Whitehorse is a little colder than Las Vegas, but the poker’s hot.
Not only is the city notorious for its illegal games — a good way to get practice, apparently — it’s now home to two rising poker stars.
On Sunday night, 23-year-old James Lopushinsky won the Canadian Open Poker Championship in Calgary, Alberta, pocketing $250,000 in winnings.
“It’s finally started to sink in,” said Lopushinsky from Calgary.
“When it happened I was so exhausted, I didn’t even know what really happened.”
The protégé of 29-year-old Brad (Yukon) Booth, Lopushinsky has only been playing poker for two years.
“I met Brad when I was working at Bocelli’s Pizzeria and he used to come in,” said Lopushinsky.
Later, when Lopushinsky became unemployed, Booth offered him a job.
“He asked me to build a poker table for him, so I looked on the internet and bought some plywood,” said Lopushinsky.
Soon he was dealing for Booth’s private games.
“A few years ago, I hired him as a dealer for me; we became friends and I was willing to share all by knowledge,” said Booth.
“I mostly watched him play online poker,” said Lopushinsky, who now plays online for a living.
“And I’d also take trips to Calgary, to play at the casinos.”
Eight months ago, Booth left Whitehorse for Las Vegas.
“He’s been staying in the Bellagio Hotel and has won over $1.2 million so far,” said Lopushinsky.
But Booth also spends money like a fiend.
“My overhead is about $22,000 a month,” Booth said.
Booth flew Lopushinsky to Vegas for a visit a few weeks ago, and on the way home they stopped at Calgary’s poker championship.
“I didn’t even think I was playing,” said Lopushinsky.
“But five minutes before it started, Brad bought my way into the tournament.”
It cost each player $5,000 to enter.
The competition began with 64 players who were pitted against each other in elimination rounds until only two finalists remained.
“I was worried I’d end up in the same bracket as Brad and have to play him,” said Lopushinsky.
And this fear became a reality.
But the student protégé bested his master.
“I did a lot of watching,” explained Lopushinsky. “So, I knew more about his game than he did of mine.”
And like any good teacher, Booth was overjoyed at his pupil’s success.
“I really thought I’d grown up when I saw him win,” said Booth.
“I felt no selfishness — not one part of me wished it were me. I was as happy for him as I would have been for myself.”
Now, with “a bit of bankroll,” Lopushinsky is hoping to be more comfortable.
Over the last couple years, his poker winnings have been putting food on the table, but haven’t really been enough for him to truly feel well off, he said.
“If I took a loss it would take awhile for me to recover financially to where I could play again.
“But now I’ll have a little bit more of a cushion.”
And gambling is not about luck, said both Lopushinsky and Booth.
Theoretically, everybody gets dealt the same cards, said Lopushinsky.
“It’s just a matter of how you play them at the particular time you need to.
“And in the long run, the good players will be on top — they’ll be ahead of the ones that don’t know how to do that.”
There’s an instinct good players have, he said, an ability to sense what another player has in their hand.
“So, you can easily fold when you need to, or make a bet when you need to and get him off his hand,” said Lopushinsky.
But there are always going to be bad beats, he admitted.
“Your money’s always at stake. Bad beats are when you’re supposed to win and maybe that last card’s flipped over and it sort of turns the tide and everything goes wrong.”
That’s the perception that leads people to think poker’s gambling — it’s that unknown factor, said Lopushinsky.
“But if you have a limit as to how many times (bad beats) happen, it’s not so much gambling as a game of skill.”
It is also a game of honour, said Booth.
In the past, poker has gotten a shifty, shady rap, but those times are changing.
“For me, one of the proudest moments in my poker career, is now I can gracefully say, I am a professional poker player,” said Booth.
“When eight years ago, I used to have to actually tell people I did something else, because I didn’t want somebody to view me as being a deceitful person.”
In the old days, that’s how people viewed poker players, he said.
“But I want to let people know it’s a game of honour, just like a golf game or a pool game.”
Lopushinsky is scheduled to arrive back in Whitehorse tonight.
He plans to buy a newer vehicle with some of his earnings.
He also plans to take his poker playing to a new level.
“Poker is something that is sort of like a hobby to me,” he said.
“But I can get paid for it if I do well. So it sort of keeps me wanting to learn more.
“I would rather do this than work, that’s for sure.”
Lopushinsky plans to visit Booth in Vegas again, and the two men may buy a summer home in Calgary together, “as a neutral home base.”
But both Booth and Lopushinsky still call Whitehorse home.