It's easy to want Andras Koroknai to be the villain going into this year's WSOP main event final table (Oct. 29-30 on ESPN2/ESPN). At a table full of faces that will ring unfamiliar to the casual viewer, it can't hurt to have a storyline or two to focus on. Koroknai's is definitely one of them. At a table full of Americans, he's the one foreigner. At a table full of men, when just about everyone in the poker world wanted to see a woman make the final table, he knocked out Elisabeth Hille in 11th place. Then, he knocked out Gaelle Baumann in 10th.
The Baumann elimination was all the harder to swallow because, to some who followed the action from Las Vegas as it occurred, Baumann should have gotten all of Koroknai's chips on Day 5. Koroknai told ESPN his version of the story through friend and translator Arnold Magori.
"I couldn't see the lady from the hand of the dealer. The dealer was up on the table and she was sitting in the shadow of this," he said and further explained that he didn't hear the dealer say "raise." "When I was taking a look around on the table, I saw everyone through their cards. I thought it was my turn and thought I was playing only against the big blind, a very slight short stack. I shoved my stack in. The big blind folded and I immediately threw away my cards because I thought I'd won the hand. The dealer just burned one card, and I could only save one card. The dealer was fast."
Baumann told ESPN her version. It matches up:
"I min-raised under the gun from Seat 1," she said. "I was chatting with Timothy Adams, the player to my left, and wasn't looking at the other side of the table I was just chatting and I saw Timothy go 'What are you doing?' and Andras had mucked. I didn't have time to call. It was all very fast. I didn't see him muck, but yeah, I don't think he was trying to angle shoot or anything. If he had, it'd be crazy."
Tournament directors were called in, and after lengthy debate, it was ruled that Baumann had won the pot, which included 60,000 of Koroknai's chips that covered her initial raise. The ruling left Baumann holding pocket kings and asking what if. As she tells it, after initially feeling badly for Koroknai, frustration took over. She was thankful that there was only half an hour or so left on Day 5, because it was taking every fiber to keep herself together in the aftermath. That the ruling, deemed by most to be correct, seemed to have come back to give her the ultimate bite in the end, feels somehow like a massive injustice that came from Koroknai's hands.
So why isn't Koroknai the villain? Because even Baumann says as much.
"I don't think he's the villain," Baumann reflected. "It was just the situation that made it feel that way. He didn't do anything on purpose. It's just a matter of circumstance, really. I've heard he eliminated a guy and said he'd give the guy 1 percent of his action. That's really nice. He seems like a good guy. I don't hold anything against him. I see why people might think he's the villain, but I don't think he is."
What Koroknai is instead, it turns out, is one heck of a poker success story. Hailing from Debrecen, Hungary, the 30-year-old former computer engineering student discovered poker while at school. It was during his time there that, after a hard breakup with his girlfriend, he went on a fateful trip to Greece.
"In 2007, I went to Greece for a holiday and had a motorcycle accident," Koroknai recollected. "I went to turn, slid with the bike and almost died. I got injured so much and had no chance to go out. I had to stay home, and that got me more interested in poker. I started to play more. During this period, one friend told me he was playing poker for real money small money, but good money. In Hungary, it was a pretty good salary. It made me more interested in playing the game because I could make more than working for a computer company or something like that. It was a depressing time. I'd been injured in the accident, the girlfriend dumped me, so I didn't want to go out for a while. I started to play so hard, and that was the start."
Play "so hard" is an understatement. Building his bankroll off freeroll winnings, Koroknai disappeared from the view of the outside world. As Magori tells it, it was around four months later when Magori made his way to Koroknai's residence to find his friend. Koroknai told him then that he was improving by leaps and bounds, that he thought he had a future as a professional player. For the next four years, he played all night every night. He still hasn't put money online.
After those four years, Koroknai started branching out. He started playing live cash games, then tournaments. Then he started travelling. That gambit worked better than he could have hoped, with his second live tournament cash coming at the World Poker Tour's L.A. Poker Classic, which he won along with $1,788,040.
He didn't play freerolls much after that.
Koroknai credits the LAPC win with helping him withstand the pressure of the main event's final days. After a series spent playing cash games that he deemed too good to leave for glitzier tournaments, he lost half his starting stack in the first level and spent the next four days fighting to get back to average. It was on Day 5, which ended with the fate-changing mucked hand, that he finally got back to average for good. Now, he sits second in chips heading to the final table. He has to be considered at least a co-favorite to win it all.
Making the final table of the WSOP main event has made Koroknai a public figure in Hungary.
"What I've done in the WSOP, it was all in the news, the TV, the newspapers, so most people are recognizing what happened in Vegas," he said. "Actually, people are recognizing this as like an Olympic championship. It was right before the Olympics, so they were making a similarity. They were saying you're like an Olympian. One of the best."
Despite that praise though, the one thing Magori insisted on talking about his friend is the fact Koroknai is still the same man. "What you must know is that he's the same guy as he was before the WPT LAPC and the main event. And he will be after the final table. That I can prove. We are friends for 15 years now, and I can say he is the same guy as he was before. Nothing has changed Maybe the bank account is different, but the same guy owns it."
Koroknai found a game he loved and held on for dear life as it pulled him from his personal gutter. He's made something from nothing in a way few people have, and he's worked hard to earn it. Does that sound like a villain to you? It doesn't to me, and with Baumann's say-so, it probably shouldn't to anyone except the last eight people standing between him the world championship.