EPT11 Prague: Nicholas Galtos, from roller hockey to high rollers

There have been representatives of many sports who have turned their hand to poker -- either during their playing days or, more usually, once they are over. These include the roster of Team PokerStars Sportstar, such as Rafa Nadal and Ronaldo, for instance, as well as various other footballers including Royston Drenthe, who once played for Real Madrid, and the former Orient player, Steve Watts.

Today in Prague, however, there's an Australian ex-professional roller hockey player competing in the EPT Main Event, which is not a sentence PokerStars Blog would ever have expected to write. The principal reason is that there's only ever been one Australian professional roller hockey player.

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The one and only Nicholas Galtos

His name is Nicholas Galtos, and it's actually no fluke that he's here in Prague today. It isn't even his first visit here for poker as he finished 22nd in the main event in 2012. Since then Galtos has scored cashes in Edinburgh, Cork, Las Vegas, Valencia, Dublin and London and it doesn't take long in his company to realise that the 56-year-old Aussie, who now calls Montreaux in Switzerland home, has had an interesting and varied life and has done it, for the most part, with a smile on his face. It's also immediately apparent that he was destined for sporting career.

"My dad took over a bankrupt sports centre in Brisbane which had a skating rink, swimming pool and squash courts and we had an apartment above it," he says. "So growing up there I was swimming every day in the morning, playing squash and hustling pool games, 9-ball and 8-ball when I was nine."

His attention soon turned to the sport he would go on to make a living from: "Then I started playing roller hockey and got pretty good at it. I was playing all the sports at school, as you do in Australia, but the roller hockey was something I loved and I ended up playing for the national team."

Roller hockey is like ice hockey, but is played on a dry surface. There are two main types of the game, with the rules and equipment differing based on what sort of skates you play in. If you're wearing inline skates, it is more like ice hockey but if you play in quad skates (four wheels) it makes the game more like football or basketball due to the greater manoeuvrability that the skates offer.

Galtos's skills helped him travel the world and, in 1978, when he was 18, he travelled to Argentina for the World Championships. At the time Argentina was a country full of political uncertainty and was under rule of a military dictatorship. It didn't stop the crowds coming out for sport, however, and Galtos played in front of a crowd of 14,000 in San Juan. "The same year that they won the World Cup in football they also won the roller hockey World Championships," Galtos says.

The military rule extended off the pitch too. "Each team had a bodyguard who would travel on the team bus," Galtos says. "Ours was a guy called Guido. He had a huge pistol in his pocket all the time and you weren't allowed out of the hotel on your own."

Not that it stopped Galtos. "I kind of fell in love with a girl there and I got suspended from the Australian team for three years because I snuck out with two other guys and went to meet this girl," he says. "We climbed down drainpipes and we took off. I spoke Spanish, which helped, so we went out with these girls and then came back. I got caught, it was an embarrassing thing to happen, and they kicked me out for three years, but I got back in by 1982. I could still play for my club team but not the national team."

After returning from Argentina, Galtos was soon off on his travels again. At 20, he played for a team in La Coruna, in northern Spain. He then returned to Australia to complete his studies, before another eventful trip to Europe in 1984. "We were dropped off in Italy before we went to the World Championships," he says. "In a warm-up match I scored four goals against some top Italian team. The president of this team was a millionaire and he told me he wanted me to sign for his team so I rung my wife and told her I was staying in Italy."

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Galtos - got goals, got signed

While the game in Australia was strictly amateur, it was a different case in Europe. "In Australia, we'd be lucky if we got a thousand people but in the 1980s in Italy you'd get between 5,000 and 7,000 people at a game," he says. And back in the 1980s roller hockey had a higher profile than it does now and it was more than possible to make a decent living from the game.

"During EPT Barcelona I actually went back and saw one of my friends called Jordi who used to be the captain of FC Barcelona's roller hockey team, which was the best team in the world in the 80s," Galtos says. "He's got pictures on the wall of him receiving awards as top sportsman of the year from the King of Spain. He was on the cover of all the top sports papers and magazines. I remember when I was playing for La Coruna I came down to see him and I trained with the Barcelona team for a couple of months before I went home. He was one year older than me - so 22 - and I remember that he was driving a turbo Porsche and making about $100,000 a year tax free which was absolute fortune in Spain at the time. He lived like a king and everywhere he went everyone knew him."

He continues: "While roller hockey has gone down a bit in popularity now in those days games were televised and after football, roller hockey was the next big sport."

Roller hockey reached its zenith in 1992, when the Olympic Games came to Barcelona. Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was the President of the International Olympic Committee from 1980-2001, was an ex-roller hockey goalkeeper, and added it as a demonstration sport at the Games.

"It was his gift back to the sport that kind of launched his career because he was formerly the president of the Roller Hockey Federation," Galtos says. "I was 34 in 1992 and I was like, 'Man, I got to play this.'"

And play it he did.

"I scored the only goal against Spain when we got flogged (they lost 17-1) and I also scored two goals against Brazil," Galtos says. "The state of Australian roller hockey was not very good in 1992 and in fact we were lucky to qualify for the finals. All of our players were amateurs and practising twice a week. I was playing in Europe practising five times a week and the top pros in Spain and Italy, were practising twice a day, five days a week."

Many professional sportsmen look to move into the coaching side of things and Galtos found himself in charge of the Canadian national team. "Best fun I ever had," he says. "Two of them were ex-professional ice hockey players and they were fantastic people."

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Coaching was not for Galtos

But coaching was never a proper consideration, and as Galtos's playing career wound down, he was playing in Switzerland and exploring interests outside of the game. "I started moving into business and working with language schools," he says. "I bought my own language school in Switzerland and went on from there." He now has a franchise chain of language schools in the Czech Republic and Switzerland, with around 14 in total, teaching English, French and German.

But unlike so many sportsman who use poker as a chance to stretch their competitive muscles once their playing days are over, Galtos was actually playing poker before he was scoring goals in roller hockey.

"I've been playing cash games for years and years," he says. "I started playing poker when I was six years old with my Dad - he's a Greek-Russian guy - so there was a big game every week at our house. I started playing that when I was six. The game would've been five-card draw."

His poker education came in handy when on his travels with the Australian national team. "We always used to play on trips," he says. "I can remember once being in an Australian team travelling to New Zealand I was young, probably 18. I can remember winning a few hundred in a game between us and yawning and wanting to go to sleep. The big guys in the team would turn to you and say, 'It's pretty hard to sleep with two broken legs.' So you'd lose 30 per cent of so of it back before you could leave."

Galtos also has a great story of a time he travelled to Vegas, when he was in his early 20s. "It was for a conference, completely unrelated to poker," he says. "I dropped into the Mirage and I played 7-card stud. I remember this guy walking by a young guy, a bit weird, funny nose sort of thing and he sat down at the table. This old lady who was next to me said: 'Don't play a pot with him.' I asked her why and she told me he was Stu Ungar. 'Who the hell is Stu Ungar?' I said to her, and she told me he was the best of the best of the best. I chatted with him for a couple of minutes. I didn't know who he was at that stage you know."

For the past few years Galtos has been learning the language of tournament poker having been strictly a cash player up until then. "In Switzerland I focused on my business and it was only a few years ago that they allowed casino poker so I started playing again," he says. "There were a few young guys who played some of the tournaments but I'd never played a tournament in my life. I played my first tournament three years ago."

In the beginning, Galtos must have wondered why he didn't turn to tournament poker sooner. "I had the typical thing where it all looks so easy," he says. "I came 22nd here in Prague in the Main Event (in 2012) but the second year was just misery. One could say variance but I'd say I made a lot of mistakes. So I decided I should probably study this game and started reading, studying tapes, looking online."

He also made some useful connections from his time travelling the circuit. "I was fortunate enough to meet Faraz Jaka, who I really like as both a person and a player. I've chatted a lot with Calvin Anderson, who's a great guy and I know Fabrice Soulier and ElkY."

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Haxton - has impressed Galtos

At EPT London in October he got his greatest poker lesson to date. "I satellited into the EPT London High Roller and it was an awesome experience," he says "I had the Dutch guy who came third in the November Nine [Jorryt van Hoof] on the table. I had Ole Schemion on my right, fantastic person to chat with. Sorel Mizzi was on my table too. He was an absolute nightmare to play against because he's some unpredictable and so good. Just playing with all these amazing players was a great learning experience. Being with these young guys it keeps me thinking, it keeps me curious and keeps my mind moving."

Today Galtos has been busy making friends with another high roller as he's at the same table with Ike Haxton. "He's a lovely person," Galtos says. "I can't sit here and expect to compete at his level but I can learn from him and I can watch how he plays and try and understand why he does what he does."

But paramount to him is making sure he's enjoying himself while learning. "I want to have a good time. I'm past the point where I'm freaking out if I make a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. I was too serious before, when you've been an Olympic athlete you've got that competitive instinct. I chatted to Boris Becker in Berlin at an event and I could see he was very intense as well. At the end he said to me that he should just chill out and enjoy it more and I thought that was good advice."

Full coverage of the EPT Prague Poker Festival is on the main EPT Prague page. Super High Roller coverage, including blow-by-blow updates in the panel at the top, is on the Super High Roller page. And the Eureka main event is down to the final table and playing to a winner today. That's on the Eureka Prague page.

Nick Wright
@PokerStars in Prague