by Brad Willis and Howard Swains
Photography by Neil Stoddart
Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier was a pro-gaming star before he was a PokerStar, but celebrity is not what gets him out of bed in the morning. It's the competition. It's the winning. He was the first PokerStars player to achieve VIP Club Supernova status. He was the first PokerStars player to reach the Supernova Elite level. Second place, as far as ElkY is concerned, is barely worth the work.
"When you get second, people forget about you really quickly," he said.
And he knows how it feels. It's not been too long ago that ElkY got heads up at EPT Copenhagen with every confidence he would win. There were few people in the room that had any doubt. That night, it didn't happen.
"I was devastated," he confessed.
Despite being a feared tournament player and prized member of Team PokerStars Pro, ElkY was still in search of that elusive big tournament victory, a first place finish that would validate every bit of effort he put toward the game. When he came to the PCA, he wanted nothing but to win.
"If there was one tournament other than the World Series main event that was the most important," he said, "this was it."
Tonight, ElkY left the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure tournament stage and fell into a sea of celebrants and fans. Within seconds, flash bulbs strobed on his sunglasses and hugs covered every part of his body. A public relations executive grabbed him by the hand and dragged him through the room, where people called out congratulations in French and applauded loudly. Seconds later, ElkY was in a quiet hallway, like a rock star just coming off stage.
He looked at the ceiling and took a deep breath.
"I cannot believe it yet," he said.
Just moments before, he had won the $2 million first prize in the fifth annual PCA.
The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure is a story of maturation. It was cute in its infancy on a cruise ship at sea in the Caribbean. It was impressive in its adolescence in the World Poker Tour days. Now, as a top European Poker Tour event, the PCA has become one of the biggest high stakes tournaments in the world.
When the event began, 1136 players filled the Atlantis Grand Ballroom. It took two days to fit everyone in and five days to cull the field to the top eight players. And what a final eight they were. From online prodigies to seasoned live tournament veterans, the PCA final table was immediately recognized as a place where real poker would shine. With a $2 million first prize on the line, there was little doubt about how serious the day would be.
Half the field here qualified for the event on PokerStars. By the time the final table was set, the eight players were guaranteed no less than $150,000, and all but one of them, ElkY, had qualified via PokerStars satellite.
A measured start fit well into the sleepy quiet morning. By midday, though, the players had their caffeine and were ready to go to work.
Some people might describe Richard "Ricky" Fohrenbach as diminutive. At one point last night, the TV crew gave him a pillow so he would sit high enough in his chair for the cameras to see him. Though he is an adult, he seems to revel in his youthful looks and getting carded when he buys drinks. His elfish spirit seemed to guide him at the table. Always smiling, the guy everybody calls Ricky seemed to determine to go big or go home today. He started well, doubling up with jacks against Joe Elpayaa's tens. His only mistake was imploring, "One time!" during the hand. Sure enough, his next big hand was jacks again. This time, he was up against ElkY's AK. A king on the flop spelled the end of Ricky's day. He finished in eighth place, earning $150,000.
That particular hand marked the beginning of ElkY's rise to the chip lead. Having just defeated pocket jacks, ElkY picked up a pair of his own and made them hold up. This time, he was up against Christian Harder's pocket sevens. Harder qualified for the PCA in a $650 satellite. He began the day on the shortest stack and missed his chance to double early. When he couldn't catch up to ElkY, he finished in seventh place and won $200,000, the biggest win of his young poker career.
ElkY, it appeared, could not be stopped. Having sent two consecutive players to the rail, ElkY got settled into the chip lead. In a battle of the blinds with Elpayaa, ElkY raised with AQ and then called one million more, the amount of Elpayaa's all-in. Elpayaa held KJ. Neither hand improved and Elpayaa went out in sixth place, a $300,000 cash.
At a rather aggressive table, Craig Hopkins was the exception. It will take a review of the EPT broadcast before we know for sure. Regardless, Hopkins barely played a hand today. Whether he was card dead or simply happy to climb the money ladder, Hopkins sat quietly until he was down to around 600,000 chips. He got them in once to steal the blinds and antes. The second time he tried it, he got all-in with Kd8d. He ran into David Pham's TT. Pham flopped a set and made the king on the turn irrelevant. Hopkins patience led him to a fifth place finish and $450,000 payday.
At the beginning of the day, David "The Dragon" Pham was the odds-on favorite to win. He had more live tourney experience. He had more final table experience. He also had a commanding chip lead. It would prove to not be commanding enough. Throughout the day, Pham's stack and good fortune went in the same direction. By late afternoon, Pham had become one of the shorter stacks at the table. It had been 24 hours since he had laid an exceptionally bad suckout on Paul Holup. Now, Pham was to be on the bad end of the stick. This time, he flopped two pair and played it slow. When the turn brough a second diamond, Pham check-raised all-in and ElkY called with Ad2d. The seven of diamonds on the river was enough to take the fire out of the Dragon. He finished in fourth place, earning $600,000.
Kris Kuykendall celebrated his 25th birthday yesterday. He gave himself the gift of a final table. Today, he realized that gift was the gift that keeps on giving. The one-time business student didn't have an exceptionally active day. Regardless, he managed to fight his way all the way to third place. The denouement was his KQ not catching up to Hafiz Khan's Ah7h. For third place, Kuykendall earned $800,000.
After Kris finally succumbed, it was left to two of the tournament's undoubted heavyweights to slog it out. ElkY, the Team PokerStars Pro Member from France, had been here before but come up short. His second place in Copenhagen season three might have been an advantage but it may also have been an albatross. Who could tell, but with 13,000,000 in chips, he was in pole position.
Hafiz Khan, meanwhile, had come to the final table fourth in chips, but had prospered behind an aggressive approach, particularly where the short-stacks were involved. A pro for two years, Khan was not intimidated, but he'd never been this deep in a live tournament before. Khan had 9,000,000 and it was an intriguing match up.
There was also the real money to think of, of course. With two million on offer for first and a little more than half that for the runner up, there was plenty to play for. The players took a protracted break to gather their thoughts before returning to the stage and the stands now packed with supporters, ready to watch the crowning of the new champion.
They didn't have to wait long.
After the regulation jabbing, the first big pot went ElkY's way, when he slow-played an ace on an A-A-Q board, eventually prising about 1.5 million from Hafiz, the largest chunk with a 1.1 million bet on the river. Then there was that hand, the one that makes both champions and regrets.
ElkY raised, Hafiz jammed, from the big blind, handing the decision back to the leader. Any top player makes a lot of decisions like this, though, and they're right, more often than not. So it was in this case, as ElkY called with his pocket eights. Khan had made his play but had been caught: he could only muster a nine-three.
There was an anxious flop, turn and river, but the nine was nowhere to be seen.
A Gallic roar emanated from the bleachers as ElkY took it down. One for France, one for Team PokerStars Pro. And one in the win column for Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier.
ElkY came to this tournament as a new man. He'd lost 60 pounds in a $75,000 weight loss bet. Low carbs, a good doctor, and what he described as "good discipline" netted him the win in that contest. Tonight, he leaves the PCA a new man. He is no longer only a pro-gaming champion. He is a poker champion.
Betrand "ElkY" Grospellier is the champion of the 2008 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.
All photos © Neil Stoddart
Many thanks to Howard Swains, Neil Stoddart, Michelle Willis, and the PokerStars support team, including Bryan, Jose, Gareth, and Andrew for their work on the PokerStars Blog this week. Additional thanks go to John Smith for his technical support and B.J. Nemeth for his cooperation and professionalism. --Brad