Talking to Gamer–Turned Poker Pro Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier

Once one of the top "StarCraft" players in the world, the Frenchman's move to poker paid serious dividends.

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May 18 2015, 3:30pm

Photo of ElkY and the author by Scott Collins

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier is a professional gamer turned poker pro. He was one of the top StarCraft players in the world, finishing second in the World Cyber Games in 2001 and going one better in the Euro Cyber Games in 2003. Now a Team PokerStars Pro, he's brought his online skills to live environment, winning a European Poker Tour title and a World Series of Poker bracelet. He's set the Guinness World Record for the most single-table sit-and-gos played in one hour, and he's the most successful French poker player of all time.

In April, ElkY announced via Facebook that he'd be dropping poker to return to StarCraft full time. A great many fans fell off their seats—but then everyone took the date of the post into account: April 1. But when I caught up with him at the European Poker Tour grand final in Monaco, at the beginning of May, he told me that he is getting back into gaming in a big way, albeit not at the expense of his poker career.

VICE: Why is competitive gaming, with eSports, so popular?
ElkY: I think video games are popular because they're so easy to play. You can play from anywhere, with all your friends. That's why [eSports are] so popular in South Korea. You don't have much space there to play soccer or to have a soccer field or anything like that—that's why [eSports] got so popular in the first place. But it will become more popular in the future, especially with Twitch. You can all watch on your phone, play games on your phone—everybody's connected all the time, so it's the future, I think.

It's like a snowball effect. With League of Legends, we all play this game—everybody's playing, so it's like, "Come, play with us!" You're not going to play a game on your own. It's free, anybody can make an account—it's accessible to everyone. It's on the internet now and it's a team game, five against five, so it's really fun to play with your friends. It's kind of like poker, there are so many possibilities—it's never the same cards, never the same game. There are 150 characters, and my favorite is the Phantom Assassin, so there are many different possibilities. You can buy things to progress faster or unlock characters or play better. It's always changing.

[League of Legends developer Riot Games] was bought by Tencent, one of the largest internet companies, and they've pushed it all over China. It's one of the few things that's legal and not censored yet. That's huge because Chinese people can't do anything, but they can play video games, so it's hugely popular. I think there are 350 million players, 17 million unique a month—it's like the biggest game by far. It's crazy!

Now I play Hearthstone. It's from Blizzard and it's actually pretty similar to poker, because it's a collectible card game, so you have cards and you make a deck and you play against other guys, like heads up. It's a psychological game, a little bit like World of Warcraft, and it's set in the same world. It's really popular now—it's probably the most popular game.

"If people are going to be violent and crazy, they are going to do it no matter what—it's not because they are playing video games."

When you play these eSports now, in a team, are your teammates of the same pro standard that you used to be?
My friends I play in a team with are not all pro gamers! The caliber in gaming is really high. To be one of the best, you have to play all the time, especially now—because it's so popular, the players are so good. It's not possible to be the best at poker and video games too, because it takes too much practice—I don't have the energy! There are so many strategies to react to, so you have to practice a lot to win.

It's frustrating when somebody on your team makes a mistake and you die because of it. When you die, you have to wait sometimes two minutes to respawn, so I feel like my life is over: "Two minutes, I can't do anything!" You're not supposed to yell at your teammates—then they're more likely to make mistakes. If you're playing with random people, you cannot really yell at them. Instead of, "What the fuck are you doing?" it's like, "OK, everybody makes mistakes." When it's somebody you know really well, you're more likely to yell at them. Also, I have higher expectations of my friends because they're usually better, so they try harder. My friend Gabriel plays a lot of the games, so when we play together and one of us makes a mistake, we get kind of angry. It's like, "You're not supposed to make a mistake—focus!"

I play with my girlfriend and I get really pissed off at her, too. She loses focus sometimes—she's like, "Arghh!" My God, I hate it when they lose focus like that! It's OK if she makes a mistake, of course—she's not the best gamer in the world, so you make mistakes, but if I ask her to do something and she forgets, it's: "No! No! No!" I train her a bit, but with games there is a huge learning curve. She's learning a lot. It's fun, that's why it's so popular.

Related: Watch our documentary on the world of eSports

How do you feel about people blaming video games for violence or childhood obesity?
Some people blame video games for violence and kids getting fat, but I don't think that's true. Playing video games doesn't make you obese. It's more diet—that's the number one factor, that and lifestyle. We live in cities much more [than we do the country], and everything is automatic now. We do fewer physical activities and a lot less in day-to-day life. Transport is getting so much better—everything is getting easier and technology is helping us in so many ways. So I think it's that, and the fact that we eat unhealthier food than before. Also, now you can find food everywhere, especially in London, at any time of day—it's too convenient; you have to have self-control!

If people are going to be violent and crazy, they are going to do it no matter what—it's because they are that way in the first place, it's not because they are playing video games. I think people always try to blame the newest thing, the thing they don't really understand. That's why video games are blamed for violence and obesity.

Does this idea that gamers are unhealthy not really stand up, then?
People think gamers are unhealthy, but I do CrossFit, weight training, and I love to run. I ran a 10k when I was a pro gamer in Korea and I would love to run a marathon. So far, the furthest I have run is 18k.

If you're out of shape or you eat the wrong food or too much of it, it's really bad for your focus—you feel sluggish, and you get tired faster. It's not that you're going to play better when you're in good shape, but you're going to play closer to your A-game.

Sometimes I fast. If healthy food isn't available, then fasting is definitely better than eating crap, but there are other benefits too—I find my focus is better and I have more energy. I can be a little obsessive, so if I'm really focused on the game and I'm using all my mental energy for it, I'm not hungry. Now I'm used to fasting, I really like it. I don't usually fast on workout days, but it doesn't matter much if I do. My performance will not be as great, but I'm not training for performance, I'm training to be healthy and in good physical condition.

Sleep is so important, too. It's probably the number one most important thing for preparation. Missing out on sleep is counter productive—it won't make you a better player.

"I miss the competitive gaming scene. I want to get back into video games."

What was it like living in Korea?
I always loved video games and back then it was basically only in Korea that you could play video games for a living, so I decided to do it—I moved to Korea.

The Koreans are super-competitive—they're just like nuts, you know? They're like, "number one or death." They practice until they can't keep their eyes open. It's really hard to beat players who are that competitive, but it's kind of sad, too, and South Korea currently has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

The Koreans are a lot of fun too, though—they're crazy, their parties are non-stop. Sometimes I would go to a party with my Korean friends until 6 AM, and then they'd be in the office at 8 AM. I'd be sleeping all day only to be woken at 5PM by the guys who were working. They'd call me up to say, "Hey what's going on? Let's go out!"

Seoul is the most action city ever, there's always something to do. You can get a haircut at 1 AM and go to a movie after, it's perfect. When I moved back to Europe, it was like, "Oh, everything is so slow!" In France and Italy, everything is closed half the time. You cannot do anything and the streets are empty after 10 PM. I live in London now and things are open all the time. London is the best city in Europe, there's always something happening, it's great.

What are your plans now?
I haven't played games professionally for a while and I miss the competitive gaming scene. I want to get back into video games now because it's so big, and I also started doing it on Twitch. People in poker have also got into Twitch, and they have music—they are going to expand into everything. You can do whatever you want, basically, as there's so much freedom. Video games are so popular, it's crazy—Twitch has 100,000,000 visitors a month. You can engage with your audience a lot because you're broadcasting and they can talk to you via a chat box. They're like, "Hey, high five!" and you're like, "Hey, high five!" So you can interact with them and it's really fun and you can tell them what you're thinking about.

With poker you can talk through what you're doing, so, "With this hand I'm doing that because I think the guy is playing tight," or if I think a guy is bluffing, I can explain everything I'm doing. The only slight problem with poker is that obviously you're playing a tournament for money, so there's like a four-minute delay. When they ask a question, about what they see on the screen, it's what happened four minutes ago, usually. With gaming you can do it live, so it's much more fun—they ask me questions and I reply straight away.

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