Every player travels to the World Series of Poker from a different road, and this year, thousands of people will make it to Las Vegas with dreams that were formed all around the world.
One such player who has endured a harder journey than most, escaping war-torn Ukraine to evacuate his family to safety, is Eugene Katchalov. We spoke to him on the eve of his poker pilgrimage to Sin City.
“It was a rollercoaster ride of emotions, seeing things I never thought I’d see.”
Katchalov’s journey from the heart of his home country, Ukraine, to freedom on the other side of the border as bombs literally fell is one of the most incredible stories of the year. As the world reacted with shock at the war in Ukraine, Katchalov attempted to help his family escape to safety by driving through the country. This inspired Poker Twitter to reach out and help the former Team PokerStars Pro. He is immensely grateful for that support over two months on.
“I’ve been in the Czech Republic ever since we left Ukraine,” he tells us. “We spent 10 days in Budapest then Leon Tsoukernik rented four different hotels and invited over 500 refugees to stay there. I didn’t need the help personally but many of my wife’s family and friends who left with us did. Leon settled everyone in those hotels, and we rented an apartment nearby.”
The time since that fateful journey has disappeared and Katchalov says that fleeing the city under attack and his subsequent efforts to raise funds for those still in Ukraine has altered his perception of time.
“The first week or two was a rollercoaster ride of emotions, seeing things I never thought I’d see. Because I have an audience on Twitter, I thought it would be good to show what was really going on. Once I did enter Europe, people offered their homes from 16 different countries for free, it’s been incredible. We were able to connect a lot of people because so many people from the poker community reached out to help.”
Clearly struck by the humanity of the relief effort, Katchalov is emotional as he says how ‘incredible’ the efforts of the wide poker world were in supporting refugees and those on the frontline.
“I started raising money for different humanitarian needs and discovered a foundation to partner with me and Luca Pagano’s esports company Qlash, to raise money. At this point, we’ve raised over $200,000 which is quite amazing. I just want to keep that going.”
Katchalov admits that he, like most of the world, has no idea how long the war will last or the devastation that will be left behind to repair. As he tells us, the kind of help that’s needed has shifted from helmets, drones and radios for soldiers in the early days of the invasion to logistics, with governmental aid focusing on the war. He hopes to raise money to help provide food and medical support for those still in Ukraine, the most affected of anyone during the conflict.
“Money can go through many different hands, so a big portion of my effort has been trying to help people I know who are on the ground. I’ve been working with different kitchens who are cooking food for soldiers and people. There’s a lot of money pouring in, but its stuck and food and clothes aren’t coming in – it’s about logistics.”
Raising Money for Ukraine
“It’s my favorite poker series bar none, nothing compares to it.”
Katchalov freely admits that his quest for glory at this year’s World Series of Poker in Las Vegas includes some motivation from him missing playing the game he loves. Over the last couple of years, he has been focused on Qlash, the esports team he runs with fellow poker pro Luca Pagano. This year, however, the opportunity to raise money was too good to miss the WSOP.
“To play the game I’ve always loved and do it for a good cause is amazing,” he says. “It’s my favorite poker series bar none, nothing compares to it. I’ve always loved mixed games and limit games and the WSOP is pretty much the only place you can play those.”
Everyone is excited about the potential growth that having the WSOP at Bally’s and Paris could provide this year. Katchalov is no different.
“I feel it might break records,” he says. “I’m an ambassador for the largest online site in Ukraine, PokerMatch, and they’re going to be buying a significant piece of my events and donating to the same humanitarian charity I will.”
Katchalov is hugely passionate about bringing money to the charity and has seen at first-hand the effect it can have on a country desperate for help from all corners of the globe.
“My plan is to donate at least 10% to Ukrainian charities and PokerMatch will be donating their full share to the same charity. I feel like my poker game is up there and I’m ready for any result.”
The Year Darvin Moon Busted Katchalov
“He looked at his chips and he just nonchalantly took one stack and called.”
Back in 2009, the World Series of Poker welcomed a fresh-faced 28-year-old Katchalov as he ran deep in the Main Event. His memories of that event are clearly very special 13 years on.
“It was the year Ivey made the final table. When there were 50 players left, I was chip leader. I was texting Phil as we kept going back and forth at the top. Then I lost 30 pots in a row and busted and was devastated. I’d love to have another deep run in the Main Event.”
The magic of getting so close is still palpable to Katchalov after all these years.
“There are four tables left, and first place is life-changing money. You’re like ‘Oh my god.’ This was during the boom of online poker, too, so you probably stood to make as much as first place from a sponsorship with one of the major sites.”
Katchalov’s exit came at the hands of the man who would run all the way to second place, losing to Joe Cada in the hand that changed the young player’s life.
“Darvin Moon busted me!” laughs Katchalov. “I remember it too. I was kinda short with 11 blinds and had ace-ten. I shoved and he had just arrived at the table and was sitting down. He looked at his chips and he just nonchalantly took one stack and called. I think he had kings. It’s a painful memory… but it was memorable!”
Mixing It Up
“I’m planning to play mostly limit games and some of the smaller No Limit events.”
Katchalov will focus mostly on mixed games in Las Vegas, and he has fond memories of winning his bracelet in Seven Card Stud, as well as plenty of other mixed game moments over the years. He feels that it is in those events where he has the biggest edge.
“I still feel like my NLHE edge is good, but in terms of mixed games, the game hasn’t advanced as much. There isn’t [so much] popularity to them, so the level of the game is stable. I’m planning to play mostly limit games, some of the smaller NLHE events where the fields are comparatively soft and of course the Main, which is a special event. I think it could reach record numbers.
Katchalov is selling some of his World Series of Poker action for events that he will play on Pocket Fives. His package is now on sale and can be found right here.
“I think it’s great that there are platforms like Pocket Fives that allow you to ‘crowdfund’ your events. It’s great to be able to give fans another reason to root for you and also to support a great cause. I’ve never sold pieces in public before. I’m looking forward to it and, hopefully, I can make lots of people some money. I’ll be tweeting about the experience a lot, especially for people who are backing me!”
After one of the hardest journeys anyone has had to make, Eugene Katchalov hopes to raise much-needed money and renew his love affair with poker in the capital of gambling, Las Vegas. There could hardly be a better player to root for at the World Series of Poker this summer… whether you’re lucky enough to get a piece of his action or not.