EPT11 Prague: Sara Chafak hauls poker into the 21st century

Poker has always been a male-dominated environment, but it's not really such a novelty these days to think a woman may be in the tournament room for a reason other than to hold her husband's coat. In fact, it's long past high time people stopped being weirdly surprised by successful women in the game -- at least until a man manages to win two European Poker Tour titles, or something like that.

Something happened on the European Poker Tour this season, however, that could suggest that equality in the game is more far advanced than you might think. As unlikely as it sounds, it focuses on Sara Chafak, who is also known as "Miss Finland".

Beauty pageants aren't exactly held up as proof of an advancement in gender politics. To many minds they represent the worst kind of objectification. But the shifting attitude towards Chafak among poker players and reporters over the past four months, since she first appeared at a major tournament, has been remarkably pronounced. It also has a lot more to do with her poker skills than her looks.


Sara Chafak: You, sit there

Chafak was invited to Barcelona in August to compete in a heat of the PokerStars Shark Cage. Two shows were filmed during EPT week in the Catalan capital, and Chafak took her seat alongside Ronnie Bardah, Eugene Katchalov, Kara Scott and Jean-Robert Bellande. All of the same reporters who are now in Prague were also in Barcelona, where we were all offered the chance to talk with or photograph Chafak.

The take-up was poor, however, even though it was well communicated that we had a Miss Universe contestant in our midst. The thing was, the biggest EPT main event was also under way, and the chance to gawp at a beauty queen came low down on most reporters' priority lists. Chafak came to the tournament room, recorded the show, played the Estrellas main event, had a great time, and departed. For all most people knew, we would probably not hear much from her again.

The thing was, unbeknownst to most, Chafak had played one of the most memorable hands of televised poker that day. While everybody else had been focusing on the action of the established stars in the main event, Chafak had been running an outrageous bluff against Bardah and getting the American pro to fold trips on a pretty dry board. (Chafak had only a pair of fours, which were both on the board, and ace high.) Bardah did bellow his misfortune from inside the Shark Cage, but even that fell on mostly deaf ears.

All of that changed when the Shark Cage show was actually edited and broadcast, however. Not long after it hit the airwaves, a cut-down of the bluff was being shared through social media channels and discussed on forums. A thread on Two Plus Two entitled "Ronnie Bardah's Career Is Finished" is now on its 12th page, having garnered more than 25,000 views.

Chafak has become a poker celebrity now, so much so that he arrival to play the Finnish Championship of Poker, being held here in Prague this week, has been greeted with all the anticipation missing from her debut at the tables in Barcelona. I heard a variation on the theme: "Has Miss Finland got here yet?" at least six times yesterday and today, awaiting Chafak's arrival.

I've been quite gratified to think that Miss Finland alone is not enough, but Miss Finland, who can also play poker, holds a significantly greater appeal -- at least to all the nerds in the press room.

Chafak, I can announce, has now arrived to Prague and has taken her seat in the Finnish Championships. Those crazy nordics are playing a €500 no limit hold'em event for the right to call themselves national champion and Chafak has been joined by some other faces familiar to all those in Helsinki and beyond.

Kim Herold, the singer and model who won the €300 PLO tournament yesterday, returned to the felt, but was out within the first couple of levels. But Tommy Lindgren, a singer in a band named Don Johnson, is still involved, similarly Sebastian Rejman, whose renown also stretches to Germany. He is also a musician and TV host, best known as a backstage reporter on The Voice of Finland.


Those crazy Finns, including Herold, left, and Chafak, centre

According to Thomas Udness, the PokerStars country manager for the Nordic region, we shouldn't be too surprised to learn that Chafak has some tricks in her locker. Finnish "celebrity" poker players, particularly singers and musicians, can actually play a bit. Poker is an exceptionally popular way to pass the time on tour buses as they drive up and down the long, lonely roads of Finland on their way to gigs.

Some of the nation's best poker player have also crossed over into mainstream recognition. Ilari Sahamies, for instance, is regular tabloid fodder, while the High Roller exploits of the likes of Juha Helppi or Patrik Antonius can result in huge spikes in web traffic for the outlets covering poker events.

Here in Prague, the national championship, which is expecting a 50-strong field, is being played out beside a €3,000 PLO side event, in which many of the country's best players have taken a seat. Jani Sointula, Joni Jouhkimainen, Aku Joentausta and Helppi are all over there, but are likely to wander over to the smaller event should it go wrong with four cards. Jouhkimainen has said he'll play whatever happens, and is also intending to fit in a High Roller satellite today too.

Chafak was reportedly all in pretty early in proceedings today, but managed to get it through. Miss Finland Poker Champion would be quite some achievement.

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Howard Swains
@howardswains in European Poker Tour