jeudi 6 août 2009

The Hardest Working Man in Business

Un mois après sa publication sur papier, mon article pour Bluff Magazine est disponible sur leur site Web. Voici le texte original, long de 3,062 mots, que j'avais envoyé à Matthew Parvis le 15 juin dernier - pour ce que j'en sais, il n'a guère été modifié avant son impression sur six pages. Comme je ne dispose pas des photos accompagnant l'article (montrant le héros de l'histoire au volant d'une décapotable en compagnie de mannequins fort peu vétus), je me suis permis d'ajouter quelques clichés tirés de ma collection personnelle. Comme à chaque fois que j'écris en anglais, l'article a directement été rédigé dans la langue de Shakespeare. Je ne dispose pas d'une version française, et je ne compte pas en faire une. Que les non-anglophiles ne m'en tiennent pas rigueur.



ElkY : The Hardest Working Man in Business

When I meet the hottest tournament player of the moment at the World Series of Poker, he has a day off. On the ESPN feature table, three players are fighting a fierce battle for the bracelet. It's the final table of the Ladies Event, and a 37-year old semi-pro named Lisa Hamilton is crushing the competition. There's clapping and cheering and screaming around the table : quite an enthusiastic crowd. Behind the rail, one of them is especially excited. «I met Lisa a few years ago during a $10/$20 game at the Wynn», says Bertrand Grospellier, most known under his nickname «ElkY». «She's the one who took me on my first trip to LA and the Commerce Casino. The day we got there, I won $50,000 in one session. I liked her ever since», he says, laughing out loud. Predictably, the agressive Lisa wins, and ElkY joins his friend to pose for the pictures, as happy as if he won himself. And he's been winning a lot lately. We take a seat at an empty poker table in the middle of the Amazon Room and start the interview.

Of the five and a half million dollars the Frenchman has accumulated playing live tournaments over the last three years, not much have been won in this room. The closest he came to a bracelet was in 2007, when he final tabled a $2,500 No-Limit Hold'em event. But his performance there was subpar, to say the least : ElkY busted his short stack a few minutes in, reraising all-in with rags to be the first player out. «It's true that so far I've never done well at the Series», he admits. «But with the size of the fields and the type of opponents you're facing, there's obviously a lot of variance involved. But I'm confident I will get there...»

Already having European Poker Tour and World Poker Tour titles under his belt, ElkY makes no secret of his goals this summer : he wants to complete the trilogy with a WSOP gold bracelet. After all, Gavin Griffin was the only «Triple Crown» winner at the time of our interview, though Roland de Wolfe achieved the same feat one week after our talk. Financially, ElkY has no worries, considering his sponsorship with PokerStars and a solid position on top of France's all-time winnings leaderboard. He is after the glory. «I want to leave a mark», he says, «and be recognized as the best tournament player of my time.»


Deep dans le Main Event des WSOP (juillet 2009)

ElkY always had this competitive spirit. In the early 2000's, he made the risky, remarkable decision to move to South Korea to pursue a career as a professionnal video games player. At the time, he just graduated from high school and was accepted in an advanced mathematics school. But after only a few days of classes, he knew he wasn't cut out to be a student. «I always had good grades in school, but sitting in a classroom just didn't seem as interesting as playing video games. During my last year in high school, I was playing Starcraft pretty much all the time. My good friend Guillaume Patry [a Quebec player who also turned to poker later] was making a living out of it in Korea, playing sponsored televised tournaments. I told myself, if I don't give this a try, I will regret it all my life. I never wanted to live a normal life, anyway.»

And there he was, taking his very first gamble, leaving France at the age of twenty and diving into an entirely new culture. «At first, it was easy because all of my online friends were there for a big tournament, but after they went home, I was on my own, save for Guillaume.» ElkY had to adapt, and learn a new, difficult language. «Moving there was a struggle, definitely. Korea has a way more competitive society than most European countries. And in Starcraft, every player was working on their game twelve hours a day. So I had to push harder and put in even longer hours to rise to their level.»

ElkY's hard work paid off, and soon he became a highly respected player in a country where Starcraft players were akin to celebrities. That was ElkY's first taste of fame, complete with striking attire that included bright pink hair draped down his shoulders and eccentric clothes (evidence of this era can be found on Youtube). When asked about his past questionnable fashion choices, ElkY scoffs : «Yeah, I guess I wanted to be noticed. Just as it is with poker now, it was important in Starcraft to have a distinguishable look, to get the attention of the sponsors.» Today, ElkY's tastes still bend on the flashy side but a bit more casual. He remains a geek but a modern one, sporting dyed blonde hair and wearing designer jeans and Christian Audigier diamond-incrusted T-shirts, looking cool in a society that no longer views geeks as uncool.

In Asia, ElkY achieved what few Westerners had done before him : he was accepted by his peers as one of their own, beating them at their own game through sheer hard work. Better than that, he had fallen in love with the place. «My six years in Korea were nothing but an absolute blast», he recalls. «Being a young guy in Seoul, there were so many things to do and people to meet. As soon as I was at ease with the language, I got to learn that Koreans are very open-minded people, and I forged lots of great friendships there.»

But soon another game captured his attention. «The Starcraft players were just getting better, and I the game itself started to get somewhat repetitive, no to mention it was difficult to make a lucrative career out of it. Many of my friends were starting to play poker online, like Hevad Khan, Eric Liu, and Ryan Daut. I signed up on PokerStars at the end of 2004 and got $20 transferred to my account.» That was the beginning of ElkY's second life. He was only 24.


Club Poker Radio (janvier 2008 - photo : Laurent Dumont)

Predictably for this natural-born gamer, ElkY quickly became addicted to this new online activity. «I blew my first bankroll, then put down another $200 and proceeded to put it all on one table», he laughs. Right from the start, he was over-agressive. «I wouldn't listen to any advice, raising Queen-Ten offsuit under the gun, those kind of plays. After a while, I had to start listening.» The day ElkY won a thousand dollars in one day of mouse-clicking, he knew he would have a hard time looking back.

ElkY tells his story in his trademark rushed sentences. But today, he doesn't seem to be in a hurry. He could already be with Lisa celebrating her victory, yet he keeps talking, not even looking at his cellphone, which is buzzing every five minutes. Despite knowing him for two years through the poker circuit, I can honestly say that I don't know him that well. But I'm not the only one. ElkY remains a mystery, even to close friends. «I don't think anybody ever met the real ElkY», says one of them.

A nice guy, always friendly, and devoid of any ego. A rarity in this business. Success hasn't changed him, it seems. His devotion to the game he loves makes him complicated and prone to staying a private person. One thing I can say for sure : the guy I'm talking with today is definitely not the same person that I first met in 2007.

At that time, ElkY was not yet a poker celebrity. A year prior, he had landed a PokerStars contract after famously becoming the first player ever to reach Supernova status, a feat he accomplished in only two weeks. He was making a few scores and was under the poker spotlight for the first time on the live circuit after a painful runner-up finish at the Copenhagen EPT stop. The talent was already there, a mixture of relentless agression and spectacular reading skills. But it was still raw. And one thing was missing : bankroll management. «When PokerStars launched the Supernova Elite status, I played like crazy for days and nights, multi-tabling turbo heads-up SNG's to be the first to reach the status», he confesses. «I wasn't going to bed. It cost me a lot.»

That lead to a disastrous Sharkscope graph that still generates talk on the Internet forums (though ElkY will quickly point out that the he made some of the losses back simply by achieving Elite status.) But for all intents and purposes, ElkY was nearly broke after the '07 WSOP, staying afloat only with the money he could borrow from a few helpful friends and a lucky 10% stake in another friend who had won a bracelet that summer. Worse, perhaps, ElkY was getting out of shape physically. Junk food and lack of exercice took their toll on his body, and peaking at 210 lbs, he was coming dangerously close to looking like the stereotypical lazy online poker player. ElkY was off track. Something had to be done before he fell into obvilion.

As happens often in this bizarre poker universe, the motivation for change came with a proposition bet. «A few friends bet me I couldn't lose 50 pounds in three months. Quickly, other people joined in, and before I knew it, I stood to make $75,000 if I managed to pull it off. I was risking double that amount. I simply couldn't lose that bet.»

Enter Jacques Zaicik, a man who came into ElkY's life at the perfect time. He met the 56-year old Parisian entrepreneur while playing the WSOP, and an odd friendship quickly formed between the two men separated by almost thirty years. Jacques was just getting started in poker and was seeking strategic advice. What ElkY was looking for, probably unconsciously, was some guidance in life. «He's a genius, no doubt about that», says Jacques, clearly fond of someone he now claims to love as much as his son. «But let's be honest : like most geniuses, ElkY is not well suited for the real world. Filing tax papers, negotiating contracts, arranging publicity... He needed someone to take care of that.» Pretty soon, mentor and protegee were travelling together. Jacques helped him with the weight-loss bet, finding a diet specialist and monitoring his progress. By the end of the year, a new ElkY was looking at himself in the mirror. He liked what he saw. And he won his bet.

A week later, ElkY arrived in the Bahamas fresh and ready to play the 2008 PokerStars Carribean Adventure, a tournament with a reputation as one of the toughest on the circuit, mostly comprised of experienced young online grinders. After five days of exhausting competition, ElkY was crowned a champion in front of his online peers gathered around the televised table. He banked $2,000,000 for the win. Success was his. It remains to this day the proudest moment of ElkY's poker career. And it would be the start of one of the fastest and most epic runs ever witnessed in tournament poker history.


Consécration aux Bahamas (janvier 2008 - photo : Chris Hall)

Because ElkY was hungry for more. His first major poker title sent him on a hunt for the next one. Sensing a connection between his performance and his new-found health consciousness, he wanted to go further. Through a mutual friend, he met Stéphane Matheu, a former APT-ranked tennis pro who became his trainer and manager. Matheu, 36, left France for Las Vegas in 2000 to train the UNLV team. He stepped into the poker world after giving tennis lessons to Gus Hansen. ElkY and Matheu quickly became friends. «I had a rocky start training ElkY», he says with a smile. «I was used to deal with true athletes, and he wasn't used to exercise.»

Yet ElkY was willing to put in the hours, convinced that staying in shape would help him focus at the poker table, play through long sessions with ease, and increase his self-confidence. The two started working out. «We trained every day. It's amazing how quickly he was able to adapt», says Matheu. «His progress has been spectacular. I'm really proud of him.» Fourteen months after the intensive training began, they now have an established routine. A typical week for ElkY includes two or three sessions of weight-lifting, one intensive treadmill run, and during the WSOP, several hours of kickboxing with Dewey Cooper, a Las Vegas K-1 boxer. Save for a few days off, ElkY wakes up at 8:00am nearly every day.

As ElkY had hoped, this new balance in life made things click almost right away at the poker tables. The rush that started with the PCA win never quite stopped. In May, ElkY came back to his homeland to reach 5th place at the Grand Prix de Paris. At the '08 WSOP, he cashed in the Main Event and reached the last two tables in a $5,000 event. After an impressive WCOOP performance on PokerStars, he came back to Vegas four months later to make his first real impression on the American audience. ElkY's performance at the $15,000 Festa Al Lago WPT Event might well be the most impressive display of domination over a final table ever witnessed during a televised tournament. Having mastered short-handed turbo play during years of online training, his five opponents had no chance. He didn't miss a move, didn't fail a read, and hit the right cards to claim an easy win, his first WPT title and more than $1,400,000.

And it wasn't over yet. In January of 2009, ElkY returned to the Bahamas to defend his PCA title, and though he failed to go back-to-back, the disappointment easily disappeared when he won the $20,000 High-Roller the same week. Then came the Deauville EPT a few days later for another High-Roller final-table appearance. NBC Heads-Up Championship was next; there he proved to be an accomplished one-on-one player by reaching the semi-finals. And when ElkY played the biggest WPT tournament of the year at Bellagio in April, only a bad beat prevented him from finishing higher than third place. In just eighteen months, he went from being an above-average online player to a TV superstar.


EPT Live à Barcelone (septembre 2008 - photo : Jomannix)

Indeed, ElkY put in the hours, on and off the felt, raking up frequent flyer miles faster than Frequent Player Points thanks to a sick traveling schedule and contractual obligations with PokerStars. A typical month might see him fly from London (where he now lives) to Vegas, only to fly back to Europe a week after for an EPT, then back again to the US for another tournament immediately after busting out. A five-year artist VISA for US travel, which was obtained by the WPT, came in handy for the repeated trips. But it has its rewards because ElkY is currently sitting atop the Bluff Player of the Year leaderboard. He intends to stay there, giving himself as many chances as possible.

While the concept of eating healthily and staying in shape isn't exactly a novelty in poker – everyone seems to be going to the gym and eating fruit salads at the table these days – ElkY clearly took it to another level, making a challenge of it and perhaps becoming the first true athlete of poker. Whether it was moving to a new country, working his video game skills until exhaustion, or becoming the best tournament poker player in the world, the man always liked a challenge, and staying healthy is no different.

It's hard to argue with the results. «Obviously, one of the main differences between sports and poker is the luck factor, which plays a big part in tournaments», explains Matheu. «Poker is getting tougher and tougher everyday. It's all about getting any small edge you can find.» This is why Matheu, in addition to train ElkY, also acts as his manager and agent. «The main goal is that ElkY has nothing else to worry about besides sitting down at the table and playing his best poker.» And it goes even further than that. «After each tournament, we review his overall performance», he continues. «I'm no poker expert, but I listen – which is important, and I lead him to reflect »

But of course, there's a price to pay for all of that. It's clear that ElkY had to make a few sacrifices along the way, a bit like a young soccer or tennis prodigy would have to do at a young age. When researching for this story, I talked to a handful of friends who are missing the «old» ElkY : «We don't see him much nowadays.» He'll admit that he mostly retired from the partying that had been customary at a time. ElkY now runs a tight ship, dedicating his life almost entirely to his poker goals.

So I ask him the obvious, perhaps silly question : Is ElkY... happy ? «I work a lot, but I still have a lot of time outside poker to hang out with Cathy, my girlfriend. And I'm about to take a vacation with my good friends Hevad Khan and Dan Schreiber. We're all going back to Korea !»

Is there a life beyond poker ? For once, ElkY pauses and hesitates before giving an answer. «I'm not sure... I'm too old now to make it as an athlete. I'm really excited about the upcoming sequel to Starcraft. I might take a month off to see if I can still be competitive at it. I also wanna do something with the money I won, too.» He says it would be cool to own a Dom Rebel store, or a Nobu restaurant - his favorite hangouts in Vegas for shopping and eating. ElkY's future is pretty much open, he assures. «If I ever get sick of poker, I'll quit right away.»

But so far, at ease in a world he conquiered, ElkY has it good, and he's not going anywhere. He's a star. He's got the recognition and the millions. He has a tight circle of good friends around him and a supportive girlfriend on his side. He will be thirty in two years. As the French say, «un esprit sain dans un corps sain.» A healthy mind in a healthy body. Maybe that's simply maturing.

***

L'article comprenait aussi un encadré regroupant des citations tirées de mes entretiens avec trois des meilleurs amis d'ElkY dans le milieu du poker :

Eric Liu : "ElkY is the kind of player who's gonna sit at the table, watch you play a few hands, and proceed to call you down with King-high, then lay down a set to you the next hand. Both times, he'll be right."

Arnaud Mattern : "His lack of fear and ability to make quick decisions and to adapt to any situation makes him a natural born poker player. He likes big challenges and will consistently keep rising among the poker ranks."

Hevad Khan : "With ElkY, nothing else than victory is acceptable. He's been able to overcome the frustration that comes playing tournament poker with hard work, focus and dedication. He wants to win more than most, and that's why he did."

***

Et, pour compléter, j'inclus aussi la "byline", le petit texte de présentation de l'auteur qui figure à la fin de l'article :

From Lille, France, Benjamin Gallen has been busy covering poker tournaments around the world since 2005. He's the reporter for Winamax and the French commentator the European Poker Tour live broadcast. A special thanks also goes to Jennifer Newell for her help during the editing process of this piece.

9 commentaires:

Rom a dit…

Salut Benjo,

J'ai une petite question qui n'a rien à voir avec l'article, tu ne ferais pas partie de la "Bada Bing Team" par hasard ?

A+

Benjo a dit…

Négatif. C'est quoi ?

Rom a dit…

En fait je matais un épisode des Sopranos, et c'est une team qui sous titre les épisodes et dans cette team tu as un Benjo, comme je sais que tu es un grand fan de la série et que ton anglais est très bon, je me suis dit que ça pouvait être toi !

Benjo a dit…

C'est bien moi. J'ai travaillé sur les saisons 5 et 6, je crois.

Anonyme a dit…

Merci pour l'article.
Comme quoi, le travail paye, que ce soit pour l'auteur ou le sujet de l'article :)
Bouba95

aldanjah a dit…

nice interview benjo !

Nicolas a dit…

Surprenant,

Je connaissais la réputation d'ElkY sur Starcraft, j'ai connu la frustration de la communauté mondiale lorsque l'on a appris son départ vers le Poker...

Mais jamais je n'aurai pensé qu'il puisse devenir aussi bon.

D'ancien nerd nolife pro-gamer @Sc:bw, il a atteint le rang de superstar du Poker.

Respect.

Anonyme a dit…

Moi je dis respect à Benjo pour cet article super bien écrit.

Tristan a dit…

Yo Benco!

super bien écris ton article, je t'avais presque jamais lu en anglais et je suis soufflé, nice job!