For Love or Money: Ivan Luca vs. Maria Lampropoulos

Alex Weldon : March 9th, 2016

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Poker romances aren’t exactly uncommon, and sometimes couples find themselves seated at the same table in a tournament. Far less common, however, is for both members of such a couple to make it through to a final table, let alone eliminate all their opponents at that table and find themselves heads up for the win. And yet, that’s exactly what happened yesterday at the PokerStars-sponsored Eureka Season 6 main event at King’s Casino Rozvadov, when Ivan Luca faced and eventually defeated his girlfriend, Maria Lampropoulos, for the title and €106,186.

Luca, a young professional player from Argentina, spent his early years of play on the Latin American circuit, but began playing European events towards the end of 2014. He first caught my attention, and likely that of many fans, last summer, when he won his first World Series of Poker gold bracelet, in Event #30, $1,000 No-Limit Hold’em. 2015 was a good year for him in general, and he appears to love playing poker as much as he loves winning, having continued to play smaller side events even as he adds more main events and even high rollers to his buy-ins.

Lampropoulos, for her part, has not yet had the same sort of breakout success as Luca, though her bankroll has presumably benefitted hugely from yesterday’s second place finish, which at €95,404 (USD $103,907) is her biggest cash to date. She likewise appears to have big ambitions; prior to this year, her only cashes on record have been in side events, but last month, she managed cashes in both an EPT and a WPT National event, the latter of which also ended in a runner-up finish and a tidy €68,200 (USD $75,067) score. So, while you couldn’t quite call them a power couple yet, they well be one in the making.

The possibility of the two facing off at the end was already looking quite likely by the time they made the final table; Luca came into the final 8 with a commanding chip lead, while Lampropoulos was in third. Half of their opponents fell within the first seven hands, and one more an hour later, leaving only three: the happy couple, plus Slovakian player David Urban. Despite having the chip lead at that point and playing well, Urban found himself whittled down and eventually out in third.

Sour grapes or legitimate concerns?

Fellow prodigy Fedor Holz was quick to congratulate the two on Twitter, but not everyone was equally happy for them. Many were grumbling both on Twitter and on the live stream of the event that Luca seemed to be soft-playing Lampropoulos once they only had Urban left to get through. There was even an accusation of outright cheating posted to TwoPlusTwo, although that was far from credible and the thread has since been deleted.

Soft play is essentially a mild, possibly unintentional form of collusion. It’s a bigger deal in tournaments than in cash games, especially towards the bubble or deep in the money, as in these situations, chips can be worth more to one player than another, and simply surviving can earn a player money. Whether the players in question are swapping action, or simply would like to see each other do well because of their personal relationship, a player may feel less incentivized to win chips from a friend than from other opponents, and make adjustments to his or her play, whether consciously or not.

Unfortunately, soft play is both a real and probably a common problem, but also extremely difficult to prove. In cases like this, it’s also hard to separate from the sexism in poker debate, as it’s a charge most often laid against men when a woman is at the table, particularly if the woman is attractive or seems flirty, never mind actually dating the man in question. Thus, while it’s entirely possible that someone of any gender and sexual orientation could end up going easy on someone they’re attracted to, I always find that there’s a whiff of the tired old cliché about women using sex to manipulate men present in these accusations.

Do couples actually play harder against each other?

Ironically, some of those defending Luca have argued not that he wouldn’t adjust his play at all, but rather that couples actually do tend to play differently against one another, just more, rather than less aggressively.

There’s probably some truth to this argument. After all, it’s usually the case that teachers whose own children end up assigned to their class often end up being stricter with them than the other students. In large part, this is probably a matter of overcompensation brought about by the belief that others will assume they’re going to play favorites, and an attempt to nip that perception in the bud. Given that players who are known to be in a relationship are likely to be scrutinized for possible soft play, it seems reasonable that one might see a similar effect at work.

It’s also common for there to be a certain element of competitiveness in a romantic relationship. As an avid board game player who has routinely recruited various partners into the hobby over the years, I can vouch for this. It’s also interesting to note that Liv Boeree, in drafting her boyfriend Igor Kurganov for her team in the Global Poker League, mentioned that her biggest reason for doing so is that he is a particularly dangerous opponent for her because he knows her so well, and thus wanted to make sure he didn’t end up on any opposing team.

Of course, money is less of a factor in all of these examples than it was for Luca and Lampropoulos yesterday. There are obvious advantages to seeing one’s romantic partner win large sums of money and it also seems fairly likely that the two would have had some kind of action swap, or that Luca, with his bigger bankroll, may have bought a big piece of her action. Thus, it’s also not unreasonable to think that financial incentives might have trumped relationship rivalry in this case.

Okay, but does it look like soft play?

Since this situation occurs so infrequently, and there are reasonable arguments to be made either way on the issue of whether a couple would be likely to soft play one another towards the end of a final table, the only thing to do is look at the actual play and ask whether it looks like soft play.

Unfortunately, the Eureka tour is less popular and therefore less well-covered than the European Poker Tour, so the written account of final table play only includes significant pots, rather than the details of every hand played. For that reason, I can’t do any meaningful statistical analysis. However, reading through the account, it is striking that in every hand that was meaningful enough to be covered, almost all of the postflop action during three-handed play took place between Urban and either Luca or Lampropoulos, rather than between the two members of the couple. There is one exception, in the form of a hand that went three ways to the river, but even then, Lampropoulos folded to a bet and a raise, and only Luca went to showdown with Urban.

Indeed, the only mention of Luca and Lampropoulos mixing it up at all is a hand late in three-handed play, in which Luca raises from the button with Lampropoulos was in the big blind – he’d often limped from that position before, incidentally – and Lampropoulos ends up three-betting him, causing him to fold. Interestingly, the reporter recording the hand comments that the two battling between themselves was a rare occurrence, and that Lampropoulos looked surprised and unsure of what to do before she raised, though I’ll leave it to the reader to decide how much to read into that.

Overall, then, it’s not hard to see why some are suspicious. Of course the evidence, such as it is, is purely circumstantial, but that’s exactly the trouble with soft play. Even when it comes to online poker, it takes both a huge amount of data and careful analysis to demonstrate that two players are in fact taking it easy on each other. In a live environment, where record-keeping is spotty and the hand volume is much smaller, it’s essentially impossible to tell, unless it’s done very deliberately and obviously, such as a player repeatedly checking back strong hands against his friend.

The issue is never going to go away, either. As I’ve pointed out in the past, even the most scrupled player can never really be entirely sure he’s not letting his feelings about other players influence his choices in close spots. Meanwhile, even in cases where the tournament director or floor staff suspect soft play, the plausible deniability is such that it’s difficult to apply a penalty without causing more controversy than the play itself; most often, nothing more than a warning is given. This makes rules against softplay all but unenforceable, except in the most blatant cases, and since you’d have better luck to convince people to stop playing poker entirely than to stop swapping action or entering the same tournaments as their friends, family and significant others, this sort of controversy will forever be as much a part of tournament poker as the inevitable bad beat stories.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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