Yvegeny Kafelnikov: Tennis Star to Poker King
Yevgeny Kafelnikov: The 'stubborn Russian nut' who has given up tennis to play poker
15 November 2004
Yevgeny Kafelnikov. It is a name one might almost expect to find at the top of a "Where are they now?" feature. Five years ago, he was ranked top male tennis player on the planet. Yet without officially declaring his retirement, the 30-year-old Russian, twice a Grand Slam champion and Olympic gold medallist in Sydney, has disappeared from the tournament scene, a characteristically enigmatic career move by one of the quirkiest men ever to play top-level tennis. Or top-level anything, come to that. "A stubborn Russian nut," the assessment of his former coach, Larry Stefanki, might be considered an understatement.
Where Kafelnikov is now - at least on the chilly November day I meet him - is in Maidstone, Kent. He is here to compete in the 888.com Pacific Poker Open, which has a bigger cash incentive than many of the tennis events he played in: $10,000 (£5,400) just to get through round one, $500,000 to the eventual winner. Even when the prize is not so alluring, it is at the card table that Kafelnikov gets his kicks these days. But he doesn't play just for kicks. Just as Stefanki once coached him in tennis strategy, so he has hired his compatriot Kirill Gerasimov, professional poker's Rookie of the Year in 2002, to do the same with a deck of cards.
Under Gerasimov's tutelage Kafelnikov seems to be developing into a formidable poker player. At a tournament in Moscow he knocked out Dave Colclough, the Roger Federer of European poker. But by all accounts he needs to introduce a little more subtlety and stealth into his game. "He's very aggressive and likes to bully the table," says a poker devotee of my acquaintance. "He plays poker rather like he plays tennis."
Plays tennis? Or played? I confront the man himself with the $64,000 question. And like the poker player he has become, he takes my $64,000 question and raises another $64,000 question.
"I have retired," he tells me, with the ghost of a smile. "But I have not officially announced it yet. Some people still think I am just taking a break, but I believe that my time in tennis has gone by. Even if I came back, I would have no chance to play at the level I was. Tennis is a young man's sport right now. Obviously there are some exceptions, like [Andre] Agassi. He's 34 and still competing, but he's the one and only. And I played 1,000 matches in my tennis career. That's more than enough, no?"
I agree with him that it probably is. There is something about Kafelnikov - I nearly wrote Kalashnikov, which would have been an understandable slip of the keys - that brooks no dissent. Partly it is his size (he is 6ft 3in but seems taller), partly his inscrutability, and partly his sheer Russian-ness. I hate to resort to cliché but there really is something of the Bond villain about him, an aura intensified by his polo-necked top and bad haircut, not to mention his friendship with some decidedly shady characters, notably Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, the alleged gangster who was arrested in connection with fixing figure-skating competitions at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
He shrugs when I mention this association. "I am still friendly with him. There's nothing I can do about it. I have known this guy for many, many years.' And he shrugs again when I mention the investigation into match-fixing in tennis that was partly provoked by his withdrawal from a tournament in Lyon last year. "It was a false accusation, and I tried not to pay too much attention. But it did hurt my reputation."
We are sitting in a small room somewhere in the bowels of Maidstone Studios, where the Pacific Poker Open is being recorded by Challenge TV. Kafelnikov has agreed to do just one interview and I am the chosen one, although frankly it doesn't feel like much of a privilege. Kafelnikov not only plays poker like he played tennis, but handles interviews in the same unequivocal manner. Questions are like mistimed lobs; to be shown a grudging respect, then dispatched as speedily and emphatically as possible.
I ask whether he finds any similarities between poker and tennis.
"Yes," he says. His English is excellent, if heavily accented. "You need guts in poker, as in tennis. And if you don't believe in your ability, you don't win. In tennis I believed in myself, that's why I had so much success."
Does he honestly not think he could still compete at the highest level? After all, he is the same age as Tim Henman, who has just enjoyed the best 12 months of his career.
"It is true. But Henman started his career later. I began at 19, and now it is impossible to compete with guys 10 years younger. They are more hungry. I played five or six matches indoors, at the end of 2003, and I thought, 'I can't do this any more'. I was losing to guys who, a couple of years before, I was able to beat with only my left hand. That's when I realised my time was gone.
"The most important thing was not to disappoint my fans. It is very hard to earn a good image in Russia. Once you do, you're a hero. But if you then do something wrong, you're treated like, like, I can't even think of a word to describe it. I dedicated myself to playing for Russia. I played all Davis Cup matches, I won Olympic gold, I still have a very good image.
"So when people on the street in Moscow ask why I stopped playing, I say 'because I don't want to see you people crying when I lose'. They understand that."
Kafelnikov, faithful to his fierce sense of Russian identity, has no desire to live in Miami or Monte Carlo. His home is in Moscow, where he sees as much as he can of his six-year-old daughter, Alesja, from whose mother, Masha Tishkova, he is divorced. Theirs was a volatile relationship from the start. She gave up a modelling career because he demanded it, while the injury that kept him from playing in one Grand Slam event was rumoured to have been incurred during a domestic argument. A different kind of grand slam, perhaps?
Maybe Tishkova was also disapproving of his increasing devotion to golf; he is a four-handicapper and entered Russia's amateur championship this year, striving like Ivan Lendl before him to hit a stationary ball as marvellously as he could hit a moving one. But away from the golf course and the poker table he has a business empire to run. "I have lots of businesses in Russia," he tells me. "Mainly real estate. That is the most successful business right now in Russia."
It seems reasonable to ask Kafelnikov, the son of a humble high-school volleyball coach, how he spends his money. I know he used to blow a great deal of it on the roulette wheel, to the point at which it was apparently becoming a problem. Poker is the only form of gambling he pursues now, but it is said that during the 1999 Australian Open he virtually took root at a roulette table in Melbourne, and reportedly lost a packet punting repeatedly on black. Remarkably, it didn't stop him adding a second Grand Slam to his 1996 French Open title, and a few months later he was anointed world No 1. He declines to tell me how he spends his money now, incidentally, admitting only to a lifestyle that is "above the ordinary".
Changing the subject, I tell him that the British think of Russians as an emotional people. Does he ever get tearful about Mother Russia? "I do," he says, and humour dances fleetingly in his eyes. "Especially after we lose 7-1 to Portugal in the World Cup qualifiers."
His reason for quitting tennis was precisely to avoid such humiliating defeat, and with it the ire of his countryfolk. Kafelnikov, it seems, needs the affection of his fellow Russians more than he ever did the affection of his fellow tennis players. In 2001 he complained vigorously that top players were not paid enough, which far from earning him the plaudits of his peers, received only contempt. "He should go buy himself some perspective," snorted Agassi.
The outburst did little to diminish his reputation among ordinary Russians, however. He still has a website immodestly called "Yevgeny Online - The Temple of the God of Tennis" and not many Russians can spot the hyperbole. To them, he is the man who donated his $137,000 prize-money after winning the 2001 Kremlin Cup to the families of those killed in a plane crash near his home town, the Black Sea resort of Sochi. He is also the man who unleashed a Russian tennis revolution.
"A lot of parents saw me when I was 20, 21, and were inspired," he tells me matter-of-factly. "They saw that I was a guy from an ordinary family, top of the tennis world. That's when parents started taking their kids to tennis courts in Russia, and that's why there is so much success right now, especially in women's tennis. They don't need to go to America [a dig, perhaps, at Maria Sharapova?]. There are excellent facilities and coaches in Russia. But there was a lot of pressure on my shoulders. I was able to cope with it, but it was hard. There was just me, up until [Marat] Safin came through and helped me out."
He doesn't miss playing tennis one bit, he adds, but remains a keen spectator. He had a good record against the current world No 1, Federer - played five, won three - but recognises that the wondrous Swiss has improved since then. Might he, even, be the greatest player who ever lived?
A frown. "It is hard for me to answer. He's good on all surfaces, very universal. Maybe his weakness is clay, but he can be successful there too. The best ever? At my time it was [Pete] Sampras. Nobody was better than him. Before that it was [Rod] Laver. It is hard to choose between those three. For me, it is hard to think that anyone could be better than Sampras, not even Federer."
And what of himself? Just how good was this self-styled God of Tennis? "I believe I was able to take the maximum out of my ability," he says. "If you asked me when I started, would I win a Grand Slam, I would say no. But I won 26 singles titles, two Slams, Olympic gold. I have my gold medal on the wall of my home, in the most exposed place where everyone can see it. But all my wins are as important as each other. It is that number, 26, that is the most special to me."
He does not, he says, have any plans to use his experience to coach others. "I do not have the patience." And yet he has the patience to play poker, albeit in a singularly aggressive style? "Yes. I find it very exciting. Because you win not with the cards but with your skills. With body language you can win a game, but also you can lose a game."
Interestingly enough, many of the world's top poker players have sporting backgrounds. Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, perhaps the greatest poker player ever, was a basketball prodigy whose career was ended by a knee injury. Another leading player, T J Cloutier, played pro football. At a less exalted level, snooker stars Steve Davis and Mark Williams are both highly competent poker players.
"I think it's to do with nerve," says my poker-loving friend. "Sportsmen know how to keep calm under pressure, they're focused, observant, disciplined and they have a powerful winning psyche." All of which clearly applies to Kafelnikov, in spades.
The 888.com Pacific Poker Open 2004 runs on Challenge TV nightly at 10pm from 20 November to 12 December.