SCOOP 2015: Brazil's secret training facility puts out SCOOP champ
Hugo Marcelo sat in front of his computer doing what he'd do on any other day. He pressed the buttons, watched the chips fly, and hoped the pot would come his way. To anyone looking in from outside, it wouldn't have looked like anything more than a young Brazilian man playing poker on his computer.
But Marcelo knew differently. He looked up into the corner of his screen and saw that 2,000 people were watching his table. Something was happening, something that would validate everything he'd been through in the past couple of years.
To understand that fairy tale ending, you need to know how it began.
Imagine Marcelo a few years younger, working for his dad, trudging through Rio de Janeiro's poorest and most violent communities. He looked around him at a towering city full of contradictions.
"Rio de Janeiro is the most fantastic place in the country. There are many great beaches, a lot of options to go out and have fun, and the nature is just beautiful," Marcelo said. "Unfortunately violence and high inflation are the main negative aspects here. I've lived here with my family since I was born."
Marcelo worked for his father's recycling business. It was trying work, the kind that can turn a young man's emotions into something out of M.C. Escher's mind. Every day, he would see the poorest of people divesting themselves of their possessions in a struggle to pay for the simplest of needs.
"It taught me how to appreciate every and each quality that people have, regardless of social class or possessions," Marcelo remembered.
It also taught him the power of having a steady job, one that could support him for the rest of his life. It drove him while in Brazil's federal college, and it earned him a job with the Brazilian federal government. He was on his way to being worry-free.
But there was something else nagging at him. He had fallen in love with poker, and he secretly dreamed of becoming a pro. On a whim a couple of years ago, he applied with 4,000 other people to be part of a special team of poker commandos led by Team PokerStars Pro, Andre Akkari.
"Only ten were selected among 4000 contenders, and I was one of them," Marcelo said. "I remember the announcement was made on a Twitcam. That's when it all began."
Team Akkari is not your everyday training system. It's not a couple of videos and a Skype session to go over your hand histories. Team Akkari is a bootcamp, a live-in facility that turns players into poker's version of the Special Forces. It's the kind of experience that will make a young man ask, "Am I ready for this?"
Team Akkari's troops moved to Sao Paulo between August and December. They lived together, ate together, and trained together in the kind of way few poker players do.
"I had to stay away from my family, rarely every having the chance to spend a few days at home," Marcelo said. "The structure of the place and the company of people was surreal."
Marcelo is the first to admit that he struggled. Like any young man spending the first real time away from the people he loves, Marcelo found himself missing the comforts and familiarity of home. It was a real struggle, one that easily could've ended in the end of the young Brazilian's career.
"The distance and the longing for my family began to affect me too much at the end of the year, resulting in a loss of focus and quality in my game," Marcelo admitted. "I took a vacation and started this year with a much better planning, and now I spend more time at home than in the team's training center."
Whether it was the training, the vacation, or a combination of both, something worked, and that's what led us to that moment this week.
On Sunday, Marcelo (known as EverFla on PokerStars) spent $11 to enter Event #1-L of the 2015 Spring Championship of Online Poker. He was one of nearly 20,000 people playing for a SCOOP title. The prize pool was worth nearly $200,000. A day later, Marcelo had won it, banking almost $20,000 in one day.
"I spent the entire day answering messages from friends and fans in general. The emotion I felt when I read the messages and learned that I represented my country very well and lived up to the expectations of the fans is impossible to describe," he said.
The money, he said, goes straight to his bankroll, a comfort that takes off all the pressure he might have faced as a young pro. He's not yet forgotten how hard the road was to this day. He gave up his job with the government, he gave up months with his family and friends, and he took a shot.
"It was the hardest decision I ever had to make: give up a stable and comfortable career to go after my dream of becoming a professional poker player," he said. "Today I am being rewarded for making that decision."
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging