WSOP 2011: Dinner with Team PokerStars Pro's bracelet winners

wsop2011-thumb-blog.pngThe two men sit with a corner of the table between them. They're speaking in Russian. One of them has a pretty blonde named Jamie at his elbow. Glasses of expensive water sit untouched in front of them all. The Russian whispers go back and forth across the table and register unintelligible on nearby ears.

The conversation continues until a waiter arrives. As if a switch on his back has been flipped, one of the men drops the Russian and slips with no effort into an accent-free, almost middle-American English.

"Which is heavier?" he asks, "The sea bass or the halibut?"

The orders go in and the Russian talk resumes. It goes on like this for a while before a superhero materializes at the door. He has platinum blond hair, an open-collared shirt, and sunglasses that reflect his domain. He speaks French, not Russian, but it doesn't matter. In world outside this restaurant, the men speak the same language.

The quiet Russian stands and speaks in English for the first time. He embraces the superhero and whispers, "Hey, fish."

The Brazilian strolls in a few minutes late. He's tan, just off a speedboat, and about to be sore from an afternoon of wake-boarding. He goes to each of the men at the table and shakes each of their hands one by one. "Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations," he says with each shake of the hand.

One seat at the table sits conspicuously empty. Each of the four men around the end of the table look at the unused chair and know something is amiss.

"Is Jason not coming?" one asks.

"He'll be here," another says. "He's still in the Main."

***

Team PokerStars Pro has been around almost as long as PokerStars. The stable of elite players has enough World Series of Poker gold bracelets to use them as Christmas tree ornaments. Nonetheless, until 2011, the Team has never won more than two bracelets in one summer. That changed this year when the Team pulled in five of the 57 preliminary event titles. Eugene Katchalov, Jason Mercier, Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier, Andre Akkari, and Max Lykov combined for nearly $2.4 million in first place wins.

Keep in mind, when PokerStars first formed its team of Pros, most of the aforementioned young guns were better known to their high school chemistry teachers or video game nuts. No one could have predicted they would become a small cabal of some of the most feared poker players in the world.

***

The superhero known simply as "ElkY" removes his sunglasses and sets them on the table. Across the room, his manager whispers to a young lady, "That's the rock star."

ElkY looks the part. His clothes flash, his hair reaches for the clouds, and his fingers look like they could shoot lightening. If he was really in a rock band, he would be the frontman, a modern day Robert Plant, but flashier.

If ElkY is the screaming singer, the Russian Max Lykov is his stoic bass player, plodding, determined, and the definition of Russian. His groove is steady and works right in time with sometimes rhythmic, occasionally syncopated beats of Akkari's drum kit. Katchalov is on rhythm guitar. That's a given. That just leaves someone to play lead guitar, someone to stand just on the edge of the spotlight and effortlessly amaze. That's the guy who is about to walk in the door.

***

The 2011 Series marked the first bracelets for Katchalov, ElkY, Akkari, and Lykov. For Mercier, it was the time to win his second. His victory in the $5,000 Pot Limit Omaha Six-Max event won him $619,575. Since he first won EPT San Remo three years ago, Mercier has put together 55 cashes, a dozen first place finishes, and more than $6 million in total live winnings. Unassuming but intensely confident, Mercier is the picture of 2011 poker. He and his fellow Team PokerStars Pros represent the new generation of the game.

ElkY is one of only four winners of poker's Triple Crown (EPT, WPT, and WSOP titles) and cashed four times for $800,000 in cashes in this year's Series, including his $10,000 Seven Card Stud Championship win. Ukrainian Eugene Katchalov was barely six months removed from winning the $100,000 buy-in PCA Super High Roller event when he took down his first WSOP bracelet in the $1,500 Seven Card Stud event. Akkari's win in the $1,500 No-Limit Hold'em tourney made him only the second Brazilian in history to win a bracelet. Lykov did him one better by beating out the biggest-ever preliminary ever crowd at the WSOP for nearly $650,000.

No poker team in the world did better this year.

***

Mercier walks in with his girlfriend and slumps down into a chair. He's on dinner break from Day 2A, and he's all business with the menu. He orders some crab cakes and slides his finger down the menu further.

"Can I get the filet mignon--eight ounces--macaroni and cheese, and carrots?"

He looks up from the menu to acknowledge the people around him.

"Who's this guy," he asks without a hint of irony and throws his thumb at Katchalov. Mercier lets the sentence hang in the air for half a second before slipping into his signature wry smile. The laughs rise up from the table. The Team PokerStars Pro division of 2011 bracelet winners is now all in one place.

This is the first time the five Team Pro members have seen each other since they collected their bracelets. It's a dinner in their honor and a chance to congratulate each other on the achievements.

"It was the third best time in my life," Akkari said with a wide smile, "after the birth of my two daughters."

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But it's business first. Even though the Main Event of the WSOP continues and they have one more chance to pick up another bracelet, they all talk about what's next. It's like a team strategy session as they discuss whether the Bellagio Cup or the Venetian Deep Stack main event is the better opportunity. ElkY is passionate about it.

"Yeah, yeah. Venetian!" he exclaims. "It's the better value." He pauses. "And if you bust out, you can get into Bellagio Cup on Day 1C." He seems pleased with himself.

They're all a little strung out. The Main Event of the WSOP has taken its toll.

"Ten WPTs add up to one Main Event," Katchalov says.

This fires ElkY back up. He can't get over an amateur he played on Day 1 checking behind with the nuts on the river.

"So sick!" ElkY says. "This is the Main Event!"

The implication is clear. None of these men can even remember what it was like to have no clue about the game. They now all think about it on such a high level, the concept of making a mistake like that is now completely alien.

"So sick!" ElkY says again.

It goes on like this for a while. The boys poke fun at Akkari for going out early on Day 1 against a woman in her 90s. He apparently got his stack in bad, and each one of his fellow Team members can't stop laughing about it. Akkari can't help but join them.

He says, "She looked at me and said, 'Hey, kid! Of course I have aces!'"

Akkari exacts his revenge. He takes to Twitter and promises $10 to his followers for the best Tweet needling ElkY. Before long, they're pouring in. They call ElkY the Lady Gaga of poker. Akkari laughs aloud and shows his phone to the table. The screen reads, "Hey, ElkY, get your hand off my leg. Vamoooooooo!"

It's like watching five brothers mess with each other over dinner. They are the superheroes of modern poker. They are the Led Zeppelin of the WSOP. They have enough millions to last them a lifetime. Word gets out on Twitter that all the men are together in one place.

"Someone just Tweeted 'You have more money at that table than my city!" Akkari roars.

But there's business to discuss as well. Mercier wants an inventory of how everybody else is doing. Katchalov and ElkY are chatting about a business opportunity. Lykov has become immersed in something on his iPad. What's more, two pretty women with cameras have shown up to interview the bracelet winners. Katchalov busies himself trying to translate the phrase "ladies man" for Lykov. It's not easy.

Before long, the food is gone from the table, and the Main Event dinner break is almost over. Mercier has to run. It's only been 90 minutes, but the five men have probably discussed 50 different poker hands and four future poker tournaments. To see them together as a team makes it clear just how they manage operate so well as individuals. When one puts that much talent around one table, there's no doubting that they're going to need more wrists for gold bracelets in the very near future. And, if for some reason they ever do form that rock band, make sure you get some front row tickets. It's a show you have to see to believe.

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Brad Willis
@BradWillis in World Series of Poker