EPT10 Sanremo: 'Chip and a chair?' More a 'free trial download and a dream'
Stories of novices playing high stakes poker tournaments are not exactly rare. There's always someone in a field of several hundred who qualified for a few dollars, even some who found their way here for a few cents after one of those epic multi-layered qualifying routes that turn a potential min-cash into a massive windfall. Then there are those who entered a competition, promptly forgot about it, only to be reminded a few months later that they entered by an email telling them they'd won.
This is how Oleg Lichii, a language student from Moldova, came to be playing Day 1B of EPT Sanremo, although in the best tradition of back stories, it wasn't exactly a straightforward passage to Italy.
Lichii, 21, is here courtesy of Poker Tracker, an official sponsor of the European Poker Tour, which ran a sweepstake a competition over several months in which anyone could register simply by downloading or updating their copy of the Poker Tracker software.
Lichii did just that, and today is in Sanremo cashing in his prize, taking a seat in the Main Event to play the biggest game of his life. It's worth re-emphasising this last point, for Lichii's game of choice is usually a 25 cent MTT.
"I saw the sweepstake on Poker Tracker and I decided to register," said Lichii. "I never win sweepstakes or the lottery and I didn't have any expectations. I didn't expect to win. When I saw the message that I was a winner I was very happy. I couldn't believe it. It was my dream to be at an EPT because I never played in such a big tournament."
Oleg Lichii at home in Moldova
But while Lichii was hailed as the winner of the Sweepstake it almost went sour for the Moldovan, as Steven McLoughlin of Poker Tracker explained.
"The terms of the contest stated that you had 72 hours to respond, to confirm that you are who you are and that you're eligible to play in the event," he said. "Oleg didn't respond within 72 hours, so the rules of the sweepstakes meant that after 72 hours we had to pick an alternate winner. He was from Vietnam, and we announced him as the alternate winner. About three hours later, along comes Oleg's email."
"I saw my messages and was shocked!" said Lichii, relieved that the chap in Vietnam didn't reply.
"We still haven't heard back from him," said McLoughlin. "We emailed and emailed."
The result was that Lichii was reinstated, albeit after a 72 hour sweat during which he anxiously to hear whether the alternative winner replied. So with that drama now behind him, Lichii can turn his attention to the new drama unfolding today.
"I've played live poker two or three times," he admitted yesterday. "This will be interesting for me. This is a new challenge, a new experience, and I will try to show my best game."
After talking to McLoughlin this morning Lichii was apparently nervous as hell before play started. But looking at him in the first level the butterflies appear to have flown away. He may be a 25 cent player (his biggest win is $89 which, as McLoughlin pointed out, is less than a third of the main event vig), but now at least he looks the part of the confident experienced player, seated to the left of Pierre Neuville. He may harbour dreams of a famous victory, but they're now hidden behind a rather convincing poker face.
Lichii fitting right in on Day 1B
"If I won my life would change!" joked Lichii when asked what it would mean in a country yet to experience much of a poker boom. "I will be a star in Moldova!"
It would also put an enormous spike on his Poker Tracker profit chart.
For the man behind the whole sweepstake though it's more about the thrill of watching a micro-stakes player, who has dreamed of playing on the EPT, getting his wish, and a real opportunity to test himself against some of the world's best players.
"The only thing we hope for him is that he runs as deep as he can, and plays as good as he can, and enjoys himself," said McLoughlin. "Whatever the outcome is it's an incredible life experience. He gets a chance to visit Italy for the first time, meet all the famous players he's only seen on TV. That to us is the most important thing.
"It really is the old chip and a chair story," he added, before modifying it slightly. "This is basically a 'free trial download and a dream'."
We'll keep track of Lichii's progress throughout the day. In the meantime spare a thought for the poker player somewhere in Vietnam who is one click away from opening an email that will usher in a lifetime spent kicking himself.
Stephen Bartley is a PokerStars Blog reporter.