EPT10 Prague: The double life of Rafael Nadal
Unexpected things happen at poker tournaments, but the professionals tend to blank them all out. Aces lose to unsuited rags, players come to the table dressed in tiger costumes, and today there's even an ice rink in the car park. Meh.
However this week in Prague, something started happening on one side of the tournament room that few people could ignore. A man set down a camera on a rail around a poker table, and then he sat another one beside it. Then he set another camera beside that, and then another, until there were 82 cameras all set next to each other describing a perfect semi-circle.
No camera rig like that had ever been assembled around a poker table. Something special was clearly afoot.
This, it turned out, was the early preparation for the arrival to Prague of poker's newest V.I.P. For the first time at a major poker festival, the current world No 1 of a mainstream sport would be joining the fray.
Rafa Nadal, the 13-time Grand Slam tennis champion, Olympic gold medallist and Team PokerStars Sportstar, has come to Prague to make his debut at the poker felt. This season he won the US Open and the French Open on his way to reclaiming top spot in the ATP World Rankings. But he is still a self-confessed poker rookie, having played the game for a little more than a year and happy to take baby steps towards the biggest challenges. This was his first giant leap.
"It's my first live poker tournament and that's made me feel a little bit nervous," Nadal confessed at a press conference ahead of play today. "The pressure, in my case, is completely different between when I'm playing in a professional tennis tournament and what I'm playing today. For me, it's a big honour to be playing with all these stars around me."
Nadal sat in a line of all time greats in both sport and poker, his opponents for what has become known as the EPT Charity Challenge. To one side he had Andriy Shevchenko, the greatest footballer in Ukraine's history, alongside Alberto Tomba, a three-time Olympic skiing champion.
On the other side was the Brazilian footballing legend Ronaldo, the all-time leading goalscorer in World Cup football, three times voted Fifa World Player of the Year. Beside him was Fatima Moreira de Melo, an Olympic champion in hockey, and one seat further along was Daniel Negreanu, the six-time World Series bracelet winner and currently World No 1 in the GPI poker rankings.
Those five would help "ease" Nadal into poker competition via a six-player sit and go. The €100,000 prize pool would be split among charities of the players' choice.
"We are playing for a good cause and that always makes an event special," Nadal said, as the players answered questions about their glittering careers -- and their new choice of pastime.
"My life is still with tennis, but I am playing poker to have some fun," Nadal said. "It's a question of improving, of being with friends. Like today. I want to learn as quickly as possible."
Ronaldo and Shevchenko both told of how they played card games among team-mates in their downtimes from major tournaments, even if they tried to avoid cards of the yellow and red variety on the pitch.
Nadal looked for similarities between poker and the sport in which he is an undisputed titan. "I really enjoy playing tournaments because you can use strategy and you need to wait for your moment," he said. "I don't know if there are similarities (between poker and tennis), but there is a tour, there are a lot of people that play, that practice, that get ready for these big events.
"And the people who don't understand about this game only think that it's about luck. I thought that a few years ago, but now I know it's more about knowing how to play. At the end, the best players are the winners almost every time."
Negreanu, who admitted that he had to surrender his own dreams of becoming a sporting hero when he grew too big to be a jockey but not big enough to play ice hockey, said that he could see a lot of comparisons between top level poker and the sporting world.
"If you see some poker players, you don't think athlete," Negreanu said. "In the 70s and 80s, you would see poker players who were overweight, they smoke and drink. But these days some of the younger players are much more like athletes. They train in the gym. They take it seriously and they focus. It's more competitive today than it's ever been before."
Negreanu is here in Prague for his final festival of a blockbuster 2013. He won the main event of the Asia Pacific leg of the World Series of Poker, the High Roller at the WSOP-E and also made the final table of the EPT Grand Final. He picked up Player of the Year honours at the World Series and has rarely been so confident at the poker table.
"Ahem, that one might be me," Negreanu said, when one of the reporters asked who was favourite for today's big match. "If we were playing on clay, he (Nadal) might have a chance. If we're playing on a pitch, maybe they (Shevchenko and Ronaldo) have a chance. If we're on the slopes, him (Tomba). But now we're playing on my turf. I feel I'm supposed to win."
That, at least, was the theory. But the practice was something different. After Tomba became the first to fall, and Ronaldo perished soon after, Negreanu received his marching orders in fourth, swallowed up by the escalating blinds and after losing three huge hands.
But he had been impressed by what he had seen.
"He (Nadal) came in really solid and he didn't make any mistakes," Negreanu said. "And then he knew when to make the adjustment, to play more aggressively, and he did."
He added: "It was such a fun table. It was really a good atmosphere. It's really good to be around so many people who are at the top of their class, or at least were for most of their life.
"I've played a lot of charity things, with like Hollywood celebs and different things, but I notice with these guys, the athletes, they got coaching. They were prepared. They have much more of a killer instinct.
"Anytime you get to the top of a craft, whatever that is, you just have that winning instinct. I felt like, on average, they all exceeded my expectations on how they were going to play."
The full play-by-play of how things went down makes for surprising reading, as does the full summary. Let's just say, Rafa Nadal proved to any doubters that he has a rare winner's temperament.
And as for those cameras, the ones arranged in a perfect semi-circle, they will present poker in a way that is has never been presented before. The EPT Charity Challenge was filmed for a documentary to be produced and screened some time in the new year, and the special effects will be staggering.
Maybe even the best in the world.