WCOOP 2012: Superstars and shadow champions
There was this moment a few years ago (January 12, 2010 to be exact) when PokerStars' head tournament guru Bryan Slick pulled me aside at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. It was a busy day at the PCA, and I barely had time to eat, but Slick assured me I'd be interested in what he'd put together in a little anteroom.
Inside was photographer Neil Stoddart, a giant array of professional lights, and two World Championship of Online Poker bracelets. There was a crystal trophy sitting on a table.
"I've seen bracelets before," I thought. "And I've certainly seen Stoddart before."
As I looked around for the exciting part, time passed, and Slick worked the phone. By and by, a sleepy looking kid in a graphic t-shirt walked in. It was Daniel Kelly, a kid who to that point had been more widely known as djk123. He was the 2009 WCOOP Player of the Series. He'd won two WCOOP bracelets in one festival. It was a feat no one else had accomplished to that point. Slick hadn't oversold the moment. This was my chance to interview a man who had recently achieved greatness. What's more, it was his moment to take the spotlight.
But he was tired. Listless. On his way back to school to finish his mechanical engineering degree.
"My parents would like me to finish.They're good parents and they're paying for it," he explained with a shrug.
Kelly had arrived to collect his bracelets and pose for a couple of photos. This one told the story.
Afterward I had a chance for an interview with the understated, soft spoken young man. The entire interview lasted two minutes and 51 seconds. Most of that time, I was asking questions like what it was like to show up at the PCA as a superstar.
"I don't think it was that different. It's kind of cool, I guess," Kelly said at the time. "I dunno."
At the time, I chalked it up to the fact that Kelly wasn't yet used to having a microphone shoved in his face and a guy rattling off personal questions. When I was finished (much to Kelly's relief), I threw in, "So what's going to happen after you graduate?"
"I'll maybe play cards for a while and see how that works out," he said.
So, how did that work out? Well since then, he's won two more WCOOP bracelets. His latest came just a few days ago in Event #36. He beat nearly 1,500 players for the $138,000 first prize. He's the only one in WCOOP history to have four.
Clearly the cards have worked out well, but he's still just as understated as he was back in January 2010. Today he's living in Costa Rica and playing online. His future is still up in the air.
"It's been a nice change of pace after playing live all day every day during WSOP. I'll probably stay in Costa Rica for a couple months, but then I'm not sure of my future plans," he said.
As Kelly collected his winnings this year, it made me think about all of the other people who have picked up their first bracelets in 2012. Many of them are right where Kelly was back in 2009.
Twenty-seven-year-old Andrew "da69kid" Grimason is happy to give us his real name after his $64,879.20 victory. He was the man who won the 10-max shootout this year. When asked what he might consider unique about himself, he deferred to self-deprecating humor.
"I probably hold the record for longest streak for no cashes in Vegas," he said. "Currently sitting on 40 tournaments without a cash."
Most other champions, however, are content to stay far from the spotlight. The man known as ottoman09 won nearly $87,000 in Event #40's $320 NLHE (6-Max) contest but that's about as much as you'll get to know about him.
"I live in Romania," he said. "It's not that good if people find out how much money you make."
And make no mistake, ottoman09 makes bank. He just won't be screaming it from the rooftops.
"I'm an optimist, and even if I have a bad streak on poker for weeks or days, I always make money," he said.
ZISIMO7 is another new champion who prefers to remain largely under the radar, citing Greece's economic crisis. A few days ago, he won $97,000 in Event #34 ($320 Pot-Limit Omaha, 6-max., 1R1A), a welcome reward after spending most of last year laid up with a bum knee. He couldn't play sports or travel for nearly seven months.
"That was very new for me, because I never stay home," he said. "So I had a lot of time to think about myself and my life. I believe that in that time I became much more mature than I was and generally became more patient and cool with everything."
Patient, cool, and only willing to share a photo as long as it's not captioned with his real name.
That's a common theme among many of this years shadow champions, people who eschew celebrity in favor of a more relaxed, happy life. One of them is Germany's busttard, winner of $84,000 in Event #47, $265 NLHE Turbo Knockout, a man who has used poker as more than a money-maker.
"I was a shy nerdy guy. I learned that the world is not as easy to handle as I thought," he said. "I grew up playing poker, and it taught me kind of the story of life in a shorter and more difficult way to understand. In my opinion, only the best players know how to use their knowledge of poker in the real life, and I try my best to combine those both things. I think I am doing pretty good."
Simply put, while many of us may want to make superstars out of our champions, that's not why people like Daniel Kelly or many of the new champions of 2012 have chosen to work so hard at the game. There's something more in it for them than fame.
Stunnaf00 winner of $58,000 in Event #11 $215 Heads-Up, is happy to remain anonymous behind his screen name.
"I work pretty hard at just being happy and grateful for the good things in life. Trying to wake up everyday like its Christmas morning, if you know what I mean," he said. "I am kinda boring in that I enjoy just going through my routines. That being said, I'm always up for trying new things, rekindling old hobbies, and just seeing where tomorrow may take me."
So, now when I think back to early 2010 and the sleepy approach Daniel Kelly took to collecting his bracelets, I see it differently. For some folks, it's not about the pictures and the interviews. Some people are shadow champions, and they'll stay that way as long as they can.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging