Somewhere in Spain the Colillas family was trying to absorb a message from their son. He was an ocean away, and if the text message was true, he was now a millionaire.
Ramón Colillas could barely keep up with the whirlwind around him. Cameras were everywhere. His phone wouldn’t stop making noise. Everybody wanted to talk to him. A week earlier, he’d been a humble poker player playing for casual stakes. Now, he was a $5 million poker champion and he hadn’t even called his parents.
“I have sent them a message by WhatsApp,” Colillas said.
At 30 years old, Colillas wandered around the sprawling Atlantis resort in a pair of shorts and a green shirt. He wore a backpack and a reserved look of wonder. It had not been many years since he had watched TV at home and seen big time poker players battling in the Bahamas.
“I would watch the television broadcast at night and think ‘I want to go play there and I’ll make it,'” he said.
Now, he’d made it. He’d won what PokerStars called a Platinum Pass, a shiny card that gave him a free flight to the Bahamas, a hotel room at Atlantis, and an entry to the $25,000 PokerStars Players No-Limit Hold’em Championship. After that, it was up to him to see what he could do.
In a field of more than 1,000 players–some recreational Platinum Pass holders, some high-rolling pros–Colillas survived and thrived. He fought through talented players and found himself just as capable.
“I used to play freerolls and every once in a while I earned a few cents. It always struck me that those tournaments were always won by the same players, and I asked how it was possible,” he said.
If he’d only known where he’d end up.
If you had asked him years ago, Colillas would have said he was destined for a future in engineering. His brain was suited for it. The problem was, his heart wasn’t. In his gut, he was a competitor.
“My cousin told me once: ‘you have to do what you like.'” Colillas said.
What did Colillas like? He liked sports. He liked competition. He was a capable football player. He studied physical education at University of Vic in Barcelona and played on some minor league football teams. He even started to think he could make a living do it. And he thought that same thing until he blew out his knee. His ligaments were shredded, and for a lesser man, it would have been the end of fledgling career.
Instead, Colillas let doctors re-engineer him, and he went to work rehabbing. He eventually found himself back on the pitch and playing for another minor league team. And then he was playing for Manresa in the heart of Catalonia. He was back. His future was ahead of him.
It just wasn’t the future he’d planned.
He blew out his other knee.
He rehabbed again. He made it back again.
He blew out a knee again.
He had to accept there were some battles he couldn’t win.
Colillas became a personal trainer, a job he didn’t hate but one he didn’t love. In the back of his mind, he was meant for bigger things. And he hadn’t forgotten what an old man told him once in a bar.
Back in his football days, he and his teammates would go out for a drink after games and play cards. One night, that old man walked up to their table and said, “You should play poker.”
Since that time, Colillas had been doing just that. He knew enough to win some freerolls. He played a live €100 nightly tournament and won it. He began to play more and more, and eventually got to the point he was winning…and not loving his job enough to want to stay in the city.
Colillas moved back to his small village, a place called Puig-reig, a 1,000-year-old town of 4,400 people. He opened a gym there. There were doubts about whether such a small population could support the venture. Colillas put those worries to rest immediately. The gym was so successful, he barely had time to sleep. When he did sleep, he dreamt of what he could be and those poker nights in the Bahamas.
“If I had one free hour, I would use it to study or play,” he said.
He learned and moved up quickly, winning good cash and satellites to play in major tournaments, all along sweating the idea of ducking out of his responsibilities at the gym to go play poker. His clients counted on him. His parents had supported him.
“I did not know how to explain the reason for my absence,” he said. His professionalism warred against his heart’s desire. “I want to have the freedom to travel and to not have an alarm clock.”
And there in the back of his mind, he heard his cousin’s voice: “You have to do what you like.”
And so he did. Like his football career, it started off looking like nothing could go wrong And like his football career, everything did. His bankroll took a massive hit. His career was in a nosedive. There was a chance his flight of fancy was going to crash and burn. He lowered his buy-ins hoping to recover. It didn’t work. He went months and months without a result to speak of.
Enter, the Mystery Man.
If something didn’t get lost in the translation, Colillas described his rescuer as his “poker father.”
Colillas is a private man himself, and for reasons of his poker father’s privacy, Colillas preferred to keep that name to himself. No matter who it was, the meeting was a turning point in the future champion’s life.
“I was always self-taught. I could never share experiences with other players, and he was my poker father, He helped me.”
The result: Colillas won back everything he’d lost in the year, and then as 2017 became 2018, he caught fire. He won in the first stop of the Championship of Spain (CEP). As the tournament started to run late into the night, he conceded to a deal.
“I had been playing for many hours, and I was a bit tired,” he said.
The problem was that the deal included splitting up the leaderboard points on the CEP. That had been a mistake since a Platinum Pass and trip to the Bahamas were guaranteed to the winner of the leaderboard.
“My girlfriend’s birthday was coming and she told me that this year she did not want anything for her anniversary. She just wanted to go to the Bahamas,” he said.
And so instead of taking a break, he played the rest of the CEP stops…and he won the Platinum Pass.
January 6 is a day Colillas would normally be with his family. It had been that way as long as he been alive. That is El Día de los Reyes in Spain. That’s Three Wisemen Day or Three Kings Day. It a Christian celebration that commemorates the three magi visiting the Christ child. You might know it as Epiphany. Colillas knew it because the memory of it made him feel like a child again.
“It was the first time I spent this day away from my family,” Colillas said.
It was also the day he sat down to play the PSPC in the Bahamas. It was the biggest tournament of his life. It was the biggest chance he’d ever had.
“When I arrived, I remembered those memories and emotions from when I was a child,” he said. “There were nerves.”
Colillas had one goal. If he achieved it, he would allow himself hope. He wanted to get into the money. It would earn him a little more than $25,000, a pretty big score. He made it with relative ease.
“Once I got into the money, I said it’s time to dream,” he said.
Colillas in a dream
By now, the rest of the story is most poker players’ dream and Colillas’ reality. He ended the PSPC with a kiss from his girlfriend, poker’s most elaborate trophy, and $5.1 million.
Colillas plays heads up with Julien Martini for the PSPC trophy
It had been a couple of years since he lost his bankroll, many more years since he’d blown out of the ranks of professional football, and more than a decade since his cousin had given him the advice that led him all the way to a championship in Paradise.
Ramón Colillas did what he liked.
Jorge Iglesias of the Spanish PokerStars Blog conducted the interview with Colillas and contributed to this report.