The first trip for anyone to Las Vegas is always a remarkable one. You arrive to see the Strip from the air, unsure of whether you're supposed to be more intimidated by the gaudiness or the legend of the town. For poker players especially, it's like visiting Mecca for the first time. For Anton Makiievskyi, the dream was just to make the pilgrimage.
"I got to Vegas just before the main event," Makiievskyi said. "It's the World Series of Poker. It's the place where every poker player in the world wants to dream. I dreamed that when I turned 21, I would be able to play the main event. It came true. It was my first trip to the USA and it was really exciting that I got to go to Vegas. I didn't even imagine making the final table. I'm there now. It's amazing."
Makiievskyi is the 21-year-old Ukrainian poker pro who took the main event by storm. With one live cash outside his home country to his credit, he came to Vegas without daring to dream beyond that. If he'd done so, he'd probably have found himself exactly where he is now, in the November Nine, at the final table of the WSOP.
The journey to the Rio and ESPN started four years ago when Makiievskyi enrolled at the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kiev, a school named for the father of modern Ukrainian literature and language in the heart of the country's capital. There, Makiievskyi was to become a scientist, but a friend, recent bracelet winner and IPT champion Oleksii Kovalchuk, provided a distraction.
"He taught me the rules of poker," Makiievskyi said of Kovalchuk. "I learned them, started playing and we played home games, just three to four players, like five days a week. I started to get bad marks in University, so I left University, came back home in 2008 and started making money playing poker. I started playing online sit-and-gos. I played those for two years and then I didn't like them anymore, so I started to play multi-table tournaments at the start of 2010. I'd played them before, but not so much. I played a lot of cash games. In the spring of 2011, I was playing mostly cash games with online multi-table tournaments mixed in."
With poker selected as a means of making a living, the main event was a natural. Makiievskyi flew to Vegas as much to exploit the cash game action as anything. Despite that agenda, he expected the size and magnitude of the main event to intimidate him. He surprised himself with his reactions on Day 1.
"I thought I'd be really nervous, but when I started playing " Makiievskyi tailed off, then changed direction. "I remember my first level, I was put all-in against Paul Magriel with a set of threes against top pair, top kicker and a flush draw on the turn. I thought I'd be nervous, but I was surprised I had no feelings over it. I wasn't nervous for the whole tournament.
"All tournament, I was worrying about my play," Makiievskyi said. "I made so many mistakes and after every day, I couldn't fall asleep because I was thinking about the mistakes I'd made, but the tables were good. Every day, my stack got bigger and the only day I finished with fewer chips than when I started was Day 8, but I still think I played it good. Actually, Days 7 and 8 are when I played the best."
It was Day 7 when he won the biggest hand of his tournament. Facing Chris Moore, Makiievskyi doubled up when his K-J caught a K-J-J flop against Moore's A-J. The win installed him as chip leader, where he stayed until midway through Day 8.
"When I came to Day 8, I had a lot of chips with 22 players left," Makiievskyi recalled. "That close to the final table, I knew there wouldn't be a lot of big bluffs. It doesn't matter how experienced someone is, with that size tournament, everyone was scared to put their chips in. I tried to use that and I made some chips, but then I got unlucky a few times. When we were down to 10, then I began to be afraid. I knew it would be the worst day in my life if I finished 10th, so I just folded every hand."
It may not have been perfect poker, but it got the job done. Makiievskyi will enter the final table with 13,825,000 in chips. It leaves him with the second-smallest stack, but it's enough in relation to the blinds to get some play out of. As for the rest of the table, there are four players he'll be keeping a closer eye on.
"I'm worried about Pius Heinz," Makiievskyi said. "He's dangerous, has position on me. Phil Collins, Pius Heinz, Ben Lamb and Eoghan O'Dea. I didn't play a lot of hands with Phil Collins and Pius Heinz, so I'll watch a lot of video to prepare for them. They're good online players with a lot of profit. Ben and Eoghan I played a lot with."
Preparation for the final table is everything, but Makiievskyi isn't really focused in on one specific element of training during the four-month break.
"I don't think there's a good way to prepare for this," he said. "Now I'm playing in live tournaments, traveling all over. I don't think it will make big improvements for the November Nine. I really don't know how to practice. It doesn't matter too much how they played before because they'll change their approach now. I'll watch video, find some tells."
Aside from the money, Makiievskyi is playing for national pride. 2011 marked an emergence for Ukrainian poker, with Kovalchuk winning a bracelet. He gave Makiievskyi the Ukrainian blue and gold jacket he wore for his victory midway through the main event and Makiievskyi wore it for the duration. He'll wear it again in November.
"It's really important. This year has been very good for Ukrainians," he said. "When I heard the anthem [at WSOP, after Kovalchuk's win] it was wonderful to hear. Poker players are making a big deal of [his making the November 9], but poker is not so popular yet in Ukraine. It's becoming more popular, but every poker player knows. I can't predict what winning would do to poker in my country, but when I started playing, there was one poker room and 40 regular players. Now there are 20 clubs in Kiev and thousands who play, so it is getting more popular every year. I hope my result will help it get more popular."
If he's able to overcome all the adversity ahead of him at the final table, Makiievskyi could become the youngest player to win the WSOP main event. The money, the fame and all that comes with the title could be on his radar, but the most important thing now is that he's enjoying the moment and most of all, the game of poker.
"When I started to play, it wasn't for money, but just because I liked the game," he said. "When I started playing sit-and-gos, I won some money, but didn't enjoy the game. Every day was like torture. I started not to like poker. I stopped playing sit-and-gos because of that. Every other session was pleasure for me. I didn't play for the money, I played because it was interesting for me, like a sport. I believe you need to love the game, enjoy the game if you want to become a better poker player."
In 2008, it was 22-year old-pro Peter Eastgate who won the world championship. In 2009, it was 21-year-old pro Joe Cada. In 2010, it was 23-year-old pro Jonathan Duhamel. If the recent trend is any indication, in Makiievskyi, we could be looking at our next world champion. Thus far in the tournament, he's certainly played like one.