PokerStars Festival Lille: French legends of poker
The French have always had an innate passion for all kinds of card games. In fact, the old French card game poque, which involved skill and bluff, is believed by many to be an early forerunner of poker. It's thought the game reached the United States via French settlers in New Orleans where it eventually morphed into poker and spread across the country, becoming a national pastime. So it seems somewhat fitting in a way that the PokerStars Festivals' organisers made France, or the beautiful city of Lille to be precise, one of its stops on this year's festival schedule.
Between the 15th and the 23rd of July, Lille's stunning Casino Barriere provides the backdrop for a PokerStars Festival carrying a bumper €1 million in total guarantees. Highlights include the €600,000 guaranteed Main Event, the €200,000 guaranteed High Roller, the €100,000 guaranteed PokerStars Lille Cup and the €100,000 guaranteed PokerStars Super Deep. Team PokerStars Pro Bertrand 'ElkY' Grospellier will be there and he already can't wait to be playing a big event on home soil. "I'm very excited to go back to play on home ground for a PokerStars event, especially as the big tournaments have been lacking in France lately after a few golden years when we had something like three or four huge events annually."
Arguably France's most famous poker player of all time, multi-tabling online phenom ElkY tops France's all-time money list by a country mile with a staggering $13.4m in live tournament earnings. And he further cemented his dominance by finishing runner-up in the Higher Roller for One Drop at this summer's World Series of Poker (WSOP) for a payday just shy of $2.28m. First introduced to poker in 2003 by friends when he was plying his trade in South Korea as a professional gamer, it wasn't long before StarCraft took a backseat to poker as he fastidiously studied the game inside and out.
Back then the French poker scene had already churned out a clutch of highly accomplished players. The most well-known names included the likes of Fabrice Soulier (over $6m in live tournament earnings to date), Bruno Fitoussi - a formidable regular on the circuit since the early nineties - and fearless high-stakes PLO cash game specialist David Benyamine, just to name a few. An ambitious and hard-working ElkY saw what they'd achieved in the game and set his sights firmly on rubbing shoulders with this elite group one day.
Although online poker was his training ground, the home of live poker in France at the time was the iconic Aviation Club de France (ACF) situated on Paris' world-famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Opened in 1907 originally as a private gentlemen's club exclusively reserved for aviators, ACF became a fashionable hangout where tuxedo-clad members puffed on expensive cigars over games of backgammon, baccarat and chemin de fer. It wasn't until 1995 that Fitoussi helped introduce poker at the club (he later became manager of poker operations), which was an overnight hit with patrons and helped attract a different breed of clientele eager to try this exciting game.
Despite the intimate - others may say cramped - interior, in 2003 the ACF played host to the Paris leg of the inaugural season of the World Poker Tour. Those poker fans old enough to remember will fondly recall the stop the subsequent year when trash-talking Lithuanian Antanas Guoga, otherwise known as Tony G, incessantly berated and bluffed his opponents at the final table. But despite his obstreperous antics, taciturn British pro Surinder Sunar withstood the verbal barrage to eventually win the title and €679,000 after a rollercoaster heads-up tussle against Tony G. That episode, which appeared on the Travel Channel in the US, became poker TV gold.
Staging major tournaments and events at the ACF helped put the gambling club on the poker map. Card sharks from across Europe and beyond flocked to the ACF to pit their skills against the regulars and well-heeled poker novices at Texas Hold'Em, PLO and stud. Juicy high-stakes games ran pretty much around the clock, seven days a week. Sitting down to a game here was one goal to tick off the poker 'bucket list' for recreational players. With its wood-panelled rooms, elegant chandeliers and the clack of high-value plaques being tossed into pots, this was your archetypal plush gambling haunt - infused with Gallic flair.
Yet members were forced to bid adieu to the ACF when it folded and went into judicial administration in 2015. ElkY reminisces with misty-eyed nostalgia when remembering this legendary poker venue. "The ACF is actually where I played live poker for the first time, besides home games with my friends in Korea, so it definitely is a special place for me. Bruno Fitoussi did so much for the growth of poker in France by having the first poker games at the ACF. I always enjoyed playing there. It really is a shame that it had to be closed down," he says with a hint of sadness in his voice.
Besides the ACF, the European Poker Tour's regular stops in Deauville, as well as Monaco on the Côte d'Azur staging EPT Grand Finals, helped promote poker in France. Indeed, the standard of live poker has "definitely evolved a lot" in the country, according to ElkY, who was the first person to achieve Supernova and Supernova Elite status on PokerStars. And it didn't take long for France's old guard to be joined by a legion of prodigious poker players, including the likes of Sylvain Loosli, Ludovic Lacay, Benjamin Pollak and Gaelle Baumann, not to mention online nosebleed-stakes cash game pros Alex Luneau and Sebastien Sabic. Naturally, even younger, fresh-faced players are bursting onto the scene, although ElkY was reluctant at first to highlight anyone in particular likely to set the poker world alight.
"There are too many talented French players, and I don't think it would be fair to single out only a few. However, Romain Lewis has been on the rise and I think he has a bright future ahead." The 21-year-old's biggest score so far is just over €127,000 when he outlasted a field of over 1,200 to finish runner-up to Germany's Andreas Klatt in a €1,100 buy-in side event at the PokerStars Championship in Monaco this April. By already racking up live earnings of more than half a million dollars, putting him in around one hundredth spot on France's all-time money list, ElkY predicts big things for this poker starlet. Lewis definitely looks like one to keep an eye on.
In the meantime, though, the crème de la crème of French poker, plus many more keen amateurs and PokerStars online qualifiers, are expected to descend on Lille for this highly anticipated PokerStars Festival. And with direct train links from London St. Pancras, Paris Gare du Nord and Brussels, there is bound to be a healthy turn out. Situated near the Belgian border in northern France, Lille is a beguiling city with 17th century architecture, cobbled pedestrian streets and a large central square. There's much to see and do when not grinding at the tables. "I look forward to exploring its culture and architecture during my down time away from the poker tables," ElkY remarks.
All-time French money list (tournaments only)
1. Bertrand 'ElkY' Grospellier - $13,387,867
2. David Benyamine - $7,291,655
3. Fabrice Soulier - $6,265,018
4. Sylvan Loosli - $6,104,518
5. Antoine Saout - $5,531,531
6. Roger Hairabedian - $4,830,133
7. Ludovic Lacay - $3,266,234
8. Benjamin Pollak - $2,956,169
9. Bruno Fitoussi - $2,808,521
10. Jean-Paul Pierre Pasqualini - $2,718,887