Who’s That Guy?

Question mark man

When Ole Schemion made the money in all three flagship events at the European Poker Tour’s (EPT) Barcelona stop last year, a few press-room regulars, who had been singing Schemion’s praises for a while, again told colleagues that he was one to watch. When Schemion did it again at the PCA in January, cashing in the $100,000 Super High Roller, $10,000 Main Event and $25,000 High Roller tournaments, the achievement was actually largely overshadowed by Vanessa Selbst, who did exactly the same thing.

At the EPT Grand Final in Monaco at the end of last month, Schemion was at it again, completing a hat-trick of hat-tricks at consecutive EPT mega-festivals, cashing in the Super High Roller, Main Event and High Roller. Schemion, Schemion, Schemion. Cash, cash, cash. He had made $5m in live tournaments before he was 22, and was finally impossible to undersell.

There is every possibility, given the variance of tournament poker and the tremendous increase in skill levels across the board, that Schemion’s achievement will never be matched. It may just represent the single best series of tournament performances the modern live game will ever see. But here’s a question aimed squarely at the casual poker fan – ie, anyone who does not rely on an ability to count chips and report on poker hands for a significant portion of his or her income. Could you pick Ole Schemion out of a line-up?

The reason I ask is that when I got home recently from Monaco, having watched the EPT Grand Final up close (and EPT Sanremo before that, where Schemion won the €10,000 High Roller event), I read about Mukul Pahuja and his extraordinary season on the World Poker Tour (WPT) in the United States. And yet I realised I had never heard of him before.

Pahuja, from Long Island, New York, made three six-handed final tables, finished eighth in another WPT championship event, 30th in another and, for good measure, added a victory in a side event that had 2,441 runners. It is a devilishly brilliant series of results, taking his career tournament earnings to close to $3m. But I have absolutely no idea who he is.

Now, although we can assume Pahuja can sleep at night, even after the admission that a London-based hack doesn’t know him, I wonder what it says about the translation of success into recognition in poker.

Back to Schemion for a moment: just after his second cashing hat-trick, I suggested to a friend of mine who edits a poker magazine that the German wizard would make a potential cover star. Quite rightly, the editor demurred, suggesting that Schemion’s profile simply wasn’t sufficient to sell a magazine, particularly in the United States. There’s actually a surprisingly shallow pool of poker stars who could possibly feature on the cover of a transatlantic publication, almost all of whom still come from the group of players who would feature on every poker TV show pre-Black Friday.

Poker lost much of its ability to turn players into celebrities when its world became fractured in 2009. Since then, top players have tended to find their preferred environment and stick in it, and their renown rarely strays further than the tour on which they are dominant. When the ESPN producers choose their feature tables for the early days of the World Series this summer, there’s still more chance they’ll opt for Mike Matusow or Scotty Nguyen than for Schemion, who will be in Vegas for the first time, or Pahuja. Like all tours, the WSOP has its stars, and it likes those talkative bankers with their catchphrases and their blow-ups, rather than a quiet American or a quiet German, even if the latter sometimes now carries an orange skateboard.

I don’t actually think this is necessarily a bad thing, and it’s not something anyone really needs to address. It is simply a fact of today’s global game that smaller ecosystems have developed, apparently separate from one another. Although channels will always be open for crossover, and the EPT welcomes plenty of North Americans to its tournaments, it is far from essential for players to go flying around the world to find a competition that suits them. Anonymity, which was previously only afforded the big online stars, may actually now be more likely if you play only live.