He’s Not Foosing Around

Billy Pappaconstantinou is looking to add a title of another sort to his case

Lance Bradley

Don’t let the big smile and the Yoshi hat fool you — Billy Pappaconstantinou can be cutthroat. Like, literally, cutthroat. Just ask the guy he beaned right in the Adam’s apple with a foosball.

As Pappaconstantinou tells it, he didn’t even realize he had hurt his opponent in the 2009 match.

“I don’t think I knew at the time I hit him in the throat,” Pappaconstantinou recalls. “At the time, I was losing, so I was trying to focus, I guess. But, after watching it, I realized I hit him in the throat and I didn’t really react to it at all. So it seemed kind of douchey by me, I guess.”

Douchey isn’t the way you’d assess Pappaconstantinou though. In a poker landscape where that term gets thrown around to describe a lot of people, the 29-year-old is a breath of fresh air with his down-to-earth demeanor and enthusiasm for the game. At a Main Event final table stacked with pros, Pappaconstantinou is something the November Nine hasn’t seen much of: a bona fide amateur.

Prior to this year’s Main Event, Pappaconstantinou had never played a buy-in above $500. In a matter of weeks, he’ll be playing for $10 million alongside European PLO specialists, longtime pros, and even a guy who has made the Main Event final table before. Rather than be overwhelmed by the competition or frantically studying his game though, Pappaconstantinou, at least so far, has just been taking in the experience and really not playing much poker at all.

“I don’t know how I’m handling it to be honest,” he admits when asked about the down time before the final table. “Some people say that you can’t lose now because you’ve already made it, but that’s kind of a bad mentality and a good mentality at the same time … You can play like, ‘I’ve already won, so let’s go’ or be scared to lose. So I’m not exactly sure how to take the mentality thing. I think I’ll know better when I get to that point. “

If anything, Pappaconstantinou’s mind is more on foosball than poker these days. Given that it is his livelihood the rest of the year though, it would make sense. I mean, a man’s gotta work, and in the case of “Billy Pappas,” work is playing an arcade game. He went pro in foosball at age 14 and has spent his entire life traveling the world battling his armless, footless plastic soccer team with other armless, footless plastic soccer teams in tournaments not unlike heads-up poker events.

Just days after making the November Nine, Pappaconstantinou headed to Germany for a major foosball tournament. He won his sixth world title after nine one-on-one matches. The top prize? A little over a thousand Euros — barely enough to play in the Millionaire Maker at the WSOP. You would think a guy who deposited $730,725 in his bank account in July wouldn’t necessarily bother with the small payouts of the foosball circuit, but for him, more than the money and more than winning, he plays foosball tournaments for social reasons.

“Honestly, even last year when I won a couple of World Championships … I didn’t get that excited,” he admits. “This one was very good for me, because I have never won singles on that table. And the fact that I kind of whizzed through it, that was surprising. It felt good.”

Don’t get him wrong, while the money may not be particularly motivational, there is still something nice about winning, especially doing so in the dominating fashion he did in Germany. Even though it isn’t poker either, that doesn’t mean some of his foos skills won’t come in handy come November.

The certified “pro master” Pappaconstantinou can be incredibly competitive and focused. The game of foosball is a game that requires you to constantly anticipate your opponent’s next move. You have to be in the zone, thinking ahead, and prepared for anything. Sounds familiar, right?

Thanks to his innate skills and a lifetime of experience, Pappaconstantinou is a multi-world title holder, but lately he has actually slowed down his foosball career. When he was playing at his peak when he was 19 and 20 years old, Pappaconstantinou would participate in as many as 40 foosball tournaments around the world each year. These days, he doesn’t even practice. In fact, most of his foosball travels are to see friends and hang out with his unofficial family, as both his parents were actively involved in the foosball community, too.

Lance Bradley

“At the end of the year in Europe, I play a couple of tournaments, but it’s mainly just to see everyone, just because I love to go to Europe. Now I play about five tournaments a year.” Were it not for the November Nine, he would spend upward of two months hanging out in Europe, playing singles, doubles, and mixed doubles foosball tournaments, but mostly just catching up with his friends across the pond.

This emphasis on the fun and social aspects of the tournaments is something Pappaconstantinou takes pretty seriously.

“Anyone who is exceptional at their relative sport, I think that they just think they are just better than everyone else,” Pappaconstantinou observes.

Kind of like poker can be, foosball also had its fair share of elitists, but, according to Pappaconstantinou, that has changed in recent years.

“I feel like I take a little credit for it, that people now, it’s not like that anymore,” he says. “People at the top, I know when I was growing up, all used to just hang with each other. But it seems like everyone just hangs around with everyone now, and we’re kind of like a big family.”

When asked what exactly he did to help expand the social horizons of the foosball community, the modest Pappaconstantinou was quick to spread the credit around to a new generation of players, including himself, who’ve established themselves as some of the best in the game, but simply refuse to take themselves too seriously or get too cutthroat in an attempt to win. “I just feel like there are just a few of us who have kind of influenced the game like that. I’ve heard … the game used to be a bunch of big cheaters, and it used to be kind of druggy-related, you know? And, now it’s not like that at all. The game is soft and more fair, and no one’s really doing drugs anymore.”

If you’re wondering how people cheat at foosball, apparently bumping the table is the easiest way to shift momentum. Just like the less than stellar sides of poker, foosball has its dark sides it appears, but, like poker, there are folks like Pappaconstantinou out there trying to make it fun again.

The question now is whether or not the fun-loving Pappaconstantinou can bring that enthusiasm to the November Nine — a final table that, understandably, can be very, very serious. At a time where the debate over how entertaining people should be at the poker tables and how much top players owe it to the media to give interviews, Pappaconstantinou is the anomaly. To many poker pundits, he is exactly what poker needs right now. He isn’t a media-savvy pro like Antonio Esfandiari and Daniel Negreanu, nor is he a deliberate game theory expert avoiding the spotlight like Dan Colman.

He’s Billy Pappaconstantinou. And in the post-Moneymaker era of poker, we’ve never seen anything like him.

It isn’t just about the foosball, or the fact he is an amateur. We’ve seen amateurs like Darvin Moon and Steve Begleiter. We’ve even seen younger amateurs like Jay Farber, but just how much of an amateur are you when your longtime friend Ben Lamb is on the rail? Pappaconstantinou doesn’t know much of anybody in the poker world, save for Steve Billirakis, who, believe it or not, used to play foosball doubles with Pappaconstantinou when they were kids (Billirakis’ father is in the Foosball Hall of Fame and one of Pappaconstantinou’s personal heroes).

What we have on our hands is a November Niner completely separate from the poker community, who is young, cheerful, and stands out from the scores of twentysomething males that have made the final table in the past decade thanks to his unique career path and his jubilant outlook on the game. He was thrilled to pieces to see his face on a poker magazine. He couldn’t believe it when major publications like Maxim and the Associated Press started calling for interviews. And in those interviews, he gets questions not about his three-bet ranges or his ICM considerations, but about what kinds of prizes one gets for winning a foosball tournament (for the record, winners used to get belts, but lately a nice jacket seems to be the norm). To call him refreshingly different would be a colossal understatement.

As he said, he isn’t even really sure how to handle the downtime before the final table. So far, his foosball tournaments outnumber his poker tournaments. He traveled to Germany after the final table was set, took third in an event in Luxembourg, and headed for England after that. In between, he found time to play one poker tournament, the Foxwoods WSOP Circuit Main Event. With a $1,675 buy-in, it was the biggest poker tournament he’s ever played outside of the WSOP Main Event.

“I felt like I should play a little bit to, I don’t know, maybe prepare a little bit? But it didn’t really help I guess, because, I’m only going to be playing one table for the World Series of Poker. I really don’t know how to prepare, but that definitely didn’t work,” he chuckles.

While the small paydays of foosball didn’t damper his enthusiasm for that event, he did admit that it was tough to follow up the adrenaline rush that is the Main Event. “It’s just so much more intense,” Pappaconstantinou explains.

That doesn’t mean there is no poker preparation prior to the final table though. Pappaconstantinou ruled out the idea of hiring a coach early on, but he has decided it is probably best to learn a little more about his competitors. Given that he only found out Mark Newhouse made the final table in 2013 the day before this year’s November Nine was set, he has a lot of work to do. Problem is, save for Newhouse, there isn’t a ton of intel on these players available just yet.

“I haven’t been able to find too much on anyone, sadly. I haven’t been playing or thinking about it enough to be honest. I’m just going by memory, I guess. But I will. I’ve been starting to look at the previous World Series of Poker final tables and stuff. Seeing how the players won and all that good stuff.”

He’ll get a memory refresher if he follows through with plans to play some events at WSOP Asia-Pacific, where he could very well meet face-to-face with some of his fellow November Niners. While a couple of players like chip leader Jorryt van Hoof and Martin Jacobson logged some play in the EPT Barcelona Super High Roller, most of the nine haven’t been logging time at the tables at all. But the fall bracelet events are traditionally a time the group starts to focus on the game. The past two winners, Greg Merson and Ryan Riess, both traveled to WSOP Europe, so this could bode well for Pappaconstantinou, who will admit he is at a bit of a skill deficit up against a table full of seven pros and one semi-professional, Brazil’s Bruno Politano.

Pappaconstantinou isn’t a pro, but he has taken more time away from foosball to work on his poker game the past couple of years. In addition to playing more, he also works as a dealer at the charity poker venue, Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire. Dividing his time between small stakes and dealing, when an opportunity arose to play in the Main Event in Vegas this summer, he jumped at it. While his friends back in New Hampshire were happy with his result, according to him, they were also a tad surprised. Either way, the homecoming reception was nice.

“It was pretty good. They didn’t overdo it, but at my work, they gave me a standing ovation and stuff. Yeah, and everyone was super surprised because they didn’t really know if I was any good at poker.”

The mystery of just how good Pappaconstantinou is at poker will very likely be his best weapon at the final table, where he will be coming in fifth in chips with the two big stacks on his immediate left. It isn’t the best position, but it is far from the worst. Unlike the big stacks or the big names like Jacobson and Newhouse, there is not that much pressure on him to succeed. That lack of pressure worked out well for Pius Heinz and Joe Cada, so perhaps it will work out for him.

It’s hard to tell if, behind the sincerity and zeal, Pappaconstantinou is forming some sort of game plan and simply refusing to tip his hand. He will admit he has thought a little about what he might do with a $10 million first-place prize though.

“I’ve thought about that for sure. If I did happen to win, or become a millionaire, which that sounds so awesome, I have a lot of ideas [laughs].”

For now though, things are perhaps still too surreal for Pappaconstantinou to process, which might explain the lack of a game plan, time spent at foosball tournaments, and general lack of poker play so far. Sometimes, he even forgets the life-changing thing that has happened to him.

“It just comes back to me a couple of times a day,” he says. “[I was] at my buddy’s today, and he was like, ‘You know you made the World Series of Poker final table, right?’ And you almost get the chills a little bit because, it’s just not supposed to happen, you know?”

What we’ve got on our hands is a Cinderella story. And if Billy Pappaconstantinou could pull off the upset victory, it wouldn’t just be a dream come true for him, it could be a dream come true for poker.

November 2014