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Alexandros Kolonias Discusses His Rise To Tournament Poker’s Highest Levels

The Greek Professional Talks Playing Tennis With Novak Djokovic, Switching From Backgammon To Poker, and Much More

by Erik Fast |  Published: Aug 12, 2020

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Alexandros Kolonias recorded his first live tournament poker score in May of 2014. In the six years that have followed he has accumulated more than $3.6 million in live cashes, including winning the 2019 World Series of Poker Europe main event for more than $1.2 million and his first WSOP gold bracelet. He has recorded several six-figure scores in live high roller events, with his largest being $919,250 earned as the runner-up in the 2016 European Poker Tour Grand Final €25,750 buy-in event.

The 34-year-old was born in Volos, Greece, but now resides in London. He primarily focuses on online tournaments, with millions in lifetime scores on the internet. Most recently he competed at the Poker Masters Online. Kolonias cashed in 11 of the 30 high roller events held, winning two titles, and securing five total top-three finishes along the way. When the smoke cleared, he had cashed for more than $1.2 million and was declared the top player of the series and awarded the Purple Jacket.

Kolonias was a highly ranked junior tennis player, and later went on to earn a Bachelors in Physical Education and Sports with tennis specialization. Card Player recently caught up with the Greek poker ace to learn more about how he transitioned from tennis into playing backgammon and then poker, a tennis match he once played against current top ranked tennis pro Novak Djokovic, how he made his way to the highest stakes tournaments in the world, and more.

Card Player: Before poker you used to be a competitive backgammon and tennis player. Can you tell me about how these games became a big part of your life when you were younger?

Alexandros Kolonias: I was always into sports and as a young person, and I always enjoyed physical activity and also the competition. The sport I liked the most was tennis. I really enjoyed competing and the spirit of the game, and I think this has driven me in pursuing competition in other areas. I have played tennis for many years and it was central to my life at that point. I was competing in tournaments nationally around Greece and internationally.

Also, I have always been fascinated with solving riddles from a very early age. I liked a lot of mind games like chess and backgammon, which led me to play backgammon at a serious level later in life.

CP: Were games like these, with strong strategic components, popular in your house when you were young?

AK: Yes, my father taught me to play chess and backgammon when I was young and also poka – a Greek variant of poker.

CP: As a junior tennis player you once played a match against current world no. 1 ranked Novak Djokovic, who has won 17 Grand Slam titles. Could you tell me about that experience and how the match played out? What was the strength of your game, and was it true that you took a set off him?

AK: That was a great experience. It was my first ever European championship and first time I was traveling outside of Greece. I was 14 years old and it was a European National Championship in Parma, Italy. I think I was better than him at this period of time because he wasn’t crushing yet. He was the third-ranked player in Serbia, and I was the third-ranked player in Greece. I won the first set but then I got injured in the second set. I still finished the match, but lost the final two sets. I can’t recall the score exactly but it was something like 6-3, 5-7, 3-6. Just two or three years after that match, he had already worked his way up to being one of the best players in the world. The strengths of my own game were good stamina, a strong serve, and a big forehand.

CP: A number of top poker pros, including Erik Seidel and Gus Hansen, got into the game after playing high-level backgammon. Is there anything that game has to teach that was helpful to you when starting out in poker?

AK: Yes, I think backgammon really helped me a lot in my poker career. It is the closest to poker you can have from all games. It has to do with understanding equity, probabilities and how strategies interact. It’s also similar to poker in terms that there’s an element of luck in the short term, which was good for building a strong mindset for poker. Also, in backgammon there are tournaments and cash games and what differentiates them is match equity, which is exactly what ICM (the Independent Chip Model) is to poker.

CP: Have you ever played backgammon against any poker pros for money?

AK: No, I have never played any poker players, but I would challenge anyone but Gus Hansen.

CP: When did you first play poker? Did it capture your interest straight away?

AK: The first games I played were with my high school friends, the same friends that I was playing chess and backgammon with. And yes – I really liked it right from the beginning.

CP: How did your interest in poker evolve from something you were just trying out to a serious hobby and then to something you pursued to make money?

AK: That happened about six years later, when I was already a professional backgammon player. Some of my backgammon friends were getting involved with poker and suggested I should definitely do it as well, because they are very similar and poker is a lot bigger. I read some books on poker and then started going to the local casino daily. From there, I understood that I was good at it and that I enjoyed it, so one thing just led to another.

CP: At what point did you feel like you were officially playing poker professionally? What games stakes were you playing?

AK: It can be said that I was playing professionally from the beginning in my local casino. It was in 2011 when I quit my tennis job and started going to fewer backgammon tournaments. I moved to Loutraki next to the casino, and was playing no-limit hold’em cash games, with stakes of €2-€4 blinds.

CP: How did the early years of your pro poker career go? Did you find success right away, or were there any bumps on the road early on?

AK: I was winning from the beginning, because those live games I was playing in were quite soft. But I had some big downswings as well, especially when I was trying out pot-limit Omaha, and in some of those downswings came close to going bust, but luckily that never really happened.

CP: You’ve had online results dating back for more than a decade, but only started recording big scores in live events over the last five years or so. With only eight recorded live cashes under your belt, totalling around $124,000 in scores, you entered and finished as the runner-up in a €25,000 buy-in high roller at the European Poker Tour Grand Final for $919,250. How did you come to play such a high-stakes event?

AK: To be honest, I think I might have played less live events than any other professional poker player, but have had really good results in the ones I played. Live poker was not a new thing for me since I was playing live poker at the beginning of my career, with at least three years of grinding that.

CP: Was it simply that you were playing at the equivalent level online, and felt comfortable against this level of opponent, but hadn’t focused on playing live events as much by that point?

AK: Yes, exactly, when I got runner up in this tournament in Monte Carlo, I was already playing the high-stakes online tournaments. I just hadn’t started traveling much to live events before this point. After the first live tournaments, I came to understand that I really enjoyed playing them more than online poker and decided to start participating in more live events.

CP: There is less emphasis these days on a lot of skills that used to be considered crucial to success in live poker, such as reading live tells. Did any of the things that come along with live play give you any problems in the first few high-stakes live events you played?

AK: The three years of live play I had before transitioning to online play made it so that I wasn’t completely clueless, but the truth is that back then, I believe that I was underestimating the importance of live tells. Now I really think that live tells are a big thing.

CP: You made two big final-table finishes in 2019, starting with a fourth-place finish in the partypoker MILLIONS North America main event in Canada for $273,800. At the time it was your third biggest live score. Your previous big live paydays had all more or less come in high rollers. Can you tell me about the experience of running deep in a $10,000 buy-in main event that had over 500 entries?

AK: I really enjoyed playing and running deep in a main event like that. The experience of playing in a main event is always very special. The fact that the diversity of players in main events is so varied, when compared to fields in high rollers, requires you to use a lot of different strategies, which I enjoy.

CP: Later in 2019 you had an even bigger result in such a tournament, defeating a field of 541 entries to win the WSOP Europe main event for more than $1.2 million. What did it mean to you to win such a huge event and earn your first gold bracelet?

AK: This win is my biggest achievement so far and I’m very proud of my performance and the success that resulted. I was feeling very good from day one of this event, and I think I was playing really well throughout. It was an amazing feeling and I cannot put into words how I felt when I realized I had won. I was very emotional; a great feeling of gratitude came over me for the win and for all my family and friends that were rooting for me while playing. It is a huge honor to receive such a prestigious award as a gold bracelet in the main event. It was a personal achievement, but it was also an honor for me to have represented Greece in winning a world championship title.

CP: You managed to survive to the final two tables as one of the shorter stacks, but were able to rally back and enter the final day in second chip position. Were there any big turning points in that event for you or key hands you remember along the way on that penultimate day?

AK: I won a big hand with pocket queens against pocket kings. There was also a hand where I shoved K-5 suited from the small blind vs an open from the cutoff from [eventual runner-up in the event] Claas Segebrecht, and won against his A-Q. I remember him being surprised about this hand and saying, ‘I respect your all-in.’

CP: You put together an incredible run in the online Poker Masters series and you managed a victory in the very last event of the schedule when you needed a top-two finish to secure the Purple Jacket. What did that win mean to you?

AK: It meant a lot to me to win. I was up against a group of top-notch competitors during Poker Masters Online, so winning the tournament and getting my hands on that purple jacket was a huge honor. It was intense and suspenseful until the very end and that made the victory even sweeter. I was just playing to win the tournament.

CP: The tournament utilized real names of players instead of the usual online aliases? What do you think of that approach?

AK: I really like this approach and I think it’s very good for poker in order to promote it as a sport and take away the uncertainty and anonymity of the online game. I also feel a lot better and better enjoy playing as Alexandros Kolonias than my screen name ‘mexican222’.

CP: You ultimately cashed in more than one-third of the 30 events of this series while playing against many of the best in the world. Do you feel like you’re playing some of the best poker of your career right now?

AK: I do, I feel like the poker I’m playing now is by far the best of my career. I have been studying the game really hard in the last 18 months, and that has been my sole focus. I have been working on mastering areas of the game that previously I was not focused on as much. I tried to find as many leaks in my game as possible and then worked hard on fixing them. Some of them I was not even aware of at all in the past.

CP: What are your goals in poker? Do you envision poker being your only career? If it weren’t, what else would you be interested in pursuing?

AK: My goal has always been to be as good as you can get in this game. Another goal of mine is to promote poker as a great mind sport. I don’t think poker will be my only career. I am very interested in running my own business and working with companies that are promoting positive change in society. ♠