Belgian's Pierre Neuville could very well surprise many come the November Nine, which is set to kick off Sunday evening in Las Vegas. You see, Neuville, who is the oldest member of the final table at 72 years old, looks very much like your run-of-the-mill rank amateur who just happened to take a shot in poker's biggest event and find his way at the final table. If you look deeper, though, Neuville is much, much more than that.
Earlier this year, Neuville received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the European Poker Awards. During his acceptance speech, Neuville was appreciative, but humbly dismissive.
"The best is still to come, and it's never too late to win," said Neuville. "Thank you very much, but I'm sorry to tell you it's not achieved yet."
For most, a lifetime achievement award would be the capstone of their career. Not for Neuville, who hails from Belgium and has had a lifetime affair with games. In fact, Neuville seems to have saved the best for last as he finds himself fourth in chips in the 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event final table.
"It means the best day, the best happening in my poker life," he said after reaching the final table. "It's above expectation, above any dream. I enjoyed each minute. I couldn't sleep all night. It's tiring, and exciting. It's just wonderful."
Neuville first learned to play poker back in 1957, and spent a good deal of his time at Université libre de Bruxelles playing the game. He then took his fascination with games to the next level when he created his own game and toy company in 1969, one he'd sell 13 years later to Hasbro. Neuville would go on to become vice chairman of the company's European division before retiring in 2008.
For decades Neuville was unable to pursue poker — a stipulation of his high-ranking position — but as a retiree, he jumped into it full force by heading to the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA), ultimately finishing in 18th place for $48,000. From there, Neuville traveled the world playing in live poker tournaments, many of which he qualified for online at PokerStars, a feat that earned him the nickname "The Serial Qualifier."
"I was dreaming about playing poker during the last 30 years of my business time," Neuville said. "I just put it on the side. One day, I almost died in a medical operation, a big mistake. Coming out of that, I had six operations in a row. Going into the last one, I said to my wife, 'If I get out, I'll stop all business. I did enough and I'll make my dream come true and play poker.' She went straight to the doctor and told him to go down with the anti-pain because my husband is losing his mind. He thinks he's a poker player."
As it turned out, Neuville would soon get that chance — a chance at a dream he was holding inside for quite some time, even from his wife.
"During 20 years together, I never mentioned my dream," he mentioned. "It was only mine, because it was so crazy. She said, 'He thinks he's a poker player playing with guys on TV, so there's probably too many drugs.' When I got out, we spent two weeks in the Bahamas. I said, there's a poker tournament here. She said, 'No, I saw the billboard. You can't play there, they are real poker players. They have six past champions. If you go, you'll spend one hour.' I said, 'No, I'm going to play.'
"The first day, she took the swimming pool equipment and waited with me at the table. She said, 'I'm waiting for you 30 minutes or one hour. When you're out, we're going to the swimming pool.' She waited the whole week because I ended up 18th with 1,200 players in PCA. I was practicing before because I knew I was going to play. I was practicing alone at home playing 10 hands open and seeing what's happening with every player. I did that hundreds of hours, which is a good way to understand what's happening. I was prepared. I ended up 18th, and I got $50,000."
From there, Neuville has racked up quite the tournament résumé. Not including the money he'll take home in the Main Event, Neuville has amassed $2,175,154 in lifetime earnings leading into the grand finale weekend, with his best cash of $385,041 coming after he finished runner-up to Kevin Eyster in the 2014 WSOP Event #24: $5,000 No-Limit Hold'em Six Handed. Other highlights on Neuville's résumé include a couple of other runner-up finishes in events including EPT Vilamoura for $383,962 and EPT Copenhagen for $282,843; as well as ninth in the EPT Sanremo Main Event for $103,199, first in a Venetian 2012 Deep Stack Extravaganza III $2,200 No-Limit Hold'em Big Bounty for $79,080, and eighth in the EPT London £20,000 High Roller Event for $71,829.
Neuville currently sits second on Belgium's all-time money list behind Davidi Kitai ($6,215,644), meaning he would need to win the Main Event to surpass him.
As for being the oldest member of the final table, Neuville seems to be relishing in it because he's able to show those similar in age that this feat is very much doable. But, like everything, it takes work, and his health is certainly something Neuville takes great pride in.
"[Being the oldest to make the November 9] is very important to me," he said. "I'm getting thousands of contacts from all over the world from retired people, from senior people. So many wives are writing to me saying, 'You are making my husband's dream.' For me, it's a very important mission. I spend a lot of time answering and encouraging people because I think poker is a perfect game for retired people. It helps health. Poker in the past had a bad reputation. But, my health now — I'm doing a lot of tests in universities in their research for nerves, for brain, for aging — and for four years, I'm younger, determined by scientists every year. I think that replacing just lying there on the chair at home doing nothing, being able to travel around the world to meet young guys who are traveling and living, it helps to stay alive. I'm absolutely sure that three years ago, I wouldn't be able to do what I did here. I have worked the last 12 months on everything every single morning in the fitness room. My wife is wonderful for that, because if I don't go, she pushes me. She makes every day a yoga or fitness day. I have controlled my diet. Of course, I don't smoke and I don't drink. I think it's fantastic to feel 70 years old and feel much younger than I did at 60."
When Sunday evening rolls around, the endurance of the final nine players will be on display for the entire world. Couple that with the pressure of the bright lights and millions of dollars at stake, and it's going to be a test for the ages. For Neuville, he's spent his time during the interim working on his health and preparing for what's to come, and he believes it will all pay off at show time.
"I've been working with the most advanced doctors in Barcelona," he said the day after he reached the WSOP Main Event final table. "When they measure my physical age, I'm pretty sure that I will be one or two years younger than I was one year ago. I will probably play just a little for entertainment online. In three months from now, I will focus on my mind, the speed of my mind, and my self-control. I do a lot of meditation, which helps me to control my mind. Starting tomorrow, I'll start more fitness every day. I want to be six pounds lighter in three months. I want to progress in every area. I'll play some poker but in the mean time and focus on my best condition."
With a stack of 21.075 million and position on the second-largest stack at the table in Ofer Zvi Stern's 29.8 million, Neuville looks to be a solid contender to take the title. As if his insight into his health and wellness being better than ever hold as much weight as it seems they should in regards to his ability at the table, it'd be hard to argue he doesn't have a very good shot come Sunday.