There are a lot of cute brunch places these days in Karlin, the area of Prague in which you’ll find the Hilton Hotel, home of the European Poker Tour. Not many of them were there 12 years ago when the PokerStars Live charabanc first arrived in the Czech Republic, but all areas of this city have developed and gentrified as it became one of Europe’s leading tourist destinations.
There’s one particular part of Karlin that has not changed at all in the same decade, however: the tournament room of EPT Prague. Every December since 2007, without exception, the same room on the same floor of the same hotel has welcomed several thousand poker players, knowing that they’ll get exactly the same thing (even down to the chairs that still screech across the floor in tortuous chorus throughout the day).
This room — officially the Hilton Prague Congress Hall — is now the longest-serving uninterrupted venue on the EPT. Though both Barcelona and Monte Carlo hosted EPT events before Prague, the location of the tournament room in the former has changed, while we didn’t go to Monaco in 2011, giving the Salle d’Etoiles a one-year break from the deluge of poker players.
But not so in Prague. From Arnaud Mattern through Paul Michaelis, every EPT champion has hoisted the trophy in the same room — as will this year’s champion in a couple of days’ time.
Against this backdrop of sturdy consistency, Prague feels like an appropriate venue to take a look at what has changed, and what has stayed the same, through 12 years in European poker. There’s no doubt, of course, that strategies have developed — min-raises and light three-bets; floats and GTO and solvers — but that’s the kind of thing best analysed from the table, rather than from beside it.
I’m more talking about the trends we can track from the sidelines. Here’s a quick look at how the EPT has changed down the years, viewed through the lens of EPT Prague.
VARIETY REMAINS THE SPICE OF LIFE
Prague invariably attracts the most cosmopolitan field of any on the European Poker Tour. The best represented country in this year’s Main Event field is France, but there were still only 87 French players here, which represents a little more than 10 percent of the 860-player field.
Although Russia and Germany as well as France have all been the best represented nation here, the dominance of one country never gets beyond around 13 percent. The nationalities pie chart, provided by our indefatigable media co-ordinators, is always a kaleidoscope of all but equal sized segments.
We looked into this in depth during EPT Prague Season 10, in 2013, in an attempt to unpick the secret of Prague’s popularity. “Prague is the heart of Europe,” said Ondrej Drebota, a poker consultant in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, at the time. “From every country among our close neighbours there is a direct connection to Prague. So the location is very, very important.”
It remains as true now as it was then, with players from 65 countries in this year’s field.
A MOVE FROM WEST TO EAST
The biggest EPT Prague Main Event came in 2014 and was won by Stephen Graner, of the United States. He won EPT Prague’s biggest ever first prize too: €969,000, to be precise. Graner remains the only American to triumph here, however, and it’s already certain that there won’t be another this time. The prospect of the Stars and Stripes rising above the EPT Prague tournament room again appear to be diminishing too. Fewer and fewer players from the United States are now making the trip to Prague, in one of the clear if surprising trends.
There were only 14 American players in this year’s main event field, down from 65 in 2014.
Americans in the EPT Prague field:
2014: 65 (6% of total)
2015: 48 (4.6%)
2016: 42 (3.5%)
2017: 21 (2.45%)
2018: 11 (1.2%)
2019: 14 (1.63%)
During the same period, there has been a clear upswing in player numbers from the Far East. There’s something of a quiet poker boom happening in China at the moment, and my prediction is that we see the first Chinese EPT champion sooner rather than later. At the same time, Malaysia is producing some top-quality players who are, counter-intuitively, cutting their teeth on the exclusive high roller circuit before migrating to the bigger MTTs. There were 28 Chinese players in this year’s Prague field, plus five from Hong Kong. Both those are record numbers. Similarly, the eight from South Korea, eight from Japan and three from Malaysia are also the most that those countries have ever sent to Prague. Two of them, Gab Yong Kim, of South Korea, and Wing Sang Lee, of Hong Kong, were making the deepest runs of their career.
Far Eastern players in EPT Prague:
2014 — China: 4; Japan: 3; Hong Kong: 1
2015 — China: 0; Hong Kong: 1; Malaysia: 0; Japan: 2; Taiwan: 2
2016 — China: 11; Hong Kong: 2; Taiwan: 1
2017 — China: 11; Hong Kong: 3; Malysia: 1
2018 — China: 21; USA: 11; Korea: 1; Singapore: 1; Taiwan 2; Malaysia: 3; Hong Kong 4.
2019 — China: 28; Japan: 8; Korea: 8; Malaysia: 3
STILL A MAN’S GAME
Through 12 years of enormous fields, only one woman has ever made a final table in the EPT Prague Main Event. It was Samantha Cohen, who came sixth in 2016. At time of writing, there are 30 players left in this year’s Main Event, and they are all men. Meanwhile, the €10K High Roller has about 40 players in it, all but one of whom is male. The only woman there, Gaelle Baumann, was one of only two to cash in the Main Event.
I’m afraid I don’t have any answers to this. And I wouldn’t be in a position to change things even if I did. But the absence of women from live poker events is shameful, and it’s disappointing too that some of the previous efforts to engage with women players have been abandoned. There are fewer and fewer ladies events on schedules, and there hasn’t been one at EPT Prague since 2016. It’s not that they weren’t popular either: there were 89 entries to the €200 buy-in event in 2016, won by Chrysi Phiniotis of Cyprus.
There was a time when young, modern poker players were castigated for their predilection for sunglasses and hoodies. The common gripe suggested it wasn’t fair if opponents couldn’t see a player’s face. I never really agreed with that in the first place, but even if you did, it’s not true any more. Sunglasses and hoodies are pretty much yesterday’s accessories.
With 60 players in the High Roller, only four were wearing sunglasses. Among 30 players in the Main Event, only two had a pair of shades, one of whom was Hossein Ensan. He is world champion and can do what he wants.
Poker players are just far better at everything these days, and don’t need to hide the fact. Don’t let any of the old timers tell you any different.