As you head from Sharm el-Sheikh’s airport towards the city center, right at the turn towards the luxuriant Naama bay, you’re met with a glittering oasis of decadence. The Sinai Grand Casino (SGC) – the Middle East’s largest casino, as it proudly boasts – is a gaming monolith where the quick-win dreams of the expectant few come true, if only momentarily, at the expense of the degenerate many. From 13 to 20 December, true to the reputation it hopes to foster, the SGC played host to the most prestigious poker tournament to take place on Egyptian soil thus far, the fourth installment of the Russian Poker Tour (RPT).
As poker boomed worldwide following the “Moneymaker effect” in 2003, when Chris Moneymaker, a previously unknown online qualifier, won the main event of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas, many countries saw their own dark-horse poker stars emerge, and Russia was no exception. Alexander Kravchenko impressed WSOP participants in 2007 with his strong, well-rounded play, as he cashed in six events, captured a bracelet – the game’s coveted status symbol – and finished forth in the main event. Running hotter than blue fire in 2008, 27-year-old Ivan Demidov finished second in the WSOP’s main event and third in the WSOP Europe’s main event, pocketing over $6,000,000. And in August, Maxim Lykov took down the European Poker Tour’s (EPT) inaugural tournament in Kiev, Ukraine with his relentless aggressive play, becoming the first Russian to win an EPT event.
Such stellar results by the Russians, coupled with the financial backing of Kravchenko and Demidov, persuaded online gaming giant PokerStars.com to launch the RPT. The inaugural $5,000 buy-in event took place in St. Petersburg in January, followed by a $10,000 buy-in event in Moscow a month later. The third event was held in Kiev in November with a smaller €2,000 buy-in. And on 12 December, Kravchenko, Demidov, and Lykov, along with more than 50 of their compatriots dreaming of glory, boarded a plane headed to the sunny shores of Sharm el-Sheikh to kick off with the fourth event of the season.
The Sinai Grand Casino had hosted poker tournaments before on an almost bi-annual basis over the past two years, with reasonable turnouts – usually between 60 to 100 people. The management describes them as “test runs with limited success” that attracted mostly locals and tourists. Reeling in a tournament with such prestige on the international circuit, however, was mostly thanks to the initiative taken by board member Johnathan Raineau.
“I went to the [RPT] event in St. Petersburg,“ says Raineau, “It was really well organized, so I started to meet with the [PokerStars.com] people to campaign to bring an event to Egypt.“
It initially proved to be a tough sell. Countless casinos and tournament organizers were constantly clamoring for PokerStars’ sponsorship, and there remained the unyielding question of why people would fly to another country when they could host a tournament in their own back yard. But then, as is fitting for actors in the gaming industry, they got lucky. On 1 July Russia closed down its casinos overnight as gambling was banned across the nation.
“I have to say it was definitely lucky for us,” says Raineau, “All their poker projects went down the drain. So they became excited to look for exotic alternatives, which helped me position the casino as a select destination.”
Efficient coordination between the RPT organizers, the casino and their owners, the Sonesta Resort Beach hotel, resulted in a well-organized event, which was to feature a €2,000 buy-in main event, a €4,000 high-rollers event, and several smaller “satellite” qualifying tournaments. The hotel’s prize restaurant “Le Dome” – typically a cozy venue with white granite walls and candle-laden checkered tablecloths – was completely invaded and packed with over 25 poker tables. It remained an exclusively Russian affair, with the RPT organizers flying in their own dealers, and only the side cash games hosted in the actual casino. Tournament play commenced on the 13th and the poker sharks began to ply their trade, doing what they do best, ruthlessly devouring inferior fish.
The players uniformly complimented the tournament director on his deep-stacked well-structured tournaments, which allowed for well-paced strategic play instead of luck-based crapshoots. The main event lasted four days, with only a maximum of six hours (five levels) played each day, less than half the required playtime of a standard WSOP event.
“The players are also here on vacation,” says tournament director Dmitry Ganin, “To run a tournament in these conditions, a lot of sun, a lot of sea, it was necessary to create a structure like this.” He notes that it also made for “good poker,” adding that “This is a new EPT structure which we’ll be implementing in the new season.”
The turnout for the event, however, was surprisingly low. Only 48 players participated in the main event and the high rollers event was cancelled. Ganin chose not to elaborate on the shortcomings of the organizers’ marketing strategies, but many of the reasons were already apparent.
“We could have had more players,” says Patrick Perkinson, director of digital operations at SGC, whose responsibilities included e-marketing and keeping the players in the venue and online on PokerStars.com when they where knocked out. “Tournaments are usually scheduled at least two months apart, but they ran Kiev directly into Sharm el-Sheikh. When you have 300 players who lost in Kiev, they’re not going to buy a package that includes a roundtrip flight.” He adds that a well-marketed tournament hosted in November by their next-door competition, Domina Coral Bay Resort & Casino, had also already eaten into their potential market of Russian and Italian tourists.
“Our ‘lead time’ was too short,” explains Raineau, “We had 2½ months to organize this. If we’d had six months we could have done a lot more advertising and promotion for the event, and drawn a bigger crowd.”
Despite the disappointing numbers, the organizers were smart enough to capitalize on being at the Red Sea and filmed an underwater sit-and-go (one table) tournament. The heavyweight stars, Kravchenko, Demidov and Lykov – who were all knocked out early in the main event – as well as two other players, were clad in scuba gear and sent with customized chips and cards several feet below sea level to engage in bonafide card combat. Originally intended as an original but basic promotional tool to be aired on the RPT website as well as youtube.com, the players’ competitive spirit quickly took over and they decided to play it for real.
“It was a real game, an honest struggle, and everyone wanted to win it,” says Ganin, who says the final result will be “unbelievable.” In the end it was Kravchenko that emerged victorious.
Back on dry land, the main event trophy and top prize of €28,325 eventually went to Josef Beskrovniy, a seasoned professional billiards player. Nadia Gundoria of Belarus finished second and Ruslan Pridrick from the Ukraine finished third, earning over €18,000 and €8,000 respectively. It was Beskrovniy second major poker tournament, the first being the inaugural Moscow millions in December 2007, where he placed fourth. Like many athletes who’ve turned to the combative card game, he brushes off probes about the transition with a nonchalant shrug, implying that the high-stakes competition parallels are obvious. He noted that “this tournament was more difficult; The players were very strong," before adding with a satisfied smile that it was him that knocked out Kravchenko.
Raineau now intends to press on and plan for a big tournament next year, taking the time to make sure it’s well-prepared, well-marketed and doesn’t conflict with any EPT or PokerStars-sponsored events in the summer.
“By the end of January we’ll have a date for something in the middle of the year,” says Raineau, “I’m trying to do an international event with players from many countries. When players go to another country they want to play against different people. That’s why we chose PokerStars, because they have an international presence.”
Perkinson, echoing the sentiments of the management, also shares the same tireless drive to place the casino on the map as a premier poker destination. “We [the Sinai Grand] are the biggest and the best in the region, but still trying to be the biggest and best for poker.”