PokerStars Championship Sochi: The Best Russian Players Ever

Igor Kurganov_2May17_v1.jpg

PokerStars and the world of high-stakes poker will roll into Russia in just a few weeks when PokerStars Championship Sochi kicks off on May 20.

Of course, Russians are no strangers to high-stakes poker with the game's popularity growing in the country over the past few years. So, players should expect fields in the many scheduled events running through May 31 to be big, and the prize pools to be bountiful.

In fact, the PokerStars Championship Sochi Main Event, running May 25-31, comes with a RUB 150,000,000 prize pool guarantee that's worth about $2.6 million.

New Team PokerStars Pro Igor Kurganov, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, and Russia's all-time leading money winner, figures his countrymen will show up in droves for this one, considering how much they've taken to the game.

"Russians tend to put a lot of emphasis on an engineering and scientific mindset," he told PokerStars Blog. "That shows in the high amount of top mathematicians and software engineers hailing from Russia. This stretches further to esports and chess. So poker is just right for a people that enjoy strategic thinking."

From Kurganov's perspective, there are a ton of reasons to get excited about PokerStars Championship Sochi.

"It's a beautiful area with great nature, a recently modernized summer getaway," he said. "There are many very strong players and poker hobbyists from Russia who love the game, and it's definitely time to organize and run a great event in our home country."

No mountain too deep

Caucasus Mountains_2May17.jpgSochi is famous for its views of the Caucasus Mountains (Image courtesy of Flickr/Simon Ilin)

Sochi, which sits along the shores of the Black Sea near the Caucasus Mountains, is indeed Russia's largest resort city.

The city played host to the XXII Olympic Winter Games, has been the home to the Russian Formula 1 Grand Prix since 2014, and will be one of the host cities for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

It's famous for its views of the Caucasus Mountains, pebble and sand beaches, subtropical vegetation, many parks, monuments and Stalinist architecture. Close to two million people visit Sochi every summer and the Russian elite are always among them.

The license holder, operator and host venue for PokerStars Championship Sochi will be the Sochi Casino and Resort. The opulent casino and resort property became the first casino in Russia's newest dedicated gambling zone when it opened this past January. It has been hailed as an entertainment complex to rival anywhere in the world and is said to have been built in the spirit of the best casinos of Las Vegas.

Sochi Casino and Resort_2May17.jpgThe five-star Sochi Casino and Resort may have used Vegas as a model, garnering regard on a global scale for its entertainment (Image courtesy of Sochi Casino and Resort)

Sochi Casino & Resort is a complex with great restaurants, a theater, convention space, retail shops and other amenities on par with the best gaming facilities in the world.

In addition to the Main Event, highlights of the PokerStars Championship Sochi schedule include the RUB 66,000 (approx. $1,160) PokerStars National Championship Main Event and the RUB 3,000,000 (approx. $52,700) PokerStars Championship Super High Roller. There will also be cash games running 24/7 using Casino Sochi Units that are equivalent to RUB 55 or $0.90.

Players traveling from other parts of the world to the event are reminded a visa may be necessary.

There's little doubt this will be the biggest international poker event in Russia's history.

As such, all the events and live games will be hotly contested by players from around the world, including the following list of the top five Russian poker players that the PokerStars Blog has put together - with a little help from Igor Kurganov too.

5. Alexander Kravchenko

Alexander Krevchenko_2May17.jpgAlexander Kravchenko is a top contender coming into PokerStars Championship Sochi

Moscow native Alexander Kravchenko sits seventh on Russia's all-time money list with $4,301,004 in career live tournament earnings to date. His biggest career score was, of course, the $1,852,721 he earned finishing fourth in the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event.

He really put Russian poker on the map with that run, but he actually became the first Russian to win a WSOP bracelet when he captured the $1,500 Omaha Hi-Lo 8 or Better title earlier that year.

Kurganov says Kravchenko is a tough pro and a threat in any game.

"I haven't played much with him, in part because he enjoys many more games than just hold'em," he said. "But he does seem like a seasoned professional."

4. Vladimir Troyanovskiy

Vladimir Troyanovskiy_2May17.jpgVladimir Troyanovskiy is clearly one of Russia's greatest tournament players

Vladimir Troyanovskiy currently ranks sixth on Russia's all-time money list with $4,741,185 in live tournament earnings. He is clearly one of the greatest tournament players in Russian history.

His best live cash was the $792,180 he collected for a runner-up finish in the 2013 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure $25,000 High Roller. However, Troyanovskiy has banked numerous six-figure scores playing high roller events around the globe.

He's a fierce competitor and one Kurganov is always looking out for.

"He's a wolf in wolf's clothing," said Kurganov. "I will probably never forget how he snarled his teeth at Fedor Holz at the feature table of a [$100,000 buy-in event] in one hand, and then winked at us when floating against him in another, before he won the pot with a bet on the river. He's a great player in many games."

3. Vitaly Lunkin

Vitaly Lunkin_2May17.jpgVitaly Lunkin made a name for himself in 2008, but his 2009 run was historic

Vitaly Lunkin sits fourth on Russia's all-time money list with $6,283,528 in live tournament earnings. But this Moscow native is probably best remembered for dominating some of the biggest events at the 2009 WSOP.

Lunkin actually made a name for himself a year earlier, winning his first WSOP bracelet in a $1,500 No-Limit Hold'em event at the 2008 WSOP. But his 2009 run was nothing short of historic.

First, he won his second bracelet in the $40,000 40th Annual No-Limit Hold'em event at the start of the series, then he went on to finish runner up in the $10,000 Pot-Limit Omaha Championship and fourth in the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. Championship.

Lunkin has developed quite a reputation for running good and even managed a €50,000 High Roller win at EPT Barcelona in 2013 for €771,300, proving 2009 was no fluke.

"Vitaly really loves the game and it shows," Kurganov said. "Lunkin vibes are real."

2. Ivan Demidov

Ivan Demidov_2May17.jpgIvan Demidov's top earnings, along with his reputation, are enough for inclusion in this list

Ivan Demidov comes in second on Russia's all-time money list with $6,843,791 in live tournament earnings. Of course, most of that comes from a fantastic 2008 showing, where he finished third in the World Series of Poker Europe Main Event for $608,995 and runner-up in the World Series of Poker Main Event for $5,809,595.

Demidov didn't cash in a reported poker tournament in 2016, and his spot on this list could have easily gone to a rising Russian cash-game star like Timofey Kuznetsov.

However, Kuznetsov will have to settle for an honorable mention for now, simply due to Demidov's top earnings and reputation as one of Russian poker's nicest guys.

"I've only met and played with Ivan very little, so I can't say much aside from he seemed like a nice and smart guy," said Kurganov.

1. Igor Kurganov

Igor Kurganov_2May17_v2.jpgYou had better believe that Russia's top player and Team PokerStars Pro, Igor Kurganov, will be at PokerStars Championship Sochi

Of course, Igor Kurganov is No. 1 on this list. He's No. 1 on Russia's all-time money list with an outstanding $12,070,777 in live tournament earnings. That's almost double what Demidov's got in second and good for a place on poker's top 30 all time.

Kurganov's biggest career score was the $1,559,373 he earned finishing third in the €100,000 Super High Roller in Monte Carlo back in 2014, but if you ask him, his own personal career highlight was a battle with one of poker's best.

"Naturally that would be my 2012 heads-up win in the Monte Carlo €25,000 event against Daniel Negreanu," Kurganov said.

The $1,425,874 he earned with that win was a tidy sum, but Kurganov probably thinks of it as a career highlight for other reasons as well.

"While learning the game, I enjoyed the cash game episodes of the time, so players like Daniel Negreanu and Gus Hansen were people I looked up to," he said. "It's great to now be able to play and beat them."

Looking ahead, Kurganov will be attending PokerStars Championship Sochi. He's eager about a future that includes poker and a whole lot more.

"I still love the game and want to keep playing for a while," he said. "Simultaneously, I'm fortunate to now be able to apply some of the skills that poker teaches you to other aspects of life, like investing in tech startups, and most importantly, learning about rationality and ethics for"