- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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It was some 20 years ago that Alexander Katchalov and his wife made the decision to move from Kiev in the Ukraine to Brooklyn, N.Y. It's the kind of move so many have made before him with the dream in mind of making a better life for their children. Katchalov found his way in the United States, earning a blue-collar wage and providing an education for his son Eugene, who has run with his father's dream. On Jan. 8, Alex Katchalov shed tears of joy while talking to his son on the phone, because he knew his dreams had become a reality.
Eugene Katchalov, 29, was one of the 38 players with the bankroll, reputation and guts to put up $100,000 in order to enter the highest buy-in tournament of all time at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. Dubbed the "Super High Roller," the tournament attracted only the cream of poker's crop. Only five players made the money and the ramifications of failing to do so were incredibly daunting.
"It was an intimidating buy-in," admitted Katchalov, whose smile never left his face during a 30-minute conversation outside of the poker room in the Bahamas. "Going in, I figured I'd see how I was doing financially. I figured if I could afford it, I'd do it. I was doing well in the games I was playing and that made the decision for me. I think confidence level had a lot to do with it, but I tend to play my best against good players, so I really felt this would be a good event for me."
It was. Katchalov survived an up-and-down first day of play and then a monster second-day hand in which he lost two-thirds of his stack to Daniel Negreanu to engineer a comeback and earn $1.5 million for surviving the tournament. It's only the latest success for the pro who Negreanu says may be the best unknown tournament player on the planet. Pairing this win with Katchalov's $2.4 million win at the WPT's 2007 Doyle Brunson Classic, among other successes, his career tournament winnings total beyond $5,500,000 and it's easy to see why Negreanu regards him so highly.
Katchalov and Negreanu were the protagonists in the tournament's two biggest hands. The first came on Day 2 and it started with Katchalov possessing the chip lead and Negreanu breathing down his back.
"I'm really happy with how I played that hand," recalled Katchalov. "I don't know if I could have done anything differently. Daniel opened and I called on the button with two jacks. David Benyamine went all-in from the big blind, but he was short-stacked. Daniel reraised, but [to my mindset] that didn't mean he was that strong. He might have just been trying to get me out, so I re-reraised small. Daniel moved all-in and at that point I felt, 'that's kind of a problem.' I knew he had a big hand and I didn't think he could have 10-10 in that spot and knowing Daniel, A-K was a very small part of his range there. Also, looking at him, my read was that he was strong. After thinking for three to four minutes, I decided to fold."
The fold took him from 1.3 million in chips to 500,000, but he was vindicated when Negreanu turned over pocket kings. From there, Katchalov regrouped and entered final-table play third in chips behind his best friend and massive chip leader, Nick Schulman, and the second-place Negreanu. When Schulman went out in fourth, it was a bittersweet moment, but it put Katchalov a step closer to the tournament's other big hand, when Katchalov's pocket 5s held up against Negreanu's pocket 4s to give the New Yorker the victory.
"When Nick got knocked out, there was no pumping the fist," Katchalov said. "It's always been a dream for us to go heads-up in a tournament, especially as big as this one. It's hard for me to not root for him. Me, Nick and Daniel spoke before final table and agreed that if it was the three of us, we'd do shots and have a lot of fun with it. That would have been fun."
"I really like those guys," Negreanu said, laughing at the memory of that conversation. "They're good players and really good people. I figured it would come down to the three of us and [noted pro] Bryn Kenney and it came out that way. We said if it came down to us three, we'd start doing shots. Nick ended up fourth, which got me off the shots, which was good because I'm a lightweight anyway. Thankfully we didn't have to do that. It was an amazing final table and it went almost to script. One twist at the end and I end up winning."
While a Negreanu victory wasn't in the cards, his second-place finish is the latest in a string of strong performances after a tough 2010 in which the passing of his mother and other personal goings-on admittedly took away from his poker. It's a new year and the $1 million he took home for second place put him atop the lifetime tournament winnings leaderboard, a position formerly held by Phil Ivey.
"I'm happy to be at the top," Negreanu chirped, the ever-present smile growing just a touch. "One of my goals this year was to get it back from Phil. I think we're going to go back and forth with that for the next 15-20 years. What pleases me the most is that Phil cares. When Phil cares and I care, I think it's going to make for a good story in poker. As much as we hear about Phil shying away from media and wanting nothing to do with that, Phil cares [about records]. He makes all those side bets to motivate himself financially as well, but he wants all the records."
Negreanu then added, "It's nice to have one for a little while."
Negreanu's ascendance to the top spot through such an exclusive event has had media tongues wagging over just what should constitute an eligible event for the lifetime winnings tabulation. While Negreanu feels some lists count events that they shouldn't, the $100,000 at PCA isn't one such event.
"It's mostly just a fun stat," he said. "It could be made more relevant if it was tabulated properly [with money spent on buy-ins included in the tally]. One thing I believe is no invitation-only events should count and nothing where people are restricted should count. So, no NBC Invitational. They play these $100,000 buy-in [six-player tournaments] on Poker After Dark, but I'm not allowed to play [due to his PokerStars affiliation]. That shouldn't count."
Isn't a $100,000 buy-in a little too exclusive, though?
"Obviously 38 players is a small field, but I think it should count because anyone can play," Negreanu answered. "Where do you draw the line on open-invitation events? Is $25,000 too much? Some people can't put up $10,000. It's real money and it's open, so I'd count it.
"I think the $100,000 is an absolutely special event and you're not going to see it every month. It really brings together the best players and it gives the die-hards something to get excited about with an exclusive field of their online heroes and some of the old-school guys. In a $10,000 [buy-in event], you're not going to see that. This event gave you tables where you're a fan of them all or hate some of them."
That's the event Eugene Katchalov won. He fought through one of the strongest fields ever assembled and came out on the other side. For him, it was another great day at the tables. For his father, though, it was a dream come true.
3dESPN Fantasy staff
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