Alexander Stevic and the start of a new era in poker
Looking back, there was no way to predict the magnitude of what happened in Barcelona in 2004. The event was called the European Poker Tour, there were nice new banners, new logos, and new chips to make everything seem special. But what would happen next was anyone's guess. One event would be followed by a full season's worth of tournaments. Then what?
It's likely you've seen the footage, or read the story from that day. The EPT, the brainchild of John Duthie, who thought up the whole thing while in the tub, attracted 229 players, racking up what was then an enormous €229,000 prize pool. That meant €80,000 to the winner, a figure rarely seen outside Las Vegas, which was won by Alexander Stevic, a dashing 30-year-old pro from Sweden.
The expression on Stevic's face told most of the story. He'd just won the first ever EPT Main Event, a moment for the history books, even if no one really knew how big that history book would become. Regardless, it proved one neither he, nor the poker world, would ever forget.
Heads-up that day he faced Irishman Dave O'Callaghan. Had a hand with queen-jack gone differently, it might be O'Callaghan we were talking about now. But his role was to be the vanquished, not the vanquisher. But then to be a great champion you have to beat great opposition. For his part O'Callaghan ensured Stevic got just that.
The Swede was second in chips at the start of the final table. A self-confessed gambler, he described how his love of the game was based around the tactics, the strategy, and the people. "It's a beautiful game," he'd said back then. "I don't know what makes me a winner. I'm very often too aggressive, too loose. Yes, definitely too loose. I'm not a good tournament player. Just lucky!"
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Irishman O'Callaghan had only begun playing online a year earlier. Like Stevic he'd had his moments on the way to heads-up (he got lucky in one notable hand against a previously unheard of Italian player named Luca Pagano) which ultimately lead to what is now one of the most watched hands in tour history.
With Stevic holding king-queen and O'Callaghan queen-jack, both were delighted to see a queen on the flop, even more so when the case queen hit the turn. But with cards face up the full story was revealed. The players shook hands, Stevic fearful of the Irishman's "lucky jack", but O'Callaghan ready to accept his fate. No jack came, the players embraced, Stevic wiped away tears.
That first season would prove momentous for Stevic, who bookended the year with a third place finish in the Grand Final in Monaco, worth more than double his Barcelona winner's cheque. It proved the calibre of Stevic, but it also demonstrated how rapidly the tour was expanding.
"It was not just another tournament when I won," he said years later on the tenth anniversary of his victory. "I felt that this could be something big. And I knew that I was the first winner of something that will probably grow big. I remember people saying that they were going to play more on this tour."
The tour has since awarded more than $500 million in prize money, but that 80 grand one by Stevic is still perhaps one of its most memorable shares.
Stevic's story though goes beyond the EPT. He continued to play on the tour in the years after, but like many in the game took a step back as new players emerged, the game evolved, and, well, home life and family became his preferred focus.
But he'd started something. Just as Chris Moneymaker had shown it was possible to turn cents into dollars and dollars into millions, new players began to emerge, rushing to a game that now promised millions to those who knew where to strike gold.
Names like Pagano, Antonius, Gavatin, Williams and Iremark found themselves in the limelight. Some would not stick around for long - the rigours of such a highly competitive field proving too much - but others play on to this day.
It was a big change for the older generation who had paid their dues in the casinos and back rooms of poker's yesteryear, including the likes of Stevic, who even talked fondly of the characters that frequented back room games.
Those days are, perhaps happily, in the past. But the legacy of players like Stevic, is the thousands of players who play the tour, and that new breed who regularly score six figure cashes, in tournaments with buy ins that eclipse even Stevic's winner's cheque.
Was that the sort of thing he ever thought about - preferring perhaps to have won a few years later than he did?
"Always!" he'd said with a grin. "I would prefer to be runner-up three years later and never be a champion! It's a lot more money. But still it's fun to be the first winner, the most special guy. I always say that."
Ten years on Stevic played the Main Event in Barcelona in Season 11 but he was mostly there to reminisce, as he did so in an interview with the PokerStars Blog. He still looked the same, and his enthusiasm was equally contagious. It was just the surroundings that had changed - the size of the field, the size of the tournament room, and the players competing in it. Most of them walked past Stevic without even noticing him, but each owed him something, arguably worth far more than that winner's cheque of €80,000.
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Stephen Bartley is a staff writer for the PokerStars Blog.