Before play started on day three of EPT London, the tournament staff prepared the room to the sound of The Who. As the carpets were vacuumed and chip bags dumped on tables, we heard Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey over the loudspeakers talking about their generation and insisting that The Kids Are Alright.
It seemed a little incongruous. Music in poker tends usually to be confined to the headphones clamped around the players’ heads rather than broadcast across the room. But for at least one player in the field today, music has been ever-present in his life, even if his career in cards has led him away from the concert-halls occupied by his forefathers.
“The uncle of my grandfather was a famous maestro; I think he’s world-renowned,” said Nicolau Villa-Lobos during a break in play at EPT London. “My father is a guitar player, in what I think is the greatest rock band that ever existed in Brazil.”
Coming from pretty much anyone else, this may have sounded like empty hyperbole. But the great-great uncle of our 25-year-old poker player was Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), described as “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music”. His father is Dado Villa-Lobos, a founder member of Legião Urbana, a band that released eight albums between 1985-1997 and became known as Latin America’s answer to The Smiths and Joy Division.
“I always thought it would be a bit hypocritical if my father had told me not to play poker, because when he was my age, he started to play guitar,” the younger Villa-Lobos said today. “And imagine if his father had told him not to play guitar.”
Villa-Lobos’s entry into poker is actually even more complicated than just a privileged youngster taking up the game on a whim. When he was 18, the typical footballing, skateboarding, surfing, happy-go-lucky kid from Rio de Janeiro discovered that he had been born with a heart defect that required emergency surgery.
After a 24-hour stay in hospital — “It was pretty serious,” he said — Villa-Lobos was told he needed to avoid athletic sports for close to a year, keeping him away from the beaches and the soccer fields, an agony for the average Brazilian youth. He turned instead to poker, which was then in its infancy in Brazil, and had just attracted the inaugural Latin American Poker Tour (LAPT) event to Rio in May 2008.
“I dealt in that in event,” Villa-Lobos said. “That was exactly when I started to play, in the clubs. One of the owners of the clubs asked me if I wanted to be a dealer in the competition.”
He added: “I could speak a little English then and I met a lot of poker stars at that time: Chad Brown, Greg Raymer, Chris Moneymaker. I became friends with the winner, Julien Nuijten, the Dutch kid. I played Magic: The Gathering a little bit and he was the world champion.”
Villa-Lobos focused on his game as poker took off dramatically in Brazil. Alexandre Gomes and Andre Akkari won World Series bracelets and the Brazilian Series of Poker launched in the country, which last year attracted more than 1,200 players, one of the five biggest fields in the world.
Villa-Lobos would then pull off his own spectacular double coup, winning UKIPT Edinburgh in January of this year, dropping in on the Scottish capital while on a family holiday to Europe. He won £101,000 for that but then returned to Rio, fired up PokerStars where he plays as “nicofello”, and won the SCOOP medium main event for the best part of $500,000.
“After the SCOOP win, there was a huge party,” Villa-Lobos said. “My family was very happy. They were here also in Edinburgh when I won the UKIPT. So they support me. They are great.
“When I had my heart surgery, my mother and father would have felt bad if they had told me it was something I couldn’t do. They let me play. They let me do whatever I wanted because there were so many things I couldn’t do.”
Villa-Lobos’s heart is now behaving properly, even if high-stakes poker is perhaps not always the most calming pursuit. “Sometimes it starts to beat fast, but I know it’s normal,” he said.
His focus instead these days is recovering from a knee injury that has kept him away from football for another five months. He sits today wearing his Terra Brasil football jersey, with his name “Nico” and number five on the back. (He is also beside Steven Watts, a former professional footballer from the UK.)
After a bit of a hit, which took his stack down to about 120,000, he is also now back up to slightly more than average, where he has hovered throughout the tournament so far.
The kid, in short, is alright.