Earlier this month, Ivan “ILS007” Stokes scooped – or rather WCOOPed – the big one, taking down the 2023 World Championship of Online Poker $10k Main Event. The 34-year-old won through a field of 600 entries to claim the prestigious title, one of the most coveted online, along with the top prize of $1,047,257.
PokerOrg caught up with the half-English, half-Sri Lankan pro, who spent much of his formative years in Scotland, to find out how he made it to the top and why his first love, chess, had to take a back seat in the process.
PokerOrg: You’ve won WCOOP and SCOOP titles before this one. Just how big was the Main Event win for you?
Ivan Stokes: It’s by far the biggest. For me, winning the 10k Main Event is the pinnacle—it’s my Everest!
You went almost pillar to post from day 2 through the final table. At what point did you think you could take the tournament down?
IS: Before I sat down to play the tournament. Without that fundamental belief, you are not ready to enter the cauldron. In terms of during the run, bagging a big chip lead after day 2 made me think that I had a great opportunity, but knowing poker, you can bust in a few hands even from that position. So, you need to try to shut that all out of your mind and focus on what matters.
How much does self-confidence play a part when someone like Niklas Astedt is at the table, and how do you stay composed when there is $1 million on the line?
IS: I simply treat my opponents as opponents rather than as household names. Niklas is an amazing champion, but I’m excited rather than afraid to play against him. The better they are, the more I enjoy it. You learn a lot more from great players.
In terms of how I stayed composed with $1 million on the line, the fact that I wanted to do my best and so badly wanted to win the world title helped a lot. It took the focus almost entirely off the money and on getting the job done instead.
You came to poker after playing chess for many years. Can you share how the transition occurred and what the crossovers are?
IS: I played chess until the age of 18 but saw some of my peers do well in poker, especially considering how young we were. I thought poker offered a more lucrative opportunity, and the game seemed to be easier at the higher levels than chess. Probably because solvers came much later in poker, and poker culture is a bit less rigorous.
Many of those who made the transition were 2000+ rated chessplayers (Dan Smith, Mike McDonald, and Martin Staszko) who were very good but maybe not good enough to make a career in chess. Do you think being strong enough to know how weak you are makes the move to poker easier?
IS: Absolutely. When you realise how difficult it is to reach the 2000-2200 level, yet still how far behind that is from the top levels, and the obsessive requirement to bridge that gap, it’s a choice between either giving your life to chess for an uncertain outcome or giving poker a try.
The biggest advantage of the move is the financial opportunity. The biggest downside of the move is giving up chess. Before poker, chess was my life, and I loved it. So you are giving up the thing you most enjoy for an uncertain future. I love poker as well, but chess was my first love.
How do you deal with the online grind?
IS: In a regular job, at least before remote working became a thing, you socialise at work and go out with colleagues. In poker, you stay in touch regularly online, but it’s nothing like meeting in person. I’m lucky in that other players I know live in the same area, which lets us meet off the tables. We also arrange to meet each year to bond at exciting destinations across the world.
Modern MTT play is very much data-driven, assimilating solver information to devise strategies and exploits. Apart from this sounding like modern chess, where does your own approach lie?
IS: It’s a hybrid. At the top level, it’s important to have strong fundamentals, and in order to understand exploitative opportunities, you also need to understand the GTO.
How do you prepare for big tournaments? Is there anything you did differently for the WCOOP Main Event?
IS: For me, first you have your ongoing technical, mental, and physical preparation, which you are doing routinely. And then, as the series approaches and during the series, the preparation should be more performance-based. So, a lot of what I did to prepare involved being mentally and physically strong for when the big spots happened.
It’s similar for live events, but the logistics of playing live need to be navigated even more carefully – things like where you are going to eat and your sleeping patterns when bagging up super late at night.
We were watching Lex Veldhuis multitable the series, even when playing WCOOP final tables for big money. What are your thoughts on that approach?
IS: Everybody is different, and Lex has a tremendously entertaining stream that he dedicates to his fans. Part of that is the action I imagine. Also, having enough stimulation and not overthinking is important. This can easily happen when you go from ten tabling to single tabling. At the same time, having your focus and attention on what matters is obviously crucial, so it’s important to find the right balance.
Also, final days of tournaments don’t usually start on the final table, so there will be a significant opportunity cost of missed tournaments if you decide to single table your deep run, which adds up to a lot over the course of the entire series.
Fitness appears to play a huge part in your life. How much do mind sports such as chess and poker gain from a health-driven approach, and is it a large part of your own poker coaching ethos?
IS: Absolutely. The brain consumes a tremendous amount of energy, so you need to have high, steady, and reliable energy levels. If you are weaker in this area, you are at an immediate, real disadvantage.
RTA has hit the headlines a lot recently. What are your views on how to combat it? Is there anything we can learn from the chess world?
IS: I think that transparency of information, like hand histories and tournament histories, is crucial. The move towards both anonymity and opaque playing records is exactly what the cheats want. Something to hide behind. With the tools available today, an open record can identify foul play quite effectively, along with the other detection tools that sites have.
At the same time, as discussed recently in chess, there are things that are very difficult or almost impossible to detect. You can identify the most exaggerated examples of cheating, but it’s hard or even impossible to identify the more subtle examples. We have a good chance of detecting bots, but a less good chance of detecting selective foul play.
What’s next on your schedule? Any live events we might see you at, or maybe a chess tournament?
IS: Yeah, some time off for sure! I’m heading to Bali now to connect with some friends there and to enjoy nature. I’m thinking about playing the BSOP Millions in Sao Paulo, Brazil next month, so we’ll see.
Thanks for talking to us, and good luck in the future!