The first EPT Deauville

January 31, 2013

Things change.

You don’t think they will. The world around you feels firm, static, and fated to be the same from now until you blink for the last time. The people you see everyday? You expect they’ll be there tomorrow and ten years from now. The heroes are everlasting. The fools are forever. Today’s champions have secured their place in history. The people who go broke are broken.

I’m here to to tell you that’s all wrong. The reality you know today–your heroes, your fools, the people you don’t even know–it will all blow up and re-form in ways you could never dream.

I know all this because I once felt Isabelle Mercier’s breath on my left ear, and I thought it had stopped time.


In February of 2005, the European Poker Tour was young. To put it in context: at the time, many of today’s poker “greats” were still trying to figure out how puberty was going to affect their video gaming lifestyle.

It was in that month that the EPT first traveled to Deauville, France. It was cold on France’s north shore. At night when the tournament was done, snow fell on the front lawn of the Hotel Normandy. Regine’s, the club in the basement of the casino, served €30 beers. It felt at the time like watching the surreal become real, a daydream turned into reality television.

There were 243 players there that year. The buy-in was a mere €2,000. The prize pool amounted to €468,000. That week we saw one of the greatest EPT stories ever told happen on the stage at Casino Barierre.

If you’ve been around the modern poker world long enough, you know the names Carl Olson and Brandon Schaefer. You might even know the story. They were high school buddies. Olson had won a PokerStars qualifier to EPT Deauville. Schaefer agreed to tag along, and then at the last minute, he won the same trip in a Frequent Player Point qualifier. In a field of more than 240 people considered to be among poker’s elites, the two young Americans were the last players left. Heads-up, Schaefer won €144,000 and the title. A month later, Schaefer finished runner-up at the Grand Final in Monte Carlo. He was young, newly-rich, and a new hero.


Carl Olson and Brandon Schaefer in February 2005

You probably weren’t there. You probably didn’t experience the deep sense that these two guys would become mainstays in the game. Nevertheless, anyone who was there could be forgiven for believing it. Olson stayed on the scene for a long time. We last saw him cash a live event at the 2011 WSOP.

Schaefer? Well, he barely plays anymore (except for the one-off tournament where he–cough–won a WSOP bracelet last year). He was supposed to come visit me a few months ago, but he didn’t make it because…well, he’s busy flying helicopters for the United States’ Army.


Brandon Schaefer

And that’s what I mean. There is no accounting for how the passage of time will mix up what you consider real.

To wit: at that same final table sat a young man few people really knew at the time. The young PokerStars qualifier won €31,500. It was a big moment for him. I remember exchanging emails with his proud father at the time. Since then, that young man has become a star, fallen uncomfortably and entirely out of the poker world, and then returned as one of the best the past decade has seen.

His name is Justin Bonomo.


Justin Bonomo in Deauville (2005)

At the first EPT Deauville, Schaefer, Olson, and Bonomo did better than the eighth place finisher. That man’s finish won him €13,500, barely enough to think about buying in to the WSOP main event. It was a forgettable performance. I can say this, because I had completely forgotten it until today.

Who was that?

Oh, just some guy named Luca Pagano who today sits atop the all-time EPT leaderboard.


Luca Pagano (2005)

As much as Deauville of 2005 felt like a foundation for forever, the class distinctions weren’t nearly so clear at the time. Today, a time when poker events can cost $100,000 to enter, the gulf between the poker media and the poker professionals is wide.

But that year, two poker writers made the money. Mike Lacey, an Irishman who wrote for Ante Up, finished in 12th. Tony Kendall placed 17th. Today, Lacey organizes poker tournaments. I last saw Kendall in the press room of the WSOP organizing the Blonde Poker crew.


Tony Kendall in Deauville (2005)

Their evolutions didn’t surprise me nearly as much as a writer I met in Deauville that same year. A clown prince, his wide smile seemed to be everywhere. He wrote for Inside Edge and was constantly looking for action. I remember him goading me in to €100 single table tournaments after hours.


Today Roland de Wolfe has $5.3 million in live poker tournament winnings, and I honestly have no idea where he is.

I might have left Deauville that year thinking I could predict the next decade of the game. I honestly don’t remember. If I did, I was an idiot for thinking so.


On one cold Deauville night, I played a two-table tournament among friends and familiar folks. It was a semi-silly, semi-serious game, as all the best are. When the two tables broke down to one, I found Isabelle Mercier sitting on my left. The blinds were big, my stack was getting short, and play folded to me on the button. I looked down at king-ten offsuit.

The big blind was an inexperienced player with a short stack. I took a quarter-second glance at his chips and moved my hands behind my stack.

That’s when I felt Isabelle’s breath on my ear.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

I stopped. I recall thinking, “What the Canadian hell was that?”

I turned left and Mercier was shaking her head–not graphically, but slightly. You had to be looking close to see it at all.


Isabelle Mercier in Deauville (2005)

“Tsk, tsk?” I thought. It was something one of those Hollywood action heroes would say just before pushing the villain off a building.

I lost all control. I started laughing. From across the table, someone asked me what was so funny. I told the truth.

“Isabelle scared me,” I said.

I folded and watched Isabelle steal the big blind. I stopped laughing, embarrassed that I’d let her scare me away. I was ashamed I’d let her read my little tell and push me away from what was, in retrospect, an auto-shove.

That’s when Isabelle–on her way to mucking–flashed me ace-king.

Looking back, it’s the only thing from that first EPT Deauville that hasn’t changed, partly because it’s burned so deeply into my brain that it–hopefully–won’t ever go away.

I ended up bubbling the tourney. Oh, and I’d tell you who won, but it would probably get me in trouble, and you’d never believe me anyway.


I won’t be in Deauville this year. My colleagues Stephen Bartley, Howard Swains, and Rick Dacey will be there to cover the action beginning this weekend. Suffice it to say, I know how much it’s changed since that first visit in 2005. People I thought would be poker heroes are now military heroes. People I thought would be writers forever are millionaires.

It’s taught me a lesson over these many years. It’s very easy to get sweaty-excited over success. It’s easy to turn tragically depressed over failures. Both are folly. There are precious few constants in both the poker realm and the real world.

Understanding that will make today’s decisions a lot easier.

Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging


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