Nicolas Levi: "Social Poker" is Industry's Future

Nicolas Levi
Poker pioneer Nicolas Levi

As one of the leading lights of Team Winamax for almost a decade now, Nicolas Levi has been a fixture on the international poker circuit.

As the calendar turns over to 2014, though, Levi has decided to take a step back from his poker career to dedicate himself to his family and a new project -- Ranking Hero.

One of the game's leading ambassadors in France, Levi sat down with PokerListings France's Fred Guillemot in Paris recently to share his thoughts on poker's past, present and future.

PokerListings: Nicolas, between Ranking Hero and your newborn baby, it seems you're leaving the world of poker tournaments for reasons both professional and personal. Is it impossible to reconcile the life of a family man and that of a professional poker player?

Nicolas Levi: Pretty much. As a dad, you have to get up early in the morning and live in a circadian way – you get up when the sun rises, you go to bed when the sun sets. That's quite hard to manage when you also have to play a poker tournament from 2pm to 2am.

Nicolas Levi
Time to stop living out of a suitcase.

I had two options: either I could always leave my wife and daughter behind, spend most of my time alone in a hotel room and feel like I was missing out on everything that matters, or take them with me everywhere.

Thing is, as part of my contract, I was spending almost half the year abroad which basically meant I never unpacked my suitcase. I would come home for three days and leave again, which also meant my wife had to be a stay-at-home mom, which is not her thing at all. So it was that or take a year off.

All in all, I always knew that the time would come when I'd want to do something else. It has come and I couldn't be happier about it.

I've been playing tournaments as part of Team Winamax for nine years now and it has been an incredible experience from the first day to the last. I'm extremely proud of everything I've achieved during my poker career, but I'm also terribly excited to start this new chapter in my life.

Plus, it's not like I'm quitting poker altogether. I'm not a professional tennis player retiring from the ATP tour forever, I'm going to stay competitive and play a few tournaments a year.

I also think it's much better for my ego to stop while I'm still at the peak of my career. I take with me a lot of good memories and I think people have a good image of me – it's better than waiting until I'm not competitive or motivated anymore.

You know, I worked as a magician for a while – both for fun and professionally – and someone once gave me some great advice: “How long does a magic show last? If all goes well, people will keep asking you for one more trick... Until they don't anymore. If you reach that point, you've screwed up.”

If you want to do a good show, you need to leave the audience wanting more. I think that's what I've managed to do with poker.

I'm very happy with everything I've done. I've grown up, I've met my wife, I've met many friends, I've put some money aside and I've even met trustworthy people whom I'm working with on the Ranking Hero project.

Nicolas Levi
Like in Magic, always leave them wanting more.

That's pretty much as good as it gets, isn't it?

PL: You're one of many to leave Team Winamax recently: Tristan Clémençon, who's also working on a business now, Guillaume de la Gorce, etc. Even Ludovic Lacay told us not too long ago during a video-interview that he'd probably stop in a few years.

NL: Yes, there are even other players who'll announce they're leaving soon.

PL: Do you think it has to do with a certain tiredness, weariness?

NL: It's hard for me to answer that because in my case, weariness has nothing to do with it. Of course I'm not as excited as I was for my very first tournaments when everything was brand new – which is actually a feeling I'm getting from business now – but I never stopped enjoying myself at the poker tables.

Yes, there have been good times and not-so-good times, but everything changed when I became a dad. Depending on the tournaments, either I felt extra motivated because I felt I was playing for my daughter, or I was just wondering what the hell I was doing there instead of being at home with my kid.

PL: No weariness then?

NL: I'm honestly happy as ever playing poker, which is why I'll keep playing a few tournaments a year with Winamax. I still want to represent French poker and Winamax from time to time.

Having said that, spending your time traveling the world to play poker isn't the healthiest lifestyle ever. I think I always knew this lifestyle had an expiration date as far as I was concerned.

Davidi Kitai
"Players of my generation were the pioneers."

I really don't see myself quitting poker altogether, but I always thought I'd stop being a professional player after 10 years or so. I think that's true of most competitive sports, unless you're Tiger Woods or Roger Federer it's really hard to stay at the top for more than 10 years.

Players of my generation were the pioneers of online poker, we've seen how poker strategy evolved, we were there when the first trackers and the forums appeared, etc.

A lot of things have changed – and they're still changing – but back then, in order to be a good poker player, you needed a few key qualities: vision, creativity, knowing how to read between the lines and being able to improve what material already existed – since all the books had been written by the previous generation of players.

Back then, Harrington's book in which he tells you it's insane to go all-in with 10 blinds was the ultimate reference. But for me and other players who took part in the Sit'n'Go section of 2+2, it was a freaking heresy.

Everything changed back then. Before, there used to be one interesting book published every 10 years and then suddenly the “Internet” way of thinking made them all obsolete. Everything started going faster thanks to the forums, the analysis on what became later Sit'n'Go Wizard, etc.

I'm just very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time and to have realized that I needed to draw from the Internet grinders instead of the players who were considered great at that time.

Today, in order to become a good poker player, you need to work a lot, to be very precise, to be very logical and to be very strong mentally. On the other hand, knowledge is within easy reach.

That's why the players in general are much better now than they used to be and the ones who stand out in the younger generation are very different from players like Davidi Kitai or Ludovic Lacay.

In my opinion, it's not so much about weariness as it is about leaving more room for the younger players. It's not even that I don't feel competitive anymore, because the last three years have been my best years so far.

Dan Harrington
Game has changed since Harrington.

I think I managed to evolve to keep in touch with that new generation, but I can't deny that the skills you need to be a good player are very far from what initially drew me to poker. That can make it hard to really enjoy myself.

PL: Sometimes it feels like these younger players are almost machines.

NL: Yeah, machines. That happens every time a sport or a game goes professional, it becomes less romantic.

The same thing happened in tennis: each player used to have their own personal technique and so on. Now they analyze every single thing on a computer: each hit, their footwork, the speed, etc. It's perfectly normal and it really is a good thing, but it's different.

I managed to keep up with all this because I could understand both worlds: the very creative online pioneers on one hand and the hard-working newcomers on the other because even though I'm one of the creative ones, I also tend to work a lot.

However, I realized that if I wanted to keep up for five more years, I'd have to put in an insane amount of work.

PL: So, basically, back then you guys were one step ahead of everyone.

NL: You could say that. I've tried to stay ahead for as long as I could.

That's essentially why the poker boom happened: because people had found ways to get better and win more money.

Then it's pretty much a pyramid. I was closer to the top of the pyramid – at least in tournaments. The guys you beat when you're at the top of the pyramid are those who've won at the bottom and want to rise higher.

That's why at any EPT, half of the players are going to be professional and the other half will be talented amateurs who want to get a taste of the “Champions' League”.

Gerard Piqué
EPT fields now split in two.

If these guys didn't have Harrington & co to help them improve their game and enhance their bankroll, they'd never get there.

So yeah, little by little, players have been able to rise to the top and that's how I managed to win. Just like better players than me have taken “advantage” of my presence. It's pretty much a food chain.

PL: How do you see the future of poker?

NL: Today I think the poker industry will shift towards social poker. The idea is to play poker for fun, but not necessarily for money – just like any other game.

You don’t need to spend tens or hundreds of euros to have fun playing poker. All you need is good competition. That means there needs to be something at stake, but that doesn't have to be money!

For example, my wife and I often play Chinese poker. It's great fun and we're always extremely motivated because whoever loses has to do the dishes.

All you need is something to lose/to win. The whole point of a bluff is to have your opponent face a dilemma: do I play it safe or do I satisfy my curiosity?

It's ego vs. curiosity. That's why there needs to be something at stake, but I don't think it has to be money – and definitely not a lot of it.

PL: However a company like Zynga seems to be struggling a lot.

NL: Zynga's troubles have nothing to do with poker. As far as I know, their poker games are doing fine. Their problem is that there is a lot of competition and their business model is very easy to reproduce.

They were lucky because they were the first ones on the market. It's as if in 2004 you'd told me: “Meh, online poker doesn't work, just look at Planet Poker.” Except that online poker was fine, Planet Poker's problem was just that PartyPoker and PokerStars were coming up.

Zynga Logo
Zynga's problem isn't poker.

The market is evolving, that's all. Zynga were pioneers, they did the spadework. But now there are dozens of companies and the market will probably be saturated for a while. I can't say I know enough about that to really talk about it though.

It's always the same thing: now everyone's talking about Candy Crush and everyone's forgotten all about Angry Birds and Words With Friends. All these innovations have really short lifespans, but in the end we'll see who will get to become the major stakeholders in the long run.

That's what happened with search engines for example. At first there was Lycos, AltaVista – who was supposed to smash the competition, and as it happens they had many of the ideas Google used. But it's always like that with innovation and technology: no matter how good your ideas are, someone will make them 10 times better. That's what Google did.

My point is there are still many amazing things to be done in the poker industry. Just because people have already had good ideas doesn't mean we can't take them further.

I'm willing to bet that within two or three years there will be at least two companies we haven't even heard of yet among the five major world poker companies.

PL: Do you think it's impossible for a company to hold a strong position on the market in the long run?

Nicolas Levi
Still amazing things to come for poker industry.

NL: Who's the leader on the American market? Ultimate Poker. A website that no one had even heard of a year and a half ago.

PL: Yes, but Black Friday happened...

NL: That's true. The industry is being turned upside down by legislation and innovation. And that's not going to stop any time soon.

There's a lot of new things coming up. Some Indian tribes will launch their website in California, a social poker website will be launched in China, etc. I mean, just at Ugame in China... 350 million users and we have no idea what this website is.

The Asian market is rapidly expanding, a lot of the things created there will go global. There's a lot to hope for.

I've been in this industry for nine years and it has always surprised me. I don't see why it should be any different today.

PL: Is that why you're launching Ranking Hero? Can you tell us a bit more about the concept of the website and how it came to be?

NL: Ranking Hero addresses two issues. The first one is that when you want to know something about poker, there's about a thousand websites you can go to – you have to go on the WPT website to see their calendar, on casino websites to see the smaller tournaments, on a ranking website to see what your friends have done, etc.

But actually it is possible to gather all this information on one nice website. It's a Herculean task, but today, if you want to know what's going on in Davidi Kitai's life, you can visit his Ranking Hero page, where you'll find his Twitter account, his Facebook page, his Instagram pictures, his latest results, his favorite casino, his friends, and – not yet but soon – the tournaments he plans to attend.

Nicolas Levi
Ranking Hero isn't just another social network.

Facebook enables people to stay in touch with their friends, Twitter enables people to share their thoughts with the whole world. LinkedIn gives everyone the possibility of building a professional network.

Ranking Hero was specifically designed to bring the poker community closer together and allow everyone to show what they've accomplished.

What does that mean, concretely? It means that if a dealer signs up to Ranking Hero, he'll be able to say in which casino he worked, which games he deals, to find his friends, to say who his favorite player is, etc.

It means that if a player is on Ranking Hero and wants information on a tournament, he can ask. It means that there is direct communication between the casinos and the players. We want to gather everyone and provide them with the content they want.

Ranking Hero isn't just “another social network," it's at the very heart of the poker community and it allows you to manage all your social networks.

The idea is to provide a “home” to poker players. We've put a lot of thought in the design of the website but we still have a lot of work to do in the next year.

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