Inside the EPT Barcelona: My Journey in the High-Stakes World of Poker

By Calum Marsh

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It’s Tuesday night at the European Poker Tour Barcelona, and I am sweating. I’m in the early stages of what feels like a high-stakes poker game—really a tournament for members of the media with no cash prize or buy-in—and I am beginning to feel that my strategy has failed me. The pile of chips before me looks shockingly small in comparison to the prodigious stacks in front of my adversaries. With every hand, the blinds seem to make a quantum leap in value. I am holding a king and an eight when it dawns on me: if I don’t bet now, and bet big, I am doomed. I will run out of money.


When it comes to poker I play with the skill of an amateur and the luck of somebody who has a good time and smiles a lot. My experience is roughly on the level of your least favourite uncle: I’ve played in kitchens and in living rooms but never in casinos, and I’ve never played a game for cash that didn’t stop before anyone had cause for regret the following morning. My usual strategy derives from something I read once in Colson Whitehead’s poker book The Noble Hustle—If you’re playing with friends, be as conservative as possible and bet as little as you can possibly stand. The idea is that over time your friends will get impatient and make bad bets. All you have to do to win is outlast their stupidity. 


But playing poker at the EPT Barcelona is not like playing poker on a dining room table. We are at the Casino Barcelona on the beaches of the Mediterranean, not a kitchen in the fluorescent suburbs of Southern Ontario. The table is immaculate blue felt embossed with the Poker Stars logo in crisp white block letters. The chips are so heavy that it feels extravagant to throw them in the pot, like tossing away silver dollars. Most importantly, wherever you go at the EPT Barcelona you are surrounded on all sides by people whose primary interest is to destroy you. These are top-level competitors on a mission to seize victory. And the stakes have never been higher.


The first thing you notice on the game floor is the sound. Have you ever heard someone shuffling their poker chips in their hand? Imagine that multiplied by a factor of one thousand in a room with no other audible sound. Stepping into the game floor at the EPT Barcelona is like entering a beehive where the bees are made of glass. In the beginning, it’s maddening. You find it almost impossible to focus on the cards in your hand and the value of the chips in the pot, so overwhelmed are you by the muffled cacophony of the surrounding environment. But slowly you sink into its mild, almost soothing rhythm. It’s a gentle clatter. And it’s the clarion call of the best poker stars in the world, entreated to do a bloodthirsty battle. 


I say there’s no other audible sound, and ordinarily that’s true: as a rule professional poker players don’t talk much at the table, except for nearly whispered calls to raise. Even calling and folding are done silently, by either tossing in the correct value of chips to see the bet or by throwing away the hand without comment. There’s far too much at stake to risk losing your concentration as a result of idle chatter. For the really paranoid professionals, there’s too much risk of compromise by talking and letting your opponents know what you’re thinking.

But the media tournament is not a tournament of professionals. (Or not entirely professionals. More on that in a moment.) We, amateurs, can’t shake the habit of banter, and consequently, our table is alive with the buzz of smack talk, gossip, repartee, and general chitchat, intermittently pierced by the collective howls of joy and shrieks of surprise when someone makes a shocking turnabout or goes bust in a blaze of ill-advised bluster. We are a very loud table. I know we are a very loud table because at some point in the evening, our dealer is interrupted by an associate of the casino who informs him that we have to keep it down. The table nearest to us is in the middle of a game with a buy-in of 250,000 Euros and whose pot has reached nearly two million. 


That puts things into perspective, doesn’t it? Some of the top poker players in the entire world (players with tens of millions in career earnings who for the most part look like computer programmers who’d rather be playing Magic the Gathering) are in our midst, and they are winning and losing more money in one hand than any of us will ever play for in our entire lives. Every single time one of these players goes bust, they’ve just lost the equivalent of a comfortable upper middle-class executive’s annual salary. In a card game. On a Tuesday. And then you think about the guy who winds up winning the whole thing… I’m honestly not sure if the pot would be worth the strain to your heart during the heat of the play. 


At some point, as I’m about to learn during my own cashless media game, there’s no option except to go all-in. Now I have said that my strategy is to remain in the game as long as possible by simply out-lasting the lesser players by being safe and conservative. But that strategy only works (when it works) when the players in the game don’t really know what they’re doing. Several people at our table do, and they have been making me pay for it. There are several full-time poker writers in our crew with the steely conviction of professionals. To make matters worse, there are also several actual professionals, ringers added into the game by the EPT folks to make the whole thing more dramatic and (I assume) to ensure that this farce doesn’t last until four in the morning.

Jennifer Shahade, a PokerStars ambassador, is one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met at a poker table. It masks a ruthlessness that could make a grown man cry. At one point in the game, during a particularly intense hand, she cavalierly flipped her cards to reveal a pair of pocket aces. When you’re playing Shahade it feels like she always has a pair of pocket aces—no matter what you were holding or how you wanted to play it, somehow it seemed impossible to take any of her chips. It was the same way with the other professionals. They had the savvy knack that marks the pro athlete from the eager amateur: it felt like playing pickup ball with LeBron James. The best you can hope for is that they’ll go easy on you. Sespite losing to them brutally, I suspect that they were. 


I went all in with my king and my eight, though. Most everybody else folded straight away, but one other player felt compelled to see my bet and stick it out. From then on were at the mercy of the flop. It took until the river to guarantee my victory—the all precious eight turned up at the last second, my saviour, and for half a heartbeat before it showed I could see my entire game slipping away, I could see myself having to stand up in shame and walk away from the table, defeated and no longer able to pursue the win. In that moment of revelation, it didn’t matter that we weren’t playing a cash game. It felt as dramatic and as exhilarating as it must have for the guys beside us playing for millions. Because it’s not about the money, when you’re really in the throes of a good poker game. It’s about the thrill of the game, pure and simple.