Editor's note: Yevgeniy Timoshenko will be one of four players in action on Tuesday night's coverage of the 2011 WSOP $25,000 heads-up championship. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET.
The stars of poker are everywhere. You see them on TV every day if you look hard enough -- smiling, talking, displaying the charisma that made them stars in the first place. Poker celebrity is a tough business requiring time and energy that takes away from working on one's game. It's that fact that's made it possible for some of today's young pros to catch up to or even surpass the celebs. There's no better example of this than Yevgeniy Timoshenko.
While the glitterati have met with their public relations representatives and managers to improve their outward appearances, Timoshenko's focus has remained on improving his game. His hallmark is patience. He hasn't rushed his phenomenal talents and baby face toward the spotlight, with much to be offered if given direction. Instead, all he's done is play to the best of his abilities and win often. You'll see him try to do more of the same Tuesday night on ESPN's broadcast of the World Series of Poker's $25,000 heads-up championship (8 p.m. ET).
"He's just a smart, thinking, capable, aggressive player," said Vanessa Selbst, considered to be among the best in the game. "He picks his spots very well. He's not crazy [aggressive]. He just understands what people are doing and he's a very good, aggressive player. He makes his thin value bets, good laydowns I have a lot of respect for his game and think he's one of the best in the world."
Her sentiments were echoed by the man ESPN.com calls the best in the world, Jason Mercier.
"Yevgeniy is really tough to play against. He's not afraid to put the pressure on by three- or four-betting preflop," Mercier said. "He'll put the pressure on you and win a lot of pots without having to show down a hand. I'd say he's probably in the top 10 for no-limit hold 'em tournament players in the world. Possibly in the top five."
More of the same was said by one of 2011's breakout stars and one of the leaders on the year's money list.
"A lot of people think he's the best no-limit tournament player in the world," said 2011 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure winner Galen Hall. "I didn't see anything to disagree with that. He's an elite player."
You see so many players being celebrated on television, but the reality is that the number who might be considered elite by their peers are scarce. Those three testimonials come from players who fit the bill, and that word -- elite -- comes up over and over when talking to them and others about Timoshenko.
Timoshenko and Hall shared a home during the 2011 WSOP, giving the former some deeper insight into one of poker's prodigies. "First of all, the thing everyone would say is that he's just a really smart person," Hall reflected. "You talk to him for two or three minutes and you just know he has bundles of intelligence. He understands the game on a deep conceptual level that very few people can get to. There are a lot of people who are good without being bright or bright without being good. He just has a really high IQ that allows him to think through spots and outplay people."
Just 23 years old, Timoshenko's brute IQ combines with enviable patience and a fierce intellectual passion for the game. For him, poker was never first and foremost about the money, but seen as a puzzle to be solved.
"I never read books, but I did study by myself," Timoshenko said. "I started reviewing my sessions, the big hands I played. I would take notes as I played and if I felt I misplayed or felt there was a better way, I saved those hands and reviewed them later. I did some mathematical analysis. Most of the improvements were on my own, studying the game, figuring it out, figuring out the best strategy to counter particular opponents. It was an intellectual pursuit. It wasn't financial for me. It was just fun. I think the psychology and sociology of poker really appealed to me. It was just an interesting, intricate game."
Despite his seeming indifference, the money came in droves. Success online (playing under the alias "JovialGent") was followed by a move to live tournaments, and after two fruitless poker trips, he won $166,302 at the 2007 Paddy Poker Irish Open despite being just 19 years old. Sixteen months later, he won $500,000 at the 2008 Asian Poker Tour in Macau, then piled up two more six-figure payouts before he won the big one, the World Poker Tour Championship, for a cool $2.15 million. Two months later, he won the $1.7 million World Championship of Online Poker, winning a separate $1,000 buy-in tournament for $75,000 on the same night. He's won $4.2 million on the live felt and much more online not bad for an intellectual pursuit.
Before Black Friday, Timoshenko had turned his attention and affection from tournament play to heads-up.
"When you play heads-up, it's important to understand that you have to play a lot more hands and can't sit around and wait for good cards," said Timoshenko, explaining his affection for the format. "You have to get a lot more aggressive, bluff more. Basically, you have to make sure you don't get run over. You see more flops, you call more bets because opponents are bluffing a lot more so their range is a lot wider."
Aside from the main event, the $25,000 heads-up championship was Timoshenko's biggest target entering the 2011 WSOP. "I think that especially in that format, I stood to have a very good chance. Heads-up is my best form of poker other than tournament. Right before Black Friday, it had become my big game. I was very confident going into that tournament. I felt like I had a really good chance of doing well going in."
Without spoiling the ending, Timoshenko did well, as expected.
What's his secret? Maybe it's the study. Maybe it's the work ethic instilled by an engineer father who moved his family from Ukraine to the U.S. when Timoshenko was eight. Maybe it's the renowned patience, or the ability to always make his opponents uncomfortable, or the uncanny ability to pull pack on the reigns at just the right time. Maybe it's the never-waning enthusiasm for the game, or maybe, just maybe, it's that he's more talented than the next guy. Regardless, while the poker famous keep meeting with their people, the elite continue to separate themselves. Timoshenko is a perfect example. To see a phenom working his craft, tune in Tuesday night.