A chess master's poker tour

11/20/2006 – What's a nice girl like Almira Skripchenko doing in a gambling den in Las Vegas? Taking part in the Ladies World Poker Championship, that's what. Like so many other chess players the former European women's champion is flirting with poker and taking part in national and international tournaments. Almira tells us how she got to go to the poker championship and Vegas.

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Playing poker in France

By Almira Skripchenko

It all started several years ago when I came back to Paris from a series of chess tournaments and instead of going to the theatre I ended up playing in a poker tournament. I was taught the basic rules of Texas Holdem by my friends in a ten-minute taxi ride which took us to the very famous Aviation Club of Paris, which has a very old gaming tradition and where poker tournaments are organized every day! Untill that moment all the general knowledge I had about the game of poker came mostly from literature and movies, so I was quite intrigued by the fact that nowadays poker tournaments are organized all over the world. I ended up fifth, eliminating both of my teachers on my way to the final table.

I enjoyed the tournament so much that I decided to play poker more often in order to get more experienced and to improve my understanding of the game, which is full of complex elements. I showed some good results from time to time, and at the beginning of this year I was invited to take part in a television show, Tournoi des AS, aired on Paris Première, where many French celebrities took part.

In the picture above we see Bruno Fitoussi, 2001 World Heads-Up Poker Champion, presenting and commenting “Le tournoi des AS”. Here he is interviewing me and Caroline Diamant (right), who looks rather amused, since that is what she normally does every day on a French talk show on France2.

The show “Le Tounoi des As” consisted of six parts: five preliminary tables and the final table, which gathered the all the winners. My preliminary table featured some very prominent faces from French show-biz and television, including the 2000 Olympic boxing champion in fly-weight (fighters weighing less than 50 kg) Brahim Asloum. He has a very aggressive poker style and went all-in (i.e. put all his chips into the pot). In the above picture he is standing, waiting for the river card and hoping to survive. Unfortunately, in poker you cannot always control everything, which is a very difficult feeling for all sportsmen, chessplayers and boxers included.

Bruno Solo, the French actor, and Marc Lavoine, singer and actor, are very much appreciated by the French public. I have to mention that I was rather intimidated when we started the game, since sometimes I sing one of the Marc’s songs before and during my chess games! I didn’t play too many hands at the beginning and I tried to observe the way my opponents played and behaved. But even though they were excellent actors it was not easy for them to suppress their emotions and to have a perfect poker face. In the end only the two ladies were left, and the producers immediately dubbed it “Le duel des blondes.” I managed to win against Caroline Diamant to proceed into the final table.

The final part of the show brought together a mixture of professionals and aspiring poker players. TV producers gave every participant in the show a particular role to play, like in the good old westerns – but with a somewhat more complex scenario. “La fatale” was played by Alexia Portal (above left), a French actress and amateur poker player. Alexia has very good results in poker tournaments and told me that she has been playing poker since she was a child, trying to beat her father in family "closed poker" games.

“The Queen” was me, Almira Skripchenko, French Women’s Chess Champion trying to discover the joys of acting. Above might be my poker face.

Above left is the “Mozart of Poker”, Adam Lunis, the rising star of French poker, and already a professional player. “Le Flegmatique”, Macias Enrico, is a very popular French singer. He enjoys poker very much and has quite a style, since he is never afraid of bluffing his opponent, even by going all-in!

Alexia Portal, Enrico Macias and Sunar Surinder, the winner of the 2004 World Poker Tour in Paris, and one of the strongest poker professionals in the world, known for his total poker face, showing absolutely no emotion. I have to say that it was quite impressive and very useful for me to watch him play.

Above, Adam Lunis is appealing to the god of cards to get the one he needs to stay in the game. On the right is “Le Professor”, Abecassis Michel, two time European Bridge (!) Champion, who decided to become poker professional and now is one of the best French poker players, is waiting for his opponent in Heads-up.

I won the hand, even though I was not the favourite when I covered Adam’s all-in. After that I had to face “The Professor”. Well, this was the first time I had to face a final duel in poker, and something went terribly wrong with my pistols… I was executed with very high precision.

Even though I didn’t win the tournament I was contacted by the French poker site Poker.fr, which decided to give me the opportunity to take part in the Ladies World Poker Championship in Las Vegas. I was very honoured and was very happy to accept their proposal.

World Championship in Las Vegas

The Rio Hotel in Las Vegas which staged the World Series of Poker for the second year in a row. It becomes the temple of poker for more than two months, and you can see the pilgrims coming in from all over the world.

Here I am, on my way to my first Ladies’ World Poker Championship, wearing the T-shirt of my sponsor and completing my first poker pilgrimage.

This year the World Series of Poker witnessed a record number of participants, with a 12 million dollars first prize at the main event. It was won by Jamie Gold, a 36-years-old television producer from Malibu, California.

This is what a poker tournament looks like! It gathers people from all countries and different professions trying to win one of the WSOP titles. Unlike chess, in poker an amateur poker player can fight along with professionals and have a shot at the title.

In order to take your seat at the table you have to show your inscription card to the dealer. As usual for ladies, it is somewhere in the bottomless pit of my handbag.

Having checked my identity the dealer allows me to take my seat. I was so nervous at the beginning that my hands were shaking when I was checking my cards.

The 2006 Ladies World Poker Championship had a field of more then 1100 participants! This is what my opponents looked like, and contrary to a social cliché spread by men, most of the women participants I observed played very aggressive poker, and bluffed very well!

Unfortunately, my first major poker event didn’t last very long, I was eliminated, with a full house on the river which brought a very useful card to my opponent and gave her a higher full house. I am sure that I will be back one day, trying to win my first major title. In the meantime I spent the rest of the two days exploring the city.

This is what Las Vegas and the hotels on the Strip look like during the day, without the glitter and the tinkling sounds inside the casinos, where you can easily lose the notion of day and night.

And this is a picture of the part of the city where the real population of Las Vegas lives. The contrast is quite impressive.

The Rio Hotel by night. It has put on its sparkling night gown, as every other hotel in Las Vegas has done as well.

Las Vegas by night, with quite a view of the Luxor Hotel main building in the form of a pyramid. The tip of the pyramid contains a spotlight which is the brightest beam in the world and is visible from anywhere in Las Vegas valley at night.

And finally revealing to the general public my best friend and my undercover photographer Alexandra Kosteniuk, who came to Las Vegas to support me!

Pictures of “Le tournoi des AS” by courtesy of Paris Première


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