PokerMedia Australia Managing Editor Ben Blaschke speaks with Poker Palace’s Will Davies to find out what the popular Sydney poker room is doing to set itself apart from the crowd, including some big promotions (think WSOP in Las Vegas!) coming up this weekend and in the weeks ahead.
PokerMedia Australia: Life is starting to return to normal after the disruptions of the past two years. To what extent has normal programming resumed at Poker Palace?
Will Davies: I think we were pretty lucky in that Sydney was quite late to the party in terms of COVID, so we were only really closed for six or seven months and then we were able to reopen with restrictions in place. We had to introduce some new games like SNGs and shootouts but people had been stuck in the house and were desperate to get out, so we had a great response. And since then restrictions have eased and numbers have soared. We’ve been fully operational now for the past 18 months.
PMA: How has the response been from players so far since lockdowns ended?
WD: We’ve had three record series in a row in terms of every event in every series was the biggest it had ever been. That peaked in the series before last at $1.8 million [in prize money]. We have a lot of business owners … some businesses struggled through COVID but in other cases the owners worked from home and saved money, so I think a lot of people have chosen poker to spend that money on since reopening. The Star Sydney being closed for longer was also really advantageous for us too because the central Sydney and eastern suburbs guys began coming to our events.
PMA: The recent Autumn Champs was again highly successful. What were the highlights from your perspective?
WD: The first week of our series we always kick off with an $1,100 6-max. Because there is a lot of poker on at the moment, we find the first event of a series is a good indicator of how the rest of the series is going to go, so we satellited in somewhere between 25 to 30 people into that 6-max. It was a huge field, over 110, and a lot of those were satellite qualifiers, so we really focused on that first event to help us through the series.
The first week is always hard to judge. We had a $550 Warm-Up where we moved our estimate up from 100 players to 125, and we got 150 instead which was great. Then the second week, which we call our high stakes week, we had our $2.5K, our $5K and our $1,150 Main Event and those were all really good numbers. Our $2.5K had over 160 which was great – our high stakes players were really supportive. We are a high stakes room so to see those numbers was great for us given how many events are on at the moment.
PMA: Before we talk about what PP has in store over the coming months, for those who might not be from Sydney or aren’t familiar with the room, can you talk about PP, the team behind it and what you guys are looking to achieve?
WD: We’re a full-time, fully dealt poker room in western Sydney, at Bossley Park. The room is located in Club Marconi which was recently renovated and is a beautiful club. We are open five days a week with tournament buy-ins ranging from $175 being the smallest to the $1,100 Sunday high rollers. It’s a really nice room with 18 tables and is mainly run by the Tournament Director, Lauren [Mooney], who is also my partner and is vastly experienced in Europe and the UK. She has dealt and been TD on the GUKPT – which is the major tour in the UK – plus the Irish Open and EPT. She has a huge array of contacts, so whenever we need to run an idea through people there are plenty we can talk to. I think most people would say our room is the best run in Sydney because Lauren is the strictest. Strict but fair.
Then the owner is Rod [Meneses] who used to play part-time high stakes poker but also runs a few companies. He took over the room three years ago and he has been hugely supportive as our boss and has put an enormous amount of trust in us.
Then myself, I call myself the 2AD. I’ve been at Poker Palace for the past two-and-a-half years, I came in during COVID to help out, and Lauren has been teaching me. I used to play for a living for seven or eight years but I’m semi-retired and am focusing on the poker room, with the exception of a few events here and there.
Another big selling point is that we recently invested $25,000 on cameras so we have a state-of-the-art camera system over every single table throughout the whole room, the desk and everything. For security reasons, for high stakes games, we think that is super important because mistakes happen and we need the proof to determine what has happened. We even invite players to take a look if there is a dispute over chips. That’s a huge benefit of security and safety and trust in our room. It’s important for our high stakes players.
PMA: How does PP differ from other poker offerings in Sydney, be it The Star or the mid-tier tours that swing through?
WD: We are a high stakes room and we have used American and European structures. We were the first in Australia to bring in the Big Blind Ante, first to bring in Turbo flights for main events. Because Europe has some different philosophies and ideas around poker we have tried to implement them into our series, so we have unique structures and blind levels that others don’t have which allows for smoother tournaments and better averages nearer the money and on the final table. I think most people would agree we are the best in Sydney at that.
And we’ve built a really good database of high stakes players who we like to give back to. We don’t have the cash games that The Star does so we have to offer something different to get people to come. During our second week we offer free dinners, so there is a 40-minute dinner break and everyone goes upstairs to the Chinese restaurant or the Italian restaurant and we put the dinner on for everyone. We give out free ice creams and free waters to encourage people in the city to come out. It’s proving very popular.
PMA: You and I have spoken about one of your big frustrations which is scheduling clashes with other operators, including your recent Autumn Champs and APL Sydney. What is your primary frustration here?
WD: There is a lot of poker in Sydney now and a lot of the tours are coming into Sydney. Obviously clashes in different states are fine but when its high stakes and there is a clash it affects both companies, because there are just not that many players that can play both events. We work closely with the APT and with Bruno at WPT League to make sure we don’t clash. Unfortunately there are going to be times where maybe one day overlaps but we always try to communicate that with one another. It’s just planning in advance and having a clear line of communication which is of benefit to the operators and to the players who can plan ahead.
PMA: I guess that didn’t happen with APLPT Sydney recently which clased with your Autumn Champs. What would you like to see done to avoid these things happening again in the future?
WD: I understand that they are on the comeback with their tour and because it’s a shorter series, four days, I don’t think they realise the effect it has in Sydney where there are four or five operators. It just comes down to communication and making sure there isn’t a clash – unless the events offer a completely different buy-in range where the player base is different.
Obviously you don’t want to clash with big interstate events either, like WPT Gold Coast, because a lot of people are going to travel for that.
PMA: Looking ahead, PP has some pretty big promotions coming up. What’s on offer for players?
WD: At the start of this year we posted that we are doing a Las Vegas WSOP package, so we are giving away eight $10K packages and a $20K package, so we just gave away a $20K package for our Player of the Series and we’ve given away two $10K packages for our weekly leaderboards, so you get points for making the final table and that’s tiered up to first place over an eight-week period. The top two at the end both get a $10K package to Vegas, which is flights and accommodation – 10 nights in Bally’s where the WSOP is being hosted – plus $4,000 in cash.
We’re also going to have gift packs when they arrive and Lauren and I will be there as liaisons and sorting out dinner and drinks. We’re trying to get a really nice group of eight to 10 of us qualified through the Poker Palace. We’ll probably have a couple of Main Event satellites too and we know a couple of our regulars want to come over and join us anyway, which will be great.
This Saturday we also have a $20K guarantee which will see us give away two $10K packages again. It is $220 with an add-on and we hope to get a really great response from players
Then as of Tuesday we have just started a new weekly leaderboard which will run for seven weeks.
This Sunday we also have our $1K monthly high rollers, which we run once a month and has a $60K guarantee, so we are expecting a busy weekend.
PMA: Your quarterly championships have also proven hugely popular in the past. Can you run us through your thought process when putting these series schedules together and do you have any special plans for these quarterlies in the future?
WD: We always try and have a variation game so this past series we had two PLO games – a $330 and an $1,100 – which were both successful. In the next series we are going to run a $2K HORSE event. We’re looking into running a full week of mixed games, probably not in our next series but soon, because we have a lot of players that play in our room who are Hall of Famers and specialise in mixed games but there aren’t a lot of options for them in Australia. I know APT has a HORSE event but other than PLO there is not a lot available in this country. We are looking at flying some staff in so that it’s all run to the top level and we’d like to do that by the end of this year.
But we’re always making adjustments, like turning our $5K from a 1-day event into a 2-day event with the final table on the second day. We’re proud of that because we are the only property outside of the casino that has a $5K. We’ve run it four times now and every time has been over 50 players. We’ll also have a Player of the Series in the next series and will again chip in $10K of our own money towards that, because we like to give back to our players. It’s a real incentive for players that we are chipping in our own money.
PMA: You’re a highly accomplished player in your own right and of course won the WPTDeepStacks Gold Coast Main Event last May. Looking back on that event, what are your memories of your winning run?
WD: I went up late in the week to join a couple of friends. I don’t get that much time off but we saw it as a good opportunity to go and promote Poker Palace, play some poker and socialise with people.
The week wasn’t going that well – I played really poorly until the main. I entered late, I was alternate 180, but then I just spun it up. Day 3 was really good because we were down to 10 or 11 players left and there were a lot of guys from Sydney, from Poker Palace, there. I had huge support and it was a great community feel. Mike Maddocks, who came second, is really popular in Queensland so he had a huge rail as well and it was great to have so many people watching that final table. I was only playing to promote Poker Palace and it turned into a huge financial success.
PMA: And will we be seeing you on the felt much throughout this year?
WD: The WPTDeepStacks is coming to Sydney so I’ll play that but that’s about all I have planned. Because we have four series each year and we have a week of satellites before each one, we just have a lot of poker coming up at Poker Palace and I’m focusing on that really.