It’s hard to believe it was over 42 years ago. I was in the second year of my poker degree course in Trinity College Dublin. I took a day off the poker game to travel with a bunch of my friends to Athlone to watch the League of Ireland minnows Athlone Town take on the might of Trappatoni’s A.C. Milan in the second round of the UEFA Cup.

Like everyone else, we feared a massacre, so we wisely took the precaution of lowering four or five pints in The Shack to ease the pain in advance. There I was introduced to a local guy, Fitzy, who joined our group before we headed off to watch the match. Milan turned up looking immaculate, but not for long. The 12 quid a week Athlone lads forgot to bow down before the opposition superstars and gave as good as they got. Milan went on tilt pretty quickly and were rooting and hacking like a bunch of part-timers in no time at all. Benetti was lucky not to be sent off. Then, the unbelievable happened. Athlone were awarded a penalty. The place went stone mad. John Minnock took the penalty like he’d had four or five pints in The Shack himself and Athlone finally won 0-0.

Forty years later, Jesse May and I were playing poker in The Prince of Wales Hotel in Athlone. I’m not entirely sure what we were supposed to be doing, but what we definitely were doing was having the craic big-time. The guy seated beside me asked if I recognised him. I told him I didn’t, but then again I might have had trouble recognising Jesse at the time. He gave me a clue. Athlone vs Milan. I was hoping it might be John Minnock as I would dearly loved to have told him what a piss poor penalty he’d taken, but to my disappointment he revealed that he was Fitzy, so I told him what a piss poor penalty Minnock had taken.

It transpired that Fitzy was a genuine poker man, ran a what’s what in Midlands poker Facebook page and knew and was liked by most of the local operators. His words obviously! Not long later, I put him to the test. partypoker had decided to bring their Grand Prix tour to Ireland. Of course, they wanted to do it the hard way. The plan was to make the big-time all about the grassroots players, not the selfentitled superstars. Just to make it impossible, they guaranteed €250,000 for €100 buy-in. And chose the beautiful Killarney as the venue which is the equivalent of hosting the FA Cup Final in Cornwall. lf it was to have any chance, support was needed from the huge area of the Midlands, which had previously been a self-contained eccentric poker outlaw state that never sent players anywhere. Impossible. I phoned Fitzy and he pulled off the miracle. Night after night, he drove me around to pub games to talk about Killarney in towns with names that sounded like they belonged in fairytales. Players too! Eventually, spy satellites were sending pictures back to earth of small armies, wearing distinctive partypoker baseball caps, stacking turf in the bogs of Offaly. I wonder what the CIA made of that! It was a laugh.

Irish pub poker reminded me why I fell in love with this game. The only harsh words between Fitzy and me were after a trip to a place called Mountmellick. Where? Exactly. At about 3 a.m., I was making a speech explaining Killarney. Twenty guys stared vacantly at me. I might as well have been teaching them how to make a bomb using only a toothbrush and a can of beans. I tried again. No improvement. Any questions? A guy held up the brochure. Can I take the magazine home? You can take the whole lot for all I care! (Ok. maybe those weren’t the exact words I used.) I spent the journey home cursing Fitzy about another wasted day I’d never get back again. Three weeks later in Killarney, Fitzy tapped me on the shoulder and told me five of the Mountmellick lads had shown up. I felt like a proper idiot. Two of them cashed! Nice one Padraig.

partypoker has certainly got the message home to the grassroots players in Ireland. It’s about them. If that was just a sales pitch, it wouldn’t take the Irish too long to figure it out. The party people on the ground at Grand Prix events have done great work in building a genuine sense of community and have had great craic while doing it and the service staff have been great. It’s nice to deal with a person who is going to tell you how they’re going to do something rather than tell you why they can’t.

This month, the Grand Prix tour arrives in Athlone, the capital of the Midlands. Who’d have thought that was going to happen? Athlone is a party town with music everywhere. The venue is the marvellous Radisson Hotel. There’s a buzz around the Midlands you wouldn’t believe. If you fancy joining us you’ll love it. But don’t come into town too cocky. Remember A.C. Milan.

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