A little more than a decade ago, professional poker players moved out of the shadows to become bona fide superstars.
Pros like Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Ivey saw their faces splashed across television screens, with broadcasts of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and World Poker Tour (WPT) watched by millions worldwide. Young men and women using their wits and skill to earn life-changing sums of money, poker pros were a modern take on the American dream.
Times have certainly changed since the glory days of the “Poker Boom” though, and as card games and gambling have receded back to niche status, a new crop of young guns is putting another competitive circuit on the map.
Today, professional video game players specializing in eSports are the poker pros of their generation. These eSports savants have traded in a 52-card deck for controllers, and Texas Hold’em for Hearthstone, but at their core pro gamers and poker players are cut from the same cloth.
Both groups have turned previously obscure entertainment outlets into billion-dollar businesses. Both take part in a new wave of “mind sports” that prize mental acuity over physical athleticism. And thanks to the advent of live streaming platforms such as Twitch, both have rabid audiences the world over watching their every move.
The poker industry was once defined by singular talents who didn’t even need their names to garner fame and recognition. The “Poker Brat,” “Kid Poker,” and “The Grinder” come to mind immediately, but poker’s popularity produced an abundance of beloved figures.
Shift your attention to the realm of eSports and you’ll hear fans rave about “Ninja,” “KuroKy,” and “Scarlett” – or the screen names used by the top competitive gamers on the planet.
If you’re new to eSports fandom, those screennames – or “handles” in the industry vernacular – are used by Tyler Blevins, Kuro Takhasomi, and Sasha Hostyn, respectively. And in a page straight out of the poker pro playbook, all three have parlayed their passion for competition into a career that affords a truly lavish lifestyle.
Excelling in popular video games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Starcraft, Dota, Fortnite, Hearthstone, and many more – a list that calls to mind the variety of poker variants like Texas Hold’em, Pot Limit Omaha, Seven Card Stud, and 2-7 Triple Draw – professional gamers can earn six- and even seven-figures annually.
And just like in poker, eSports stars take part in intense tournaments along a global circuit, each chasing the glory and gold that accompanies a championship title.
All things considered, poker and eSports should be viewed as close cousins on the gaming family tree. This makes it no surprise to learn that many poker pros hail from a background in competitive gaming.
It makes so much sense when you really think about it though. Reaching the upper echelon of eSports involves a combination of intelligence, focus, concentration, and talent. The best gamers approach their craft as if they were simply solving a puzzle, putting the pieces together more efficiently and effectively than their opponents.
Becoming a successful poker pro requires each and every one of those skills, along with the same sense of dedication needed to become the best at something millions of other people play for fun.
To give you a better sense of how poker players and eSports pros are kindred spirits, check out the list below to learn more about four poker prodigies who also excel in the eSports arena:
1 – Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier
Whether you consider yourself a fan of poker or eSports, you’ve probably watched Bertrand Grospellier work his wonders at the highest levels – even if you don’t recognize him by his given name.
Playing under the handle “ElkY,” the French-born Grospellier burst onto the eSports scene as a twenty-something terror. Specializing in the real-time strategy game Starcraft, which centers around militaristic space conquest, Grospellier became one of the most feared players on the emerging eSports circuit at the turn of the 21st century.
After relocating to South Korea to immerse himself in the world of professional eSports, Grospelier quickly set to work dominating the local StarCraft circuit.
Here’s how “ElkY” described his time in South Korea, where he soon became a superstar within competitive gaming circles:
“I moved there in 2001 because at the time South Korea was the only place you could become a professional StarCraft gamer and make a living from it. They were really advanced with eSports and it was on TV.
It was a dream because we were being paid to play video games, sometimes in front of 20,000 people in arenas, and we would get recognized in the street.
One time, we were mobbed on the subway by fans and spent over an hour signing autographs.”*
Between 2001 and 2002, his “ElkY” persona – defined by an eccentric fashion sense, brightly bleached hair, and a non-stop motor mouth – put on a series of podium finishes at the World Cyber Games in South Korea. Grospelier finished in 3rd, 2nd, and 4th (2x) place over that span, but he finally broke through to capture the StarCraft championship at the Euro Cyber Games 2003 event.
You can dive deeper into Grospelier’s sterling record in major eSports tournaments below:
- 3rd – StarCraft: Brood War, KBK Jeju, 2001 (Seoul, South Korea)
- 2nd – StarCraft: Brood War, World Cyber Games 2001 (Seoul, South Korea)
- 4th – StarCraft: Brood War, World Cyber Games 2002 (Daejeon, South Korea)
- 4th – StarCraft: Brood War, SKY 2 OngamenetStarleague, 2002 (Seoul, South Korea)
- 2nd – WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos, OngamenetWarCraft Retail League, 2002 (Seoul, South Korea)
- 1st – StarCraft: Brood War, Euro Cyber Games 2003 (Paris, France)
- Round 8 – StarCraft: Brood War, World Cyber Games 2003 (Seoul, South Korea)
- Round 16 – StarCraft: Brood War, World Cyber Games 2004 (San Francisco, California, United States)
As you can see, Grospellier’s focus on eSports waned right around 2003 and 2004 – years which just so happen to coincide directly with the Poker Boom.
While he was busy pocketing paltry prizes like the $1,000 awarded for his 2003 Euro Cyber Games title, Grospellier – like millions of others around the globe – watched Chris Moneymaker claim the $2.5 million top prize at that year’s World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event.
Following the lead of an entire generation of college kids and home game heroes, Grospellier soon found himself staring at a PokerStars screen instead of his usual StarCraft grind.
In 2004, Grospellier took the title in an invitational tournament featuring eSports figures organized by PokerStars. From there, he signed on with the site to become a sponsored member of Team PokerStars, a prestige position that put the “ElkY” brand at the top of yet another industry.
Grospellier became the first player to reach both the “Supernova” and “Supernova” elite status on PokerStars, having accumulated 100,000 and 1,000,000 player points in just two weeks and four months, respectively. In 2008, he set a Guinness Book of Records mark by grinding 62 sit-and-go tournaments in just a single hour – showing off the same dexterity and mental gymnastics that made “ElkY” one of the best gamers in the business.
Today, Grospellier counts more than $13 million in live tournament earnings to his credit, along with countless more won online. In terms of live play, he’s one of a handful of pros to achieve poker’s Triple Crown, winning a gold bracelet at the 2011 WSOP, plus titles on the World Poker Tour (WPT) and European Poker Tour (EPT) in 2008.
When the PokerStars Blog asked “ElkY” if his background in eSports helped him prepare for the rigors of high-stakes pro poker, he made it clear that gaming goes hand in hand with Hold’em:
“There are so many things in common between poker and Hearthstone, including variance. Both have incomplete information because you never know exactly what your opponent has in his hand.
Like poker, you can try to guess based on how he played previous hands. In both games you need to know the probabilities. In poker you need to know the odds of your opponent having certain cards or you hitting your full house and so on.
It’s the same in Hearthstone. A lot of the time you will be having choices and you need to decide which move is likely to win you the game.”
In 2015, having conquered all comers at the poker table, Grospellier made his triumphant return to eSports by signing up with Team Liquid. Devoting his energies to the strategy-based fantasy card game Hearthstone, Grospellier grinded for a full year before breaking through to win his first championship at the Redemption Cup Insomnia Truesilver Championship.
Asked about his decision to shift back into eSports, Grospellier told the PokerStars Blog that returning to the world of pro gaming was a long held dream:
“As it was a dream come true for me to join PokerStars Team Pro, today another of my dreams becomes reality as I become a Team Liquid player.
When I discovered poker, I had to make the difficult choice to leave the competitive gaming world to focus my energy fully on poker.
Hearthstone is one of the first games that shares the same skills as poker, and I am very excited for what the future holds in my multi-gaming career.”
If you’re interested in following along with Grospellier’s exploits on the virtual felt, or as a member of Team Liquid, be sure to check out his highly entertaining “ElkY” channel on Twitch.
2 – Doug “WCG_Rider” Polk
Long before Doug Polk broke into the mainstream poker consciousness by winning one of the most prestigious high-roller tournaments in the world, he was revered as a godlike figure under the handle “WCG_Rider.”
Using that screenname, Polk absolutely dominated the heads-up sit-and-go poker games on PokerStars and other online poker rooms. In fact, Polk climbed all the way to the world’s top ranking in terms of online profitability– all while taking on the very best competition around.
Polk isn’t just an online beast either, as he’s made a stunningly successful transition into the live tournament circuit. With only 31 live chases on his resume, Polk has captured an astounding three gold bracelets at the WSOP – including a $3.6 million score for winning the $111,111 buy-in One Drop High Roller event
But before Polk was fading flush draws and flopping the nuts as “WCG_Rider,” he was known as “T-Rider” to the early competitive gaming community.
In an interview with Card Player magazine, Polk fondly remembered his days spent dominating the competition in online arenas like StarCraft and WarCraft:
“I think the earliest video game I was playing was Madden ‘97 on SNES, but it wasn’t until after chess, and a brief attempt at skateboarding, that I really got into games.
I put a lot of volume into the original StarCraft, StarCraft 2, and WarCraft 3. These games, which are in the real time strategy (RTS) genre, are a lot more like chess than traditional first-person shooter games, because it’s more about strategy.
A typical game requires you to make decisions based on a number of variables and the playing style of your opponent. Obviously, the best players in these games are able to adapt and use a good blend of all strategies, much like poker.”
Polk knows all about using adaptive strategies to anticipate, and overcome, an opponent’s next move. That style which served him so well in both poker and eSports has translated to an instructional program called Upswing Poker, which Polk launched a few years back.
Upswing Poker students are treated to an endless array of video tutorials straight from the man himself, and Polk is not shy about letting viewers in on the strategy secrets shared by elite pros.
And while his focus appears to be primarily on poker at this point, Polk still points to his time as a competitive gamer as integral in shaping his approach to playing cards:
“I remember when I first found out about online gaming, my initial thought was just how amazing it was to log on whenever you want and be able to own somebody else in some other part of the world.
I thought it was great that I was able to bring some real devastation. I’ve never really played or enjoyed the campaign mode of most video games. For me, it was all about beating an actual opponent.
I loved the human element of it, making a game plan and learning to adjust.”
3 – Randy “Nanonoko” Lew
Anybody who “railed” the action on PokerStars – shorthand for observing as a fan – in the years following the poker boom probably remembers the handle “Nanonoko.”
As a member of Team PokerStars, Randy Lew used the “Nanonoko” screenname while pursuing one of the more challenging Guinness World Records associated with poker. Having steadily built his bankroll into the millions, all while grinding relatively low $5/$10 cash games, Lew specialized in the art of “multi-tabling.”
While other players struggled to make the right moves on a single table, Lew could be found whizzing between two dozen tables at a time. In 2012, his “Nanonoko” account was etched into the record books after Lew finished 14,548 hands of poker within just eight hours – a 24-table extravaganza of multi-tabling prowess.
Lew is no slouch in the live games either, what with more than $1.4 million in tournament earnings and an Asian Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) title on his mantle.
Gaming has always been in Lew’s blood though, as he came of age playing the comic book fighter Marvel vs. Capcom 2 at an elite level. Lew placed podium finishes at the Evolution Championship Series several times as a youth before devoting his energies solely to poker.
Last year, Lew returned to his roots by signing a deal with Team Liquid, joining up with his fellow PokerStars Team Pro “ElkY” to compete in Hearthstone.
As he revealed to RedBull.com, Lew’s priority isn’t to secure financial gains, he’s out to prove that he can compete with the world’s best Hearthstone strategists:
“I’m not playing it to make money. I want to play with the best of the best.
You can’t buy your spot in a poker tournament, you have to fight your way there. It’s the same with Hearthstone.
In order to get to the Top 8 or Blizzcon, you need to fight your way up there and win. You deserve to be on the big stage, on Twitch, and I want to be there again.”
Nowadays, you can follow along with Lew’s pursuit of victory – both in poker and Hearthstone – by following his extremely popular “Nanonoko” channel on Twitch.
4 – Eugene Katchalov
This entry is a bit of a cheat, as Eugene Katchalov doesn’t exactly play video games competitively, but his contributions to the industry surely warrant inclusion on this list.
Katchalov is best known for his absolutely dominant run on the felt between 2007 and 2011. The Ukrainian-born Katchalov made his bones in poker by winning the 2007 WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic, good for a prize worth more than $2.4 million.
Fast forward to 2011, and Katchalov added another $1.5 million to his bankroll by winning the coveted PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) Main Event. That same year saw him win his first WSOP gold bracelet as well, sending Katchalov straight to the top of the Global Poker Index (GPI) world rankings.
Around the same time, Katchalov found himself becoming a bit bored with poker, leading to a chance encounter with eSports that changed the direction of his life. After attending a StarCraft competition with his pal “ElkY,” Katchalov was immediately hooked on the blend of strategy, skill, and variance that eSports provides.
“While I always enjoyed all sorts of competitive games, my first real experience observing an Esports competition was in Seoul, Korea in 2012 when my good friend Elky took me to a Starcraft event.
I was overtaken with the amount of energy in the room. In many ways it seemed there was more of it than in any other normal sporting events I’ve been to before this.
I was hooked. I started to follow lots of teams, players and streamers playing multiple different games. I began to notice that many of these kids were going through many of the same stages I went through in poker. While I was certainly too old to compete myself, I really enjoyed following the scene.”*
With offices scattered throughout Europe, the Qlash team has quickly grown to include over 30 pro gamers. Qlash teams compete in popular games like Hearthstone, Fortnite, Overwatch, FIFA ’19, StarCraft, and League of Legends, just to name a few.
So while Katchalov doesn’t grind games himself, he’s given dozens of pro gamers a platform to show off their skills in the industry’s top-tier competitions.
You can learn more about the Qlash team here by visiting the company’s website.
Both poker and video games were designed to be diversions, entertaining ways to pass the time while providing a distinct challenge. But human beings are hardwired to compete, and for poker players and gamers alike, striving to become the best in the business is only natural.
The fact that poker and eSports are both mind sports, and thus share many of the same requisite skill sets, provides a bridge between the two industries. If your mind is capable of assessing partial information puzzles on the fly, reacting in real time to make the optimal play given any situation, chances are good you can compete at a high level in poker or eSports.
Accordingly, it’s no surprise to see so many poker pros applying their talents to competitive gaming, and vice-versa.