We've heard a lot of poker stories over the last 10 years, but none quite like Alexander Stevic's.
Winning the first-ever EPT main event in Barcelona back in 2004 is pretty cool on its own but it only scratches the surface of what might be the most interesting poker trajectory we've ever heard.
When someone tells you the "best games are the ones with the mafia," you also tend to listen pretty closely.
Stevic: Play with the Older Mobsters
Returning to Barcelona 10 years after his breakthrough win (unfortunately just busting before the end of Day 3 today to end hopes of a second title), the Swedish ex-pat sat down with PokerListings France's Fred Guillemot and ladi out an education in non-traditional poker paths.
PokerListings: So Alex, are you excited to be back here in Barcelona?
Alexander Stevic: Yeah, I really am. You know, I was here the first year and I won, and now I'm back 10 years later.
They're good numbers – I like the number 1, I like the number 10, so I thought winning this one would make me the Maradona of poker.
PL: That's nice. So 1 and 10 are your lucky numbers?
Stevic: Kind of. I like numbers, I'm a bit weird. I have many lucky numbers. 29 is also one of them.
Yesterday I was at table number 29 and I had seat number 1, it was perfect. I always look for signs, you know.
PL: Why 29?
Stevic: That's because I'm crazy about the roulette. That's a typical number for people who play roulette, but I don't like roulette anymore – I lost too much money!
I also like 11, and it has nothing to do with roulette, but it's a double-1.
PL: Not many people know you, except for your 2004 EPT title. Can you tell us a bit more about what you did after that?
Stevic: After I won the first EPT, I actually finished third in the final in Monte Carlo. After that I played a lot of tournaments for two years but with very little success.
And playing tournaments can quickly get very expensive when you don't win, so I started playing more cash games – which are my specialty anyway – and I've been playing them pretty much until now.
PL: So you're still a full-time professional player?
Stevic: Yes, but I try to play in strange places everywhere in the world and find private games. I'm not such a great player you know, all the young guys are better than me today, so I try to find places where the biggest skill you need is to know how to get into the game.
Now, that's a skill I do have. I find the good people, become friends with them, have some drinks, and then we play poker.
PL: So what kind of games do you play in these 'weird places'?
Stevic: We usually play Texas or Omaha, it depends. The problem is that in a casino, the good games are the big ones.
If you want to play $2/$4 Texas, then you'll have to compete against all the trained young guys. But if you want to play $25/$50 Omaha, then you can play against the guys with the big money. You have to look for these games.
PL: I was imagining cash games with weird people and guns under the table...
Stevic: Yeah, that too. I go – or used to go at least – to really weird places. For example, next year I'll be going to Africa.
Not Morroco, because everyone goes there now, but Madagascar, Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea. It's very difficult to get into these countries, but I've already arranged it with a friend.
He's a Korean contractor but he's friends with the President of Equatorial Guinea's son. He's a total dictator, so the country isn't really safe, but they play private games, and really big games. So yeah, I have an invitation.
PL: How do you meet these people?
Stevic: I met him at a poker table one day. I liked him, he was friendly and interesting. I thought he was really strange, so I asked him what he was doing in Africa.
He started telling me a lot of his stories, and it was really interesting. I wanted to be his friend, so we talked, I invited him to dinner and he told me 'Alex, I like you, come visit me in Equatorial Guinea, I know places where we can play poker and I want you to start the games and manage them.'
He said we wouldn't have to worry about the police since he's friends with the President's son.
PL: Do you play with the President too?
Stevic: No, no, he's a very serious man. His son is the opposite. I still haven't been there though, there's too much malaria. My son was born a year and a few months ago, so I haven't been travelling that much lately.
Before that, I went to Brazil and played in some strange places too. Now they have a lot of professional players, but back when I went, 5 or 6 years ago, I was the only pro at the table and it felt very weird.
PL: Do they know who you are?
Stevic: Not really. I told them because one of them recognized me. They asked me how much I'd won at EPT Barcelona, I said €80,000 and they just started laughing.
I later realized that these guys were very rich. The one next to me looked like he hadn't worked a day in his life, you know.
You could tell by his skin. I was told that his father's father – or something like that – built Brasilia and that his family pretty much owns all of Sao Paolo. He was a billionaire.
PL: Don't you ever get scared during these games?
Stevic: No. Honestly, the best games are the ones with the mafia. Not with 20-something gangsters who only have €20,000, because that's scary.
But playing with the older ones, the big mobsters who've made a lot of money and managed to escape the police for 40 years, that's good.
They've made it, they have money, they won't be looking for problems. I like playing against them cause they throw away money!
When you know you're not as good as the other players, you have to find the good places! And you always meet interesting people who take you on funny adventures...
PL: Then this tournament (the EPT) must seem pretty different to what you're used to...
Stevic: It's fun though. When I decided to come back to Barcelona, some people told me I wouldn't like it because it's too big, too commercial, etc.
But truth is, I love it. I really think it's amazing. The tournament is excellent, it's like a well-oiled machine. I'll probably play more tournaments.
PL: When was the last time you played on the EPT?
Stevic: I played in Madrid last year actually. But that was the first one in five years or so. I played it because I live in Madrid.
PL: You've been playing for many years. What do you think has changed – in good or bad – since you started playing?
Stevic: What's definitely good is that poker is more accepted than it used to be, it's more legal. It's easier to find games. Thanks to that, before the crisis there was a lot of fishes with lots of money. These guys wouldn't have played if poker hadn't been legal or on TV.
The bad thing is that everybody got better (laughs)! With all the computer programs teaching you how to play, everyone can become a great player as long as they're smart.
Everyone's always talking about how the 'young nerds' are taking over... I wish I was one of the young nerds! They learned poker very quickly, they didn't have to go the hard way.
It's not a bad thing for poker, but yeah, players are getting better and better. The field is getting even tougher now that the crisis is going on because not so many rich guys are playing.
But that's natural. You have to evolve or stop playing, so I don't complain. I have fun anyway. And next month? I'll go to another one of the strange places. I like this, it's fun.
PL: Do you think the players' behaviour has evolved too?
Stevic: People take much more time to think at the table now. Before, there were always a couple of older amateur players yelling at you to play faster. There aren't many of them left, but I like these people.
I think poker used to be crazier. People who won spent everything, organized insane parties, went travelling... Going broke didn't matter because we could play online and win even more!
It's different now because it's much tougher and you have to be very focused if you want to win. The money is hard-earned so people are more careful with it and less crazy.
PL: There are more things at stake now...
Stevic: Yeah, the game has evolved and we have to adapt. And I think that's okay.
I still make friends at the table, but before there were always two or three guys talking, sharing stories... There's less of that now, but it's ok.
PL: Do you know if your win inspired Swedish players to start playing?
Stevic: I don't know. I was quite famous for a couple of years after my win, but there were a lot of poker players in Sweden then and they were better than me.
I think they were probably more inspiring than me. I mean these guys don't even play these tournaments because they have too much money.
PL: Can you give us some of their names?
Stevic: Michael Thuritz for example, even though he came a bit later. But John, and Tobias, and Erik... But now they bet on sport and only play big cash games.
PL: I heard that you were famous in Sweden before the EPT because you took part in a reality show?
Stevic: Yeah. It was a reality show about a group of 16 people who had to manage a restaurant and a bar and every week one got kicked out.
They filmed us in the apartment and in the bar, that's the only places we could go. And then sometimes they took us on some adventures. I think it was actually a good program, very different from the disgraceful reality shows we see now.
I actually came second even though everyone thought I was going to win. I was the most popular of the 16 candidates, but I knew I couldn't win.
The other finalist – who won – was the typical loser character. He was a wonderful guy with a big heart, but the kind of guy who'll never win anything. So obviously, people would want someone like him to win. I just knew it. I even said so on the show, I said 'You will win this, but it's okay, because I know that someday, I will win something too.'
The prize was about €115,000, it was a lot of money. But I was happy for him, I really liked that guy and I had a feeling something would happen to me later.
PL: Did you get into poker right after the show?
Stevic: The show was in 2000 or 2001, and I won the EPT in 2004.
But I started playing poker when I was 9 years old. My father was a degenerate gambler, I'm a degenerate gambler, it's in my blood. Like they say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
My apple tree is gambling. My girlfriend says my son will never gamble, but I can already picture in my head how I'll be teaching him card games and everything.
That's how I learned, you know. We didn't have a dishwasher back them and my dad would tell me 'Whoever loses does the dishes'
Of course I always lost, but I became obsessed with it, I was always trying to beat him.
PL: You've been living in Madrid for a few years now. How did you get to Madrid all the way from Gothenburg ?
Stevic: I've been here for almost seven years. I was actually in Barcelona with a friend for a couple of months, but one night we lost a lot of money at the casino and at 4 am we decided to go to Lisbon.
We had a car, so we got going. It's a long way, so when we got to Madrid we decided to stay in a nice hotel for the night. All I know is that I still haven't been to Lisbon !
I love it here. It's beautiful, it's clean…
PL: And the weather?
Stevic: Yeah ! And the poker, the food.
PL: Do you miss Sweden then?
Stevic: No. The weather here is amazing. They have winter, of course, but I like having four seasons. There are all four seasons in Madrid, and fall and spring are especially nice.
I live in the mountains around Madrid, so we have snow in winter, we can go skiing.
Swedish weather isn't that good. I need to be in the South.
PL: We've heard from our Swedish blogger Ken Lenaard that you have a big business project. Can we know something about it?
Stevic: I do have a big idea but it's still a secret because I haven't decided if I can do it yet. I need to talk with PokerStars and see if I can manage to do it.
It will be decided soon, but it's very difficult and very dangerous.
PL: So it's related to poker?
Stevic: It's not really about poker, it's more of a commercial thing. A publicity thing. But very dangerous for me.