Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier: Master of all Dimensions

Bertrand Grospellier Feature

01 March 2008

Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier was one of the first westerners to play computer games for a living. His silver medal in the World Cyber Games in Korea bizarrely made the Frenchman a household name in that country.

When he turned his skills to our beloved game, he soon became a hero of the online poker world, too. Now, as budding live player, the 27-year-old must forget about virtual reality for the first time in his life and concentrate on the real world around him. Bluff charts ElkY’s rise from gamer to potential Hall of Famer.

So ElkY, tell us a little bit about your upbringing.

Well, I have a brother and a sister, they’re twins and ten years older than me. When I was three-years-old, my brother had a computer and we played a lot of computer games. I really liked them, so we were playing from when I was three.

Where you quite a competitive three year-old?

I wasn’t very good, actually. I was practicing all the time, though, for about ten years. I was about fifteen before I beat him! (Laughs) It took a while!

What sort of games did you play?

I don’t remember the exact games back then, but I remember I loved all of them. I would play anything. When I got an internet connection in 1998, I got into gaming in much bigger way. It was much more interesting than when you play against a computer. Playing against computers was fun but got boring a little too fast, but when you play against humans there’s much more competition. You can try new sorts of strategies all the time and everything becomes much more of a mind game. If you play against a computer it’s just a game, but if you play against a human, it’s a mind game, and I just loved that.

It was natural for me to move to Korea, because that is where the competition was the best. When I found I had the opportunity to make a living out of gaming, I just moved to Korea right away. I had the chance to take part in a major tournament, the World Cyber Games, in 2001.

We’d seen some footage on YouTube of your exploits in Korea, with masses of screaming fans, TV cameras – what was that like?

Oh that was really crazy. I grew up just outside of Paris and lived in the countryside for a few years before I moved to Korea. It was a great experience – really exciting. It was like something completely new. It’s such a strange feeling; I mean, you’re just sat there playing a computer game and people are cheering for you, just supporting you.

Did you move out to Korea on your own?

I went on my own, but I had a good friend from Quebec, a French-Canadian guy who also plays poker now. He was the best cyber player at the time, and he helped me a lot. He introduced me to the country, but I was just lucky, I had a lot of people helping me out, showing me Korea. It’s a really interesting country and I love it.

And you’re looking for a place to stay in London now? Are you moving here permanently?

Well, I’m going to move to London, mainly because of the EPT schedule. Making all these long flights is tiring, you get jet lagged and stuff, and there are so many EPTs coming up I can’t keep travelling forwards and backwards from Korea. That’s a lot of wasted time. I decided this year I want to play more live tournaments so I won’t have much time to go back to Korea. I do love the country, though, and I hope I will be able to move back there in a few years because I have a lot of friends out there.

I think it’s very good to live with other poker players because it helps improve your game. You can always discuss hands with your friends more naturally like that.

Obviously you had a really big reputation as an online gamer. When was the beginning for poker?

I was in South Korea and I was chatting with a friend on MSN and he told me he’d started to play poker. I was like, “Wow, poker? What’s that all about? You’re gonna lose…” I thought it was a luck game, and I didn’t know anything then about the skill in the game. So then I started playing a bit myself on PokerStars. I started playing for fun in the beginning, but it was a crazy feeling because I was there playing other people for money. It was a really easy game to learn – I learnt the basics really quick. But even when you know the rules, you can constantly improve and try to change your strategies. I loved the concept of the game right away.

For about two months it was just a hobby, and I didn’t even listen to my friend when he gave me advice. He was saying stuff like “Don’t play this hand, it’s bad,” and I was like “What? Every hand is good!” It was just a lot of fun.

After a couple of months I started to take it a lot more seriously. I was still playing video games for a living but after about six months playing poker I was doing so much better. I qualified on PokerStars for some live tournaments for the first EPT Season, in Deauville and Vienna. Then I qualified for the World Series.

When I took up live tournaments it was another dimension too. I like to play online tournaments, but when you play live tournaments, it’s much more like a competition.

Did you compare how quickly you progressed at poker to your success at gaming?

I progressed at poker pretty quickly because when I take up something I tend to really focus on it. For the first two months I played it more as a hobby. Even when I was playing computer games I was able to still play poker sessions of six to ten hours a few times a week. I was really trying to read up a lot and study, so I think I progressed pretty quickly.

And when you started playing did you change your playing style particularly? Did you start playing A-B-C stuff?

Actually, I started way too loose to begin with because I was playing nearly every hand. Then I read some books, learnt a lot and played a lot more. As I got more comfortable with the game I opened up. I also read a lot of internet forums. I think it’s important to experiment and I am always trying new strategies and add that to my game.

Did you have any role models when you were learning the game, either from live games or online?

I was watching a lot of the big players, but I learnt a lot from Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu when I first started playing because they were the biggest players at that time and I was really impressed by them. The thing in poker is it’s important to develop your own style. You have to be comfortable with the way you play – you can’t just imitate someone. Even if you study someone like Phil Ivey because he’s winning, you can never get inside his mind and figure out exactly what he is thinking. That’s why it’s important to have your own way of thinking. I try to take a little bit of something from every good player and adapt it to my own game. I think it’s really important to keep your own approach.

Your first slice of poker history was when you became PokerStar’s first “SuperNova” player…

Well I really love challenges, so when I saw on the PokerStars news that they were going to have SuperNova players, I was like “Wow, I should try to be the first person to get that.” It was a challenge for me – yeah – so I played a lot. It took me about two weeks and it was tough because the games weren’t as high as they are now. It was something I really wanted to do, just to prove to myself I could be the first one to do it.

So you were starting to win some seats in some live tournaments. What kind of adjustments did you make to your game when you switched between online and live play?

I think the first thing I noticed when I played live events is the buy-ins were much bigger, and the way people were thinking about the tournaments was really different. If you play a few tournaments at home for 50 bucks, people are much less afraid of busting out because you only lose a couple of hours, you lose next to nothing. When you play the big buy in live tournaments, people try to survive longer, for a lot of different reasons. You have to take advantage of that. People are less likely to bluff, they are less willing to gamble in the big tournaments – it’s like that for most of the live players anyway. A lot of the internet players think the same, no matter if it’s a big live tournament or big online one. Live players are less likely to gamble in the early stages.

In live tournaments you get a lot more time to think about every decision and you have a lot of things you need to watch. When I first started playing in live tournaments I didn’t watch the players so much, I was just looking at the betting patterns and my cards. I was acting really quick because of the way I had to online. Playing live, I really had to take a bit more time, and think about all of the information at the table.

When you play online you can look out for betting speeds or bet sizes. When you’re playing live, how much emphasis do you give to betting patterns, and how much do you look for tells?

The betting patterns and the hand ranges of players is still the most important thing in poker, I think. It’s really important to look at opponents betting patterns and try to put them on a hand, reconstructing the hand and how they played it compared to previous hands. Nowadays, I try to look for tells a little bit more but it’s pretty hard to find them, I think. Most of the players just stay really still and I can’t really get much from them, even if I read all the books. I still think the most important things are betting patterns and the hand histories of the players.

Tell us a little bit about how you became a Team PokerStars member. How did it feel when they approached you?

Well I won a satellite on PokerStars to an EPT event, back in 2005m, I think, so they sponsored me for the event. Then I won a few more live seats through PokerStars – in 2006 I won six seats for the World Series, and I was the most active player on the site as well. So that’s how PokerStars approached me – they wanted someone to present some of the video game stuff, and someone who was really active on the site. I was really happy to join the team because I think this is the best online site. They have a great interface, and so many good players already. It was really helpful for me to be able to talk to Joe Hachem or Greg Raymer, as there was a lot I could learn from them.

As responsible poker journalists, we always have to try and get a little bit of gossip…

Well, we don’t get the chance to go out that often as a team, but Joe and I were in Barcelona, and when we were at dinner we were making side-bets on everything! We had overs and unders on how much the bill would come to for the table, or the name of the waitress…

You’ve obviously been a very successful player so far, but perhaps your crowning moment so far was the PCA win in the Caribbean.

It was a great tournament just to come to. One of my friends won last year – Ryan Daut. He was another former gamer. Before the tournament I had been on holiday with my family and hadn’t played that much poker so I was feeling really good before going to the PCA. I was feeling really confident and the first day was a really smooth ride. I got up to 120,000 just by dominating my table. I had some good timing with the cards as well.

The second day was good, as well. I got up to 150,000 in chips with about 300 players left, and Ryan came up to rail me and said he wanted to buy one percent of me for $600. I thought it was good price. I mean, I wasn’t even in the money yet and I was barely above the average. So I was like, “Sure, let’s do it!” Then I ended up winning the tournament (laughs)! Maybe it was lucky for me…

Do you have any superstitions?

No, all I try to do is adapt to my table, to the timing and how people view me. If they think I am on a rush or I’m getting good cards I can be more aggressive; people will be afraid to play me. If I show a missed bluff, then I know people are going to be more willing to tangle with me.

Coming back to the PCA, tell us about Days 3 and 4.

I was second in chips going into Day 3, and the chip leader was Eric Lynch, who was two to my right. That was a good seat for me, and I could use that position to my advantage. Then the table broke, and I managed to get some chips by busting out Julian Thew. Then I went card dead for about three hours and could only keep my chip count about the same. Then I got moved again. It was tough being moved so much, because you have to work again on your table image, you had your read on opponents and their betting patterns. Then you get moved to a totally new table where you don’t know anybody. It’s difficult because if you go card dead for an hour at a table, you then know the next move you make is going to get a lot of credit. If you’ve just come to a new table, though, they have no idea I didn’t play a hand for an hour.

Hold on a minute, you knocked Julian Thew out of a tournament? No one in Great Britain can do that right now! How did you manage it?

(Laughs) Well, he was a little short stacked. He’d taken some hits a few hands before, picked up AhTh in mid-position and moved all in for 120,000, I had pocket tens on the button, and that was it.

Coming to the final table, you had a lot of support there, but you also had one of the most in-form players in the world in the form of David Pham. How did you evaluate your chances coming into that final table?

I always liked my chances because David was on my right. It was important for me to either get a seat far away from him or directly on his left. I was really able to control his aggression well. If he was on my left I could have found him re-raising me every time. He plays a lot of hands and plays them very aggressively, so he’s a really hard player to play against, especially when you’re out of position. I was lucky to have position on him on the final table.

And there was a key hand where you’d opened from UTG and the flop came K-Q-5, with two hearts and one diamond. You had the Ad2d and picked up the nut flush draw on the turn.

Yeah, that’s right. I bet 400,000 from UTG and David Pham called from the big blind. He checked the flop, and I checked behind him. David was leading out a lot against other players, and when he was calling out of the big blind he led out a lot of the time. So when he checked the flop, it was the sort of board that might have hit me and I thought he could check-raise, so I checked behind. The turn was the Jd. When he checked the turn again, I thought it would be a strange way for him to play a big ace because the board was so dangerous, and he’d probably want to protect his hand. I fired out thinking he would lay down his hand, and when he moved in I was really surprised. I thought it was possible he was on a combo draw which was smaller than mine, or he could have been on a total bluff as well. I figured I had 12 outs, and I ruled out A-K and A-Q because of the way he just called preflop.

If I lost the hand I still would have more chips than him, and I felt he was the most dangerous opponent on the table. I think it was very important for me to call there because if I fold and let him win this pot, he’s going to be a very tough player to play against, no matter what. However, if he’s out it’s going to be a massive relief for me. I was much more confident playing the other players because they were much more straightforward and gave me more room to breathe.

When the 7d came on the river, did you think that you had the tournament wrapped up?

I didn’t think that way because in Copenhagen I finished second after having a massive chip lead. This time I really tried to stay calm and said to myself that, in poker, nothing is done until the last card. This time I really wanted to be on top of it. My friends who were watching me were already celebrating after I knocked out David Pham, and they were putting the other guy on tilt more than me.

On the final hand you called really fast with the pocket pair and must have been relieved to see your opponent only had the one overcard. How nerve-wracking was it being five cards away from winning the Championship?

Oh yeah, I was thinking “Please, one last time let my hand hold up!” I wasn’t all-in too many times during the tournament, perhaps twice on Day 3 and once on Day 4. Because the structure was so good, I was really trying to avoid huge confrontations like that. When I saw my opponent had 9-3 (to ElkY’s pocket eights), I was so happy. I knew he had to have a bad hand because, when I asked him how much it was, he kept looking down; he began to stutter and couldn’t really say how much he had left. He’d realised he’d had too much to move all in and that he’d made a mistake. I was sure I had to call there.

When the board bricked out, it was an incredible feeling. The four of hearts came on the river, and it was just a crazy. It was just too hard to describe.

So you’ve had your big live breakthrough, and you’re one of the best online players in the world. What are the plans now?

I am going to play a lot more live tournaments as I have a real chance to win the Player of the Year title. I might play some WPT events on top of what I was already planning. Something else I think is missing right now is a World Series bracelet, so I’ll be in Vegas playing a lot of events trying to get it.

Who would you like to play against on a fantasy WSOP final table – if you could choose anyone?

Phil Ivey, for sure. Stu Ungar because he was such a legend, Daniel Negreanu… this is tough! Patrick Antonius, I guess, as well. I’ve never actually played against him – or Phil Ivey, so I am really eager to play against them. Doyle Brunson would also have to be on there.

And our final question: What is the most important bluff you’ve ever made, in life or poker?

Well, I think it was a bluff in Copenhagen at the EPT (Editor’s note: Type “elky” + “toth” into for this one. It’s pure comedy). But the problem was I hit a gutshot on the river when I was going to bluff any spade that came, so I wasn’t even bluffing any more! I did make one really nice bluff in the Caribbean, actually. In Day 2, I had Ts9s on the last hand, and one big stacked LAG from MP. He limped in for 4,000 and someone raised to 15,000 from the button. He hadn’t played a hand in ages, and I just felt that he was making a move. It looked like the best spot for him to make a squeeze play, being the hand before the break as well. So I called planning to check-raise all-in on any flop. It came Q-5-5 rainbow, which was a good flop, as I could have literally any two cards there. I checked and he fired out about 18,000 I think, and left himself about 20,000 behind. I moved in and he looked really annoyed, and he ended up folding.

I didn’t show the bluff but it gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the tournament. I didn’t make many moves at all in this tournament because there were so many internet players and a lot of them know how I play, so I couldn’t make as many moves as normal. The times I did, though, it seemed to work well.