EPT10 Grand Final: A welcome blast from the past with Abdulaziz Abdulaziz
With every passing season, the Grand Final of the European Poker Tour begins to feel a little like Christmas dinner at a rest home. One by one, seats that used to be occupied by familiar, grizzled faces are either left empty or are filled by newbies, the old guard having shuffled off to we know not where.
There are but a handful of stragglers still clinging on from EPT Season 1, most carrying the cameras or clipboards of the television crew, or sitting behind the laptops of media row. It takes a rare breed to stick out ten years in the high octane world of high stakes tournament poker, and they become fewer and fewer with every passing visit to Monaco.
There was a strange shudder of recognition among the old hacks this week, however, when we noticed the name Abdulaziz Abdulaziz on the player list. Unless there were two men playing poker who bore the distinctive double name, it seemed certain that we were being visited again from the past.
For those without the wrinkles of ten poker years around their eyes, allow me to explain: Abdulaziz made the final table at the Grand Final in Season 1, finishing sixth for nearly €100,000. He was 19, had qualified for pittance on PokerStars ($20 to be precise), and was among the first to tread a path that is now well worn, from online satellite to major tournament payday.
Abdulaziz had never before played a live tournament for anything larger than about €50, but after the rush of his young life picked up a six-figure sum. Many might have expected him to reinvest the winnings, give poker a serious shot and attempt to at least double down the next season. But as quickly as he arrived, he was gone.
It's why his appearance back at the Grand Final this week had provided such a surprise. Although he had dipped his toe back in the water every now and then since 2005 (in particular this season, when he's played three events) Abdulaziz hadn't returned to the scene of his greatest triumph. But here he was again this afternoon, approaching the money again. And it didn't take too much questioning for him to rock back in his chair and reminisce about those salad days.
"It was amazing," Abdulaziz said. "I was the underdog of underdogs. At that time, I hadn't even ever won a tournament, even online, besides winning the ticket. So reaching the final like that was unreal. Everything about it was unreal."
Abdulaziz is now 28 and explained away the past decade in terms of two university degrees, two years working in finance, and a new endeavour in Geneva involving some kind of high-level investments work. He is now also contemplating an MBA and is studying for his GMAT, living between Paris and London, playing poker as and when he feels like it, "free as a bird".
"Poker will still be my hobby and I'd like to be better every time," Abdulaziz said. "But I don't think I'll be a professional, because I know many professionals and I'm not that interested in their lifestyle."
Abdulaziz laughed away the suggestion that he had created the model for online qualifiers to get into poker, pointing to Jeff Williams's victory in the same tournament in Season 2 as creating a much bigger splash. Williams certainly garnered more press, largely because he was American, even younger than Abdulaziz and parlayed his online qualification into €900,000. But whether or not he knew it, Abdulaziz was also way ahead of the game.
"One of the reasons I didn't play too much back then was that back then, to my mind, there was not enough technicality to the game," he said. "There was still some mystical parts to the game, it was not as rigorous as it is now. I studied math and I played backgammon and I like it when things have rules that you can perfect. I am more suited to the game now. We play deeper, with better structures. Now people play differently. Back then, three bets, four bets were aces. Now you can have anything. That has brought more fun to the game."
Abdulaziz described a realisation during the tournament in Season 1 that people would fold almost all the time to a young guy three betting all in, and so began to do so incredibly lightly. He even photographed some of the hands he was shoving with as a kind of personal memory document of that time.
These day, of course, the dynamic has changed dramatically. A PokerStars qualifier is more likely to be far more technically competent than anyone who plays only live, and young players in particular are the very opposite of scared money.
"It's a lot tougher, but I like it," Abdulaziz said. "My hobbies are boxing, fighting, and the tougher it is, the more excited I get. This was why I was actually excited to come back.
"I started as a live player so I always played the man more than the cards. I love the math but the psychological part, the human element, is fun...But the online game made me, if I can say, 'good' today. I wouldn't have been anywhere in that game without online. When you play online you basically play against perfect opponents, no physical tells. You have to rely on analysis, sometimes timing tells and stuff like that. So it has raised your awareness of the game.
"Back then, I was young. Now I have a bit of money on the side, not a lot, but a bit, but I still don't buy in to these events. I'd rather qualify. It gives you more confidence. The satellites you play are all tough players and if you want to win, you're going to have to defeat those guys anyway. I'm going to quote one of my favourite TV shows, but 'How do you expect to run with the wolves come night when you spend all day sparring with the puppies?'"
The quotation comes from the mouth of Omar Little in The Wire, the lone-wolf vigilante who tussles with the toughest drug dealers on the streets of Baltimore. Abdulaziz is some way short of going to battle with a sawn-off shotgun, but shares a similar knowing vitality and a thirst for psychological warfare.
"I like the competition, the thrill of success, and the agony of defeat and all that range of emotion. It makes you feel alive...This is what made me come. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be crazy if I played that event again.' I said, 'Let's try to qualify' and I qualified, and I thought, 'Who knows. It would make for a sick story.'"