You're allowed to hate Antoine Saout until you meet him. It's nothing personal, but in a gaming community full of lifers waiting for the one big score, this is a kid who started playing poker less than two years ago on a whim. Now, he's waiting along with the rest of the world to see whether he can emerge from the November Nine triumphant as the champion of the world.
Hate is obviously too strong a word, but envy certainly fits.
"I was in engineering school, but I stopped my school and took a year off," explained Saout, 25, with the help of interpreter Amel Traïkia. "During this year I learned poker online. After that, I made it my career playing mostly online, a little live, both cash games and tournaments."
In an era in which so many young potential pros are eschewing school for poker, Saout broke the mold. He's a young poker player who discovered poker because he'd already decided he needed to get away from the books.
"I didn't drop out because of poker," said Saout, who'd been training to become an engineer. "I didn't like the place I was living in or the subjects. I preferred to go and maybe find another job. I haven't found a new job, but poker is very much fun while I look."
At 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday night on ESPN's broadcast of the World Series of Poker main event, you'll see Saout play his way to a spot in the November Nine. Apparently, it was a good career choice regardless of Saout's relative inexperience.
"I discovered poker with my sister," Saout expanded. "She played online. I saw her playing on my computer. I knew of online poker. I made the account on Everest and learned to play online. After that, I put money on the Web site and I learned by playing. I never read a book. I prefer to learn with my mistakes in the game. The more I play, the better I get, I think."
He's apparently been playing a lot, because his results have been exploding.
"I went from cash games online to playing tournaments in Spain," Saout recalled through admittedly broken English. "I decided I wanted to play more tournaments in life, so I Googled and found some tournaments."
His first live cash came in November of 2008 in one of those Spanish events. Since then, he's managed final tables in not one, but two WSOP main events, with his November Nine result buoyed by a seventh-place, $188,318 score at WSOP Europe. It was reminiscent of Ivan Demidov's similar run a year ago and has elevated Saout's N9 profile from "the quiet French kid" to much, much more.
"I think the main event boosted my confidence," Saout said while seeking answers for his WSOPE success. "That may have helped me in Europe. I'd never played a big tournament before the WSOP. Yes, I already won, so it was easier for me. And my sponsorship lets me play my game easier."
The Breakdown: Antoine Saout
After failing to do much at the final table at WSOP Europe being a short stack, can Saout take away from his experience and put up a fight in Las Vegas?
Current position: Eighth
Chip count: $9.5 million
Tournament winnings: $1,502,208
WSOP final tables: 2
WSOP cashes: 2
That sponsorship is with Everest Poker, a spin-off of the European sports betting giant. It was a surprising signing in that Everest has a total of only six pro representatives, and the others are names that fly under the radar for most poker observers, representatives of Everest geared toward specific European demographics. None of the other sponsored players have ever scored a six-figure win on U.S. soil, let alone the seven-figure score Saout has already assured himself with his final table placing.
Asked for an explanation for this break from tradition, Everest representatives pointed out that they appreciated that Saout had gotten his start on their site, that France was the company's country of origin and that they didn't have a sponsored player there.
"I started on Everest," Saout said. "It's where I learned to play. I'm grateful that I had a chance to learn and find a new life there and I'm enjoying being part of the team and the community."
Everest's is only a small part of France's poker heritage. Aside from the French card game poque being an ancestor of the modern game, the American version has been played in France for decades, producing a rich tradition that's unfortunately been woefully underrepresented in the WSOP main event over the years. Before Saout, only Marc Brochard had ever made the final table, and he won $75,000 for finishing eighth in 1998.
According to the HendonMob database, only 12 French players have won as much in their careers as Saout's assured of taking home from the final table. Here are the 10, with their highest main-event finish in parentheses:
Bertrand "Elky" Grospellier (122nd in 2009)
David Benyamine (102nd in 2009)
Bruno Fitoussi (15th in 2003)
Anthony Lellouche (never cashed)
Roger Hairabedian (never cashed)
Pascal Perrault (263rd in 1995)
Alain Emile Bernard Roy (never cashed)
Fabrice Soulier (49th in 2009)
Jan Boubli (never cashed)
Paul Testud (never cashed)
Ludovic Lacay (16th in 2009)
Arnaud Mattern (never cashed)
There are some strong names on that list, but before this year's tournament, the numbers were dismal with the exception of Fitoussi (though he's never cashed in the main event, aside from that one performance). This year, though, was a breakout. On top of the career-best performances from Elky, Benyamine, Soulier and Lacay, even French actor Patrick Bruel managed his first main-event cash. Of course, Saout's success takes France's performance to a new level.
"A win [in the main] would be really big for French poker," Saout said, enthusiastically. "I can't imagine. There would be huge national pride about it. Poker is really booming right now. France is showing it's at an international level in poker.
"I feel a lot of French behind me," Saout said of the support he's been receiving. "I think it's very good. I want to represent my country at this final table. Maybe some people can dream with that, that they can make the final table too next year. Some people I know want to turn professional, get sponsorship. They want to do like me."
So, with a nation on his back and the shield of innocence, Saout looks forward to next week where he'll try to make national and poker history, trying to become France's first world champion.
"For some people, the main event is the biggest thing in life," he said. "For me, for French players, it's amazing. I don't know what I think of it all, but it's very cool. I think I understand how big it is now. I recognize it now."
Just in the nick of time.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.