Ukraine's poker aces hope to deliver a winning hand for war-torn country

Ukraine's poker aces hope to deliver a winning hand for war-torn country

Ukraine captain Sergey Eifimenko told AFP it is
Ukraine captain Sergey Eifimenko told AFP it is "hard morally to play poker" with Russian "bombs falling on peaceful cities on your land" but the two-time defending champions aim to do their country proud at the Nations Cup.

PARIS - The head of Ukraine's poker federation Sergey Eifimenko says it is "hard morally to play poker" with "Russian bombs falling" but the two-time defending champions will aim to do their country proud at the Nations Cup this week.

"The war in Ukraine affects everything, including the team," Eifimenko told AFP in an interview.

The 14-team Nations Cup -- the World Cup of Match Poker -- is taking place until Friday in Gevgelija, North Macedonia.

Eifimenko said the war had prevented him from picking his first-choice team, with "key players" missing because they are unable to leave Ukraine.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24, thousands of people have been killed on both sides while more than eight million have been displaced within the country and more than six million refugees have fled across the borders.

Ukrainian cities like Mariupol have been destroyed by the fighting.

"Unfortunately, we are unable to present our main team at this Cup, as the guys aged 18 to 60 cannot leave the country at the given time, and these are the key players of the national team," Eifimenko, president of the Ukraine Sport Poker Federation, said.

"Of course, it's hard morally to play poker, knowing that at this time bombs are falling on peaceful cities on your land and innocent people and children are dying.

"I believe that the main task of the team at this Cup is not victory, but a worthy representation of Ukraine at the Nations Cup.

"If we win, it's good, and if not, well, it's necessary for others to hold the Cup. And we will get it back next year."

- 'Optimism and morale' -

Eifimenko says the eight-member squad taking part this year, which under the competition rules must contain at least one woman, are all living outside Ukraine but could be called up to serve in the war at any time.

"Among the members of the team there is Vasily Dobrodsky, a veteran of the war in the Donbas," said Eifimenko.

"All the guys at one time got on the military register and are waiting for mobilisation.

He added: "Many poker players right now are at war with the Russian occupiers in the east and south of Ukraine.

"This time we assembled a team of those guys who were outside of Ukraine.

"Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to hold training camps to prepare for the Cup, only online consultations."

Ukraine's emergence as a poker super power has been rapid. Club poker only began in the country in 2006 and Ukraine won its first Nations title in Dublin in 2019.

"At that time, the team included the champions of Ukraine of the past years, as well as prize winners of international tournaments. These were not randomly picked people," Eifimenko said in an interview conducted by email and WhatsApp messages.

He said that despite the players' minds understandably being on the traumatic events back home, he and his squad had been emboldened by Ukraine's stunning success in the Eurovision Song Contest earlier this month.

The Ukrainian entry, Kalush Orchestra, beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world's biggest live music event with "Stefania", a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

"Ukrainians have repeatedly confirmed that they are talented, if not in all, then in many ways," Eifimenko said.

"The victory at Eurovision only added optimism and morale to our team.

"Of course winning the Nations Cup and defending the title for the third time is our goal," he said.

"I hope that this time we will represent Ukraine in the international arena as well as the Eurovision winners did!"

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