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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS no shortage of high-profile players from England and other European countries in the Aussie Millions no-limit hold'em tournament at the Crown Casino, Melbourne, last month.

But when it got to the televised stage of the event and we were down to the last six of a field of 263, only one European remained. And the question most spectators were asking was: "Who's he?"

The young Irishman Stephen McLean had not taken part in any of the warm- up competitions and had appeared on the scene only a couple of days before the blue riband event. He had been backpacking around Australia for six months with his girlfriend Roisin, roughing it around the country and staying in cut-price hostels.

Not surprisingly, the A$10,000 (pounds 4,120) buy-in was a bit beyond his budget, so he needed to win a qualifying satellite to earn his seat - and win one he did, at the first time of trying, for just A$325, about pounds 120.

He celebrated his 24th birthday the following day by moving into the luxury five-star Crown Towers Hotel. While the two previous champions from England, Tony Bloom and Peter "the poet" Costa, fell by the wayside, the mystery backpacker survived the three days of play. And although he had short chips at the final, McLean hung on to finish in fifth place for a win of A$100,000 (pounds 43,000).

After collecting his prize money, it turned out that he was not the online novice that his opponents had assumed.

In fact, he probably had more poker experience than many of them, having been playing since the age of six in his native Ireland. "We only played for 2ps in those days," he said. He comes from a bookmaking family steeped in poker tradition. Both his grandfather Leslie, 70, and his father Allen are well known on the Dublin circuit. "When I was a kid I used to get up for school and find all-night games still going on," McLean said. He himself began playing tournaments at the city's Merrion Casino Club six years ago. "I had been targeting this event for a year," he claimed. "I had my mind set on it and I was determined not to leave empty-handed."

Stephen also mentioned that there was another young McLean waiting to make a mark on the poker scene: "My sister Alison plays a pretty mean game," he said. "She's probably better than me - and she's only 14."

For the record, the Aussie Millions title went to New Zealander Jamil Dia.