As far as poker celebrity goes Eugene Katchalov isn't exactly a superstar. What he does have are results, over $6 million worth.
Katchalov has only been playing poker 100% professionally for a few short years, having split his time to that point between cards and day trading in New York.
In light of his recent endorsement deal with PokerStars, and the fact that he's one of the most profitable tournament players in the world, we wanted to get to know him a little better.
We've got a feature piece in our news, to which this Q&A is a companion, so click here for more info about Katchalov's decision to play poker professionally instead of working in finance.
And now, the full Q&A.
PokerListings: We’d like to get a bit of background info. We know you're from Brooklyn and that you graduated university, but obviously chose a career in poker. How did you get into the game to begin with?
Eugene Katchalov: Just after I graduated from NYU, in the summer of 2003, I discovered poker with friends. I remember we were just driving around without anything to do and one of them suggested that he heard about a cool new game.
All I knew before that was blackjack, haha.
PL: Did you have a history of playing strategy games, or anything that predisposed you to being a good poker player?
EK: I didn't play cards too often, but I do remember playing some strategy board games. Most of my strategy experience probably came from online strategy games
I remember I used to really like Warcraft 2, where you battle other people online and other similar games when I was in high school.
PL: Describe the development of poker in your life from 2003 on.
EK: When I first started playing I didn't even know you could play poker online so we just had home games with friends. Like 8-9 of us would get together and play like a $10 Sit and Go or some very small limit Hold’em cash game, like $0.25/$0.50 lim holdem
After a while I learned that you could play online and that No-Limit Hold’em was the most popular and interesting. So I started to play $5 and $10 SNGs on Party Poker and was doing pretty well at those.
Success wasn't quick, but limited success was. I was probably making $20-$30 per day playing in those days, which was good enough for spending money at the time.
I slowly moved up from there and started to play much larger field tournaments. I remember winning like $500 in a $5 buy in tournament and from then on was hooked.
From there on poker was always a way for me to make side money while I worked as a trader
PL: So you began online during the really great days of Party Poker?
EK: Yeah exactly! Obviously I didn't realize it back then though.
PL: So you were working in Finance as you got started in poker?
EK: I was a day trader at the time and it's very difficult to make money right off the bat in that because there’s a large learning curve. So they tell you to not expect to be profitable for the first few years.
PL: What happened to make you decide poker was the better career path?
EK: I figured I'd play poker to pay the bills, and at the same time learn to trade. Even though I eventually became a pretty good trader and really liked it, poker grew on me a lot more.
I really loved and enjoyed the game and was becoming consistently more and more successful at it. But I still loved trading and wanted to do both
About a year ago I realized I couldn't do both since to be really good at either I need to concentrate and give 100% to only one.
So since poker was going great and I enjoyed the freedom and traveling, I chose poker.
I still dabble in trading a little, and may get back into it in the future if poker doesn't seem appealing any more for some reason. Although that's probably not happening any time soon.
PL: What was the reaction of friends and family when you made that decision?
EK: When I first started playing poker my dad was fully supportive because him and his dad played cards professionally through their childhood so he believed in me.
My mom didn't really understand how you could make a living gambling but quickly became supportive after a couple of good results. This was also in like 2004-05 while I was still trading
When I actually decided to fully concentrate in poker I was successful enough in it so that everyone was fully supportive.
PL: Tell me a bit about your dad and granddad playing cards professionally.
EK: My dad played cards professionally from the time he was a teenager until right before he left the USSR to come here. Gambling was highly illegal in communist russia, so they gambled in parks, beaches or each other's homes in those days
My granddad did the same, although I don't know as much about it as he passed away when I was young.
There was also no poker in Russia. They played games I've never heard of
PL: Like what?
EK: One sec, lemme ask my dad.
EK: ClubYash. It's pronounced like Club, then Yash lol.
PL: Sounds like something they'd play in communist Russia.
PL: Exactly lol.
PL: What were your aspirations vs. expectations as you became more successful in poker? Did you believe it was possible to win over $6 million and to be taking down $100k buy-in tournaments?
EK: At first all I expected poker to be was a way for me to make some extra money to pay my bills.
It worked great and as time passed I paid more and more bills until I actually started saving money. I slowly started realizing it could be something bigger.
I probably didn't realize that I could do it for a living for at least 3-4 years though because I was concentrating on trading so much.
I never expected to be where I am today
PL: What carries the most importance for you, money or being an accomplished pro? By that we mean, is it important to you to make a mark in the poker world, or is it really just about the cash?
EK: Well, when I first started I just really loved the game and obviously the fact that you could make money doing it.
So money was probably more important to me at the time but now I definitely see more possibilities for myself and would love to continue doing well and possibly getting more recognition.
PL: On that note, how do you feel about your recent endorsement deal with Pokerstars? Is that something you were actively seeking or was it offered to you?
EK: I was always open to an endorsement deal, but at the same time the offer itself had to make sense to me.
As of a year ago I realized that all I needed was to win one more major tournament to get a proper offer that I'd be satisfied with, and I believe the 100k at the PCA helped with that.
I also like being part of PokerStars because they're so respected and professional in what they do. And I love that I get to go back to my home country of Ukraine and represent them globally from now on when I play.
PL: Where do you see poker headed in the coming years, and do you think companies like PokerStars are doing the right things to ensure the continued vitality of the game?
EK: I think poker has been evolving for a long time and I don't see that stopping any time soon. With all the recent announcements of casinos partnering up with online sites, I certainly think it's just a matter of time now before online poker becomes legalized in the US.
I certainly think pokerstars is going about it in the right way by partnering up with a huge gaming corporation like WYNN because that gives them even more legitimacy in the US.
I also think that there will be a big boost to the current growth in online poker once it becomes legalized because of all the different and interesting partnerships online gaming sites could have with live brick and mortar casinos.
PL: You're going to play the PokerStars Russian Poker Tour event in Kiev this week. What do you predict for the future of poker in new markets like Ukraine?
EK: I haven't been in Ukraine for about three years, but I've heard that poker has experienced some tremendous growth there over last few years so I'm very excited.
I've heard that like three years ago maybe 8,000 people or so played online poker in Ukraine. Today that number is over 100,000.
It's recognized as a sport there so that's kinda cool too.
PL: Thanks Eugene.