‘ElkY’ has spent the last three years tearing up the online and live poker scenes
It’s July 1, 2009, just two days before the WSOP Main Event gets under way. I’m sitting in the lounge bar of Simon – one of the Palms Hotel’s most salubrious bar-restaurants, waiting for the man they call ElkY.
Casting surreptitious glances at the bronzed hardbodies reclining by the pool, I spot a tall, pale guy with platinum-blonde hair – completely incongruous among the preppy Americans – making his way through the bar. Wearing a garish Christian Audigier T-shirt (de rigueur for poker’s nouveau riche) Bertrand Grospellier draws a few looks from the patrons. But then, he’s always been the kind of guy to stand out from the crowd.
In the space of three years Grospellier has gone from videogame hero in Korea to poker superstar across the world, winning EPT and WPT titles, accruing nearly $6m in live tournament winnings and setting records both on and offline. It’s a truly astounding run of form that has propelled him right to the top of the poker tree.
Like many other famous poker players – Hevad Khan, Ryan Daut, Eric Liu – Grospellier’s route into poker came through videogames. Rewind to the turn of the millennium and you’d have found Grospellier playing videogames round the clock in his native France. A hardcore gamer, Grospellier knew he wanted to make a living holding a control pad, and spotted the opportunity, aged 20, in South Korea. ‘When I heard it was possible to make a living in Korea,’ he says, ‘I gave it a shot and moved there when I was 20. I stayed there for six years as a professional videogamer.’
Gaming in Korea is big business and reaches fanatical levels, with online players contesting big tournaments for juicy prizes. For Grospellier, it was a no-brainer, despite the upheaval. ‘It was a little bit scary at first but it was the only way I could make a living doing what I love to do, so I had no choice.’
He needn’t have worried about the culture clash. Within the space of a few months he was earning tens of thousands of dollars a month and became a gaming demigod in Korea, quickly ascending to the top of the StarCraft-playing fraternity. Sporting a dyed-orange, mop-like haircut and very pale complexion – presumably from never seeing daylight – Grospellier, or ElkY as he was now known (a name given to him by the Koreans who couldn’t pronounce his real name), quickly reached legendary status, coming second in the World Cyber Games in 2001 and fourth in 2002.
Then, one day in 2004, a friend in Korea introduced him to online poker, just as the Moneymaker effect was kicking in. He signed up to PokerStars, using his StarCraft name ElkY, and quickly became absorbed by his new venture. As ElkY says, ‘I loved poker because some of the concepts are similar [to StarCraft] and it’s a fun game to play. But poker gave me more freedom and was a new challenge.’
Initially, as so many of us do, ElkY blew his first bankroll, barely knowing the rules and lumping the whole lot on one table only to see it disappear in a matter of minutes. But as with any challenge ElkY accepted, he wasn’t about to give up. With the same tireless dedication and will to win that he’d already shown in the e-sports world – not to mention the lure of the money he could make playing poker – ElkY set about boning up on Texas Hold’em. ‘At the very beginning I played cash,’ says ElkY, ‘but then I moved into sit-and-gos and tournaments and I tried to learn all these different aspects.’
And it was the humble sit-and-go in fact which helped forge ElkY’s reputation and gave him his big break. When PokerStars announced it was going to launch a new VIP level, called Supernova, he was desperate to be the first man to make the grade. Why the interest? ‘The challenge I guess. I saw it was coming out and the excitement about it, so I really wanted to do it. And sit-and-gos were the fastest way to do it.’
Everything ElkY does is about reaching the top first, being the best at whatever he enjoys doing, and rising to any challenge he sets his mind to. Becoming Supernova was just that sort of obsessive-compulsive aim, as he multi-tabled around the clock and became the site’s first Supernova player, earning 100,000 VPPs in just two weeks.
By now his game was coming on in leaps and bounds and on the back of his VIP status PokerStars began sponsoring him in some live events, which led to a big change in his life. ‘I started doing well in tournaments,’ enthuses ElkY, ‘I won five seats for the 2006 World Series and PokerStars sponsored me for some events. I was playing some EPTs, and it was just too far to travel back and forth every other week between Europe and Korea. So I decided to move to London.’
It was about this time – in early 2007 – that PokerStars announced it was introducing an even higher VIP level – Supernova Elite. You can guess ElkY’s reaction… ‘I so wanted to become Supernova Elite but it was much tougher [than Supernova]. Some people I was competing against had the chance to stay at home all day and play while I was travelling all over the world for tournaments.’
But despite his hectic schedule ElkY got there first, racking up 1,000,000 VPPs in four and a half months. By the end he dropped a bundle on some ultra-high stakes heads-up matches (see ‘Record Breaker’ boxout, right) but the hard work more than paid off as ElkY became a Team PokerStars pro and etched his name in the online poker history books.
The live arena
Up to the start of 2007 ElkY was still, for all intents and purposes, an online player, but he realised winning live tournaments was his next big challenge. ‘Live tournaments are important because that’s where you get the fame and the spotlight, so I really tried to do well in tournaments when I got sponsored,’ says ElkY.
But it didn’t go according to plan in the early stages. He did notch up a second-place finish at the EPT Scandinavian Open in January 2007 for $400k, but judging by his disgusted reaction (see tinyurl.com/n2w9jg) in a brutal hand at the end when he held trip twos against a rivered boat, it was a hollow victory. ElkY never settles for second best.
Then came the 2007 World Series, where he managed three modest cashes, and shortly after a fifth-place finish at APPT Macau, but he was hardly setting the poker world alight.
Figuring he had to do something to turn his fortunes around, he turned to an unusual source – a 56-year-old fellow Frenchman and successful businessman named Jacques Zaicik who he’d met in Vegas at the World Series that summer. The two struck up an unlikely friendship that transformed ElkY’s life. ‘I met [Jacques] in 2007 in Las Vegas, and we steadily became friends,’ says ElkY. ‘He was just starting out playing poker, but he was a successful businessman in Paris and he helped me a lot outside of poker.’
The older man became a mentor to ElkY, helping him with life away from the baize, from sorting out his travel arrangements and finances, to organising a diet and fitness coach for the increasingly out-of-shape Grospellier. Hours of sitting on his bum playing poker had taken its toll, so ElkY set up a $75,000 prop bet to lose 50lbs in three months. And sure enough, by the end of 2007 he’d shipped the excess weight and was looking to make major headlines in 2008.
Happy New Year
It didn’t take long for the hard work to pay off. In probably his finest tournament success to date ElkY made the trip to the Bahamas in the first week of January 2008 and took down the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure EPT event for $2m. It’s a win that clearly ranks highly among ElkY’s list of achievements: ‘I think the PCA has been the most important for me because that was the biggest field and it was full of online players, and I started playing online, so it was important for me to triumph. It is my biggest accomplishment.’
Although well known before the victory, the PCA win sent ElkY’s profile soaring. He was now headline news in every poker magazine and became one of the new darlings of the forums. But he didn’t stop there – it was time to take things one step further. ElkY embarked on a quest to get himself truly into shape with the help of a former tennis coach named Stephane Matheu. He sits behind ElkY now as I conduct the interview and it’s clear the two are inseparable, having forged a great working relationship.
When I ask him about what his coach and agent does for him, ElkY can’t praise his friend enough. ‘He’s my fitness trainer, my coach – he kind of does everything for me. He helps me a lot outside of poker. I find it so much easier because I don’t have to worry about everything else. I can play my A-game, my best game, when I don’t have to worry about some kind of reservation, some kind of deal or business or whatever. I’m just really focused on the poker so he’s very important.’
And what about the fitness regime? ‘I train three or four times a week, and do some kickboxing. I’m generally just trying to stay healthy and in shape. If you’re in better shape physically, then you can stay focused for a longer time and not make so many mistakes.’
Since his PCA win ElkY has been on a heater, making scores of final tables, winning several events, pocketing millions of dollars and becoming arguably the most consistent and frightening NLHE tournament player in the world. In October 2008 he locked up his first WPT title for $1.4m when he decimated a final table that included Nam Le and Nenad Medic in a ridiculously fast time. ‘It was very quick,’ he says. ‘Everything was perfect – I had all the chips, I was in good situations and some people were waiting for pay jumps.’
He followed that with a return to the PCA in January, where, despite busting out of the main event before the money, ElkY aced the high roller event for $433,000. Two weeks later he almost repeated the feat in his home country, coming third at the high roller event at EPT Deauville, before making the semi-finals of the NBC Heads-Up in March and then final-tabling the $25,000 WPT World Championship in April for a $776,245 payday. In 2009 it seems like barely a month has passed without ElkY final-tabling or winning an event – a truly incredible run of form which led to him being named WPT Player of the Year for the tour’s seventh season.
So what’s left for ElkY? What challenges are out there for him to conquer? Well, if you were nitpicking, his CV is noticeably light of WSOP cashes, and that all-important bracelet. As I sit opposite him now I can tell he’s a little disappointed with three cashes and a return of just $75,000 from 14 events this Series. His tone is a little more sombre as he says, ‘It hasn’t gone so well but I still have the Main Event. The [WSOP] doesn’t fit my style – I like the events which last much longer, like the EPTs, because they last for a week and there are a lot of chips. It gives opponents chances to make huge mistakes and you can wait for really good spots to put your money in. [In some of the WSOP events] when you start with 3,000 chips, after two hours the blinds are 50/100 and if you don’t get a big hand you are really forced to gamble – it’s a much harder situation I guess. I try to adapt but it’s much higher variance.’
So how does he reckon his Main Event will go? ‘I love the WSOP Main Event – it’s my favourite one because you have two-hour levels and the structure is really good. I can play my game and don’t have to go all-in for a while…’
His words nearly proved prophetic. Just days after we spoke, ElkY was sitting atop the chip leaderboard in the WSOP Main Event going into Day 4. Having amassed nearly 1.4m, more than 400,000 more than the player in second place, he remained in contention on Days 4 and 5, but a spectacular implosion on Day 6 saw him bust out in 122nd place for a $40k cash. It was hardly the ending he or many of the railbirds expected after having such a commanding chip lead.
ElkY might yet rue the great chance he let slip through his fingers this year, but if there’s a challenge out there he’s determined to complete, you’d be a fool to think it’s beyond his reach. The Main Event and a World Series bracelet will have to remain on the ‘To Do’ list for the time being.
As I wrap up the interview I ask him about his future plans and what fresh challenges there are for him. ‘I don’t know whether I want to play forever,’ he says, ‘especially with travelling which is tough. But I’m feeling good right now, and I really have a chance to do something in the poker world so I’ll keep on playing. But if one day I get too bored – if I wake up in the morning and don’t want to play any more – I’ll stop.’
I smirk and say, ‘I can’t imagine that’ll be any time soon.’ He just smiled and shakes his head.
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