The better you get, the less luck you’ll need
Adam Shaw meets Corkman Ciaran O’Leary to find out just what it takes to be a professional poker player
Country legend Kenny Rogers famously sung about the secret to gambling success. He opines, through a character he meets on a train, that when it comes to cards, it’s all about knowing when to play on and knowing when to call it a day.
Sounds simple enough. And with the emergence of online poker and increased television coverage of the sport, everyone thinks they can give it a go, and win. But Ciaran O’Leary, a professional poker player from Carrigaline, Co. Cork, knows that the game is far from simple, and that there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.
“The skill and level of understanding is what makes the difference further down the line you get,” he said. “The better you are at the game, the less luck you are going to require.
“When you get yourself involved in a predictor scenario, you can make a good investment while your opponent makes a mistake and falls behind. Now they are relying on a lot of luck to move forward.”
Talk of predictors and investments already highlights the multilayered nature of poker at the highest level, and it is something that Ciaran has had to teach himself. He honed his skills on the dog tracks and bingo halls around Ireland, where he would watch his dad and his mates play before he and his own friends would join in.
“My father was a greyhound trainer, so we were always around racetracks,” he explained. “And if we weren’t up the dog track, I’d accompany my dad to one of the many betting shops around the village or shoot up the road to put a bet on for him.
“It would be very normal to see several poker games going on at the dog track.”
It seemed as if he didn’t have a choice – as he acknowledged, “everyone played” in the pubs and clubs of Carrigaline. But while it could be argued that Ciaran simply fell into gambling, the sheer entertainment value – and the earning potential – was what got him hooked.
“I was always watching people, particularly my dad’s friends, and you’d see how they would win or lose and all the emotions that were involved,” he said. “Then of course there was the money that changed hands. Just seeing it there all piled up on the table was incredible for a kid who didn’t have all that much growing up.
“And in those days, the colour of money was something else – you had all these blues, reds and oranges. The notes were all crinkled up and there for the taking and you’d have some people who were ecstatic while others were utterly miserable. It was remarkable to see.”
Working on farms provided Ciaran with the money he needed to make the games with his friends interesting and, when he didn’t have any pocket change to hand, he could always wager his soccer trading cards. Sunday afternoons were spent in living rooms playing five card draw, no limit hold ‘em or seven card stud. And when they reached 17, they set their sights on charity fundraisers which regularly staged poker events.
“We’d travel the country buying into these tables, where the winner got, say, 20 per cent of the pot and the rest went to charity,” he explained. “These were big venues as well; you’d get over one hundred people turning up wanting to play cards.
“Then, of course, if you got knocked out, you’d go and join a game that had been set up on the side – that was where the real action was. We showed up thinking we knew what we were doing and, sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t. But I’d fallen in love and I already knew I was destined to carry on playing in one way or another.”
That ‘way’ turned out to be his living. A courageous step to tackle America in the late 90s saw him playing alongside some of the sport’s most established stars at the tables of Las Vegas and San Francisco.
He won three tournaments in one week – something which was “almost unheard of at that level” – and secured the best result of his career when he took home a prize of over $700,000 at the 2007 World Series of Poker. A second placed finish representing Ireland at the Poker Nations Cup was another highlight, as was the extensively-covered Poker Million tournament, where he finished fourth behind three of his compatriots.
He attributes his success to his upbringing, of being immersed in poker from a young age, and having to struggle through the ranks in his homeland.
“A lot of people over here didn’t really have to cut their teeth learning the game as much,” he said. They would come into a bit of money or they worked for companies like Amazon or Microsoft where you could easily earn $150,000 a year.
“In Ireland, you really have to grind it out as everyone’s in the same position – and that’s why people don’t realise how strong the Irish poker scene is.”
He is also a keen follower of the school of Rogers, however, and religiously keeps to the adage of making the right decisions at the right time.
“You need to realise that, even if the Almighty were to play the game, he would need some luck every time He played – there are just too many variables to try and control,” he said. “If you’re going to take it seriously as a career, you have to be honest with yourself.
“You have to take a small percentage, what’s known as a bankroll, so you know that, even if it’s not your day, you’ve only lost so much.
“You have to keep the emotion out of it; you have to keep track of your winnings and losses. And if you’re not feeling good about it one day, you don’t go and play, just as you wouldn’t go to work in any other job.”
Ciaran recounted one of his earliest memories of the American poker scene, when he arrived as a young rounder and headed for Vegas. He explained how at the 1997 Main Event, he got talking to one of the floor managers who took a liking to him on account of him being Irish.
“He told me that for every ten people who walk through the casino doors, seven of them leave as losers, one might break even and two will come out on top,” he said. “And those who are winning are up for that particular period, they could easily come back the next day and give it all back.”
Ciaran acknowledged that, whether playing professionally or at an amateur level, there is the danger of encountering serious problems. He noted how people have wagered businesses and that gambling away money that should be spent elsewhere can lead to issues in many a home. But he championed the industry, whether it was done voluntarily or not, for offering increased support services. And he maintained that, if done sensibly, there is nothing better than playing a few hands.
“It’s entertaining, it’s thrilling, there’s always that chance of winning, and it’s the finest game I’ve ever played,” he said.
“There’s so much strategy involved and, a lot of the time, it doesn’t matter what cards you are holding. You can work out what to do just by studying your opponent.
“And it brings people together; it’s a good laugh and you can tell stories over a few pints in the corner of a pub, not taking stuff too seriously.”
This, in spite of everything America has given him, is what Ciaran pines for the most.
“Ireland will always be home, there’s a culture over there, especially when you’ve got something like Cheltenham or the Six Nations on, that you wouldn’t trade for the world,” he said.
He plans to get his children settled and then it’s back to Carrigaline, where all his family is, where his heart is, and where the bars and games he was brought up in are.