November Nine: The Russian

When Alex Kravchenko made the final table of the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event observers treated it as a novelty – a Russian at the final table, that’s swell.

But apparently Kravchenko was a year ahead of his time. Russian-born players enjoyed an extremely successful 2008 WSOP – it could have easily been dubbed the “Year of the Russian”. Perhaps motivated by Kravchenko’s success last year, another Russian, Nikolay Evdakov, stormed into the Rio and shattered the record for most cashes in a single WSOP with ten.

But it’s not Evdakov who’s in position to be the face of poker in Russia. The title of potential poster boy belongs to Ivan Demidov. When he returns to the Rio in early November as part of the November Nine he’ll unbag 24,400,000 chips – less than two million behind chip leader Dennis Phillips.

“It’s the first year that a lot of Russians came,” says Demidov from his home in Moscow, where he’s been since late July. “They were inspired by Kravchenko’s results last year I guess, I don’t know. But there was over fifty Russians playing the Main Event this year.”

The 27-year-old credits the Russian invasion to two factors – an exploding poker market in Russia and one businessman who saw the skill of Russia’s top player and staked a number of his comrades in this year’s event – including Demidov. “It’s booming here right now and it’s not underground by any means. We have a lot of $5/$10, $10/$20, and some very big games, but we lack the $25/$50-ish games.”

Demidov doesn’t play a lot of cash games and tournaments in Moscow haven’t enjoyed the same influx of players as the cash games, so he plays most of his poker online. Being successful in a competitive environment online is nothing new for Demidov. Before he discovered poker via a friend, he was playing Starcraft and Warcraft 3 professionally.

“I was pretty successful; in Starcraft I’d say I was very good. But there were no live tourneys in Europe. The only live tourneys were in Korea. You had to stay there for a long time and I was studying, so I didn’t play any,” says Demidov, who played in the limited European Warcraft 3 tournament schedule while attending Moscow State University.

“Some other players I knew switched to poker,” says Demidov. “And they helped me to get into it. A friend transferred me $50 on PokerStars, but it wasn’t until a year later that I started playing.”

After honing his skills online and through the dozen or so live tournaments he played in Europe, Demidov boarded a plane to Las Vegas last December for the Five Diamond Poker Classic at the Bellagio. Despite not recording a single cash, the experience he gained playing in the ten to fifteen tournaments there gave him the confidence to return

to Las Vegas for the WSOP this past summer, where he played more than twenty events.

Demidov’s sole cash at the WSOP prior to the Main Event came in Event #44 ($1,000 No Limit Hold’em w/Rebuys) where he just missed the final table with an 11th-place finish. Despite only cashing once, Demidov is guaranteed a positive ROI for himself and his backer. But being backed in the Series has Demidov thinking a little more conservatively about his post-WSOP spending spree.

“I’m only getting a percentage of my winnings and since a good house in Moscow costs well over $500,000, I’m waiting for November” says Demidov. “So I’m going to buy a car, some other smallish stuff and that’s it.”

But the young Russian also sees the bigger picture and isn’t at all afraid of what lies ahead for him if he wins the whole shebang. He’s sharp enough to recognize that this position is of the once-in-a-lifetime variety and is happy to have an opportunity that most poker players only dream of.

“Poker is nothing like hockey. In hockey if you are good you are going to win all the time,” says Demidov of the sport that is among the most popular and storied in Russian culture. “In poker if you are good you just win more often than the other guy. I am pretty sure I won’t have any other good results in like a year at least.”

Poker’s growing popularity in Russia has led to some recent changes that can only bode well for Demidov as the face of the game in his homeland.

“Poker is now an official sport in Russia. There is a sport poker federation now,” says Demidov. “That’s why I am only paying 13% tax on winnings, and not 27%. It’s considered an income tax and not tax on winnings.” Further, Demidov expects the new sport to make its mark on popular culture. “This sport thing just became legal, so it takes time for television networks to schedule some shows.”

As the world begins to meet the November Nine – and the November Nine prepare to meet the world – there’s at least one poker show that Russian networks will be clamoring to get their hands on, and Demidov is the reason why.