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Juha Helppi Is King of the Sea

He Wins First Poker Tournament Held Underwater


Juha Helppi must love the sea. It was near the sea in Aruba where the Finnish poker pro literally made Phil Gordon dump a glass of water over his head in frustration as Helppi bullied his way for the win at the Aruba Poker Classic in 2002.

To gather in his latest win, Helppi's the one who had to get a little wet. In fact, he had to swim through 30 feet of water to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea for it, because that's where decided to hold its first "Extreme Poker" event.

Helppi joined poker pros Phil "The Unabomber" Laak and Kenna James,'s spokesman Peter Marcus, and an amateur online qualifier in the world's first underwater poker tournament.

Helppi, who along with Kathy Liebert, Robert Varkonyi, and Pete Giordano, make up's poker team, didn't hesitate to say yes when asked if he would play in the undersea event.

"I always wanted to do diving. It was a good chance to do it and play poker at the same time," Helppi says. "It was a great experience."

It took three months and plenty of hours in a swimming pool to plan the event, which took place off the coast of St. Kitts in the Caribbean. The first time they got into a swimming pool for a test game, the cardtable floated away and all the card turned into a soggy mess, Marcus says. So a poker table had to be reinforced and weighted with 70 pounds to keep it from drifting off in the currents and the cards were laminated with plastic.

The players and dealer used Plexiglas to hold the cards in place. For chips, they simply bought the heaviest chips they could find, and everything worked.

Liebert and Varkonyi watched the tournament from the surface, while tropical fish and one stingray took ringside seats.

"The stingray seemed very interested in the whole thing, really," Marcus says.

Varkonyi was suppose to be underwater with them, but a bad cold kept him on the surface, peering down into the deep to catch the action.

Helppi said he never played in a poker room more beautiful than the one at the bottom of the sea. If he wasn't in the hand, he said he found himself gawking at the underwater world of the coral reef that was nearby.

"Of course poker's fun, but it was great fun to be underwater," Helppi says.

Unlike tournaments where a breathing apparatus isn't required, there were three ways to get knocked out of the tourney. Only running out of chips had anything to do with poker, since players would be disqualified if they floated away or surfaced.

The players had to train in a swimming pool before they took their seats under all that water. For safety, three dive masters were present at the game in case an emergency occurred.

The players all had 40 minutes of air, so the action was fast and furious from the start, Marcus says. Since people can't talk underwater, the players were given flash cards with phrases written on them. There was "you suck," "bad beat," "nice hand," go fish," "shame," and "me shark, you guppy."

"There was a number of fish and shark comments going through there," Marcus says.

Each of the players wore a meter telling them just how much air their tanks held. Helppi kept glancing at his meter when he first plopped into the water, but as the tournament went on, and as Helppi became accustomed to the environment, it became a less of a concern.

Until it got under five minutes. That's when Helppi had to go all in with 8 6 head-to-head against Marcus, who quickly (as quickly as you can move underwater) called with K-J offsuit. It was over when Helppi found a six on the flop and an eight on the turn.

"Of course it's a bit slower because you can't move that fast," Helppi says. "But we had no problems."

For his efforts, Helppi was given a poker bracelet made from beads and shells from the Caribbean.

This event is the first that plans on sponsoring. They're now kicking around ideas where to hold the next event, such as floating on the Dead Sea or playing while white water rafting.

Helppi would love to defend his Extreme Poker title, as long as it's on the ground or under the sea.

"If they come up with good ideas, I'd be willing to participate," he says. "I'm a bit scared of heights, though." is soliciting suggestions where the next Extreme Poker event should take place. People can email with suggestions.