Rafa Nadal and Juan Carlos Navarro play poker
By Federico Marín Bellón | Translated for vamosbrigade.com by nou.amic

Mano a mano con Rafa Nadal y Juan Carlos Navarro

ABC Poker & Chess Blog: Jugar con cabeza
Publicado por Federico Marín Bellón el jul 20, 2014
Translated by nou.amic for vamosbrigade.com

Last Tuesday, 15th July, I had the privilege of attending a poker match in Porto Cristo (Mallorca) with Rafa Nadal and his childhood friends, not to mention Juan Carlos Navarro. Along with the small tournament, in which only honour was at stake and not going straight into the water as the first to be eliminated, a barbecue was held in an atmosphere that could not be improved on. This Sunday the report was published in the pages of ABC and I've written a longer version of it for the blog.

Before I go on, I would like to emphasise: how friendly and approachable Rafa and his entire family were (especially his mother, though it is not nice to make distictions); Navarro's unaffectedness and intelligence; Vicente Delgado's technical knowledge (you will find out who he is as you read on if you do not know him already); and how Benito Pérez Barbadillo, Rafa's press agent, managed the three ring circus. And, although it is for more prosaic reasons, it would be unfair not also to underline the work of those responsible for the cooking, above all for the spectacular prawns, the sweetbreads and the wine.

Standing on Rafael Nadal's front doorstep in Mallorca you feel rather like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. You have received an invitation you cannot refuse and know that for a few hours you will be allowed not only to pull back the curtains and look but also to attend a party whose host is a mythical being - with 14 Grand Slam tournament titles to his name - who, in spite of everything, heatedly claims he is normal or ordinary. You do not need to be familiar with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to know that the mere act of observing (the closer you are the worse it is) modifies the behaviour of the subject being studied. The gaze of the intruder, a simple reflection on his glasses, will alter some movements which nevertheless are worth recounting. It is a perfect occasion: with his childhood friends, Miguel Ángel, Juan, Toni, Joan and Miguel, the 'captain' (he is a boat captain), around him, Rafa feels safe. If we remove the privileged surroundings, he seems just like any other young man of 28 and not the best Spanish sportsman ever.

Joining in the fun were journalist Olga Viza (Read her Marca article here) and basketball player Juan Carlos Navarro, another sports ace who did not take long to come over to ask me to point out in my report how grateful he was for the invitation and how fortunate he felt. So much humility is amazing. This golden generation of Spanish sportsmen has not got where it is through flashiness, as their behaviour at the table confirmed with neither of the two star players having the chief say. 'La Bomba' Navarro ended up winning, but they both acted timidly, played few hands and always prudently, without bothering to feign. "I don't like bluffing," Rafa stated. "The way I've been taught, it's not an essential part of the game, though it's sometimes necessary."

The Balearic player has had two Texas Hold'em teachers, Isaac Mayolas when he first started out and now Alfonso Cardalda, both of whom have underlined their pupil's intelligence and competitiveness in interviews with ABC. He takes it very seriously, though not as seriously as the croupier for the night, Vicente Delgado, a 23-year-old professional player who "breaks" tables online and devotes several hours a week to analysis. His latest purchase gives him away. It is not a whim, which he could permit himself, but five million poker hands by the best players in the world so he can minutely examine the most subtle of their moves. It is only a hobby for Nadal, though he loves to learn. "It's like golf, if you have no bloody idea, you don't enjoy it as much." You can also see Navarro is keen to learn. Whenever he can he asks Delgado for the correction of some move. 

The tennis player's press agent, Benito Pérez Barbadillo, confirms Nadal hates losing and that playing golf with him, for example, can be "agony". "I'm not hiper-competitive," the player himself tries to deny this. "People say I am. The truth is that to me sport in itself is... let's say it... meaningless. It's only justified by your enthusiasm and the motivation to win or to do your best. I go to play a game of football with my friends and I get angry if my opponents don't try their hardest. I don't enjoy winning, I enjoy competing. I don't like winning 10-2 or being twelve shots up at golf. Being level and seeing who wins in the end is what motivates me. If that's being competitive, then I am. I don't enjoy winning 6-1 6-1 at tennis. I'm a professional and of course I go home happy, but a win like that doesn't satisfy or fulfil me. I'm satisfied when I've suffered, I've resisted and in the end it's been decided because I've done it better than my opponent." Can he enjoy a tight loss more than an easy victory? "I live to win, but of course I can. I lost the 2012 Australian Open final to Djokovic after almost six hours and I went home feeling proud. I was left empty, with nothing left inside me to give. Though obviously I did go out there to win." 

When it comes to the moment of truth, Rafa does not eat anybody. He is not as intimidating as one fears anyone who has reached number one in any type of competition might be. As well as being cautious - no approaches to the net - he even seems rather frustrated because he is not getting dealt good cards. When he complains out loud about this, the rest of the table make fun of him. His friends are even more relaxed, especially Juan Suasi, a player and sports event manager, who even jokes with the scorekeeper. Rafa, on the other hand, never loses his self control, a virtue he has cultivated on grass, clay and the baize of poker tables. In the end he has to go for it and is eliminated earlier than expected, but at least he escapes the punishment announced for the first to go bust: jumping into the swimming pool fully clothed. His friend Miguel Ángel Calviño, an engineer, is the one who is 'humilliated' in this way. Rafa confirms the group used to be more aggressive with their punishments. "When I wasn't very well known we used to be more daring, like doing press-ups in our underpants in the middle of a hotel or in the street. Now I don't dare."

Getting over prejudices about poker

Surrounded by friends and family, protected by those closest to him, Rafa Nadal explains his personal evolution in relation to the game and how he changed from rejecting the commercial offer from PokerStars to becoming the company's ambassador. "It's fairly simple. Like most people, I saw poker as being a casino game in which people were ruined. It was a negative image and I understand it remains like that for many people. When the project was put to me for the first time, I said no, among other things because I was young and it wasn't what I wanted to project at the time. But I repeat that was out of ignorance. I wasn't afraid of what others would say about me, it was my own perception. It was something I couldn't see myself doing and that I didn't believe in."

At the time Rafa did not yet play poker on the internet, though he did play with his friends and family. He already preferred Texas Holdem, the variant that has taken over in popularity from the traditional draw poker. "That is harder for me because you don't see anything of the game and you're totally blind. I enjoy Texas because you see the possibilities without having to risk much." Two years went by before Nadal accepted their proposal. "They came back and, well, quite sincerely, it was me who said yes because my father wasn't very keen on it and neither was Carlos (Costa), but I knew a bit more about what poker was by then and said yes, with no fear of what people would think of me. In the end, their opinion of you doesn't depend on an advertisement, but on what they see of you every day on court and in your normal life, when you are being you. I knew I could take that risk on the popular level of what they might think because it was something I felt like getting to know more about and understand better. I had some meetings with them and I was convinced I should do it." 

He admits the fact that PokerStars sponsored other famous sports stars like Boris Becker and the Brazilian Ronaldo helped him decide. "I was convinced and they convinced me I had to do it and I wanted to. Almost three years on, I'm really happy I did. I'm very happy to know poker better because I realise that in the end things happen in life that ignorance prejudices us against. Afterwards you realise they are just the very opposite." 


The problem of gambling does not have to be raised for the nine-time Roland Garros champion to state his view on the matter: "Poker isn't a sport or a game that leads people to ruin. If it wasn't there, they would ruin themselves at something else, throwing their money away in another way. Poker allows you to have control, lets you know how far you want to play. You can start a tournament knowing the limit of what you're going to lose. I like competing in tournaments because strategy and knowledge of probabilities - that you didn't even imagine in the beginning - come into play." 

Rafa insists he speaks from his own experience and not because he is somebody's image: "I encourage people to learn about the game before giving their view, and I swear I'm not saying this because I have to but because it's what I think. Nowadays, I'm a habitual poker player and I say it openly. I play with my friends. It's a way to hang out and a social game, because you talk all the time. I have a good time. It's true there are people who go and gamble away what they don't have, but it's like with any other thing. They have a problem, but we can't blame it on a game like poker that has many other positive aspects. If poker didn't exist, they'd lose it on something else. People who use poker in a negative way have a problem they don't know how to control." "I have a philosphy in life, he adds. "Outside of sport, you have to gamble what you're willing to lose and go to bed without what you've lost robbing you of a thousandth of a second of sleep."

The thing Rafa probably likes least about this game is the possibility of having to spend too many hours sitting, like in Prague when he eliminated one of the best in the world, Canadian Daniel Negreanu, the biggest live tournament poker winner of all time. "To tell the truth, I can seldom stand more than four hours sitting," he confesses, "because to begin with I don't have much time. I usually play sit and go turbo or hiper turbo tournaments (they never last more than a few minutes) in which you can stake from 5 cents to 100 euros. Six players take part, the winner takes the prize, the second breaks even and the others lose their inscription fee, but when you start to play, you know what the maximum you can lose is: those five or ten euros or cents you've paid to take part. The one in Prague was exceptional, against real professionals at the game: "I was motivated to put up with it there and not to let the tiredness of being seated lead me to make mistakes."

Nerves at the table

Can somebody who has won everything feel nervous? Juan Carlos Navarro affirms even his Olympic medals do not help give him more aplomb when he is in unkown territory. Nadal says that on his debut he was more nervous about not making mistakes in the mechanics of the game, not putting his foot in it, than about winning or losing. "I had a way of playing that I knew wouldn't make problems for me in my first tournament. I was going to play the correct hands and leave the rest. Then I even got lucky a few times and put cards together." Despite his experiences, all positive, he does not yet see himself in Las Vegas, taking part in the World Series, like Gerard Piqué. "It's impossible at the moment. Not while I have my career, but when I retire, I really don't see why not. I don't see myself doing a world tour, but yes playing some tournaments a year if I get the chance. I enjoy it and in the end it's about being able to combine things. You don't go to Las Vegas or Australia just to play poker. You go with a number of friends and take advantage of it to do a bit of tourism and other activities."

The Mallorcan mentions other poker enthusiasts among his colleagues on the ATP tour such as Marc López, Feliciano - who exasperates him at times because he takes so long to make decisions - and his coach Pepo, Rafael Maymó, his physiotherapist. His uncle Toni sometimes plays and is learning but he prefers chess: "I play fast games onhttp://www.chess.com, five minute ones," confirms Rafa's uncle, a great lover of strategy. Rafa does not coincide much with the foreigners: "We make up our own group. For example, at Wimbledon, we arrange to meet at my house or at Feli's on the day we don't have a match. We play in the locker room at Roland Garros, though, because there's a table there that's perfect for it." 

For his part, Juan Carlos Navarro tells us that poker is only a recent importation into the national squad's training camps. The more veteran players used to play 'pocha', but Ricky Rubio and others brought about the change, and now they switch back and forth between the two. The master though is Victor Sada, the Barcelona base, who even studies books on it and is usually the one responsable for bringing the materials. 

Towards the end of the day, after being eliminated, Nadal finds a moment to duck out of things and speak to his father, just the two of them, until one of his friends interrupts their family time by shouting out this plea, which is accompanied by a chorus of laughter: "Come back here, Rafa, at least you got all the bad cards before!" Over the course of the day, his mother and his father, his sister, his uncle have all put in an appearance... but these young men are also indispensable. They have a good time but also respect his space when he needs it. They are a kind of anchor for him. To feel like a normal ordinary person he needs more than his family...