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A Poker Life With Alex Bolotin

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jul 09, 2014

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In 2007, Alex Bolotin burst onto the live poker tournament scene, cashing for just under $1 million and finishing 19th in the Card Player Player of the Year race. The Belarusian pro, who resides in New York, kept up his successful pace for the next few years before a dry spell put his back against the wall.

The 33-year-old could have changed careers, but didn’t feel anything other than the gambling lifestyle was for him. This summer, Bolotin found the winner’s circle once again, winning his first career World Series of Poker bracelet in a $1,500 no-limit hold’em shootout event for $259,211.

He now has more than $2.2 million in career earnings and is hoping that his most recent victory is just the start of something bigger.

Finding His Way In The States

Bolotin was born and raised in Minsk, the capital and largest city in Belarus. After the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, Belarus was hit with an economic crisis and unemployment was high. In 1992, Bolotin and his family packed up whatever belongings they could carry and made the move to the states.

“I came with my grandparents, so six people, were allowed to bring $600 total,” he remembered. “That was the max you could bring. That was the Russian rule. I don’t think, if you traded the currency, we’d have much more, to be honest with you — that was the max. Both my parents were educated people, but we lived at the poverty line for a while.”

Bolotin was just 11 years old, trying to find his way in a new country, but benefitted from a very large Russian community in Brooklyn.

“The first couple of years, we didn’t even have to learn English,” he said. “Most of my friends right now speak Russian as well. I mean, we speak English as well as Russian, but yeah, my accent is still there.”

Bolotin’s father, a physics teacher and computer programmer, passed away shortly after the family’s arrival in New York. His mother, an engineer by trade, took a job in a hospital. Though money was tight, Bolotin remembers his passion for gambling from an early age.

“I started gambling very, very early,” he admitted. “I think I was seven years old and we would play this game with coins. We’d dig a small hole in the ground and toss coins, almost like golf. Whoever got their coin in the hole first would win all of the coins. We even gambled on bubble gum.”

Discovering Poker

After being insulated in schools filled with Russian immigrants, Bolotin attended a traditional American high school and picked up the language. He did well in school, but never felt connected to his studies.

“I went to three colleges,” he said. “There was no plan whatsoever. I had no particular interests and had no idea what I wanted to do. I got kicked out of the first college for not going. I got kicked out of the second college for not going. At the third college, I decided that I was going to get it together and got a 4.0 my first semester. But then I discovered poker.”

Bolotin had watched the movie Rounders, and began playing in a seven-card stud game at his friend’s house.

“The first day I played, I lost $100. The second day, I lost $170. I told myself that if I lost the third time, I was probably getting hustled and would stop playing. But I wound up winning $330. That was the beginning for me.”

To pay the bills, Bolotin had taken odds jobs over the years, manning the drive thru at Burger King, risking his life as a bike messenger, lugging building materials in and out of a dusty work site basement. He even mopped the floors at a fish store.

“Once I got hooked on poker, I turned pro immediately. I wasn’t doing anything else anyway. My first casino poker game was $3-$6 limit hold’em at Bally’s in Atlantic City. Until then, I had no idea that they had poker in casinos. Discovering that was the greatest day of my life. I saw all of these old ladies and drunks playing cards for money and it felt like a dream. I played for 24 hours straight and won $1,000.”

Finding Immediate Success

A lot of people were catching the poker bug around the Moneymaker boom and Bolotin capitalized on the increasing number of home games around Brooklyn.

“I built my bankroll in those games,” he recalled. “They were small clubs and home games, just a table or two usually. There was usually a big guy at the door. You didn’t have to say a special password or anything, but you did have to know someone to get in. A couple of places got robbed. A couple of places got raided. I had a friend who was shot through the hand during a robbery, but luckily for me, I was never around when anything went down.”

In 2005, Bolotin began playing in Atlantic City tournaments, trying to figure it out. In his first WSOP in 2006, he had five cashes, making around $40,000. The next summer, he took second in a $5,000 six-handed event, losing to Bill Edler heads-up and earning $504,686. Later that year, he final tabled the Caesars Palace Classic main event for $136,411 and then took second in a $5,000 no-limit hold’em preliminary event at the Five Diamond World Poker Classic for another $286,955.

The next year, he made two more final tables at the WSOP, most notably taking fourth in a $3,000 no-limit hold’em event for $137,343. He also won a $500 tournament at the Borgata Winter Open for $102,213. But then, the results started to dry up.

Dealing With A Downswing

Though Bolotin, who has a small stature, joked that, pound for pound, he is the world’s greatest poker player, he admitted that it was overconfidence in his game that led to his prolonged downswing.

“I felt that I was better than I actually was and I was playing in games where I wasn’t always the favorite,” he confessed. “I think every single poker player thinks they’re the best in the world. It’s just the nature of the beast in a game like this where there is so much confidence. Now, I know where I stand. A lot of these young kids are really, really bright and could go and be doctors or lawyers, but they choose poker. Of course they are going to have an advantage. The more money I lost, the more humble I became.”
Bolotin continued, comparing himself to three-time bracelet winner and $10 million winner Vanessa Selbst.

“I mean, she went to Yale Law School,” he explained. “They wouldn’t even let me in the parking lot at Yale. Poker eliminates all of the bad players from the game, so I’m happy I’ve lasted this long. I guess that means something, but I have to stay on top of it.”

When asked if he ever considered switching careers, Bolotin just laughed, explaining that it wasn’t like he had a lot of options with over a decade of playing poker on his resume.

“What am I going to do? The problem is that poker is all I know. Am I going to go back to the fish store? It smelled. When I walked home from work, cats would follow me. No. I just dig a little deeper.”

Turning It Around

Bolotin made his way to the 2014 WSOP, his first year with backers, playing on somebody else’s dime.

“I never had a backup plan,” he said. “I read a story recently, where a small army had to go to war and was facing a much bigger army. They had very little chance of winning, so when they arrived to the island to fight, the commander told them burn the ships. Meaning that, if they lost, they couldn’t go back. They would die there. And they won.”

With no ship to return to, Bolotin entered the $1,500 no-limit hold’em shootout event and three days later, secured his first career bracelet, along with the $259,211 payday. It was a huge win for the man they call “Diesel.”

“This is just the start of something. I’m all-in on poker. It’s the only thing I know how to do. Maybe one day, I’ll win $10 million and invest in something so poker would just be for fun. Maybe I’ll buy a fish store,” he said with a laugh. “But right now, I got to keep this going. ♠