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ElkY: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

A blistering hot Autumn day and I’m standing outside a central London photo studio waiting to meet the poker X-Man. Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier is without doubt one of the biggest characters in the game, a larger than life figure who destroys tournaments with such ease it’s as if he’s evolved some form of poker superpowers.

He’s an almost mythical figure in poker circles, as feared as he is respected for his ferocious talent. A ten-foot tournament titan destroying all in his path. As the man himself once said, ‘You cannot beat me. I’m ElkY!’ But squinting into the unseasonable sunshine, I almost don’t see the slight figure standing confused a few metres from me. It’s a bit like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard appears from behind the curtain. An unassuming sort of guy wearing a black T-shirt and jeans looks up at me and smiles. So this is ElkY? He’s a lot shorter than you might think.

The carefully sculpted hair and designer shades are in full effect, but there is no overwhelming physical presence or air of authority. With the small manbag over his shoulder and protein shake in hand, he could be a university student out for a wander in the sunshine. He’s friendly and a bit goofy, a bit more geek than chic. And as we wander down to the photoshoot he starts chatting easily about his upcoming fight with Lex Veldhuis (more on that later) and the EPT London taking place down the road.

It’s easy to think the world is mistaken about ElkY. He’s just another poker pro who takes the game seriously and runs good at the right times. There are no superpowers. But appearances can be deceptive. There is a lot hidden under the surface with ElkY, as I start to discover as the day goes on.

The story of ElkY

ElkY began playing poker in 2003 when he was living in South Korea making a living as a videogames pro. He was introduced to the game by some of his fellow players and it was love at first sight. ‘I didn’t even know the rules when I started,’ ElkY says with a huge grin as we find a quiet corner at the Hilton Metropole where the EPT London main event is taking place.

‘For the first two months I was just playing for fun and losing a little, but then I started to read the books and learn about the game. I really wanted to get better.’

He was quickly crushing the cash games, and playing tournaments on the side. He would wake at 3am to play the big MTTs and soon found that poker was taking over his life. This was no small change for Elky. This was a young man who left behind a life and family in France aged just 19 to move halfway around the world to South Korea to play videogames. A lifestyle he was now in turn getting ready to turn his back on. In some ways, however, those years playing videogames could be seen as training for poker, and they had a major impact on his
life.

‘All those years I spent in Korea made me very competitive,’ ElkY says with a steely look in his eyes. ‘I was 19 years old when I went to Korea and there were thousands of people cheering against me.’ The experience injected some steel into the young ElkY. ‘Now I never back down from challenges,’ he says. It’s an attitude that can lead him into some bizarre situations, not least his long-awaited kickboxing fight with fellow poker pro Lex Veldhuis.

Fighting talk

‘It started in 2009 when we were at the Barcelona EPT in the hotel,’ ElkY says. ‘Most of the guys were playing poker, but me and William Thorson were drinking and maybe I had one too many drinks and knocked over Lex’s laptop charger. And then I knocked over a lamp. He was like “Stop that or I will beat you up”, and I said “Come on you can’t beat me, I’m ElkY.” Maybe I had too much liquid courage in me and I was like, “Okay, let’s bet.” The next morning I was like: “Oh f♣♥♠, now I have to learn how to fight.”’

ElkY threw himself into the challenge, hiring a personal trainer and devoting hours to sparring and training for the fight. There is €100,000 at stake, but for ElkY it’s about much more than money. Like everything else, it’s about the challenge. ‘I can’t just hang out. My friends say come hang out and I am like, why? What are we doing? I need to do something. If nothing happens, I get bored. I need action.’

That hunger for action is part of what makes him such a phenomenal poker talent. That’s his first poker superpower: he views life as one big challenge, and he never wants to be the one to back down. ‘I once made a bet to drink half a bottle of vodka in one shot,’ he says, still reeling at the memory. ‘That was not the smartest bet. I won the bet, but I was pretty sick for a day. I’m not as crazy any more. I still party, but not during poker tournaments.’

For all the talk of downing vodka bottles and kickboxing prop bets, ElkY’s real challenge is at the poker tables, and he’s a focused, intense presence when it’s game time. He doesn’t drink before tournaments, gets up early, works out a few hours before play and watches what he eats.

‘There are so many times to party so it’s a waste to do it before a poker tournament. Not sleeping and partying all night is the worst thing you can do, as you are going to make mistakes. If you want to be the best at poker you have to sacrifice some things.

There is nothing wrong with playing as a hobby, but if you want to be one of the best you have to dedicate your life to it.’

Focus, focus, focus

ElkY’s place in poker history is already assured. If he never played a hand again he would still be remembered as one of the legends of the modern game. He first found fame in 2006 as the first player to reach Supernova status on PokerStars and again as the first Supernova Elite in early 2007, playing a sickening number of heads-up sit-and-gos to get a million FPPs in just four months.

At the time he was mainly a cash game player, although he’d already shown his tournament chops with a second-place finish at the Copenhagen EPT. But through his PokerStars sponsorship he was becoming more and more of a live tournament player, leaving behind his online roots. And it was 2008 that proved a breakout year for the Frenchman.

He kicked things off in the Bahamas winning $2 million at the PCA, final-tabled the Grand Prix de Paris for $122k and took down the WPT Festa Al Lago for $1.4 million in October. In ten months he’d achieved more than most poker players will manage in a lifetime.

The pace didn’t slacken in 2009, as he began the year winning $433k at the PCA high roller followed by a third place in the WPT World Championship in April for $776k. It seemed like he couldn’t stop winning. Except of course, he could. And the poker success started to slow down, with 2010 proving his worst year since he hit the live circuit. ‘It was the toughest year I had since I started,’ ElkY says with a rueful smile. ‘When you play online it’s hard to run bad for more than one week if you grind hard. But live it can last for months or even years.’

So how did he cope? ‘I just focused,’ he says with a Gallic shrug. ‘Everybody can play well when they are running good, but playing well when you’re running bad is when it matters the most.’ But surely it was a frustrating time? ‘There were lots of frustrating times,’ he admits. ‘I was getting very disappointed as I get very emotional when I lose. I always expect to win.’ And that in a nutshell is ElkY’s biggest superpower. His unshakeable self-confidence.

I cannot lose

‘I’m not stupid and I know I am not always going to win, but I always think I will,’ ElkY says, laughing at himself as he finishes the sentence. ‘If you have a lot of confidence in key spots it’s really important in poker. Technique is not everything. I am very good at playing my A-game under pressure. The more pressure there is the better I can play.’

As the pressure builds in a tournament, some players wilt and some players thrive. The likes of Ivey seem to physically grow as the tension ramps up and the adrenaline starts to surge. ElkY, his shades now resting on his lap, starts moving in his seat just talking about it, his eyes lighting up at the memories. ‘The adrenaline is one of the things I love most about poker. When you make a deep run in a tournament you really feel the pressure and you feel more alive. When you go really deep it’s a very special moment and there is this big rush.’

It’s this surge of adrenaline that is sometimes behind some of ElkY’s more infamous moves. He’s a man with a reputation for wild, even crazy play at the table and it’s one he thinks is well deserved. ‘You have to do things that are crazy sometimes to mix up your play and be unpredictable. Sometimes you have to make a move that is not optimal and follow your instinct.’

No fear

If ElkY looks like he plays with no fear, there is a good reason for that. While most great poker players are often described as fearless, that is usually a combination of discipline, experience and focus. For ElkY it’s just another superpower. He just doesn’t feel it. ‘I almost never feel fear. I always think I can do things and if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t matter. F♥♣♦ it. It’s harder for a player with fear to always make the right move. I’m excited because it’s a big spot, but I don’t feel fear.’

That mix of self-confidence and fearlessness is what held ElkY together during a relatively quiet 2010. His 2010 was still the type of year most players dream of, with nearly $500k in winnings and two smaller tournament wins in France. But come on, this is ElkY. If you’re not hitting them out of the park then you’re not playing ball. And it didn’t take long for the tournament monster to return. The EPT Grand Final in Madrid saw him win not one, but two high roller events for €675k.

‘I always do pretty good in high rollers,’ ElkY says by way of explanation. ‘I have a lot of history with the other players and it’s easier to figure out their playing styles. When I won it was crazy, because I knew I was going to win. People were making fun of me because I was so short-stacked and I kept folding. But I said if I double-up once it’s going to be all over.’

ElkY has his doubters, of course. Those who believe he has run insanely above expectation. After all, surely nobody can be that good at poker. To win so much in such a short space of time has to be about more than confidence, fearlessness and focus.

‘Of course I got lucky in some key spots,’ ElkY says, ‘but I also worked really hard.’ And that is what is often forgotten about ElkY: he’s devoted countless hours to studying poker and working on his game. He hasn’t just run good. ‘I try to give this image I am crazy, but I am much more analytical than people think. I’m much more technical than feel-based. I try to compile all the information I have and evaluate a range on each street and come up with the best decision. Adaptability is one of the biggest parts of my game.’

So that’s it. He’s just an average super-powered crazy Frenchman, with no fear, ridiculous self confidence and a photographic memory. Oh wait, did we forget that bit? ‘I have a really good memory,’ ElkY admits. ‘I can remember poker hands really clearly. I can even remember hands my friends played. I can remember most of the big hands from the PCA final table.’

All down to luck

And it was his memory that caused him to end up playing the $10k stud event at the 2011 WSOP this summer. Despite all his success at the poker table, a WSOP bracelet had long eluded ElkY. He had only made one final table, back in 2007 when he finished ninth.

‘It was the series I ran the worst in,’ he says. ‘It was crazy, but I guess it’s just variance as I ran good in other tournaments.’

The $10k stud championship event then was not one he had high hopes of breaking his bracelet duck in. Persuaded to take part by a friend, he sat down with only a rudimentary understanding of the rules. ‘I went to raise and the dealer said “complete” and I didn’t know what he was talking about,’ ElkY says laughing.

He had to ask how many bets he could make on each street, and when it was his turn to act. It’s easy to imagine some of the older players rolling their eyes at the crazy Frenchman, but ElkY caught up quickly and caught some cards to make it all the way to the final table. By now he was in uncharted territory. A few WCOOP mixed events was the sum total of his stud tournament experience and short-handed final-table play was a real challenge.

If there is one thing ElkY loves, however, it’s a challenge. ‘I had never played short-handed and I had so much less information,’ ElkY says. ‘I followed my instincts and played aggressively and got lucky that my heads-up opponent was kind of frozen. At one point I had a 25-to-1 chip deficit and the bracelet was inches away. I thought about just picking it up and running away. The last time I was in that spot was 2007 and I was thinking how sick would it be to have to wait another five years. But I just thought, okay, I have 1.5BB, I can still do it.’

Living the dream

And of course ElkY did it. How could you ever doubt him? He loves winning and nothing else comes close. Not money and not fame. ‘I can come second for $300k and be really disappointed or win for $30k and I will be so happy. The feeling of winning is the best. When I win more money I am more happy because it’s a more prestigious event, but it’s nothing to do with the money. I just come to win.’

But with so many poker accomplishments under his belt, what does ElkY do next? ‘I really want to make poker history,’ ElkY says after a long pause. ‘But I don’t have any targets. I will see how I feel. I’ve never had a big plan for my life. I just do things I love until I am bored.’

And this is perhaps ElkY’s ultimate superpower. He just enjoys life. He lives life at a hundred miles an hour and for now poker is providing the ride of his life. His official home is in London, but in reality he rarely sees ‘home’ and lives wherever the next tournament is. He talks of winning two EPTs or the Main Event, but that’s not what drives him on.

‘I don’t know what I will do next. I will see how I feel next week. I used to love videogames, and now I love poker. I might wake up one day and move on to something else. But for now I am going to play every live tournament I can,’ he says with a big smile. Everyone else should be very scared. This X-Man is not going away any time soon.

 

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