To Brazilian poker pro André Akkari, poker is more than just a card game.
A proud member of Team PokerStars Pro since 2007 Akkari has worked on and off the felt in his home country to make poker something that isn't over at the last showdown.
ESPN commentator, editor of the poker magazine Flop and leader of a local poker team, the 39-year-old from Sao Paulo now moves around the country sharing his vision of the future of poker -- and the way the game can be used to fight against prejudice and social inequality.
Poker Can Transform Brazil
In London for the ongoing EPT Main Event, Akkari sat down with PokerListings Italy's Giovanni Angioni to talk about his vision and some controversial posts recently published on his personal blog.
PokerListings: I know you are married and you care a lot about your family so, I'll start with this: did you bring them with you in London?
André Akkari: No, I didn’t. My daughters are in school and they cannot travel.
PL: How many daughters do you have?
Brazil's second WSOP bracelet winner.
AA: Two. No, wait … three. I have two daughters and one dog. But the dog counts as a third daughter to me.
PL: So – you came here to London leaving a wife, two daughters and a dog at home. I wonder how do they like the life you have as a player?
AA: If I’d tell you that they like it, I would tell you a lie. Let’s say that they don’t hate it.
They know it’s my job, they know that I do it for me and for them. Traveling around is part of the deal and poker changed our lives a lot over the last few years.
We've got a lot from it, so sometimes we have to be ready to give something back.
PL: How about you, then? Do you like this lifestyle?
AA: I get the chance to travel around the world and I try to get all the best of it.
I like visiting new cities, going to museums, having some fun with friends … and then go back as soon as possible to my family.
PL: Which is in Brazil -- to many one of the top future markets for the poker world. How is it to be a player there?
AA: It is getting better. Together with some other people I have been working hard for years to put poker in a good spot in Brazil.
Now we are starting to see the effects of our work. People finally respect the game and my profession.
PL: So when you say your job is to play poker … everyone is fine with it?
AA: Almost. There you get a 50/50 situation.
Fifty per cent of people will be happy and congratulate you while the other 50% will take you as an addicted gambler.
When Ronaldo speaks, Brazil listens.
PL: How about when you're not in Brazil then? Does it get any better?
AA: When you start moving around the world you start seeing how differently people react to it.
Here in London, it was amazing. When I told the guy at customs that I was a professional poker player here to play at the EPT, the guy started telling me how much he loved poker and how he wished he was good enough at poker to leave his job.
This was really special.
PL: Now that Ronaldo signed with PokerStars – this should work to make poker more popular back home, right?
AA: Oh, that was great. Ronaldo is the most famous celebrity in Brazil. If he says he is into something … well, that cannot be a bad thing. People always easily accept everything that he does.
The fact that now he joined the PokerStars SportStars team is a real milestone for poker in Brazil.
PL: Speaking of Brazil, I need to get to a point – which I think is probably one of the most serious and sensitive ones I have ever touched on in a poker interview. I saw a few weeks ago you wrote a post on your blog about black people playing poker…
AA: … oh, yes … that one …
PL: …which you used for discussing the very low number of black poker players in your country. Would you mind helping me to understand your message better?
AA: In Brazil we have lived in the illusion of not being a racist country.
The face of Brazilian poker is a specific one.
Many of us, especially those who are white and belong to the middle class, tend to say that Brazil is not a racist country - but the truth is that it is not like this.
PL: Is it not?
AA: When you go to a good restaurant in Brazil, you do not see black people as you do not see them when you go to a good mall.
This is something Brazilians often do not even realize - and the fact that I have a black brother helped me to understand a bit more about how things works for black people there.
I can tell you that it is only when you go to a restaurant and you see that everyone starts looking at you that you realize how the situation really is.
Let me tell you a story, it will help you understand what I am talking about.
PL: Go ahead, please.
AA: I was once in a car with my mother and my brother. She was driving around our middle-class neighborhood and he was in the back seat.
All of a sudden police stopped our car with policemen pointing their guns at it.
AA: Because of my brother, because he is black. They just pointed their guns at him thinking he was kidnapping us, maybe pointing a gun at my mother’s back.
Can you imagine how this is for him? The way he lives that?
PL: So you decided to write openly about this.
How many future Phil Ivey's are not playing poker?
AA: When I wrote my post titled Where are the black people in poker? I did that to talk about a precise situation in my country.
A country where there are no black poker players as there are practically no black people in the middle class or in the best positions in civil society.
I did it because I believe that those who work in the poker industry have to do something to change what we can.
We have to change things one piece after the other, and maybe in 30 or 40 years we will manage to change something.
PL: I'm all ears. Tell me what to do and I will join you, instantly.
AA: Black people are almost 50% of the whole Brazilian population but we almost do not see them as they live in areas we just don’t visit.
You have to consider that these people do not play poker especially because they do not have the money for doing so.
PL: So? Charity freerolls for a better world?
AA: No, so we can bring poker to them! We can go there, organize boot-camps, give free poker classes.
We can give them the opportunity to try it and make it so that these guys can look at poker and see exactly what the middle class sees in it. We have to do something to make the lives of these people better.
If we go to the poorest areas of Brazil, we can create something to give them more opportunities. And that would be the greatest change of all.
PL: You know, for how we are not in Brazil, now I cannot stop looking around and see how even here at the EPT…
AA: Here nobody is black as well, I know. We don’t have many black players but then Phil Ivey is one of the best of all players.
And that makes me wonder: how many black guys that could be even better than Ivey are not playing poker today?
PL: I love the idea of poker being socially relevant, of making something big and useful out of the popularity the game gets. Not to mention the money that this game moves around…
AA: Exactly, and I really think this is going to be the future.
It's not the money that gives poker its magic.
If you now talk to most of the big players today, they will tell you that this idea won’t work because poker is all about money and about who can play the super high roller and who can not.
PL: Yeah, usually that’s a good chunk of what poker is…
AA: I don’t think so. I think poker is the mirror of life, that when you sit at the table you are with nine completely different personalities.
I think every time time you sit at the table you learn a lot and teach a lot at the same time. You learn how to deal with pressure, with leadership and a lot of other things.
If you are intelligent enough, you can use poker to grow as a person.
If I have to tell you the truth, there is no money in what makes poker so great.
PL: Oh, really?
AA: Don’t take me as a hypocrite: money is always good. I just think it is important in this profession as it is in any other one.
If money can really help people to get better, then it should be everywhere. Not just where the middle class is.
It should be in the poor areas as well … and I think it will be like that.
Poker companies around the world are going to see this. Soon they will realize that they can also do this to bring more customers in for the future.
PL: True, also because it would “open a new, untouched market” – if you don’t mind me saying that.
AA: Exactly, that’s why I think this is what is going to happen. There’s no other possible way going forward.