Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier: How I won the 2008 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure

ElkY’s amazing run of tournament success started at the 2008 PCA. The French phenom tells PokerPlayer how he broke through and his memories from the $2 million win…

He might now be one of poker’s biggest names, but at the start of 2008 Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier’s notoriety was still based on his roots as a StarCraft player, and the fact that he was able to turn his video gaming talent to online poker. ElkY demonstrated that he was able to put in an absurd amount of volume online by becoming the first player to reach ‘Supernova’ status on PokerStars but as a live player he was still playing catch-up. In 2007 he’d come achingly close to taking down an EPT in Copenhagen, but had fallen at the last hurdle to Sweden’s Magnus Petersson.
ElkY’s win at the PCA changed everything. The sheer scale and coverage of the tournament meant that global exposure was inevitable. Not only had he beaten a record 1,136-player field, containing the best players in the world, but he had also taken home the gloriously round (and large) sum of $2 million as first prize. Unsurprisingly, ElkY’s confidence in his game exploded over the following 12 months. In October he recorded another massive win – the $15k WPT Festa Al Lago for $1.4m – and at the 2009 PCA he took down the $24,500 High Roller event for $433k. ElkY readily admits that his poker career really took off after his 2008 PCA win – he tells us how he did it…

Keep it real

ElkY: I still have a lot of vivid memories from the PCA. It felt like a huge tournament and outside of the World Series it was the biggest main event I’d played at the time. I started playing online at PokerStars so it meant a lot to me and the win gave me so much confidence for the rest of the year.
In 2008 I was still looking for my first big win because I was crushed from coming second in Copenhagen the year before. I was chipleader going into that final table so I feel like I should have won the tournament. There’s a really big difference between first and second. When you get second, no one remembers you. It’s so important to win. I’m ready to take all the risks if it improves my chances of winning. I really wanted to win the PCA because it was the biggest one ever.
At the start of the tournament I played pretty loose preflop because I knew if I could flop something good I could stack the bad players. I kind of knew a big tournament win was going to come soon. All you can do in poker is be realistic – it’s important to play good but you can’t focus too much on one performance. If you play your best, keep improving and keep being objective about what went wrong or right in the tournament then sooner or later the cards will be in your favour.
I had a lot of friends there who came out on the trip with me. It definitely helped me a lot because there were some times when I lost key hands and I was not as confident as I am now. I was confident in my reads but I’d feel down if I lost a lot of chips.

Taming the dragon

I remember a lot of key hands. There was one where I was crushed on Day 4. Some guy raised, another player flat called and I three-bet in the small blind with A-Q. The first guy then went all-in. I’d been playing quite tight, but I knew he was pretty crazy and ready to lose. I called and he had J-10 suited. He hit a Jack. I was crushed and down to 15 big blinds. At the time I was really down but my friends were trying to cheer me up and telling me I could do it. I doubled up twice in a row with 9-9 and A-J to get back in it.
I went into the final table seventh in chips. The main threat was David ‘The Dragon’ Pham who had more chips than me. He was a huge favourite to win, but I was lucky enough to have position on him. Back then David Pham was one of the top 10 tournament players in the world. He was really aggressive when no one else was. He’s still a good player but he hasn’t really adjusted all that much in the past few years.
It’s funny because I did commentary a few months ago for PokerStars France and it’s crazy how the game has changed – everyone plays so different. Some of those moves I would never have gotten away with because everyone played so much more passively at the time. One guy didn’t have many chips and was flatting in the big blind with pocket Queens! At the final table I was raising to 2.5BBs and everyone else was making it 3xBBs or 4xBBs.

Funky moves

It was a huge celebration when I won because the PokerStars party was on the last day so it was really crazy. I spent $20,000 celebrating that night! It was the only big thing I bought with my winnings. I remember falling asleep at security at the airport because I’d barely got any sleep!
I played good in the PCA, but honestly I was running really well, I won all the key confrontations and I got good cards. But at the WPT Festa Al Lago I played very well and made good calls when I needed too. I never won a huge pot so I was very happy with the way I played there because I was able to stay in the tournament even when my hands were weak. The structure was very deep so I could really take my time, use my image and change gears.
Of course I make creative moves and big bluffs – you have to sometimes. It’s important to show people that you’re willing to go all the way. You have to mix it up a little bit. You also need to know which people you can bully and which people are so crazy that there’s no point trying. I don’t go crazy because I’m bored or something. I always try to do things at the poker table for a reason.
If I was playing with the skills I have now, with the players back then, for sure it would have been easier. I think the problem is that everybody is so much better now in 2013. The game is evolving so much all the time, and it’s always very challenging to stay on top. You can’t really rely on a basic game and hope to do well. You have to be bettering yourself all the time.

Media darling

I guess the money was life-changing, but not so much with my lifestyle. Instead it took away a lot of the pressure from me. It changed my confidence and the way I could play all over the world. I didn’t have much bankroll management before so it definitely helped a lot!
The media attention changed quite a bit but I was used to it because before poker I was getting so much attention from StarCraft. As time has gone on I’ve really learned to appreciate that – not because I want fame – but because it gives me a chance to give back to poker and to the poker community as the game has got a bad reputation recently.
Tournaments are even more fun now because I realise how much variance there is and how hard it is to run really deep. When I do it now, I appreciate it even more than in 2008. Back then I was running so good that going a few months without winning a tournament didn’t make any sense!

The hands that won the tournament

1. ElkY vs William Thorson
ElkY raises to 40,000 with K-J and Thorson calls with A-Q. The flop is 3-2-Q. ElkY bets 60,000, Thorson calls. The turn is A. Both players check. River is 5. ElkY bets 100,000, and Thorson folds. ElkY wins a 330,000 pot.
‘I bet the flop and he called. The turn was the A which I checked. I was ready to give up the hand because I thought he was going to bet. When he checked back on the turn, he definitely never has the King of diamonds. He could have a small diamond but it’s not that likely. The river was the 5 and now I think it’s a great spot to bet because when I check back on the  turn out of position it doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up, I could be checking sets or diamonds.
‘So my hand is most likely stronger in this spot. I think he’d have to give up weak diamonds too. I bet 100,000 and he tanked for a bit and folded. Nowadays I think he might call. My image was also better back then! He’s a really thinking player and knows about ranges and knows I’m able to value-bet light in that spot – I don’t need the K to bet.’
2. ElkY vs Hafiz Khan
ElkY and Khan are playing heads-up for the PCA title. ElkY raises to 400,000 with A-7, Khan calls with J-8. The flop is J-A-A and both players check. The turn is 3. Khan bets 300,000, ElkY re-raises to 850,000, and Khan calls. The river is 9. Khan checks, ElkY bets 1.1m, and Khan calls. ElkY wins the 4,740,000 pot.
‘This hand happened right after the break and I was winning every hand. I checked back the flop and raised the turn. He’d picked up a flush draw so he called. The river was a 9. He check-called another bet with J-8. I remember my friend Ludovic Lacay was on the rail and yelled “good call!” – Hafiz Khan was pretty pissed!’
3. ElkY vs Hafiz Khan
This was the final hand of the tournament. Elky raises to 400,000 with 8-8. Khan moves all-in with 9-3 and Elky calls. The board comes 2-5-7-4-4. Elky wins the 2008 PCA tournament.
‘I asked him how much he had and he starts stuttering and I thought, “whatever, I call”. It doesn’t matter how much he had because obviously he had nothing. He had 9-3! I think he had a gutshot on the flop and on the turn an open-ender but one card would have given me a higher straight. It was just the best feeling when the river came a brick. That moment is still really sharp in my memory.’

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