In a room full of poker players it's often easy to pick out the stars of the game. You look to the table which is surrounded by video cameras; you look at the webcast feature table, that's always got a couple of big names on; you look for the players that have patches on their arms and are self-assured with chips in front of them; you listen for the loud voices coming from grinders playing high stakes games of 'Lodden thinks'. If you were to use any of those usual techniques then you would have overlooked 26-year-old Vladimir "shabalinvlad" Shabalin at the EPT Grand Final, and you would have missed a huge player in doing so.
Shabalin has done what only two other players have managed before him, he's broken the 10,000,000 VPP barrier at PokerStars. Team PokerStars Online's George Lind was the first to do so and was given a holiday of a lifetime in doing so. Take a look at your own Lifetime VPP total. Now then, don't feel emasculated; Shabalin's total is something quite extraordinary.
Last year, Shabalin clocked up 4.5m VPP's playing high stakes sit & go's, which equates to 22.5m Frequent Player Points (FPP's) or, if you were to cash them in at the VIP store, more than enough to get seven Porsche Cayman S sports cars. This year he's already burned through more than 2m VPP, which is enough to get three more luxury cars. It really is mind-blowing stuff, but you wouldn't know it to meet him.
We arranged to meet Shabalin at the end of Day 2 of the PokerStars and Monte-Carlo® Casino European Poker Tour Grand Final. He started the day with chips but ended the day with none, but he didn't seem to mind too much.
Vladimir Shabalin, not Vlad, "It was a mistake when I made my nickname," was thrilled to meet and be interviewed by Russian EPT presenter and makeshift translator Ilya Gorodetskiy, an uncle figure for many in the Eastern European poker playing community.
After being presented with a luxury SLYDE watch (who are the Official Watch Sponsor for EPT Season 10, no less) by PokerStars Head of Poker Communications Lee Jones and taking part in a dazzling interview with PokerStars.tv's Sarah Grant, PokerStars Blog got a chance to interview Shabalin in the amazing Salle des Etoiles of the Monte Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort, at one of the outer TV tables no less. And that watch? That was for passing just 5m VPPs. That's how hard and fast this guys is grinding.
Although Shabalin's English was pretty good - and got better the more that he relaxed - Gorodetskiy helped out with translating into Russian and back again. Shabalin, who is from Berezniki in Russia, has been playing full time for five and a half years, but has only just decided to dip his toe into the live game.
"It's my first time in Monte Carlo, but my second time playing the EPT. I played one month ago in Vienna," said Shabalin. "Monte Carlo is a very strong experience for me, very powerful, because it's a luxury city. Everything is like in a fairy tale. Everything is so beautiful and also the atmosphere is like something really important and wonderful is happening right now, right here." Well, that is what the events team works tirelessly to create, so kudos to them.
"I'm really grateful for PokerStars," said Shabalin. "This is the only site that I play through my whole career. I really appreciate the software and client service. Everything is organised to be comfortable for the players and this is really important for me."
That statement was made unprompted, I'd like to add. Sure, Shabalin might have one eye on joining Team PokerStars Online and is smart enough to know that flattery never hurts, but, let's face it, PokerStars does do a pretty good job at all of that.
"Poker gave me a lot of opportunities, a lot of chances to meet different people," said Shabalin. "It was very important because poker forced me to organise my life and to organise myself. The main quality of poker as a professional is that everything depends on you."
And so far he's doing a very good job of organising himself. Having completed his psychology studies at university Shabalin's been hitting the high stakes sit & go tables hard. Although he dabbled with cash games to begin with, he soon found his calling, ""I think that the right approach is to choose one discipline, one type of game," said Shabalin. "For me, this kind of game is sit-&-go's."
"I'm a big fan of travelling but there's two completely different periods in my life. When I'm playing I'm only playing. I'm concentrating fully on the game so I'm playing all day long, but when that period is finished I enjoy travelling a lot and spending time with my girlfriend. I'm a big soccer fan but travelling's my main hobby."
Well, that is very convenient because when your VPP counter ticks over the 10,000,000 mark a bell goes off at PokerStars HQ to muster the PokerStars VIP Club team. They have a holiday of a lifetime to organise. That's right. On top of everything else, all the bonuses, freerolls, $5k WCOOP tickets and (did we mention this already?) sports cars, 10m VPP Hall of Famers get an all-expenses paid once-in-a-lifetime trip to enjoy. Working out whether you should four-bet pocket eights on the bubble is one thing, but trying to decide where in the world to go for the ultimate vacation? That's really difficult. So, where is Shabalin's favourite holiday destination?
"Right now, Monte Carlo is definitely my choice because it was actually it was pretty much my first poker journey," said Shabalin. "I'm playing poker in a really beautiful place and I met a lot of nice people and a lot of players I haven't met before. It's a great combination. I have almost zero experience in live poker, but in the future I think that I'll play more live."
I've got bad news for the VIP team. It looks like you guys have really got your work cut out for you. Shabalin's ultimate journey is the final frontier, "My dream is to become a space tourist so I'm dreaming about sitting down in a shuttle and watching our Earth from there," he said. "I now have a chance to meet poker stars, but real stars are my goal."
A big PokerStars Blog thanks to Ilya Gorodetskiy for his time and help.
Are you making the most of the PokerStars VIP Club?
The PokerStars VIP Club offers a lot of benefits and bonuses. Here are just a few which are coming up soon. Find out more about the VIP Club here.
1. Free money for the high rollers
There's a Million Dollar Quarterly Freeroll for Supernova VIP's taking place on May 24.
2. Scooping up SCOOP tcikets
There are three fantastic SCOOP satellites for SilverStars and up. There are three VIP Bash tournaments,one for each level of SCOOP taking place on Saturday, May 17 at 2:30 ET.
SCOOP-L: 500 FPP satellite (250 entries guaranteed)
SCOOP-M: 5,000 FPP satellite (75 entries guaranteed)
SCOOP-H: 25,000 FPP satellite (2 entries guaranteed)
3. Living it up in Lisbon
The next VIP Club Live is on June 7 in Lisbon, Portugal. You can purchase a ticket for you and a guest from the VIP Store, the ticket gives you entry, food, drink and entertainment. It's free for Supernova Elite VIP's, but you can come along whatever your level. Check it out under 'VIP Club Live' in the store.
Rick Dacey is a staff writer for the PokerStars Blog.