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Team partypoker’s Louise Butler tells the story of Willow Connolly, Jenny Hegerty and the Irish Open. 

This year, partypoker Ladies are sponsoring the Irish Open Ladies Championship Event. I’m so excited about it! The Irish Open is one of the longest running and most prestigious poker events in the world and female poker players have an impressive and fascinating history in the event.

In fact, four Irish Open titles have been won by women. Colette Doherty won the inaugural event and repeated her success in 1991 and Irene Tier was crowned as champion in 1985. However, perhaps the most charming and memorable Irish Open female winner stories is that of Jenny Hegarty.

Jenny made headlines in 2001 as the 71-year-old Irish grandmother who beat a male dominated field that was stacked with professionals to be crowned Irish Open champion. Her story captured the imagination of a nation as she was featured in newspapers and on popular Irish radio shows. Her daughter, Willow Connolly, qualified for this year’s Irish Open via partypoker’s Golden Chip promotion and will be at the event trying to replicate her mom’s great achievement.

Willow is a decorated and extremely popular poker player herself. She kindly agreed to chat with me and tell me about her mom’s poker journey for the first part of this feature and about her own personal poker success in part two of this feature.

Jenny Hegarty: The Early Years

As a female pro I still get some funny looks from people when I tell them what I do for a living so I wondered how a lady of Jenny’s generation got into the game. Willow explained “Mam was a real lady that loved her poker. She was infatuated with poker from a young age. She would watch her father play, but her father frowned upon ladies playing poker so she wasn’t allowed to participate. Luckily, my father’s family loved poker and had regular house games and mam learned to play at these games”

Jenny had a terrific head for business and that helped her a lot in poker. By the time Terry Rodgers introduced Texas hold’em to Ireland in the early 80’s Jenny had already won the 5-Card Draw annual poker league at her local club. Back then, when Terry hosted the Irish Open it was geared toward giving Irish players a chance to win their travel and seat to the World Series of Poker. Jenny actually won one of the packages that Terry put up in the early days and negotiated a deal with Terry so she could bring five family members to Las Vegas with her on the trip of a lifetime.

Then the Griffen opened in 1986. “This was a new and exciting time for all hold’em players and mam was always the top of any leagues they ran in the Griffen. In fact, seven players from our family regularly played in the Griffen and there was almost always three of us in the top four of the leagues in the club.”

The fact that Willow’s family did so well in these games says a lot about their talent and skill. Regular players in the Griffen included the now partypoker ambassador Padraig Parkinson, Donacha O’Dea, Noel Furlong, Colette Doherty and Liam Flood!

“These were great days when the game was full of banter in Ireland”

Jenny Hegarty: Irish Open Champion

The 110-player field in the Irish Open in 2001 was tough. This was a big event before online satellites were around so most of the players were Irish, English and American players who were well versed in the game.

When Jenny went back to play the final day of the Open she was short-stacked with two tables left. There was a guy running a book at the time and he decided to give odds of 125/1 on Jenny to win. Jenny was a very popular and respected player and lots of the people knew she was more than capable of winning the event and put money on her. “The excitement as mam got closer to the final table was electric! Almost everyone had a few bob on her winning it! They put a bouncer on the door to make sure the bookie didn’t do a runner!” Only in Ireland!

When Jenny got to the final table, seven of the players sitting alongside her were top pros, but she didn’t let that intimidate her and went on to take down the title. Everyone was over the moon for her and the media loved her story. Within a few days “The press got in touch with her and top radio presenter Marian Finnucane had her on the radio. It was big news!”

The headlines of the newspapers read ’72-year-old Grandmother wins the Irish Poker Open.’

An Interview with Wilhelmine ‘Willow’ Connolly: Like Mother, Like Daughter

Irish Open

Willow is one of the most charismatic and welcoming people in the Irish poker community. She is the life and soul of many a player’s party and isn’t afraid to have a laugh and a brandy or two but she is also a serious and respected player. She finished second in the partypoker Grand Prix Cork last year for over €10,000 and is one of Ireland’s best satellite players. In fact, she almost always satellites into the Irish Open and has won lots of WSOP packages even though she only played the event once in 2007 since she normally prefers to take the cash! She also won the Irish Poker League in 2017!

This year Willow qualified for the Irish Open as part of the Golden Chip promotion in the Grand Prix in Cork. Willow would love to follow in her mom’s footsteps and take the tournament down. If Willow wins an Irish Open Championship Event Trophy in the ladies event or the main event, I think everyone in the Irish poker community would celebrate and be delighted for her!

Did your mother inspire and teach you to play poker?

Mam was truly inspirational to me as I watched and listened to her advice. Of course when I was younger I thought I knew best and I was more of a gambler but in time I realised that patience and determination are the key to winning tournaments.

What do you love most about poker?

I find playing poker relaxing and stimulating at the same time. I much prefer live tournament play to online although online can have some advantages.

How did it feel to win €10,000 at the Grand Prix in Cork?

I felt it was a great achievement to come second in Cork to outlast approximately 800 entries and of course win the Irish Open package. My family were all delighted for me and as it was Christmas time I was able to splash out on better presents for my family.

You had a lot of deep runs and wins in 2017, what is your secret?

To be honest I’ve had these runs before and it’s about the right moves working out for you at the time, but determination and patience are necessary!

Do you have any tips for women new to poker?

Don’t let the guys intimidate you! In general, ladies are smarter!

Who are you favourite Irish pros and why?

George McKeever is a real gentleman of poker and a finalist at the WSOP main event. He is still playing the circuit. Donacha O’Dea, Eoin O’Dea and Andy Black all have great qualities too.

Who are some of the best Irish female players you have played against over the years?

Colette Doherty is a legend. She is a top Omaha player in the Fitzwilliam at the moment! Irene Tier was a great Irish Open champion and Kay White was also a great character.

Have you made lots of friends playing poker and do you enjoy the player parties and social events?

I have made so many friends in poker it is unreal. I can travel to numerous casinos around Europe and I’m guaranteed to know some players!
I also still love to socialise with my own friends away from the poker scene.

You won an Irish Open Package as part of the Golden Chip Promotion in Cork, are you looking forward to the event and does playing it feel extra special to you given your impressive family history in the event?

I was delighted and determined to win the package when playing in Cork. I have won numerous Irish Open tickets-at least one every year for the last 12 years but I have yet to cash in it. Maybe this is the year! I got 6th in the mini Irish Open 2 years ago.

What are your poker goals and dreams for 2018?
Can you imagine such headlines as ‘Mother and Daughter take down the Irish Open Poker event’?

The 2018 Irish Poker Open Main Event kicks off on Wednesday 14th March and features a massive €1 million guarantee for a €1,150.

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