EPT Prague: Czech-check for chess champs

December 02, 2009

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There are countless stories of poker players arriving at the baize having surmounted their first calling and wanting a more profitable challenge. And we’re not talking about pursuits that involve running around and jumping – like soccer or tennis.

Noah Boeken famously made the switch to poker from Magic: The Gathering, while Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier conquered the Starcraft world before strapping himself in and rocketing into the poker stratosphere.

Then there’s backgammon, another comfortable armchair game, which Stu Unger famously mastered before moving on to obliterate any poker opposition. Poker’s backgammon alumni is a distinguished list: Dan Harrington, Erik Seidel, Gus Hansen and Mads Andersen, the World Champion of 2002 no less.

Then there’s chess.

In terms of transferable skills chess may be one of the most notable. As Team PokerStars Pro Ylon Schwartz, (a chess ELO rating close to 2,400) pointed out, the memory skills transfer well from the chess board to the baize, spotting among other things, betting and behaviour patterns.

It’s a skill used by several players in the field in Prague.

Almira Skripchenko, who played yesterday, is poised to make the same breakthrough in poker that she made in chess. An International Chess Master, who made a final table at the World Series this year, Skripchenko is a former under-16 World Youth chess champion with a peak ELO rating of 2,501.

Then there’s Marc Naalden, who is already skilled in the poker arts having finished tenth in last year’s EPT grand final and won events in Belgium, Holland and a bracelet in the WSOP $2,000 limit event last summer. He’s no slouch at the chess board either, an ELO of 2,031.

Next in line is Pavel Blatny, perhaps the most noted chess player of the bunch, a Grand Master with a peak ELO rating of 2608. He finished tenth in the Master Classics two years ago and cashed here in Prague.

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In the chess position – Pavel Blatny

But many observers, keen to point out that chess may be the ultimate preparation to a switch to poker, point to Jeff Sarwer as the likely chief example. Sarwer, a former “chess prodigy”, stunned crowds across America as an eight year old boy from Canada, playing simultaneous games, winning the Under-10 World Youth Chess championship, before quitting chess altogether, re-emerging more than 20 years later in Europe, playing poker on the EPT.

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Jeff Sarwer

Prague is something of an anniversary for Sarwer, who now lives in Poland. He played his first EPT event in this same room 12 months ago where he min-cashed. It was a steady start but it has been season six in which Sarwer’s true talents have emerged, some believing he could single-handedly threaten the conventional wisdom of the game. A deep run to tenth in Warsaw was followed immediately by a third place finish in Vilamoura, performances that had established pros, themselves considered to be the best the game has, doubting their own grasp of the game.

All that remains to be seen.

Skripchenko busted yesterday but the rest remain in good position on day 1b. A first chess and poker champion for the EPT? It’s their move.

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