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A Poker Life -- Eugene Katchalov

Trader by Day, Poker Pro by Night

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Eugene KatchalovOn Aug. 20, 1991, through the dark and stillness that only the midnight hour can produce, a 10-year-old Eugene Katchalov and his mother navigated through Kiev, Ukraine, on back roads on their way to the international airport, passing war tanks that surrounded the city. With the country in turmoil from the effects of the Cold War and the political unrest at a boiling point, the two boarded a plane heading to the U.S.

The very next day, Latvia declared renewal of its full independence and the Soviet coup d’état against Mikhail Gorbachev surrendered, spurring the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Communist Party.

“Not all the planes were allowed to leave. I don’t remember much, but I do remember that when we went home, I saw on TV that they were interviewing people who were on the plane with me,” said Katchalov, whose Russian accent is still pleasantly audible.

Katchalov, now 28, hasn’t wasted any time since that move. He’s obtained a degree from one of the most prestigious schools in the country, started his own business, and accumulated just under $4 million in lifetime tournament poker winnings. This is his story.

Making Adjustments

When Katchalov and his mother arrived in the U.S., they settled in Brooklyn, New York, and lived with his father, who had moved two years earlier. In an effort to help Katchalov transition to life in a new country, his parents enrolled him into a Jewish, Russian-speaking school with his cousin, despite being two years younger than the age limit. Katchalov was forced to enter the seventh grade, instead of fifth. After two years, Katchalov’s parents decided to transfer him to public school in order to submerge him in English-speaking surroundings. He reentered seventh grade and flourished among his peers.

“It was hard, at first, but I think school is hard for any kid that age."

Through middle school and high school, Katchalov remained active. He played basketball and joined both the bowling and tennis teams. After graduation, Katchalov attended New York University and got accepted into the Stern School of Business. In spring of 2003, Katchalov received degrees in both international business and finance.

Though he studied investment, Katchalov found himself drawn more to trading, and took a job as a day trader. His ability to weigh risk and reward in this line of work, no doubt, set up his future success in poker.

Poker, Nice to Meet You

Unlike many of the young pros today, Katchalov was never distracted from school by poker. He didn’t even learn the rules of the game until a few months after he graduated, when a friend introduced him to the game.

“The first time I played, I didn’t even understand the rules. I lost $6, which was a lot of money to me at the time,” says Katchalov, lightheartedly.

Gathering with his buddies to play a friendly home game became a regular weekly occurrence. When Katchalov finally found online poker, he was intrigued.

“My friend was playing and making money at it. I just thought it was so cool. I started with $50 on PartyPoker. I wasn’t doing exceptionally well, at first, but I think I was breaking even or winning a little,” said Katchalov. “That’s when I realized that I could probably make $30 or $40 a day, which was really good. I would go to work and come home and play.”

Katchalov continued working during the day, and grinding a few hours a night. At the time, he lived at home with his mother, so his expenses were small. In December 2004, a friend by the name of Illiya Trincher suggested that he go to Las Vegas with him to play a few tournaments, and Katchalov agreed.

Once there, Katchalov grinded some no-limit hold’em cash games, and after a particularly good session, Trincher urged him to play a $3,000 Five-Diamond World Poker Classic preliminary event. Having only won a few thousand dollars so far in his poker career, Katchalov was wary of playing such a big buy-in. Trincher offered to back him 50 percent, ultimately convincing him to play.

Katchalov ended up placing fifth for $48,000 total. Feeling confident, Katchalov then rolled some of that money into one-third of the $15,000 buy-in for the World Poker Tour main event, while Trincher put up the rest of the buy-in. Previous to this trip, he’d never played in a tournament with a buy-in of more than a few hundred dollars, and Katchalov admitted to being nervous.

“By that time, my friends and I had already started watching the World Poker Tour on TV, so I was familiar with a few of the pros. I was somewhat intimidated sitting with the people I saw on TV.”

Katchalov finished 35th in that event for just over $27,000. He returned home with an even bigger passion for poker and a newly boosted bankroll. He began playing larger tournaments online, touring the New York underground cash games and traveling more frequently to live tournaments. During 2005, Katchalov posted numerous major tournament cashes.

In November of that year, Katchalov traveled to Foxwoods. He and Trincher railed fellow New York cash-game player and poker pro Nick Schulman at the World Poker Finals final table. Schulman won $2.2 million and the title.
Illya Trincher and Eugene Katchalov Watching Nick Schulman
“It was amazing me to. At the time, he was the youngest ever — 21 years old. I thought it was so cool. He was this kid with nothing, and now he was a millionaire. Of course, I wanted to do that, too.”

Katchalov continued playing and working his day trading job, slowly improving and making more money in both careers. Ideas of owning his own trading firm began to bounce around in his head, and soon, it became a full-fledged goal.

“I felt confined working for a big trading company. I wanted to open my own so that I could broaden my horizons.” All he needed was the capital, and he’d get that through poker.

In June 2007, Katchalov won a Bellagio Cup III tournament for $119,000, and then, in November, he won a tournament on Full Tilt for $133,000. With enough money for security, Katchalov partnered with a coworker to found his own small hedge fund.

Coming Full CircleFinal Table

Just after getting his company off of the ground, Katchalov would make the biggest cash of his career. At the 2007 Five-Diamond World Poker Classic, Katchalov competed in the $15,000 WPT main event. He was back at Bellagio, where he had kick-started his career three years prior, but this time, he wasn’t a beginner.

On day 5, Katchalov started the day 17th in chips out of 18 players, but by the time they played down to the televised final table of six, he was the chip leader. In front of the cameras, Katchalov put on a show and won the nearly $2.5 million top prize and his own WPT title — all in record-breaking time. It quickest final table in WPT history at the time.

Eugene Katchalov“I flew in my mom, my dad, and a couple of my friends. It’s hard to describe. It’s certainly the best feeling I’ve ever had, bar none. For the two weeks after I won, I was basically on cloud nine.”

Since then, Katchalov has had numerous final tables and six-figure cashes. His latest came last week after winning a $400 buy-in heads-up event in the World Championship of Online Poker on PokerStars, where he plays under the screen name “MyRabbiFoo.”
Nick Schulman and Eugene Katchalov
This Russian-American poker player has had quite a successful career, despite it being one of two jobs. Along the way, he’s handled himself with professionalism, and anyone would be hard-pressed to find a bad thing to say about him. Schulman, one of Katchalov’s closest friends, summarizes him in a nutshell:

“Eugene is one of the most honest, kindest, good-hearted people I have ever met, on top of which, in my humble opinion, one of — if not the — best no-limit tournament player in the world. He’s improved my game in leaps and bounds just by being such a close friend and discussing poker with me. If people don’t know the name Eugene Katchalov, they will. I guarantee that.”

Also view A Poker Life — Nick Schulman