Breaking Down the Action:
  • Life in Lockdown
  • Slow and Steady Wins the Race 
  • An Industry in Flux
  • A Post-Pandemic Poker Change? 

Being a Poker Pro During a Pandemic and Why Unibet Want to Grow Online Poker Responsibly

For many live players, the Coronavirus pandemic was something of a problem. Many professional poker players had to adapt to the very different discipline of playing online poker. Some players, however, have always balanced a healthy mix of live and online action and former ultra-marathon runner Dara O’Kearney is one of them.

We caught up with the Unibet Poker Pro during the recent Unibet Online Series to speak about coping with a global pandemic as a professional poker player and how Unibet have tried to grow a sustainable player base by encouraging their customers to play responsibly.

Life in Lockdown

“A lot of sites looked at how they could just get as many players as possible and got it wrong.”

“When I go through a period of not playing poker very much, I miss it,” says O’Kearney, famed for being a Unibet Poker player who loves to play with players of all levels on the live tours that have welcomed players for many years all over the world. This week, the Irishman been taking part in the Unibet Online Series, which features between four and six events each and every night, and O’Kearney looks on his period as a hugely positive partnership for both him and his fellow pros David Lappin and Ian Simpson as well as the brand themselves.

“We came on board and it wasn’t long after Unibet had gone solo and wanted to build their own platform.” He says. “Right from the start, a lot of the talk went into how we could build a good ecosystem. A lot of sites at the time were just looking at player acquisition and how they could just get as many players as possible and a lot of sites got it wrong. They got the wrong type of players, they messed up the regular to recreational player ratio and completely messed their pools.”

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

As O’Kearney explains, while some of those sites in questions may have enjoyed some short-term growth, it didn’t last long. Unibet have a more long-term approach to growing their player base.

“Unibet will build more slowly and carefully but go for a more sustainable model. Unibet are benefitting from that steady growth and it would be good to see the industry as a whole taking that approach rather than directly competing for the top rakeback guys. The biggest companies are concerned with being number one. Unibet aren’t; they’re trying to build a good, sustainable platform for recreational players to play on.”

During the initial COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, O’Kearney and Lappin were bored and weren’t getting to meet other players at Unibet Open events, so came up with the idea of The Lock-In, a self-filmed shared video call which is then shared, warts and all, rather than being as neatly trimmed as the award-winning podcast The Chip Race.

Dara O'Kearney and David Lappin

Together, Dara O’Kearney (left) and David Lappin are the award-winning pair behind The Chip Race

“We put a huge amount of thought, editing and work into The Chip Race,” says O’Kearney. “This was just turning on our webcams and having a chat. As soon as we got the guests on, it has come into its own. There’s no editing, there’s no plan, we literally turn the cameras on and talk. I used to say that if anyone ever heard the unedited Chip Race tapes then no-one would enjoy it, but the reaction to The Lock-In has been very good.”

That’s an understatement. To date, fans across social media have loved the show that welcomes a guest onto the show without an agenda but often ends having covered several hot topics. There are plans for the series to continue even once the global pandemic has passed.

“We’ll keep it going, maybe every fortnight. Once we travel to live events, we might switch it to once a month, but people like the contrast of a show that is less prepared and edited. It’s more topical as well. The Chip Race shows are supposed to be more timeless. You can probably go back four years and while something will have happened to the guests in that time, but the interviews should be fairly timeless. The Lock-Ins are much more about what happened this week in poker and what we think about it.”

Dara O'Kearney with GPA Award

Unibet pro Dara O’Kearney holding aloft the Global Poker Award given to The Chip Race in 2018

An Industry in Flux

Poker has pulled through many seismic setbacks in the length of O’Kearney’s poker career, with Black Friday, the Full Tilt scandal and many other problems overcome on every occasion. O’Kearney’s pride that Unibet’s ethos is towards responsible gambling is in direct contrast to a previous sponsor, who the former ultra-marathon runner says were asking him to target those for whom gambling wasn’t an enjoyable pastime but a problem or an addiction.

“I think the industry has got a lot more responsible on the whole,” says O’Kearney. “Within the space, Unibet in particular place a huge emphasis on that. It’s not naked capitalism and we’re very happy with the general ethos of the company.”

“We’re in a period now where we’re trying to broaden the appeal of poker beyond a young, male audience.”

Another company that have come to the fore in recent years are partypoker, but as O’Kearney describes, while the ‘orange diamond’ branded site has got a lot right in trying to grow poker after the Amaya purchase of PokerStars, there have been missteps too.

“I remember when we were in Killarney, partypoker brought over the girls from Dusk Till Dawn and they had them parading around in what they wear. The response from the locals was really negative; They were like ‘These girls all look about fourteen, I feel like I’m looking at my daughter’s friends’. It really didn’t work in the context. They’d taken something that maybe worked in Dusk Till Dawn and didn’t translate. We’re in a period now where we’re trying to broaden the appeal [of poker] beyond a young, male audience. Unibet have always been very good with that.”

As O’Kearney says, Unibet’s remit is to allow recreational players to have a great experience no matter how the poker goes, win or lose. With poker parties that everyone is genuinely thought of in the marketing of and therefore a more enjoyable experience is guaranteed, Unibet Open events pre-pandemic weren’t just customer acquisition opportunities – they were there to keep regular players happy and pay a little back to the players.

“We had four live events a year and the same players would go to that. Some live events just show off their huge prizepool and all the famous players playing. I’m don’t know how much value that has in terms of building a sustainable online environment where everyone enjoys playing.”

O’Kearney and his co-host David Lappin recently spoke with Doug Polk as part of their YouTube series, The Lock-In.

A Post-Pandemic Poker Change? 

“The two types of poker, live and online had grown so far apart before the pandemic.”

Talk inevitably turns to what poker might be like after the restrictions on the industry aren’t so stringent. O’Kearney hopes that the game is quite different in both live and online spheres.

“Live and online had grown apart,” he says. “Online players played the same tournaments every night and enjoyed [their] routine. That’s not the way live players think. There are a few big events and they attend those. When the live events moved online, they saw that they might not play The Big 55 every night, but if we put on a series every six weeks and build up to it, then the numbers will swell. They’ve made online more like live poker again, built around big events and series rather than just the same offering every night.”

When poker returns, O’Kearney, who recently wrote a popular blog about what it takes to become a poker pro, thinks that some online festivals might linger. The situation that began at the World Series of Poker a few years ago, with the addition of online bracelet events alongside live bracelet tournaments, might become the norm.

“I can see the two running side by side, an online component and a live component. The two types of poker, live and online had grown so far apart before the pandemic. We had almost reached the stage where it was debatable how valuable live poker was to online sites. I think one positive long-term poker effect of the pandemic will be that a lot of recreational players have gone back to playing online and found they enjoyed it. The two worlds had grown apart and the pandemic has brought them together again.”

You can listen to Dara O’Kearney and David Lappin in the hugely popular The Chip Race on YouTube, or subscribe to The Chip Race podcast right here.

Next week, we’ll go deep with Dara O’Kearney on the subject of poker solvers, playing Texas Hold’em in Las Vegas and he’ll exclusively reveal the subject of the third poker strategy book he’s writing with Barry Carter.

Want more? Don’t miss out—stay up to date on the latest poker news.

Paul Seaton

Paul Seaton has written about poker for many years, travelling the world to report live from such poker events as the World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour and World Poker Tour. As well as reporting live from the felt, Paul was Editor of BLUFF Europe magazine and has written for major poker brands including PokerStars, 888poker and partypoker where he was Head of Media. Paul has interviewed many of the world’s greatest poker players, such as Sam Trickett, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth and Bryn Kenney, the current all-time money list leader.

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