2015 WSOP Main Event November Nine Profile: Pierre Neuville
It was a curious aspiration for the then-64-year-old Belgium native, who had suffered a life-threatening accident, since he hadn't actually played the game regularly for decades. In fact, his wife of 20 years, Claudine, thought he was hallucinating.
"She told the doctors to stop with the drugs because for some reason I thought I was a poker player," Neuville remembers with a laugh.
What Claudine didn't know was that her husband had been a closet poker fanatic for more than 40 years, even playing to help finance himself through Université libre de Bruxelles in the late 1960s. But when his prosperous business career took off shortly after he graduated, Neuville's days at the poker table were forced to take a back seat.
In 1969 he created a board game and started a successful toy company, which thrived to the point that it was bought by Hasbro in 1982. Neuville stayed on as a vice president for the company, which had a strict policy that its employees could not gamble or visit casinos.
Fast-forward to 2007, when Neuville was near death and about to undergo a sixth operation to save his life.
"I told myself, I have worked long enough — if I survive, the job is finished and I will play poker," he said.
Two months later, with his recovery going better than expected, Neuville made good on his promise to himself. He told his wife to pack their bags for the holidays and that they were going to the Bahamas for three weeks. The destination was chosen because the 2008 EPT PokerStars Caribbean Adventure was taking place at Paradise Island, just after the New Year.
Upon arrival, Claudine quickly realized the tournament her husband was about to enter was the real deal, with the likes of Greg Raymer, Daniel Negreanu and eventual winner Bertrand Grospellier in the field.
"She said to me, 'You can't play here. This is for real players,'" Neuville said. "On Day 1 she thought I would play for a few hours and meet her at the pool."
But Day 1 turned into surviving and playing Day 2. Three days later, Neuville was still alive and ended up finishing 18th, cashing for $48,000.
"That was my professional poker bankroll and it has never crashed," he said proudly. "It changed my life and it changed my wife's life, too."
Since that trip to the Bahamas, Neuville, who has also flourished as a personal life consultant to well-known clients such as golf legend Gary Player and actor Kevin Costner, has cashed in 39 EPT events and 19 WSOP events and has earned more than $3 million. Earlier this year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the European Poker Awards.
But the biggest moment of his poker career continues next week, when plays the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.
Neuville has the fourth-largest stack with 21,075,000 chips, and at the age of 72, he'll be trying to become the oldest Main Event winner in history — surpassing the late Johnny Moss, who won it in 1974 at 67 years old.
Casino City sat down with Neuville back in July, the day after he became the oldest player to reach the final table in the November Nine Era, and discussed his business background, how it has helped him at the poker table and why he thinks he has as good a chance as anybody to prevail.
How did your career as a businessman help you in the Main Event and make it to the final table?
When I first decided to stop my business career after 40 years and play poker, I had success very fast. I mixed my poker skill with all my business experience. I think everything I have done with my life has helped me at the poker table. Poker is such a rich game, those things can really help.
I look around (at the other members of the November Nine) and there are some young geniuses. Their minds work two or three times quicker than mine. But I can compensate with life experience and self-control.
Poker has helped me feel younger physically and mentally every year. I expect to do this for another 30 years (laughs).
Did poker come naturally to you, or did you really have to work at it to become so good?
When it comes to anything in life, you must be born for it. We don't know why, but Tiger Woods was born for golf. You could practice, practice and practice at something, but never become the best at it, because you weren't born for it.
When I started playing poker at the age of 14, I was very good, I must say. When I was playing at university, I was winning every day. I have been passionate about it ever since that time, even when I was not playing.
At what point of the Main Event did you think you had a chance to make the final table?
On the first day, during the first hour at the first table. When I enter a tournament, the first thing I do is focus on the whole tournament. I am a perfectionist. I know when the first bubble will be and I focus on it.
Visualization is so important. It's amazing to me that so many people sit down at the start of the tournament and have no idea when the first bubble will be. I always focus on making the bubble and then once I make it, I focus on making the final table.
Are you happy that there is a long break in the action before the final table will be played?
Yes. Because for the first time in five years, (the day after the final table was decided) I didn't have any desire to play poker. It's been very tough for me the last eight days, putting in 13-hour days. I am trying to beat the years. (On Day 7,) I was at my limit of resistance. Now the accomplishment is done and I can enjoy time off.
What has your wife thought of this whole process?
My wife is so happy. When I left my business and started to play poker for a living, she also stopped working. She was a high-level manager with a marketing firm, but she stopped working to help me. She pushes me. She's helping me all of the time. We really are a team.
This article is part of Casino City's series of WSOP November Nine profiles. Other articles include: