Russian invasion in poker no bluff


Face it. Watching poker live or on television is hardly like watching Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream." There is the drama of winning millions of dollars and a shiny bracelet, and then there is an electroshock therapy scene that leaves you immobile.

Which is why it would be fun for Ivan Demidov to spice things up when he takes his seat at the final table for the World Series of Poker Main Event on Sunday at the Rio.

Which is why Demidov should show up wearing a parka and ski pants with one of those fur Ushanka hats and a pair of black paratrooper boots, walk straight to chips leader Dennis Phillips and offer this chilling pronouncement in his best Drago-like dialect.

"I must break you."

Now that would be cool.

Face it. We have a better chance of seeing Manny Ramirez in a Red Sox jersey again.

Nine players remain at the WSOP, and included in the group is another example of how the modernization of Russia has extended past architectural design and onto Hold'em tables covered with sponsor logos.

The Russians aren't just coming to poker. They have arrived and aren't going away. Poker is the new chess in Russia. It's huge.

"The surge has happened," said professional Daniel Negreanu, who owns four WSOP bracelets. "They are very, very methodical players. Little emotion. They take the game very seriously. You always have to be worried about what they are doing."

Alex Kravchenko made the main event final table last year. Nikolay Evdakov showed up to the WSOP this year and cashed in 10 events. But it is Demidov who is second in chips today with $24.4 million, trailing Phillips by less than two million as the November Nine return to the Rio since the table was set in July.

It is Demidov who this year became the only player in history to reach the final table of the WSOP and the WSOP Europe, finishing third in the latter event last month. He is 27, lives in Moscow and thinks it unhealthy to devote every breathing second to bluffing, so he usually plays a tournament or two and then goes water-skiing or windsurfing.

Should he win here this week, he will have plenty of reasons to relax more: 9.12 million of them.

"It is not like we have some magic," Demidov said of the recent Russian success at poker. "There have just been a lot more people driven to play. Numbers are growing. Online players in Russia are much better than live players. I am still surprised at many of the results. It has been a few lucky years for us."

Everyone has a theory as to why such fortune is being realized. Many insist a Russian history with chess that dates more than a thousand years has translated into focused, tactical, determined poker players.

Some, such as pro John Juanda, think it's more about money, or how little Russian players had growing up. They are hungrier, more stubborn in their pursuit of wealth.

"You have to want to win at poker to do so," Juanda said. "That is one common thread I've seen in all the Russians. They really, really want to win. That, and many don't speak good enough English to talk much during play, which works in their favor. Poker is a complex game where you really have to pay attention. The less you talk, the more focus you have."

Demidov knows about need. He was a poor student done with his university studies less than four years ago, spending his time playing Internet video games such as StarCraft and Warcraft at a professional level.

An online friend from Denmark suggested he try poker and sent Demidov $50 to get started. He lost the money, told himself he would play with $10 of his own and hasn't stopped since. He has seen poker become an official sport in Russia, with federation backing and an income tax rate (13 percent) far more generous than that imposed on other types of winnings (27 percent).

"I am confident in my ability to be a good player," Demidov said. "I am confident in my ability to win."

That's all nice and sporting of him, but face it: You want the guy showing up Sunday in a light gray wool overcoat and tank helmet and greeting Phillips like the 'roided-out Drago did Apollo Creed:

"You will lose."

Now that would be a final table to watch.

Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

 

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