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Rod Stirzaker – “What is this anyway?”

Keen to get back on the road

“What is this anyway?” asks Rod Stirzaker: poker player, industry professional, veteran tournament reporter and long-time associate of yours truly. His extreme suspicion is not merely because I’ve called him up out of the blue after many months of government-mandated lack of live events - we reporters are usually the ones asking the questions in interviews, and he’s not used to being the interviewee. Nevertheless, he gamely agrees to fill me in on his life under lockdown.

“I have actually been working for the last year, amazingly - everyone else has been off work, lucky bastards,” he chuckles, “But I’ve had to work, so I actually know quite a lot about poker, believe it or not. So I can give you, like, some cool things to say. I think.”

As well as reporting from live events in non-plague times, Stirzaker has been working for one of the big online poker sites - a job he’s recently quit - as well as playing low stakes tournaments online.

“The last year’s been crazy, obviously,” he goes on, “But the thing is, for poker, the last year’s been great. Apart from live poker - awful for live poker, obviously - but poker generally has undergone huge growth, because everyone’s been shut inside. There’s loads of hunger for people to play poker now, you can just see it - the numbers are up on all the sites, they’re doing really well. It’s great news for poker in a lot of ways, even though it’s a terrible time for the rest of the world - but it’s a great opportunity for poker to grow. There’s got to be loads of interest in a tour, I’d have thought.”

Like most players and industry folk I’ve spoken to, Stirzaker is keen to get back on the road, and he’s delighted to have been booked as part of the live reporting team for The Festival Series. “The tours around Europe have always been loads of fun,” he says. “People are a bit shell-shocked at the moment and gathering in groups is a bit strange for people, but these are very ambitious plans that Franke’s got.”

The home game scene has seen huge growth

While bricks and mortar casinos have obviously suffered over the past year, and live events have been nonexistent, Stirzaker’s view is that the increased online traffic can only be good for the future prospects of the live game. I ask whether he thinks the rise in numbers is due to an influx of new players, or a result of live players moving online while the casinos are closed. “I think it’s both.” he replies. “Live players have been pushed into home games particularly - the home game scene has seen huge growth. Sites like Poker Bros - theoretically they don’t offer real money games, they’re only ‘fun games’ - and they’ve gone through a huge boom. Especially in America it’s happened a lot, but also in Europe. So poker’s doing really well generally. And yeah, I think a lot of it is live players who’ve been pushed online. I’ve actually seen some of the players from the MPNPT, those sorts of tours, who I probably wouldn’t have seen that often in online games - they’re now playing online. It’ll be interesting to see how it changes with things settling down and going back to normal, hopefully.” We both cross our fingers across the Skype chat.

“If the tour can get all its t’s crossed and i’s dotted,” he continues, “Then I can see there’d be a lot of hunger for the game, for sure. There will be some new players as well - it’s not just ‘live players’ playing. New players who’ve just discovered the game in lockdown will be keen to go and play with their friends in a live environment, and obviously with Franke running those kinds of things, it’s always a laugh, he likes to have fun. So he’ll keep the fun side going, I know that.”

No-one’s playing live poker. It’s very sad

The UK-based poker tournament reporters are a small, closely knit community. Everyone has missed live events terribly during lockdown, as well as the other members of the live reporting team. “I miss some of them more than others,” Stirzaker deadpans, looking me right in the eye. It’s like he wants a bad write up or something. I quickly win the staring war, though, and he continues: “Yeah, I do. Because for me that was always my way of escaping my existence playing online poker or working from home. I’d been going away to events, seeing other cities, and obviously we haven’t been able to do that. So I miss travel, and the people I’ve been travelling with. Apart from you Dana, obviously.” Obviously. This is going to make for an exciting live blog when we work together next at The Festival in Tallinn. Hostile work environment, anyone?

“But it’s a laugh, isn’t it?” he continues, giggling nervously. Hmm. “It’s nice to break things up, have that vacation-slash-working holiday thing going on. You know, I love that stuff. I didn’t go to Malta last year. That would have been great. Irish Open, obviously - that would have been great too.” We note that the cancellation of the Irish Open just about a year ago now was the bellwether for us - none of us had realised quite how major an event the pandemic was until that happened. “If the Irish aren’t playing poker,” Stirzaker notes, “At that point, who is? They love poker! No-one’s playing live poker. It’s very sad.”

Stirzaker is optimistic about the future though. “There’s room for growth in tours, especially with things like the EPT becoming more of a professional outfit - people like that lower buy-in level. Like, €550’s not cheap, but it’s low enough that not everyone is pure pros - you know, hoodies up, sunglasses on, heads down, earphones in, not saying anything. Everyone has a laugh at those [lower buy-in] things. I think most people go there to have a nice break and a holiday and see some friends, and also play poker. Like, for €500 you’re not going to completely mess around, but at the same time it’s a low enough buy-in that people can satellite in for cheap, and if they get knocked out there’s lots of things to do and a sociable atmosphere to be spending the rest of your time in, so you don’t have to be playing poker all the time, you can have a laugh. We’ve had a few laughs over the years haven’t we?” Of course I deny all knowledge of these ‘laughs’. “Isn’t there a video interview of you, me and Jen [Mason] all in a bed in Madrid?” he continues. In the interest of journalistic integrity I remain silent.

Undeterred by my faux disapproval, Stirzaker sums up the live reporter’s experience quite nicely. “I think for all of us it’s a job that never feels like that much of a chore,” he says. “When the events are like the ones we’ve been to, it’s not a chore - it’s fun. We get on with the players, so we get all the inside stories, they really want to tell us what’s been going on with the hands - they make our lives quite easy in a lot of ways. I like it, I like the people and the atmosphere of these things - it’s really good fun. If you’ve never been to one, you should go to one, and you’ll probably come back for more, I should imagine.”

I would never say it to Stirzaker’s face, but the truth is I can’t wait to get back on the tournament floor with him and the rest of the live reporting team, notepad and biro in hand, coffee’d up to the eyeballs, reporting hands and relaying bad beat stories. Bring on The Festival in Tallinn.