- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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If you've sat at a poker table, you've felt the pressure. Any time one is faced with a big decision for enough money or chips to matter, the pulse quickens, the brow gets a little more moist than one would like to admit, and the world slows to a standstill.
But what if your family's savings were on the line?
Alexander Kostritsyn is a growing poker monster. The product of Volzhsky, Russia, just 23 years old, is among the chip leaders heading into Day 5 of the 2010 World Series of Poker main event with 761,000 in chips. He has more than $2.3 million in winnings over his short live tournament career, and he won almost twice as much online in a three-month span earlier this year. However, none of those accomplishments compares to that of using poker to bring his family from next to nothing to prosperity.
"I started playing in February of 2005," said Kostritsyn in thickly accented but conversational English. "Five of my friends put up $10 each on PokerStars because $50 was the minimum initial buy-in. We didn't have money. We didn't want to lose a lot. It was real money for us. We tried with the $50, we all played, and then we lost it all. Then, my mother gave me $150; it was our family's savings. Both my parents have always believed in me."
Knowing their son was talented and grounded, they trusted him with the small sum they'd saved in the hopes he could turn it into more in whatever way he might see fit. This may not be an advisable step for most parents to take. In the Kostritsyn's case, however, it ended up being a smart gamble. Kostritsyn decided poker was the best way to make the sum reproduce. Still, they all got a little lucky.
"I never really had an idea about [variance] or what is bankroll management," recalled Kostritsyn, who now spends most of his time in Moscow. "I thought that if I was a better player than someone, then I'd win 100 percent of the time against them because I had played chess and played Starcraft a lot, and in those games, if you're better, you're going to win, like, 95 percent of the time. There's a very small chance you'd lose. I was sure that if I was better I would win. I won $1,000 on my first day."
Wait. What? That he survived that day was a small miracle.
"I started a new file in Excel and entered a $5 sit-and-go," Kostritsyn said. "I recorded my losses until I won one, and I thought, 'OK, this stage, I've passed it.' I had no idea what I was doing. I moved to $10 sit-and-gos, then $20, then $30. On the first day I made it up to a $200 sit-and-go and that was the maximum at that time. I won at $200, was like, 'OK, I'm just the king of the game!' I was playing against Americans who were having fun. It wasn't a lot of money to them."
Kostritsyn's mastery went beyond that day. Within two years, he'd built himself a $500,000 bankroll, giving him the opportunity to play in some of Russia's biggest live cash games. It was an opportunity to learn another facet of the game.
"In three days I could easily lose my bankroll," he remembered, speaking of the time like it was decades ago. "I was playing really high. I look back and think, 'What was I thinking?' Because if I went back now, I'd be much more clever. I wouldn't just gamble. I was gambling. I was just having fun, gambling with businessmen. I was winning, so it was fine if I lost because the next few days I could work hard and win it back.
"The first time I played live I lost, like, half my bankroll in my first two days," he said. "The third day I played I started to win, but it wasn't easy. It took, like, two years to get good. I consider myself both a live and online player now. I prefer online because in Russia everyone smokes, and I can't be around the smoke."
For all the questionable decision-making in the early stages of his career, Kostritsyn is philosophical about his learning curve.
"I learn games by experiencing, by analyzing, by losing," he said, quickly adding, "I learn a lot from losing. I learn much more than from winning. I like playing here because you're learning at a high level. Unfortunately, the last few months, I've learned a lot."
Kostritsyn was referencing a recent online downswing and how live play has been providing better results lately. He has thrived at the WSOP, scoring 11 cashes since 2008 despite taking a pass on most lower-buy in events. That includes a 10-place finish in the $50,000 Poker Players Championship and a semi-final showing in the $10,000 heads-up championship. With the bubble cracked in the main event, he's made the money three times in a row in the biggest tournaments in the world. He seems poised to improve on his 84th-place finish in 2008.
"I had 131,000 after Day 1," he recalled. "It was an easy day, I had a very good table. Day 2, I finished with 222,000. I had a good table at the beginning, but a bad one at the end, where I played with Allen Cunningham and a few other good players. Day 3, I finished with 523,000 at a solid table."
He finished Day 4 with 761,000 in chips.
"He got moved to my table about four hours ago," said Sam "Pudge714" Greenwood, a 21-year-old online pro from Toronto. "It hasn't been fun. He's raising a lot of pots and playing well. I felt I was the best player at the table before he got moved here. Now I know I no longer am."
"I didn't know anything about him until I sat down here," admitted longtime tournament veteran Curt Kohlberg. "I picked up one of the poker mags and there was a picture of him, so I know he knows what he's doing. He's the type of player I like to avoid. He's a very aggressive player. He has a huge chip stack and he's using it effectively."
"He's probably the nicest guy I've ever played with," exclaimed 45-year-old Keith Love of Denver, a veteran of five main events. "I mean, he's playing poker, but he's looking out for the other players, looking out for the dealer, letting guys know he can see their cards. He's obviously very aggressive. He's obviously very good at that, it's a great skill. I'd probably say he's the most aggressive player I've ever played with. He's very good at it."
Those compliments came despite the fact that Kostritsyn took chips from all of the above.
The respect of his peers is relevant to Alexander. "Fame can be fun, but I mostly don't care," he admitted. "I care about my friends, my fiancée, what my friends think, what my parents think."
His parents have to think things are pretty great after what he's accomplished so far.
"My parents' lifestyle has changed a lot," Kostritsyn said, beaming. "They have a new house, a car. They're having more fun. I want them not to work so much. It's very nice to see them more comfortable. That was my goal, the reason I started playing poker. In so many years I've made money, but I can't get them abroad. They won't go anywhere. There are so many things to see! I will do my best when I get home to work hard so I can get them somewhere."
Maybe Vegas in November would be a nice place for the Kostritsyn clan to begin some worldly travels. The way their son is fulfilling their faith, it seems pretty likely they'd have to show their support. Considering his stack and his success at WSOP, the notion doesn't seem all that far-fetched.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.
Alexander Kostritsyn's family trusted him with their life savings and he didn't let them down, turning $150 into a multimillion dollar bankroll.