For the first 35 years in the life of Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, Saturday or Sunday morning will have been greeted with the kind of spine-tingling expectation shared by sports fans the world over at the start of what is known as “game day”. The man now better known as simply Ronaldo was once a kid brought up in poverty in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but his super-human abilities with a soccer ball at his feet soon made him one of the most recognisable and devastating athletes in the world.
It is Saturday today in Paradise Island in the Bahamas, and despite having retired from soccer four years ago — setting in stone a record of 414 goals from 616 games, two World Cups, three World Player of the Year titles, and major honours from leagues in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Brazil — Ronaldo is again experiencing the thrill of competition at the highest level. The field of battle has changed, however. There’s not a football field in sight.
Rather Ronaldo woke up in his hotel room at the Atlantis Resort this morning, changed into grey chino shorts, black slip-on shoes and a golf-style polo shirt and headed down the long corridor to the Imperial Ballroom, where he unripped a plastic bag filled with poker chips.
When the fans wanting photographs would allow him, Ronaldo ambled on to the vast playing surface of the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure: serried ranks of poker tables assembled over a lurid carpet. His opponents? The 507 players left in a tournament costing $10,000 to buy in and offering a first prize of close to $1.5 million.
Even if the money perhaps doesn’t mean all that much to Ronaldo, whose skills earned him a kings ransom in salaries and transfer fees throughout a 16-year football career, the desire to compete with the best of the best burns as fiercely as ever.
“I love poker because it’s a competition, which I like,” Ronaldo says. “Since I retired from football, I still enjoy a lot to be in competition. So it’s the same feeling as a football match. It’s great to be in the competition.”
Ronaldo’s second life as a poker player started slowly, with a handful of appearances around the tables of the Latin America Poker Tour and a few duels with other sport stars, such as Rafa Nadal, in events organised by his new sponsor, PokerStars. But he is playing for real here in the Bahamas, in a tournament featuring the best players in the world, and has already survived eight hours of play on Thursday, allowing a return to the tables today. Although delighted at his progress in this event, Ronaldo, who is now 38, confessed he has plenty still to learn.
“I still have to improve a lot,” Ronaldo says. “I read books about poker. I try to understand more about this game. I was playing home games and I never thought I could play at this level. And I’m glad because I made it from day one to day two and that means I’m improving my game.”
Nothing will ever supplant soccer as the national game in Brazil, but poker’s growth in the country over the past eight years has been precipitous. In 2008, the Latin America Poker Tour (LAPT) hosted its first ever tournament in Rio de Janeiro and attracted 315 entrants. Last November, when the Brazil Series of Poker (BSOP) event took place in Sao Paolo, 2,749 runners contested the largest major poker tournament ever hosted outside of Las Vegas.
Ronaldo has played a significant role in the Brazilian poker boom, bringing popular legitimacy to a pastime previously considered to be the preserve of gangsters and reprobates.
“I don’t know how much more popular it can be, but I’m sure it’s going to be very, very big and very fast,” he says. “We have changed the people’s minds, because in the past poker was a criminal game, underground game where people were smoking, drinking. Now it’s all about minds. It’s a sport of the mind. People understand that change and appreciate that. More people come to play poker, online and in live events. That is why I am here. That’s why I play for PokerStars. But also because I believe this game is special, a game for the sporting mind.”
Meanwhile Andre Akkari, who is Ronaldo’s friend, tennis partner and poker coach, has become a mainstream celebrity owing to his poker exploits. Having won a World Series bracelet in June 2011 (Brazil’s second, after Alexandre Gomes in 2008), Akkari is a regular in newspaper columns and TV and radio features, as well as advertisements even for non-poker-related goods. He said it took him more than an hour to walk a few hundred yards at the BSOP event, such was the demand for handshakes and autographs.
Ronaldo, of course, has long been accustomed to such attention. As one of the most high-profile footballers in the world, in a career that took him to soccer strongholds in Milan, Madrid and Barcelona, he has been an icon for young players and supporters, who wear his name emblazoned across their shoulders, and has also spent decades under intense scrutiny from the media. Although there are wonderful riches on offer to the most successful, the pressures and disappointments in football are brutally magnified.
Poker players, whose lives are blighted by the variance inherent in their game, can often slip into woe-is-me self pity when they enter invariable downswings. Yet the downswings for an athlete – the injuries that can mean months on the sidelines, watching impotently as team-mates contest huge prizes – require enormous mental strength to complement physical honing. It’s why the likes of Nadal and Ronaldo, whose careers have been interrupted for long periods by serious injury, should be sought out by any poker player struggling to climb out of a temporary rut.
“You have to be patient and wait for your moments,” Ronaldo says. “Like in football, when you are injured, you have to wait. You cannot play, you cannot train. I was waiting a long, long time in football. For almost two years [after suffering a major knee injury, from which it was feared he might never return] I was just doing physio, thinking only of the next day and not the next match. But I was good then: I felt so much love for football that I did everything to be able to play football again. I have the same problem when I’m playing poker. I’m not that patient, and I have to be patient to be good.”
The shift to poker has also required Ronaldo to apply what he knows about coaching to different discipline. As a footballer, he had an instinctive brilliance, an animalistic perception of opportunity and a rare fearlessness and composure at the critical moments. But he also honed his skills on the training ground, working with some of the game’s most influential coaches, and he has brought the approach to the new arena.
“Yesterday I was at the tables and I was watching the other players and seeing what they do,” he says. “That is interesting because you never play the same as anyone else. Each hand is different. I’m very curious. I try to get as much information as I can to improve my game.
“I manage adrenaline very well. For me, every football match was a nice experience, because I felt that adrenaline. When I play big poker events like this, I feel the same way. When I’m at the table, I’m very focused; I try to be focused for seven hours, eight hours. It’s not easy because it’s a long time at the table and you have to be focused at all times.
“When the pressure is big, I always do the best for me and for the team. Also in a poker game. When there’s action, it’s more pressure for me, but usually I do the best thing to do. Pressure helps me. Pressure really is a big motivation to me.”
It remains to be seen if Ronaldo the poker player can scale the heights of Ronaldo the footballer. It’s impossible, really, to think that any man can be as good in two disciplines as Ronaldo was as the most irrepressible striker of a generation. But even if this remains not much more than a hobby, it won’t be for lack of characteristic Brazilian passion.
“When you talk with your heart, people understand you,” Ronaldo says. “And I am completely in love with poker.”Back to Top