The interview: Eugene Katchalov and his harrowing flight from the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Haley Hintze Author Photo
Haley Hintze
Posted on: March 02, 2022 02:39 PST

It’s been a frightening week for Eugene Katchalov, the former professional poker player and Ukraine native who remains that country’s all-time leading tournament money winner. Katchalov moved to the United States in childhood and has been an American citizen for three decades, but he’s spent most of the last five years in Ukraine, where he and his wife, Anna, live.

Until very recently, that is. Katchalov and his wife monitored the growing tensions between Ukraine and its larger neighbor, Russia, which had already seized three smaller regions of the country. When Russia launched a full-scale invasion last week, Eugene and Anna knew it was time to leave the country. They met up with friends as Russia’s bombing runs continues, and they slowly worked their way west, along with a few friends they joined along the way.

What would normally be an easy day’s drive turned into an arduous journey as Katchalov’s small group overcame the hurdles facing tens of thousands of their countrymen who were also attempting to escape Russia’s bombing. Katchalov was fortunate in one way, still being a U.S. citizen, since under the martial law imposed, Ukrainian adult males aged 18-60 must remain in the country to help defend against the Russian invaders.

The Katchalovs’ attempt to reach Hungary still carried considerable costs and risks. From the fear of being bombed while stuck in traffic lines on Ukraine’s roads, to being waylaid by highway robbers, to accidentally encounter advancing Russian forces, to possibly not even being able to fuel their vehicles… it was all part of the gamble. At times, as Katchalov explained on Twitter, in their attempt to avoid major cities, airports, and Russia’s bombs, they resorted to dirt roads. They still found heavy traffic and were in standstills for hours, before finally reaching the Hungarian border.

There was also the interruption of normal business. In 2017, Katchalov largely departed the poker world, and he co-founded an esports startup, QLASH, along with another famous European poker pro, Italy’s Luca Pagano. QLASH has been a growing brand name in esports, especially on the European scene, with five offices scattered across Europe and Africa, including one in Ukraine. Eugene’s wife, Anna, also owns four retail stores – three in Kyiv and one in Kharkiv. The Kharkiv store already has suffered damage from the Russian shelling of the city.

Meanwhile, as Eugene and Anna found shelter in Budapest, they continue to monitor the heartbreaking news from back home. Eugene has emerged as a celebrity refugee in recent days, appearing on some prominent media outlets, all while working on the task at hand, which is helping other refugees find safety as they escape the expanding war in Ukraine.

Katchalov took time away from his very busy schedule to add some details on his and Anna's flight from Ukraine and what the near future now holds. Through some technical difficulties and time pressures, he still managed to convey what it was like as war with Russia engulfed his home. When did you first seriously consider the prospect of fleeing Kyiv? 

Eugene Katchalov: It was something that built up over several days. We were monitoring all the reports, and we had done some light packing of bags just in case, but we never really believed that Russia would invade. Then we heard the news of the [invasion starting] and heard the first explosions, and we left.

PO: From your Twitter posts, it appeared that your original group occupied several cars, and that you later switched to a SUV while others in your group learned they would be able to leave. DId you have to abandon any vehicles? And how many of your party had to turn back? 

Katchalov: It was actually my vehicle that we had to abandon. I had the only sedan in the group, and my tires were worn, and so we switched into one of the three SUVs we had. We planned to use multiple vehicles in case one broke down, so when we switched to the SUVs, we were prepared for that. It was better that way, to be in a larger group, with the rumors of the robbers and marauders that we heard. But we didn’t encounter any of that.

PO: Did those that turned back return to Kyiv, or were they forced to relocate elsewhere within Ukraine? 

Katchalov: They were not planning on returning to Kyiv. They were going to stay in the western part of the country, where there are fewer large cities that might be targets of the Russian bombing.

PO: Roughly how many kilometers did you drive to reach the Hungarian border? And for how many hours were you actually on the road? 

Katchalov: It was 600 kilometers (about 370 miles) or so. We were actually on the road for about 21 hours. And then we were at the border for another seven hours or so before we crossed.

PO: You appeared to have been in almost non-stop contact with friends and family throughout your flight, and you’ve posted photos from the bombings in Kyiv and Kharkiv. You also recently posted about Anna’s parents making their own attempt to flee Ukraine. Do you have any recent information you can share? 

Katchalov: Yes, my wife’s mom and dad and aunt have started their own journey from Kharkiv. [Kharkiv has been one of the cities targeted by heavy Russian shelling.] It will be a three-day trip for them to reach the border. They can only travel during the day, because of the curfew that’s in effect.

PO: You wrote that you had packed boots and at one point posted that you were only about 300 meters from the Polish border, though in what was a mountainous area. Were you considering trying to hike cross-country at that point?

Katchalov: We were about 120 kilometers from the border crossing into Poland, and we hit a huge backup at one of the many checkpoints. We looked at our maps and saw that we were only about 50 meters from the Polish border where we were at, though it was all forest. When we saw how close we were, we felt a little safer, because we didn’t think they’d bomb us so close to NATO. But yes, if the bombing had started there, we would have abandoned our vehicles and everything and gone into the woods and crossed the border on foot.

PO: You mentioned the rumors of highway robbers on the roads, which thankfully did not come to pass. But that aside, what was the scariest or most unsettling moment of your journey? 

Katchalov: There were so many moments. It was unnerving to see the explosions off to our sides as we drove. When we were headed toward Odessa we saw a huge explosion, and that was unnerving. We also passed some military convoys; those were headed in the other direction. If they had started bombing those convoys, like carpetbombing, there was nowhere to go. And the roadblocks, because we didn’t ever know for sure who they were – we didn't know for sure who the guards there were, like if they were actually guarding the post or were thieves. There were so many roadblocks along the way.

PO: Tell us a bit about your company, QLASH. Not all our poker readers will know what QLASH does, or why you and Luca [Pagano] have largely disappeared from the poker scene since 2017. Can you give us a very brief description of what your company is all about?

Katchalov: QLASH is an esports media company that organizes events in many different games. We also have professional esports players under contract whom we use to engage with and entertain our large gaming communities of players. Poker players would be familiar with this as just like online poker sites organize poker events and use their pros to play and engage with the players, we do something similar with gaming and esports. 

PO: The recent events in Ukraine have disrupted so many things, and you’re hard at work helping others who’ve been displaced. And there is some fundraising going on as well? Were you surprised by how intensely your story was and is being followed?

Katchalov: We’re trying to help others who are in a similar situation. The fundraising that I’m trying to come up with is a proper way to help refugees who have crossed the border. I want to help them with shelter and food. I also want to make sure to partner with a reputable organization, to make sure their money is put to good use. I spoke today with one organization but it will take some time. It will take another week or two to get things organized. I will keep on helping to connect people; I will do this manually for now. When there is an opportunity to do this on a wider scale, we’ll want to do a full-scale fundraiser.