It feels as though we've always known Bertrand 'ElkY' Grospellier - or at least since poker really began to take off in France a decade ago.
With a player who has been so prominent internationally and around so long, though, it's easy to forget just how much he's accomplished.
PokerListings France's Fred Guillemot sat down with the legend himself at EPT Malta last month to dig a little deeper into his life, from his first experiences in video games and his move to Korea when he was 20 to his future both in and out of poker.
Grospellier vs. Boxer
PokerListings: Let’s talk briefly about the Global Poker Masters. What did you think of the first instance of this competition?
Bertrand Grospellier: It think it was a real success. All the players who were there really enjoyed themselves, enjoyed representing their team and their country.
Elky Flying the Colors at GPM.
It gives poker a new dimension, a collective one, that was very cool.
That being said it was the first time this was organized so of course there are still things that need to be adjusted.
But overall I think everyone was happy they took part in it.
PL: I have read that you had a few sports-related injuries that almost “forced” you to move on to video games.
BG: I wasn’t as athletic back then. I’ve always played video games but it’s true that I had a horse-riding accident and broke my collarbone.
Then a motorcycle accident when I broke my knee and the motorcycle. That might have made me play even more.
Let’s just say that after that my mum was happier when I was staying inside! (laughs)
PL: So you started playing at a very young age?
BG: Yes, I started playing video games when I was 3. I have an older brother and an older sister. m
My brother got his first computer when he was 13, an Apple one I think, as well as a Mattel console. And because my sister refused to play with him he played with me.
But of course there was no way I could win against him! (laughs)
PL: Growing up were you more of a Nintendo or SEGA fan?
BG: Actually, I was an Atari boy. I have always preferred playing on the computer rather than on a console, so most of my memories are with my Atari or a PC.
I’ve always played but the first games that really made an impression were the first multi-player games, which are not that old when you think about it: Duke Nukem 3D, Total Annihilation…
It completely changed my relationship with video games and gave them a whole new dimension, much more competitive.
Atari man from the get-go.
It’s much less interesting playing solo in my opinion, especially back then when AIs were really not that impressive.
PL: When did you and your family realize that you were “gifted”?
BG: I don’t know whether I’m gifted, I was never tested or anything.
But I guess it was quite early because they wanted to have me skip a class - which I never did in the end.
School was quite easy for me, except for German and PE! (laughs)
PL: You moved to Korea when you were 20, was that a hard decision to make?
BG: No, I didn’t really think twice because it was my goal.
I had been accepted into a very good “prépa” (note: two-year course to enter into the “grandes écoles”), but gave that up to focus solely on video games.
At the time this had been what I was aiming for for a year, so when the opportunity presented itself I seized it without hesitating. It was really the only way to make it in video games professionally. I was ready to risk it all to get there.
If it hadn’t worked I would have moved on to something else but I really wanted to try hard to make it.
PL: You left France at 20. What did this experience teach you?
BG: It was such an enriching experience. Korean society is very, very different from ours, much more competitive.
I think I grew up a lot when I was over there. I learned a lot of things.
I was lucky enough to have a few friends who were already there when I arrived, especially considering that I didn’t speak Korean then and my English was pretty bad.
I think I learned a lot about competition during that stay. I spent six years in Korea; that’s also where I started playing poker.
Then, when I signed my contract with PokerStars, it became too complicated to handle all the traveling to and from the EPT which is why I moved to London in 2007.
PL: You were one of the best gamers in the world. Is it as demanding as being a professional poker player?
BG: You need a lot of the same qualities, especially for Starcraft as it’s a game of incomplete information, which means that not all of the information is available.
That’s why there is a psychological/mental component. You need to be able to analyze the information you do have in order to anticipate what your opponent might do.
I also think that when you are playing at the highest level there are similarities between all disciplines: psychology, mental strength, knowing how to handle the pressure …
When you play video games you need to be very fast, especially in your hand-mouse coordination. It helped me a lot when I started playing poker online and when I broke my world record, but it’s not a requirement per se.
PL: Is physical preparation important in video games as well?
BG: It is starting to have an important part in video games but it’s still not as common as in poker. When I was playing, it was very rare.
Video games can be quite demanding physically and intense, but it doesn’t require much stamina.
Starcraft finals don’t last more than four hours and each game is only about 15-minutes long.
DOTA2 Seattle 2014
Like in every discipline professionalization is coming. I don’t really know how things are today but when I was playing Korean teams, for example, were much more professional than we were.
Some of them even lived in special training centers with coaches, cooks, etc.
PL: How much do the best professional video-game players earn?
BG: I know that last year during the biggest video game tournament on DotA 2, the best team won $5 million. The prize pool was $13 million.
The sponsors had brought $2 or $3 million, the rest came from the tickets sold during the tournament to see the final live.
They sold something like 2 million tickets.
PL: How do you explain why video games festivals are so popular, particularly in Korea, where they fill entire stadiums?
BG: It’s cultural. Video games quickly became one of the favorite hobbies in Korea, and then it just escalated -- especially thanks to Starcraft.
I think it will also happen in other countries; there are always more and more players. Korea has always been way ahead of the rest of the world for internet access and connectivity.
But now the rest of the world is all caught up, as shown by the success of Twitch, etc. Everyone has access to video games.
Korea was also the first country to have a television channel dedicated to video games.
PL: Speaking of which, do you have news from Guillaume Patry, your ex-flatmate from Quebec who was one of the very first professional gamers?
BG: He still lives in Korea. Now he hosts two very successful TV shows.
They’re talk-shows, and he also does some advertising. He also played poker for a while.
PL: After a huge boom it seems poker is stagnating, if not declining. Do you think that’s true? Do video games have a brighter future than poker?
BG: It’s hard to tell. Maybe, because video games can’t be impacted by regulations.
That’s poker’s biggest challenge at the moment. But video games don’t face this issue or that of legal age. They’re more universal in a way.
PL: What do you think it would take for video games to have a boom similar to that of poker?
BG: I think it is going to happen, and I even think that it has already started.
The difference is that it’s more of a progressive thing rather than a “boom." We have to keep in mind the fact that video games are still very young and not all generations play them.
But the younger generations have always known video games, it’s truly part of their life.
It will be a natural evolution, especially because technology is progressing steadily and games are more and more realistic and impressive.
PL: What is your best memory related to video games?
BG: I think it’s my second place at the 2001 World Cyber Games. It was a competition where I was representing France. It’s the equivalent of the Olympic Games for video games. I lost against Boxer, the best Starcraft player back then.
Poker titles and gaming titles equally memorable.
There were thousands of people watching us. Even though I’d already played in stadiums where there were 20,000 people, this was even more impressive. And it really kick-started my career.
PL: Is it comparable to your poker memories?
BG: It’s different, but comparable. Both are equally important to me though.
PL: We've heard you’ve also become addicted to Hearthstone …
BG: Actually I haven’t played it in a while, but yes, it’s quite fun. I like the concept, the games are really fast, and it’s really easy to learn.
Variance also plays a big part in it. Even if you’re not as good as another player, you can win at least 20% of the time.
That’s what makes the game so popular. And it’s pretty nice when you’re not one of the best players. (laughs)
PL: Has your family always supported you when you chose video games and then poker?
BG: The transition to poker was easy, precisely because I had already given up my studies to play video games.
But I was definitely very lucky to have such a supportive family. They understood that it was really what I wanted to do.
PL: If you could change anything in your career, what would it be?
BG: Nothing really comes to mind. I really try to have no regrets, and I don’t really know how to single out one event considering all the implications it might have.
PL: If you hadn’t become a professional gamer and poker player, what do you think you would have done?
BG: Maybe I’d have become a chemist. Physics and chemistry were my favorite subjects.
That’s what I was supposed to do when I dropped out and I really think I could have kept going in this field. Or maybe I’d be a vet.
"I just want to keep always getting better."
PL: We all remember your simultaneous SnG world record, or your bungee jump from 230m even with you being scared of heights. What challenges do you have left?
BG: I’d like to run a marathon. On the mental side, it’s harder to explain. I just want to keep always getting better.
At the moment I’m learning Japanese - even though it’s not really a “challenge." All I want is to get better.
PL: Have you never been attracted by chess?
BG: I played it a bit. It’s a very interesting game, albeit a bit too slow for me.
And it takes too long to reach a decent level. You can never bridge the gap between you and the players who started playing when they were really young.
PL: Where do you see yourself in 10 or 20 years?
BG: I’ve never really been one to plan so far ahead. I just try to seize the day.
I started playing poker 11 years ago and at the time I never would have thought it would last for so long.
I also never thought I would become a professional video-game player. I didn’t even know it was possible.
I don’t really want to make plans, things can change very quickly. I’d rather just adapt to whatever may come.
PL: You travel a lot. What’s your favorite country? Korea?
BG: No, actually I think that now I prefer Japan. It’s so different from every other country.
I was lucky enough to go there on holidays and spend some time there, it has become a very special place for me.
PL: What do you mean?
BG: Their culture is just so unique. Respect and honor are paramount and they’re always trying to be the best they can be.
Japan is also a very interesting mix of tradition and modernity.
PL: You’re one of the “peace champions." Can you tell us a bit more about this?
BG: Peace & Sports is a charity sponsored by the Prince of Monaco. It promotes peace through sports in difficult areas of the world.
Making a difference through sport.
For example, we recently organized sporting events in favor of East Timor.
I went there to see what we could do to improve the quality of life of young people in a country where most of the population is under 16 and there aren’t enough schools for them all.
We organize a lot of charity tournaments to collect funds and I’m very happy to represent them.
There are a lot of famous sports persons: Christian Karembeu, Tatiana Golovin …
I think it’s very important to be invested in this kind of project.