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Oleksii Kovalchuk: While Kiev Burned, Poker Players Just Played On
At just 24 years old, Ukrainian poker player Oleksii Kovalchuk already has two WSOP bracelets and two titles on the Italian Poker Tour (IPT).
Unlike a lot of poker players, though, Kovalchuk doesn't attribute it all to running good at the right times.
The Kiev native has big plans for the WSOP again this year but in the interim made a quick stopover at WPT Kazakhstan, where he busted quickly in the main event.
PokerListings Germany's Christian Henkel had just enough time to meet him at the Cashville Casino to talk about his crazy experiences during the upheaval in his hometown, his expectations for the 2014 WSOP and his special relationship with George Danzer.
PokerListings: Oleksii, contrary to Ukrainian ex-pats like Eugene Katchalov and Yevgeny Timoshenko, you still live in Kiev. What happened in the poker world there during the recent unrest?
Oleksii Kovalchuk: It actually seemed that the local poker scene was not affected by the political situation. The most popular poker club, Krechtchatyk, is only a few meters away from the Maidan.
PL: What happened there?
OK: When the whole square was a lethal civil war zone the players sometimes opened the windows and made some handy photos or videos. Then they closed windows and doors and just played on. Really strange.
PL: So nothing changed?
OK: What changed is that foreigners are scared to come to Kiev now. But inside the clubs everything is like before the upheaval. I hope Kiev goes back to normal soon.
PL: What does the future hold for live poker in the Ukraine?
OK: It is not really clear now, what politicians plan with the gambling law. But poker in the Ukraine is still seen as sports. I think the future of live poker in the Ukraine is better than the past.
PL: You are here in Kazakhstan now. First time?
OK: Yes. I got an invitation from a friend, bought the ticket and jumped on a plane. I'm only here for three days but I wish I could stay a little longer.
I took a walk around the lake here and was impressed by the amazing landscape. And they have a high-class hotel, a high-class casino and some juicy cash games here.
The only negative thing was that I busted from the WPT tournament twice very early.
PL: Why you are leaving so quickly? Because of the WSOP?
OK: Yes. But I am happy to miss the first two weeks this year. Last year I went all the way and felt completely burned out by the end.
I tell you what: I played the WSOP Main Event three times and got busted three times in the first two hours. Why? Because I was too exhausted. So I really want to be fit for the big one this year.
PL: Do all the Ukrainian players stick together in Vegas?
OK: Yeah, it is pretty much like this. We are now about 20 to 25 five players going to Vegas. And we all know each other.
Anton Makiievskyi, who was a November Niner in 2011, is for example a very close friend of mine. I hope he can help prepare me for the Main Event.
PL: You're just the third player in the history of the WSOP to win two bracelets at the age of 22. Luck or skill?
OK: 100% skill. I’ve been playing for four years now, won two bracelets, cashed in five other WSOP tournaments, won two IPT tournaments and made almost $2.3m in live poker tournaments. Could that be luck? (Laughs)
PL: You won your second bracelet in an Omaha/Seven Card Stud Hi/Lo-event, a discipline that you had never played before. I think your opponent George Danzer still dreams about the heads up.
OK: Okay, I had a good card run. But I won it with skill. It was a hard time for George. He plays poker now for so many years and never could win a bracelet.
But if you meet him you can tell him his bracelet is in very good hands. If I can tell you my real opinion, I think George will never win something big in a live tournament.
In the exotic events he's even always good for the final table, but he will never make it better than place 7.
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