How a blind date led to a life as an international poker pro
by Mad Harper
Seven years ago, Cathy Hong, a language student living in Seoul, went on a blind date that was to change her life forever. She was just 21 and the date was with Bertrand 'ElkY' Grospellier, a friend of a friend and one of the world's top-ranked players of the real-time strategy game Starcraft , a massively popular pastime in Korea.
Cathy knew absolutely nothing about gaming but she and ElkY, who comes from near Nancy in France, hit it off immediately. She said: "He was actually very famous in Korea but I hadn't heard of him because I wasn't into games at all. He didn't speak very good English - or Korean - and I didn't speak French, so at the beginning we didn't really understand each other. But I liked him a lot - he was kind and modest, quite reserved. I liked that."
At the time, ElkY was living in Seoul and a star in the world of electronic sports. Starcraft is so huge in Korea that there are two TV channels dedicated to broadcasting contests and the city also plays host to the World Cyber Games which attracts more than a million visitors every year.
In 2004, a friend introduced ElkY to playing online poker. Then aged 23, he quickly realized that many of the skills he'd picked up in pro gaming were well suited to poker. He was winning money on a regular basis, and became the first player ever to reach the Supernova Elite level in the PokerStars VIP Club.
Cathy said: "In 2006, ElkY joined Team PokerStars Pro and started travelling a lot. I was at university in Seoul, studying interpreting for international conferences. We couldn't see each other very often and for two years we had to conduct a long-distance relationship. We managed to keep it going but it was hard. Twice ElkY asked me if I would come and continue my studies in London or Paris but because I was studying Korean and Chinese, it was more beneficial for me to be in Seoul."
In October 2008, ElkY again asked Cathy to join him in Europe but this time he had a different proposition... this time his suggestion was that Cathy join him as a professional poker player on the circuit. Cathy said: "I thought about it very hard for two months. It would be a huge change for me and I had never pictured that my life would be like that. But Elky and I really wanted to have a life together and I decided that, if it didn't work out, I could always return to continue my studies."
In December 2008, Cathy moved to London. She started learning and practicing the game and the pair spent a month in Las Vegas where Cathy competed in the daily tournaments at Caesar's Palace and the Venetian with buy-ins from $150-$300. She said: "In my first few attempts, I came in first, second and seventh. I wasn't in profit but it was encouraging. ElkY told me to really focus on memorizing all the hands, the bet sizes, the showdowns. I wasn't that confident but I was really focused and was getting a lot of experience. The travelling was very difficult but I had a unique opportunity because I had one of the best players in the world on my side. ElkY doesn't sit down and give me poker lessons but he will always answer my questions - and I ask him questions constantly!"
Since joining ElkY on the circuit, Cathy has focused on smaller buy-in events such as the EPT Ladies Events and satellites. She said: "Satellites are very profitable. I've won seats to the EPT Deauville Main Event last season, EPT Prague, the EPT Grand Final in last season and EPT London in October as well as here for the Main Event in Barcelona. " In Deauville, she had one of her biggest cashes to date when she came 66th in the Main Event for €10,900. In London this year, she made the final of the £1,000 NLHE Six Max event, coming fourth for £8,910.
Thus far her life as a player is panning out. She misses her family and friends in Korea but the pay-off, being with ElkY full-time and forging a new life in the world of poker, is worth it.
She said: "I do have goals that I want to achieve in poker. I want to go deep in a tournament but I also want to get sponsored, not just to play the game but also to be an ambassador for poker. Poker is not about gambling but people still have that image of it. I want to help change the image of poker. I love meeting new people and hearing different experiences and I want to put my studies to good use, to become an ambassador for the sport."