We get under the skin of Bertrand Grospellier: “I think I’m a bit crazy but it helps with poker because it’s good for your image”

Betrand Grospellier’s fearless personality and playing style makes him one of the most exciting and successful figures on the poker circuit

When Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier speaks, his words flash and tumble out in a blur. His English is near perfect but the shroud of thick French accent in combination with his rapid-fire delivery doesn’t make it especially easy to understand what he’s saying. He is not only the fastest-talking poker player InsidePoker has ever met, he could be well be the fastest talking human we’ve ever encountered. We wonder whether he’s in a rush to be somewhere else. Laughing, he apologises and removes his black designer jacket, all black skulls and red graffiti – very much in keeping with the trend of the young poker player. ElkY admits that his faster-than-light delivery is simply part of his persona. To paraphrase Pulp Fiction’s Mr Wolf: he thinks fast and talks fast. ‘I like to live a fast life!’ he exclaims with a toothy grin.

He launches into an explanation about how he had to reign in that speed when he first started playing live poker. ‘I was making decisions too fast. I mean I still make fast decisions, but I think you can take more time in live poker because everything is so slow.’

As recently as four years ago, ElkY was known simply as a high volume sit&go player who used to be a demon video games player in Korea. Becoming the first player ever to reach the PokerStars Supernova Elite level brought him more notoriety and a lucrative contract with the site but for several years he found it difficult to shine in live play.

But ever since crushing 1,135 players in the PCA 2008 main event last January – when he took home a hefty $ 2m – his form has hit an entirely new and relentless level. In October, he won the WPT Festa Al Lago title – a performance which he rates as his best –  and three months later he was enjoying a half million dollar payday with victory in the High Rollers event at the PCA 2009.

ElkY’s rich run of form may seem to have come out of the blue, but for him it was inevitable. ‘I kinda knew it was going to come. I just kept practising my game and trying hard. 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.’ His tournament earnings now stand at over $ 4.7m (over $ 1m more than fellow countryman David Benyamine) making him far and away France’s most successful tournament player.

The 28-year old Frenchman starts to settle into a more relaxed rhythm of speech, pockets his mirrored shades and leans into the sofa. Satisfied that he’s not about to run off, we set about getting a unique insight into the man of the moment.

ElkY the Rock star

With poker now permeating every major continent on the planet, live events have become melting pots of different classes, cultures and personalities. And if you happened to be in Macau on day 1b of the APPT 2008, you would have seen that colour at its most vibrant. In homage to one of his favourite films, the Dark Knight, ElkY was fully made up as the Joker, replete with green hair, ice-white face and that unmistakable red tear across his mouth. ‘I love the movie and it was something cool to do. I always like to do something fun or interesting or cool,’ he laughs. ‘I guess it’s fun to party, fun to be the Joker.’

ElkY is renowned for being a party-animal and it’s a label that he’s happy to wear on his sleeve. ‘I really like to party and enjoy everything I can right now because you never know what’s going to happen in the future,’ he says. ‘You never know whether I’m going to love what I do later on.’

Girls figure highly on his interests when he’s not playing but he is trying hard to keep his business and pleasure separate. ‘I try to be smarter about it now – I don’t want it to affect my tournaments.’

Still, he believes that being perceived as being a crazy player with a rock star persona has done him no harm at the table. ‘I think I’m a bit crazy but it helps with poker because it’s good for your image. Sometimes you have to be unpredictable.’ He reveals how being ‘The Joker’ may have had that effect. ‘Some of the players played really bad against me actually.’

‘In live tournaments you can impress people more, they get scared more easily,’ he continues. ‘Of course you have to have a solid background game but once in a while you have to do something crazy. If you make a big call in a live tournament, it’s important for domination of the table – people don’t want to play with you. Sometimes you have to show people that you’re willing to go all the way.’

ElkY the Maniac

A prime example of ElkY’s willingness to take things to the wire came on the final table of EPT Copenhagen 2007. Down to four players, ElkY opened from the button with 7;-5: to 70,000. It was a standard play by the Frenchman and seeing as though the blinds and antes were worth over 30,000, it was a smart move – he was assured at least $ 170k but was angling for is the top prize of $ 700k.

It folded round to chip leader Richard Toth who cautiously peeled back the corners of his hole cards, revealing A;-J; and raised it to 116,000. Surely Elky would fold. A call was a possibility as he had position but in the commentary box the pundits implored him to throw his hand away. ElkY, however, re-reraised, swelling the pre-flop pot to over $ 400k. Both players checked the J-4-3 flop but ElkY continued his aggression on the Queen turn despite his own hand not improving at all and holding only a gutshot draw. Then a miracle 6 on the river gave ElkY an unlikely straight and he moved all-in. Toth called and was shell-shocked and very short-stacked. Surely these are the actions of an utter maniac?

According to ElkY, the move against the Hungarian was risky but totally justified. ‘We had played together for almost two days and I hadn’t four-bet him once,’ he says. ‘I thought it was a pretty good spot for four-betting light. We were both the biggest stacks at the table and I had shown a lot of respect to his re-raises so he could have been scared to get all-in with me. I didn’t necessarily need a strong hand to do that and also he could fold a lot of his range like sevens or A-10 because we were both so big. I guess I was wrong in the kind of hand that he could have folded! Since I had position for the rest of the hand I think it was a good spot. I expected him to fold pre-flop for sure.’

After such sound reasoning Elky’s play can’t be called maniacal but it was certainly bold. But then again he has never shown a tendency for hesitancy or self-doubt – his courage has always been a feature of his personality. As a teenager he dreamed of being a professional video games player and at just 20, he was invited to Korea to pursue that dream. For most people, relocating permanently to a country with a totally different culture and language, where they would they would obviously be an outsider, might take some thought but ElkY moved there in a flash.

‘It was my goal to do that anyway; it wasn’t something random. It was the plan to do anything I could to succeed in Korea,’ he says. ‘I had trouble communicating at the beginning of course. But I got lucky. A good friend of mine had been living in Korea for three years already so he was able to help me out.’ Nevertheless, ElkY admits that shunning higher education for the ultra-competitive world of video gaming was an audacious move. ‘It’s kinda crazy when you’re 19 years old and you go to an Asian country and don’t speak the language!’ But he always knew that the rewards would be worth the gamble.

In the first year he had a base salary of $ 5,000 a month and at his peak he was earning $ 300k a year. The same high risk/high reward mentality is a key feature of his poker-playing style – which is why he’s often perceived as being a crazy player. ‘I really care about winning. Whatever place I get I get disappointed if I don’t win. The tournament structure is always top-heavy for the prize and the media. 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.’

ElkY the Obsessive

That ability to take risks when they present themselves is a trait of many a poker player – but to reach the highest echelons you need more. You have to be obsessive about the game. After all, sitting at a table and trying to concentrate on hand after hand while keenly observing all the players hour upon hour is harder than it sounds. Online, you need an even stronger constitution – a computer screen is markedly more static than a live poker room. Not only is ElkY obsessive when it comes to poker, he’s obsessive, almost neurotic in everything he does. He’s fanatical in his pursuit of perfection.

Take video games. After he finished high school, he explains how much work he put in to make sure he was the best on the French gaming circuit. ‘I was putting in more work than most, I was playing crazy hours. I was practising 12 hours, sometimes even 16. It’s all I did for six months,’ he says. ‘There were other people playing for a hours and hours but they had other stuff to do like go to school. Whereas, I quit school to play so I really wanted to succeed badly; it was a real dream of mine to live off video games!’

Not only was ElkY willing to put in a huge amount of time, but he was also willing to forego any sort of creature comforts. ‘Sometimes I slept on the floor of the internet café because at that time my family was living in Nancy and I wanted to practise really hard and the only internet cafes were in Paris,’ he divulges. ‘I stayed there for a few days, slept for a few hours and then played all day.’

ElkY’s compulsive video game nature was nurtured to its fullest potential in Korea. ‘Instead of partying or working, sometimes they are playing so hard. I think it made me much stronger mentally because Koreans are very very competitive, much more than French people.’  That work ethic easily ported over to poker. Whether he plays online or offline, he has a knack for shutting out all distractions. ‘Someone might be talking loud, there may be TV cameras, or outside disturbances but I can play under almost any conditions – I think that’s a big edge of mine.’

Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of his mental strength occurred towards the end of 2005, he decided he wanted to be the first player to reach the Supernova Elite level on PokerStars, which yielded incredible benefits, like free entry into major tournaments and VIP online tournaments. Of course, getting to that level required some serious dedication – players had to hit the 1,000,000 FPP mark within a calendar year – an extremely hard task even for the most devoted of the online fraternity.

ElkY started hitting the sit&gos. ‘I was playing a lot of sit&gos at a time, $ 50 and $ 100 STTs because that’s what gave me most FPP points.’ With two weeks to go, he was still 100,000 points short so ramped up his efforts. ‘I read somewhere that you could sleep for 20 minutes every four hours so I tried to do that for a week.’ Sleep-deprivation wasn’t exactly good for his profit margins though. ‘It was stupid to do that, I was playing really bad. I was so tired,’ he says. But with another player hot on his heels, ElkY knew he couldn’t afford to take his foot off the pedal and in the final stretch, played for an eye-shattering 27 hours straight. ‘Fuck it, I’ll just play until I get it!’ he remembers thinking. Come the evening of 13 January 2006, ElkY’s achievement was plastered all over the internet. He knew that even if he never did anything in poker again, his place in online legend was assured – he was the first ever Supernova Elite and had got there in a mindblowingly quick time – a little over four months.

Elky the Ambitious

Having an obsessive-compulsive personality might be useful for withstanding long sessions of poker, but it would mean nothing if ElkY didn’t possess unwavering commitment to tough challenges. He is undeterred even when it takes a while to find his feet. For example, it took a couple bites of the cherry before he was eventually recruited onto a professional video games team. ‘When I was 18, I got invited to play in the big finals in Korea but didn’t do anything. I got invited again when I was 19 and got third. When I was 20, I got second. Then they asked me to come over and join a professional team.’

When he discovered poker he wanted to make good money online – but he didn’t get the best start. ‘I lost about $ 5k in the first few months, I barely knew the rules!’ Naturally, he threw himself into all the books and forums that he could find and spent a few months in Canada, learning the game off more experienced friends. ‘After I came back I won $ 10,000 in one month playing $ 2/$ 4 no limit,’ he says.

His transition from online to live was particularly fraught. After his inaugural cash in Deauville at the start of 2005 he immediately starting craving that big win but hadn’t yet got his head around live play. ‘I wasn’t adapting to people well. I had trouble looking at stack sizes, I was making decisions too quickly. I think EPT Baden was the first tourney where I really got a good flow of the table, I knew when to push people off hands, I knew better when to change gears, which guys I could bully, which guys really wanted to make the money.’ With 16th place at EPT Baden, ElkY was on the way but it would actually take another two years of hard graft for him to finally realise the hardest task of his life so far. Since winning the PCA in 2008, the floodgates have opened and he’s taking down tournaments left, right and centre.

ElkY’s latest venture is to take on the high-stakes world. ‘Last December before the Five Diamond I played the big $ 200/$ 400 cash game in Bobby’s Room at Bellagio. It was Kenny Tran, Andrew Robl, Daniel Schreiber, Rick Salomon. I played for almost 3 days straight. Salomon lost $ 1m in that time.’

It didn’t go to plan but he’s not discouraged. ‘I finished $ 40k down I think,’ he says. ‘It was a good experience because there were players like Tran who is one of the greatest live cash game players. It’s much more interesting to play this than a $ 25/$ 50 game that I can crush – there’s no excitement and no point even if I make $ 10k or $ 15k more a day. I’d rather lose $ 50k and learn a lot and really feel like I’m playing with the best players. My goal is not to grind, it’s to learn and improve my game.’

Final Countdown

The conversation inevitably turns to the upcoming World Series where ElkY knows he still has some catching up to do. Six cashes, including one final table in three years is respectable but not really reflective of his pedigree.

‘It’s very important for me to win a bracelet this year,’ he says. ‘In the World Series last year I partied too much for some of the smaller events. When I’m still in a tournament I tend not to do it because I want to be fit and in good shape.’ He believes that teaming up with his new manager, Stephane Matheu (an ex-tennis pro) is going to be a contributing factor. Since I’ve got my new manager Stephane, I’m much better at being ready for the tournament mentally and physically. He’s helped me to get more focused on what I want and to play my A-game.’

At that moment, ElkY starts to get up as the photographer beckons him over to start his shoot. Realising our time is almost up, we try and squeeze one more question about his long-term ambitions. World Series main event double winner? 15 bracelets? $ 30m in earnings? ElkY chuckles and shakes his head. ‘My goal is to buy the Spearmint Rhino in Vegas!

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