We talk to Ivan Demidov about making history in poker: ‘I got $1,500 which was a lot of money for me. I was like, “Wow, I’m a pro now!”’

Russian sensation Ivan Demidov made history in 2008, final-tabling both the London and Las Vegas WSOP Main Events for over $6m

It’s May 2009 and I’m sitting across from Ivan Demidov on a sun-drenched balcony in Monte Carlo. He sports a slightly oversized smart shirt and hair which is markedly longer than when he was one of the ‘November Nine’, the tousled fringe almost in his eyes. Seeing him on television, you might think he lacks personality – but much of that must be down to the fact that a year ago he hadn’t even done one interview. In person he’s genial, talkative and completely lacking in pretence. He takes in the spectacular view over the Ligurian sea and gulps some iced water before continuing the story of his remarkable 2008 where he made back-to-back WSOP/WSOPE final tables. The buzz surrounding Demidov and his history-making feat is well-founded, but what I’ve been captivated by is the path to those results. Demidov’s rise to greatness was so unlikely and so unexpected that you almost couldn’t make it up.

To understand the depth of his accomplishment, you have to go back four-and-a-half years to when Demidov and poker were total strangers. At 23, he was in his final year of maths at the best university in Russia and didn’t even know how to play the game. ‘I was a professional computer games player… if you can call that a profession!’ he laughs. ‘I played StarCraft and Warcraft III and was sponsored to play Warcraft. I earned about $20k a year.’

Like another well-known videogame pro, Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier, Demidov was invited to Korea to make more serious money but declined. ‘I had my life in Moscow and just couldn’t do it. Computer games were not what I wanted to do in my life.’
The problem was, he had no idea what he wanted to do. He was disillusioned with maths and PC gaming was merely an outlet for boredom. His self-assessment was damning. ‘My life was a mess.’

He figured that if he just completed his studies he could decide what to pursue after that. Poker wasn’t high on the ‘to do’ list. Although a friend finally persuaded him to open a poker account – and even transferred money to it – Demidov still put it on the back burner for eight months. ‘I didn’t start playing till I finished uni, but in the meantime I could get advice from my Russian friends the ex-pro gamers. They weren’t that good but they knew the basics like A-K preflop is a good hand.’

The Natural

He got off to a winning start. ‘I’d been playing for two months and came third in a $10 rebuy. I got $1,500 which was a lot of money for me. I was like, “Wow, I’m a pro now!”’ He assumed he could graduate from $5 to $100 sit-and-gos overnight. The resulting crash was inevitable. ‘I kinda blew half of the money the next day,’ he says with a big grin. ‘Fortunately I quickly realised that wasn’t my level yet. I withdrew $300 and deposited it to another site.’

From there Demidov built his bankroll up to $20k but, like almost every poker player, he experienced a huge downswing (he calls it a ‘downstreak’), losing three-quarters of his roll and sending him spiralling out of the game. ‘I was so devastated and unsure about my game. It was my first downstreak and I had no idea what was going on. I took time off and went to relax, went on vacation, hung out, did nothing.’

He admits he wasn’t planning to return to the game at all and even considered getting a ‘proper’ job, but as all his savings dried up, he was spurred back into action by some basic needs. ‘I realised I had no money but had to buy clothes and food – my parents obviously didn’t support me any more.’

Demidov launched his second assault on internet poker in May 2007, but with a measly $300 left in his account he had to swallow his pride. ‘I used to play the highest limit SNGs, like $215 or $530 but now I was back to $5 games. My bankroll grew pretty steadily and by the end of the year I had $50k-plus.’

His progress caught the attention of an unnamed high stakes Russian player who proposed to sponsor Demidov and some of his compatriots. The deal was that the backer would pay for everything and get an 80% cut. When I suggest that this doesn’t seem like a very equitable deal, Demidov nods earnestly. ‘It’s probably worse than average but in Russia you either take this deal or have no deal at all. I always dreamed of going to Las Vegas to play in those big events so I said yes straight away.’

The reality of live tournament poker proved to be a grim slog with little reward. ‘At the start I lost $150k of his money and hadn’t really cashed.’ He returned from his first trip to Las Vegas feeling like he’d never go back again. Live poker had broken him and he was convinced it had also severed his backing deal. ‘When I came back, I took a break (again) for four months and I definitely started thinking, “He’s not going to sponsor me any more.” We didn’t talk about it but I was sure.’

Returning from his hiatus he was still convinced that his sponsorship had been terminated until one day he received a call from his backer. The conversation was short but sweet. ‘He said, “Do you still have your visa? Be ready to go [to the World Series].” I was really surprised and happy.’
The Russian sponsor had put together a team for the WSOP, which included both Demidov and his girlfriend Liya Gerasimova. ‘We were far from the Strip in one of those gated communities. We had a nice team, a nice spirit; those months were really enjoyable.’

Far less enjoyable was Demidov’s life on the tables. He played in almost every tournament but just couldn’t cash. ‘I could feel how my game had improved from the beginning of the Series and by the middle of the Series I thought I played pretty well. I was chip leader in a few tournaments but once again took a few sick beats. I was confident in my game but kinda gave up hope – if that makes sense.’

He had a good run in one of the $1,000 rebuys, but busting out in 11th was almost worse than not cashing at all. ‘I was really hoping to make the final table and I felt really depressed. I thought that maybe he doesn’t want to sponsor me any more and maybe I’ll never be able to play the game again. I’d really given up hope and wanted to go home.’

The Dance Begins

The only thing left to play was the Main Event but Demidov was happy to treat it as a life experience rather than a life-changing one. ‘We had a 20,000 starting stack and by dinner I was down to 6,000 and was like, nice tournament, bye bye!’ he says. ‘My girlfriend had 100,000 and I thought I would have some free time in Vegas and rail her.’

However, whatever Demidov had for dinner on Day 1 had an emphatic effect. ‘Some guy decided to donate his chips to me and I finished the first day with an average stack of 37,000 and was very excited. From Day 3 on I never looked back – I was always above average, three or four times more.’ In typically understated style, Demidov believes he wasn’t really doing anything special. ‘I wasn’t really beating anyone but people just decided to give their stacks to me when I had a hand.’

As he raced away to the final few tables, it began to dawn on him how important this whole scenario was, not least because his girlfriend had gone out on the bubble and he was the only one flying the flag for the rest of the team. ‘I was thinking finally I was out of the make-up and earning money! I was trying not to think about it because I knew it would hurt my game. Making the final table and not making it was so huge. When we were down to ten I was 99% sure I’d make the final table.’

And as Dean Hamrick became the unlucky tenth man, Demidov could barely summon the energy to feel relief – he just wanted to sleep. ‘I was so tired. We had played for seven days straight and I’d literally got four hours sleep every day. I didn’t feel anything.’

Once Demidov had got over the fatigue, he returned to Russia a newly inspired person and player. He was assured of at least $900k and was well aware of the contract prospects, especially as the domestic media were all over him. His plan for the final table in November was that he’d have no plan. ‘I knew everyone was going to change their games so it was pointless to study previous hands.’ Instead he concentrated on ripping apart the live tournaments in Russia. ‘I just started to feel when somebody had a hand. I was able to make some sick laydowns because I just knew they had it. I was in the zone.’ It was an ability he put down to playing two months straight at the World Series and the acid-test was going to be the WSOPE Main Event in London against over 360 of the world’s best players.

Demidov didn’t disappoint. He coasted to the final table and along with countryman Stanislav Alekhin began to decimate the competition. World-class players like Daniel Negreanu and Bengt Sonnert were complaining about not being able to win one hand. ‘Of course I understood it was variance and I was getting lucky, but I really felt I was the best. It was like flying above the earth,’ Demidov says. ‘At one point I really thought it was going to be me and Stanislav heads-up.’

When I ask what went wrong, Demidov frowns and leans closer. ‘When we were down to three or four players, there was a break and one of the tournament staff came to me and Stanislav and gave us a huge lecture on how we’d soft-played each other and all that bullshit. We never did. After the break I check-called big bets on the turn and river from Stanislav. I insta-fold this hand any time of the day against a player like him but I started thinking they’d say we soft-played each other. I was so f***ing mad, I was devastated. I let things from outside interfere with my poker game and I just couldn’t play well after that. I do think that if not for that hand I had a good chance to win.’

It’s the first time I’ve heard Demidov get riled about anything. He admits that it got him fired up for the WSOP final table. ‘It made me more determined. Also it gave me confidence.’
Going into the final table, all the smart money was on Demidov. He had the backing of the big name pros, especially those who had been on the receiving end in London. ‘I was especially confident about my short-handed game,’ he says. ‘And I thought people like Dennis [Phillips] who mostly play live wouldn’t have that much experience. When I won with Kings against Montgomery’s A-9 and was up to 50m+, that’s when I really thought I had a shot at heads-up.’

Outchipped And Out Of Luck

Demidov’s prediction came to pass and he reached heads-up against the player he had always perceived to be his biggest threat, Peter Eastgate. Unsurprisingly, the night before was a sleepless one. ‘That was the only time I was nervous. Getting to heads-up I had already won $6m. It was a huge shock for me.’

Despite his confidence, the Russian went into heads-up with a 20m+ chip deficit and in the end it was too much to overcome when Eastgate was hitting cards and making very few mistakes. ‘I actually made a lot of mistakes at heads-up because I thought Peter would play more aggressively,’ he says. ‘I tried to call some of his bets down light but he always had a monster hand. I got back up to 60m and then made a bad bluff and from there I went downhill, I couldn’t come back again. My spirit was broken even before the last hand.’

Watch a replay of Demidov’s reaction as the final hands go down, and it’s obvious you’re seeing the face of a man who knows how close he has come to going supernova on not one but two occasions. ‘It was horrible. I realised I probably won’t ever have another chance in the WSOP Main Event.’ Understandably he felt very depressed that night, but come the morning, he woke up happy. ‘I realised I still made a shitload of money and basically I was set for life. When I came to the final table if anyone had told me I was going to come second, I would have been happy.’

When you compare the Ivan Demidov of today to how he was 12 months ago, it would seem that he has no reason to worry about anything. As a member of Team PokerStars he no longer has to give 80% of his winnings away, plus he’s a national hero and almost single-handedly responsible for the recent poker boom in Russia. But you don’t have to dig deep to discover pockets of discontent. His visa issues are widely reported. ‘Being a Russian citizen it’s not easy to get a visa. It takes a lot of time. The schedule is so tight that sometimes you don’t have enough time to get a visa after you’ve come back from one tournament to get one for another.’

This means he hasn’t had much chance to play – which only exacerbates another, more surprising problem: money. ‘I’m not broke but it’s not like I’m set for life. I have problems with my backer and a lot of people owe me money so actually things aren’t that great. I trusted people too much and I’m paying for it now.’

It’s a melancholic end to our interview, not least because Demidov is obviously desperate to prove himself on the circuit again. Still only 28, he clearly has masses of talent and a temperament conducive to longevity in the game. Scaling the heights of 2008 again will be tough, but considering that it wasn’t long ago he had resigned himself to quitting the game, anything’s possible.

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