Heading south: why Northern Ireland players love the Irish Open

For many poker players in Northern Ireland, the highlight of their year is an event that’s surprisingly close to home. The Irish Open in Dublin is widely viewed as the pinnacle of the poker calendar for Irish players, with poker fans both north and south seeing it as a chance to win life-changing money.

Daryl McAleenan is one of Northern Ireland’s most prolific poker players and is now very much an Irish Open regular. He’s often played the cash games at the Irish Open but work commitments meant that, until recently, he couldn’t always play the Main Event. However, he’s played it the last three years and this year cashed for the first time.

He was playing at eventual champion David Docherty’s table when he was finally eliminated on Day 2. He said: “I used to play a lot with David online actually. And I was on his table when I bust – I had QQ v KKs. Of course, he went on to win it.” Daryl’s 143rd place finish was good for €3,400 and overall, his live tournament winnings now exceed $70,000.

Northern Irish players abound

Daryl says there is something of a poker boom going on right now when it comes to players from Northern Ireland. Home games are thriving and lots of new players are taking up the game. For many of them, next year’s Irish Open will be their first chance to compete in a major event.

He said: “The Irish Open is definitely the one tournament in the year that all your smaller-stakes players will want to play. If they are going to play one event, that’s the one. It’s a real chance of making big money and normally they wouldn’t be in tournaments where they get to compete for that kind of money.

“A lot of players from Northern Ireland regularly travel down to play tournaments in the south. Poker isn’t legalised in Northern Ireland so players tend to travel to events and we’re now seeing a lot of new faces coming down.”

Paul Leckey, Northern Irealand's top tournament player, at the Irish Open

Paul Leckey, who’s currently ranked #1 on Northern Ireland’s all-time money list, agrees that there is a lot of enthusiasm for poker in Northern Ireland at the moment. He said: “Any Irish person that plays poker wants to do well in the Irish Open. It’s our Mecca for poker! Forget the World Series – all you want to do come Easter time is have a good run in the Irish Open.  And there’s no boundaries with the Irish Open – we all very much feel it’s our event, whether we’re from the north or the south.

‘When it was a 5k buy-in, a lot of people struggled to enter but now it’s affordable for most Irish players. So, there’s a lot of local interest but we’re still getting a load of people coming from overseas as well.”

Team atmosphere at the Irish Open

When Northern Irish players meet up at the Irish Open, there’s definitely a team atmosphere. Daryl said: “We do root for each other and want to see each other do well. At the breaks, you’ll be catching up with other players from Northern Ireland and seeing how they’re getting on and talking through hands. It’s also nice to see when players have been working on their game and start getting results. It’s like playing for a football team – you’re all supporting each other.”

Now 38 and a former accountant, Daryl still plays poker regularly, heading to Dublin for cash games and tournaments. He said “I was 18 when I began … it was £5/£10 games in the house with mates and they showed me how to play. Initially, I just played socially – and then some evenings I’d be coming home from work and playing £10 SNGs online. Eventually, I was doing so well I started playing full-time.”

Daryl, who lives in Castlewellan, County Down with his wife and three sons, is known for being very friendly at the tables and is always keen to put more inexperienced players at their ease. He said: “At something like the Irish Open, a lot of players there haven’t played that level of buy-in before. It can be a wee bit daunting. But my advice is always to just enjoy the experience. There are a lot of people satelliting in and you’ve nothing to fear even from the big-name players – just play your own game. Luckily with the Irish Open, you get a deep enough stack that you can wait for good hands. I really like the structure – you don’t have to get all your chips in.

“But it’s also important to take time out from the poker – have a night out, go to the bar, relax and enjoy the craic. Just enjoy the game, chat to the people at your table and have a great weekend.”

Leckey says part of the success of the Irish Open is that there is so much to entertain people even if they’re not playing. He added: “Paul and JP have gone out of their way to offer so much more than just a tournament. They make it interesting for non-poker players, with the Irish music and the banter and the craic – no one overseas has been able to replicate that atmosphere. Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away from the Irish Open.”

Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away from the Irish Open.

Paul Leckey, Northern Ireland’s #1 tournament player