Brazilian Poker: A Passionate Love of the Game

Thiago Nishijima was driven to victory by a raucous Brazilian rail that filled the Amazon Room with cheers as he claimed Brazil's third ever WSOP bracelet in the $3,000 No Limit Hold'em event.

Thiago Nishijima was driven to victory by a raucous Brazilian rail that filled the Amazon Room with cheers as he claimed Brazil’s third ever WSOP bracelet in the $3,000 No Limit Hold’em event.

As the river card hit and sent 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event runner-up Jesse Sylvia out of the $3,000 No Limit Hold’em event in third place, the reactions of Thiago Nishijima and Sotirios Koutoupas perfectly summed up how each player would approach their heads-up match.

Koutoupas gave Sylvia a quick hug as he said his goodbyes, while Nishijima was picked up by a Brazilian man in a Scooby Doo costume and carried back to the rest of his rail as celebrations reached a fever pitch. Nishijima had done the dirty work of knocking out Sylvia, and the Brazilian rail was already champing at the bit for one of Brazil’s brightest stars to capture the gold WSOP bracelet.

That rail has made numerous appearances over the last few years, with the Brazilians approaching the game of poker in a much different way than most other contingents – as a group effort. Their energy and their power brings an element that can frustrate opponents and drive the right player in the right situation to victory. While many who’ve witnessed the power the Brazilian rail can have, few understand the reasons why they act as they do.

“I’d bet there are people who look at the Brazilian celebrations and equate them with any other rowdy crowd,” said Brad Willis, head of blogging for PokerStars and an American who’s witnessed Brazilian poker culture firsthand during his time on the road covering poker. “Some people will think they are drunk on booze or jingoism. Having been in the middle of it, I can testify to the contrary. The joy you see on the rail and at the tables is nothing but genuine.”

While some players might have grown frustrated with having to contend with an entire crowd pulling against them in one of the biggest moments of their life, Koutoupas embraced his role as the ‘bad guy’ and egged on the fans when he got the better of Nishijima in hands. With smiles on both of their faces, neither player took offense and each threw their all into their pursuit of WSOP gold.

“Yeah, he’s a special guy,” said Nishijima of Koutopas, once their match had concluded. “Everybody was rooting for me and he was okay with that and he joked with the rail so it was fine. That’s sport. That’s nice. He was really a tough guy to beat.”

The match eventually swung in Nishijima’s favor, and when Kotoupas shoved after looking at one card – an ace – Nishijima called with A 9. Koutopas slowly revealed his second card, and when the 5 was flipped over the crowd went berserk. There were just five cards separating Nishijima from history, and while the 4 4 2 flop offered both chop and win possibilities for Koutoupas the 6 turn and 4 river sealed the victory for Nishijima and Brazil.

The value the Brazilians placed on their third ever WSOP bracelet win as a country was instantly apparent as Nishijima was mobbed by the crowd, one that enveloped him with such force that they nearly broke down a wall on the Main Stage. Security simply let everyone out of the stands for safety reasons at that point, and the celebration was officially on.

It was also appropriate that Nishijima, one of the most highly regarded players in the country, would be the one to break the Brazilian bracelet drought. This was his third WSOP final table, with his previous best finish a third in a $1,500 event back in 2010. With a WCOOP title and numerous other live and online accomplishments to his name, he was a strong representation of the ever-growing and improving Brazilian contingent.

“I waited for this moment all my career,” said Nishijima. “I played the WSOP since 2007. It’s a dream come true. I’m professional poker player since 2006 and that’s the dream that everyone wants to get. have to thank all the Brazilian support. There are a lot of people here, thousands of people rooting for me, giving support in Brazil.”

Nishijima’s win was the first by a Brazilian since Andre Akkari, one of the pillars of the poker community in that country, took down a $1,500 No Limit Hold’em bracelet to the tune of $675,117 back in 2011. Alexandre Gomes was the first Brazilian bracelet winner in 2008.

Akkari has been one of the driving forces behind poker in Brazil since becoming a professional back in 2006. Few would be better-suited to describe why the Brazilians are so enthusiastic and happy together in support, but even for him it’s a complicated answer.

“When you see your friends who have been working hard to get [a bracelet], when Thiago is getting one, you just want to be together and want to be rooting for him,” said Akkari. “It’s weird, but that’s the kind of feeling that make us move forward in Brazil. I think that’s part of the culture too, because we are a soccer country, like we are always in the stadium and screaming and rooting for people.”

“We’re different people from different backgrounds, but we are all in the same boat,” said Luiz Augusto Fakri, editor of Brazilian media site pokerdoc. “So when a guy like Thiago that is one of the best examples that we have of a professional player – he’s great online, he’s great live, he’s a great guy and I’ve never heard anyone say anything against him – you have to cheer for the guy.”

“Near as I can tell, there is something in the Brazilian culture that celebrates joy unlike any other people I know,” said Willis. “Sure, there is patriotism involved, but it goes beyond that. There is a sort of communal spirit, a weird transference of happiness that occurs when a Brazilian sees another Brazilian doing something worthy of joy.”

There are a lot of factors at work to bring the Brazilian poker community together, especially in big moments. For Fakri, who’s been around the game in Brazil in some fashion since 2006, the fight for legitimacy at home is a big reason those from a variety of backgrounds can get together.

“I don’t know why [exactly], but I think it has a lot to do with the fight for poker to grow in Brazil, for it to be recognized as a skill game,” said Fakri. “Everybody in Brazil has the same issues; when you say you’ve decided to be a poker player, you have to convince all your family, because poker in Brazil is still seen as gambling, and something where you can lose everything that your family has.”

A sense of community and national pride certainly plays a factor, and the energy and passion that are clearly on display overwhelm almost all negativity – at least for a night or two. Brazilians aren’t some mindless collective by any means, but coming together in a collective works symbiotically – the player at the table is inspired to play, and those in the crowd come together to inspire.

Thiago Nishijima proudly displays the Brazilian flag during his official WSOP bracelet ceremony. He lead the assembled crowd in a joyous rendition of the Brazilian national anthem.

Thiago Nishijima proudly displays the Brazilian flag during his official WSOP bracelet ceremony. He lead the assembled crowd in a joyous rendition of the Brazilian national anthem.

“You might not know that because you don’t know everybody [in that crowd], but I see people that hate each other cheering for the guy and hugging,” said Fakri. “When it stops, maybe when it’s business and stuff like that, they have a lot of issues and a lot of problems, but when they’re here, something magic happens. They just want to see the Brazilian guy with the Brazilian flag, and they just want to be there in the Brasilia room singing the national anthem [at the bracelet ceremony] and posting on Facebook that we’re Brazilians and we won again.”

Certain negativity can be expected from competitors in both poker and business, but a lot of the anger actually ends up directed elsewhere. The Brazilians’ conflict with a lot of what their government does, both in relation to poker and elsewhere, is another factor in uniting a small but passionate group so tightly.

The game of poker offers any player the chance to compete if they have the means or the skills, and that’s played a big factor in the growth of the game of poker.

“It’s so democratic – all of the people can play,” said Akkari. “We fell in love in Brazil.”

A lack of voice or representation also helps bring Brazilians together when they can bond over a common goal. Brazilians are notoriously passionate about sport, and soccer especially. When corruption and political decisions that negatively affect them negatively come in ways related to their greatest passions, as they did during the process of Brazil winning bids for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, the community goes out of its way to support the people of the country and the flag in lieu of the official government stances.

A lot of that can be seen in the fight to bring legitimacy to the game of poker in Brazil as well. It has come a long way since the earliest stages of Akkari’s life in the poker world, and the work, while slow at times, has been an exhausting effort by a group of people who truly love the game.

“In 2006, I decided to become a professional poker player, but it was a completely underground game. There are no casinos in Brazil, there were no poker clubs, just underground poker clubs. If you were a poker player at that time, you were considered addicted, it was a bad thing,” said Akkari. “Then we started to build the poker image, to rebuild the poker image, and now it’s completely different. 10 years later, it’s much different.”

Akkari was supported in his efforts by the community as a whole, but a few other key players, including Confederação Brasileira de Texas Hold’em (Brazilian Confederation of Texas Hold’em) president Igor ‘Federal’ Trafane, have helped push the fight on as many different fronts as possible.

“After 10 years, poker right now is like probably the top five of the sports or games that people play most in Brazil,” said Akkari. “We have completely different image right now, like people want to talk to us, ask us for photographs in the malls. We’re lucky, because we’ve got some good people working with poker in Brazil.”

PokerStars has certainly played a big factor of late in terms of attention on the game of poker in the country, especially with their hiring of Brazilian soccer legends like Ronaldo and current superstar Neymar. It goes far beyond that as well, to the very foundation of the live tournament scene with two major tours – the BSOP (Brazilian Series of Poker) and the international Latin American Poker Tour.

Things have come a long way from when Fakri first started attending the BSOP.

“The first BSOP I was at was in 2006,” said Fakri. “There were four tables, and the dealer button was a plate, a little plate, they just turned it over. Last year we had a monstrous tournament, the BSOP Millions at the end of the year. I think it was 25,000 people who played the series. It has changed a lot since the time I started.”

The many-fronted battle that Brazilians have fought for poker is paying off in a huge way with the attendance numbers for major live tournaments, and Akkari is filled with pride when he talks about the success and potential for the future with things like the BSOP Millions.

“After 2011 when I won the bracelet, and after some good results that we get in the with political wins in Brazil, then poker exploded,” said Akkari. “The last BSOP, we have 3,000 people, 3,300 I think [for the Main Event],” said Akkari. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next BSOP Millions this December, probably it’s going to be more than 4,500, or 5,000 people. It’s a kind of reward, for all the efforts that we did, but it’s just the beginning.”

Beyond the issues surrounding poker and politics in Brazil, there’s a certain unmistakable joy that’s evident whenever a Brazilian makes a WSOP final table or does something huge in Las Vegas. That’s what it’s like when a small group of traveling Brazilians get together, and those feelings are only magnified when thousands upon thousands get together in a celebration of the spirit of competition and pursuit of excellence.

“What’s striking to me is that, despite being a huge country of very different people, I’ve yet to find a Brazilian person who didn’t delight in life,” said Willis. “We poker writers and players go all over the world, and there are so many places where an American like me is, if not simply ignored, sometimes outwardly loathed. I kept waiting for the same treatment in Brazil. Instead, every door I opened had a happy, welcoming Brazilian behind it.”

“What’s more, they are all so proud,” said Willis. “They want foreigners like me to see the country they love and enjoy it as much as they do. When I was there, Felipe Ramos took me all over Sao Paulo just so I could see the things he loves about his country. Sergio Prado’s children gave me gifts. They didn’t have any ulterior motives. They didn’t ask for anything in return. They just wanted me to feel welcome and experience joy in the same way they do.”

Despite all of the work done by Akkari, the CBTH, PokerStars and everyone involved in the community, the online poker world is a separate issue entirely. While live poker has absolutely thrived over the last 10 years, Brazil has developed some of the best online poker players in the world as well.

Bernardo Dias, Joao Mathias Baumgarten, Pedro Madeira and Yuri Martins all sit high in the PocketFives Online Tournament leaderboard, and Brazil currently sits as the fourth-ranked country overall in tournaments behind only Sweden, the United Kingdom and Canada. Despite all of that success, things still operate in a grey area and there’s a lingering fear of a Brazilian version of Black Friday.

Even with all that success, being a professional online poker player in Brazil has a lot of headaches that come with it when it comes to keeping things on the up and up.

“We have some worries about how the government will treat us in the next few years, because they always try to find a way to screw something up,” said Akkari. “We have been fighting to be taxed, we want a tax, we want to be recognized but I don’t know what they’re going to do. I think that [it] has to be regulated. We have been paying taxes in Brazil, but in a way that we find that’s good and we believe that is good. We have the best people, and best lawyers and best poker people working on this.”

Some, like Fakri, feel as if the government will follow the lead of the United States, the origin of the game so many Brazilians love.

“I think when they look to poker, and willing to do something, it’s important for us that you guys have something here [in the States] because [the government] will see another example because the US is the home of poker, they will look for you guys first. If they look to Spain or Italy, or a country like that, they will close the market and do things that are just going to kill poker in Brazil.”

The road to legislation and full legalization is an uphill battle in the United States, and that means it could be a long road for Brazilians too. If the passion they put on display is any indication of the heart they’ll put into the fight, it seems likely that they will do everything they can to see it through.

Akkari alluded to the fact that Nishijima’s win could be another big step in the development in the game for Brazilians. He also made a bold prediction about the rest of the 2015 WSOP with just a few weeks left in the series.

“Now we are getting the results, not just getting bracelets, but put people are together in Brazil so it’s going to be huge in the next five years, growing and growing,” said Akkari. “We’re going to see the Mothership crowded again, not next year, this year, I hope.”

Nishijima’s win seemed to inspired other Brazilians almost immediately. Leonardo Ferreira (13th) and Luiz Duarte (17th) made the last two tables in the $1,500 Extended Play, Abraao De Santana finished 17th in Event 45 ($1,500 NL) and both Felipe Ramos (10th) and Gabriel Moreira (12th) made deep runs in the $3,000 Six Max PLO.

Akkari himself channeled the power of the Brazilians with his own run to eighth place in the $2,500 No Limit Hold’em event. Alessandra Dos Santos took 11th in Ladies Championship, Yuri Martins Dzivielevski finished 17th in $10,000 Pot Limit Omaha Championship and Joao Simao got 18th in DraftKings.

Two more Brazilians made final tables as the WSOP drew towards a close – Frederico Dabus finished eighth in Event 57 ($1,000 NL Hold’em) and Luis Freitas took sixth in Event 59 ($1,500 No Limit Hold’em). It’s been a tremendous summer for Brazil at the WSOP, and Nishijima thinks there’s absolutely more where that came from.

“There’s a lot of excellent players who are coming here and doing their best, you know,” said Nishijima. “We started later compared to here, but we have talent too. We know how to play this game and we are getting even better. A lot of Brazilians who are going to make good.”

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Tim Fiorvanti

Tim Fiorvanti graduated from St. John's University with a B.S. in Journalism in 2008. After several years in the industry, he started working for BLUFF in the summer of 2010. He worked his way up at BLUFF and joined full time as a Senior Writer in April of 2012. Fiorvanti now serves as the Managing Editor of BLUFF. He's a tortured Mets and Jets fan, along with several other frustrating allegiances, but he's also a two-time defending BLUFF Fantasy Football Champion.
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