop off in Budapest, Varna (Bulgaria), Valencia, and Prague, en route to Paris for the Grand Final in December.

When Ewa talks about the Unibet Open, you can tell that this is her baby. She is the marshal of all the country managers when they are on tour, making sure that everyone is happy. She is keen to stress the community angle of the Tour, noting that by name the Unibet Open is not called a “tournament”. “The idea is that we all play together and party together,” she says. “Even though there are celebrities and big players on the Tour, we don’t want to create an atmosphere where the parties are for a select group – they are for everyone.”

Just as Ewa moves onwards and upwards from her beginnings in this casino, so perhaps does Unibet. They say in poker that to be this lucky takes hard work; one could similarly argue that having fun is a serious business. I haven’t met anyone yet who came away from a Unibet Open with a bad word to say about their time. Considering what a bunch of grouches poker players can be, that’s no mean achievement. In one sense, I don’t want to tell the world about it – it feels like it’s our little secret. In another, it’s my duty to let everyone know just how this game should be played.

Tags: Pickleman, Alex Rousso, Unibet Open