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Generation Next -- Almira Skripchenko

Talking Chessboards and Green Felt With Almira Skripchenko

by Rebecca McAdam |  Published: Oct 01, 2009

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Almira Skripchenko

Almira “Chessbaby” Skripchenko is a woman of many talents. She appears to do well with anything she sets her mind to, and, in recent times, has increasingly become a great threat at the poker table. She did not progress from her previous profession into poker, but instead juggles both, allowing them to complement and aid each other. Originally born in Moldova (at the time, the Soviet Union) she has lived in Paris for the past 13 years. She came to the game as a professional chess player and from the beginning has a strong presence at the felt. She holds all the factors of a tough opponent — intelligence, determination, ambition, and capability, not to mention beauty, so Card Player just had to find out more.

Rebecca McAdam: Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Almira Skripchenko: I’m 33 and I am a professional chess player, holding the title of Woman Grandmaster. My parents were both chess teachers, so I started at the age of six, and at the age of 14 I was the champion of the Soviet Union in my age group. I then won the World Championship in my category when I was 16. I became the European Champion in 2001, and my best world ranking was number 3 in 2003. I won several major womens’ tournaments, and I was the French Champion three times — in 2004, 2005, and 2006.

RM: How did you become interested in poker?

AS: I discovered poker in 2003 thanks to my friends, chess grandmasters. They played very often at the Aviation Club in France and one evening I asked them if I could take part in a poker tournament in which they were participating in. It was still a romantic period in France for poker, tournaments were organized with small buy-ins which wooed many new players. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to play hold’em!

I said to myself that it can’t be more difficult than chess and my friends explained to me the rules and elementary strategy in a 10 minute taxi ride. The same evening I made it to the final table of this €50 rebuy tournament and finished fifth eliminating both of my professors on the way to the final table.

I have been absolutely bewitched by the game ever since. I didn’t have much time to practice it since I continued my chess career, but I played at the Aviation Club each time I could, and I had some good results. I also played on the Internet, mostly concentrating on tournaments, with a very classic educational process starting with sit ‘n’ go and then multitable tournaments.

RM: How did your sponsorship come about?

AS: In 2006 I was invited to take part in a television show “Tournoi des As” aired on Paris’ Premiere channel. The invited players were show biz celebrities, sportsmen, and professional poker players. I made it to the final table together with players like Surinder Sunar, Alexia Portal, and Michel Abecassis, and although I was a huge chip leader in the final heads up, I lost to Michel Abecassis. That was probably the moment when the audience discovered me as a poker player.

Winamax was anticipating the opening of the market, they started to build a professional team towards the end of 2007, and they wanted to have women players in the team as well. So I guess at that time the choice of Alexia Portal and myself was rather natural. Certainly we excel in other fields (Alexia is an actress), but we had good tournament results, and were already known in poker circles and by the general public.

RM: Was there a moment when you realized you could really get somewhere by playing poker?

AS: Well actually I do not look at poker as a validation of my abilities. I don’t think that a good result at a tournament helps you to get somewhere. For me it is a personal challenge to understand, to try to get better and master a game. Everything I do, I try to do it professionally. I think that chess players are already formed to be good poker players, they possess fundamental qualities to perform, especially in tournaments — capacity to concentrate for a long time, analytical skills, calculating variations or probabilities, and patience.

Of course there are many adjustments to make — as chess players we are used to having to find the best move in the position, the “absolute truth” supported by the calculations, and in poker you can never be sure about the exactitude of your calculations. It is a game of incomplete information and you should integrate many other factors in your decision making.

The only satisfaction I can get after a good result is that after a post-mortem analysis I would notice that my understanding of the game has improved. So basically I am always disappointed since I am learning and discovering new things all the time.

RM: Do you prefer online or live play, and why?

AS: I definitely prefer to play live tournaments since they offer me the opportunity to observe my opponents and also to observe how my personality adapts to different environments and situations — if I am capable to adjust my play in those circumstances and give my best.

Poker requires a lot of discipline and I think that it is not ideal for the concentration to play on the Internet, since the conditions very often are not optimal to focus completely on your game — unless you have an office where you go to play poker every day and where you could isolate yourself from all other problems.

RM: What was your most satisfying result to date?

AS: This year I went deep in the European Poker Tour Dortmund, 39th place, and then I finished seventh in the event 36 (the $2,000 no-limit hold’em event) of the World Series of Poker.

RM: Do you prefer the EPT or WSOP?

AS: I like both events, although I prefer EPT’s with smaller fields and many good players to learn from. It is very difficult to have a rational approach with such huge fields at the WSOP, that is the reason why I didn’t play the main event this year. I just think that I am not trained enough. I will definitely go back next year. It is a joyous piligrimage for an ordinary Homo Ludens (Man the Player) as myself.

RM: Since playing on the major live tournament circuit, what has changed most about your game?

AS: It forced me to get very precise in my actions. I have the privilege to play against very strong players and to analyse with them. Very often I would still analyse a hand which is stuck in my head and which I played months before, if I am not convinced by all the arguments.

I’ve learned to observe my opponents and to adjust my game according to their image and also according to how I am perceived. I guess I also learned how to bluff (not an easy thing to do for a chess player), and also how to fold good hands.

RM: Do you think being a woman comes into your game at all, and how do you think you are perceived?

AS: I never look at a player as a man or a woman. I try to understand the way players think and their betting patterns. I try to never generalize and I always act natural at the table. I think that it would destabilize me more if I tried to modify my behavior, and a good player would always exploit your weaknesses. Nevertheless, I think that I’ve learned how to act a little bit.
As for how I am perceived, I have to admit that from the very beginning I have never been taken lightly by my opponents. I was stigmatized as a chess player and always benefited from the “presumption of intelligence”.

RM: You live in Paris, are there many French female poker players?

AS: I have never seen many female players in live tournaments. I guess, as in many countries, they mostly play on the Internet. That’s why I always try to support and to participate in ladies’ events in order to encourage their participation.

RM: If you had to name one female and one male poker player who you admire, who would you choose?

AS: When you admire someone, it is always difficult to defeat a person when you face him or her, so I try not to. It is very difficult to give an objective opinion since I don’t know many players and I didn’t have the opportunity to discuss hands with them, but judging from the interviews I’ve read and my observations during tournaments, I would have to say Vanessa Rousso and Phil Ivey.

I played several hands against Phil Ivey during the World Series, and I lost all of them. I am still thinking about one particular hand where I folded on the river and I am still not sure if it was not a bluff, although I think that folding was the best decision. I thought that I didn’t tilt, but after losing this hand, I started to play my worse game ever. He taught me a very valuable lesson.

RM: What is on your agenda next?

AS: I am preparing for the EPT in Barcelona and then I will play the WSOP Europe in London. I still play chess so I have to play the European Club Cup in October (where we have to defend our title) before playing EPT Warsaw, the Master Classics in Amsterdam, and EPT Prague.

RM: Do you have any poker ambitions?

AS: I simply want to progress and to get better, and I hope to win some tournaments in the future.

RM: Do you think you will stay long in poker then?

AS: As long as I can still learn something, and that means long enough. Next year I have to concentrate more on my chess, since I will play the Womens’ World Championship. I am torn between these two fields, and after this event I think that I will finally be able to devote myself to poker completely. Spade Suit