How Starcraft, Bridge and Chess Led ElkY, Maria and Jen to Poker

Three pokerteers.

Not everyone discovered poker for the first time by watching it on TV.

Some very famous poker players - ElkY, Maria Ho and Jen Shahade, for example - arrived at poker by playing completely different games. And from completely different directions.

Yesterday at the 2016 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure the three sat down to share their stories about becoming poker pros.

They also gave us a glimpse of what they think will have a major impact on the gaming world in the future.

ElkY’s story

It’s well-known that Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier was a world-class Starcraft player long before he played his first poker hand. But the transition seemed almost unavoidable.

Rockstar ElkY
ElkY in the post-Starcraft era.

“I lived in South Korea to play Starcraft professionally, because that was the only country where you could do that.

“What’s very similar between Starcraft and poker is that they’re both games of incomplete information. I guess that’s why friends later told me I should take up poker.

“They say poker is a mind game, and that’s true, but really, every game becomes a mind game when you reach a certain level.

“You have to cope with a lot of pressure in poker. I learned taking pressure the hard way.

"When I competed in Starcraft championships I would play in huge halls front of 20,000 people and as I was the foreigner, everybody was rooting against me.

“That gave me an advantage when I was later transitioning from online to live poker – I was used to pressure. The more difficult thing for me was to monitor stack and pot sizes, as online everything is already cut out for you. I was really struggling in the beginning.

“If there is one game that could see a boon like poker did, it’s Hearthstone. A lot of poker players play it already, as there are many parallels. Both are card games, both are played with boards, and both give you the possibility to bluff.”

Maria Ho’s story

“My family moved from China to America when I was still very young, but I learned the most traditional Chinese game – Mahjong – at a very early age.

Maria Ho 3
Parallels lie in interactions.

“Despite living in the States I was brought up in a traditional way, so it took a while until I came in contact with poker.

“I find it a pity that some games seem to go out of fashion, although they really shouldn’t. I learned to play Bridge before poker and I still enjoy it very much.

“The parallels here lie in the interaction between the players. In Bridge, where you always have a two against two situation, you have to understand the message your partner sends when he’s announcing, and then you have to evaluate what the player of the other team has.

“By the time the action reaches you, you have to have your mind made-up about what your best action is going to be.

“Although you don’t play with a partner in poker you’re also interacting with everyone else at the table. You interpret their actions and you respond to them.

“The future belongs to Twitch. People now stumble across poker on Twitch in the same way they used to do on TV 12 years ago. The potential is huge, and we can already see stars emerging in the poker industry like Jason Somerville and Jamie Staples.”

Jen Shahade’s story

To understand Jen’s story a little better you should know that she comes from a family of academics and chess players.

Chess and poker master.

Her father Michael Shahade is a FIDE master of chess. Her mother is a university professor, and her brother Greg is an International Master and temporarily worked as a poker pro. Jen is also a Grandmaster.

“I learned to play chess when I was five years old. I didn’t really like it in the beginning but somehow that’s often the case with things I later fall in love with. I’m not sure if it’s the same with people.

“I made it to chess master before I knew poker, and it was my brother who introduced me to it. Again, at first I wasn’t very excited about it, as a game with incomplete information seemed to differ a lot from chess.

"But of course, there are also parallels when it comes to strategy. Later, I was actually told I should be more like my brother and play poker. I hesitated for a while, but then the game got me.

“Poker is popular among chess players and some of them have become very good. Alexander Grischuk (ed. note: World Blitz Chess Champion 2015) can play 40 tables online simultaneously, but tanks about every decision live.

“And then there’s of course Magnus Carlsen from Norway, currently the best player in the world by a mile, who’s known as a grinder, but in a good way.”

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