The forgotten champion: Why Peter Eastgate left poker and the WSOP behind

Peter Eastgate won the 2008 World Series of Poker main event, but after a tough stretch of betting on sports -- and the 2010 World Cup in particular -- Eastgate largely stepped away from gambling of any kind, including poker. AP Photo/Isaac Brekken

Monday morning was, essentially, the start of an unofficial holiday for poker players. It's the beginning of the World Series of Poker main event, the most famous poker tournament in the world and the chance for first-timers and veterans alike to make their push at history.

Over the next three days, poker players from around the world who can get together $10,000 or satellite their way into the tournament will have a chance to make a run at changing their lives over the course of the next two weeks.

They all hope to join the ranks of main event champions who, for the most part, hop right back into the fray with hopes of becoming the first repeat main event winner since Stu Ungar won his third such title in 1997. It's become a much tougher task because of the sheer size of the field, but that does little to dull the excitement past main event champions tend to have.

Last year, New Jersey native Scott Blumstein headed to Las Vegas to compete in his first WSOP main event ever and walked away with $8.15 million and the WSOP main event diamond-encrusted bracelet.

"I can't wait to play the WSOP main event again," Blumstein said. "It's the best tournament of the year and I have so many wonderful memories from last year. I will look forward to trying to defend my title."

Other previous WSOP main event champions have expressed similar sentiments about their eagerness to play the WSOP main event again.

"I love the WSOP main event. I can't even sleep before and I get butterflies," said Ryan Riess, the 2013 WSOP main event champion. "It is the only tournament I still truly get super, super excited for. It's awesome!"

"If I'm not playing the WSOP main event, I'm either dead, in the hospital or in the midst of a zombie apocalypse," 2004 champ Greg Raymer added.

There are a few living champions who won't be playing, for any number of reasons; two-time champion Doyle Brunson has stepped away from tournament poker, for example.

But one main event champion will not be returning to the tournament that changed his life, even though this year marks the 10th anniversary of his victory. Peter Eastgate was the first main event champion of the "November Nine" era of the tournament, but when he was pressed for an answer as to whether he'd return to Las Vegas to play the event, the quiet Dane replied bluntly.

"Absolutely not. It doesn't matter to me."

Digging deeper into a conversation with the 2008 WSOP main event champion reveals that this curt answer doesn't mean Eastgate regrets becoming WSOP main event champion. It would be hard to figure out much to complain about for Eastgate, who defeated Russia's Ivan Demidov for over $9.15 million to claim the main event title.

At that moment, the 22-year-old Eastgate became the youngest WSOP main event champion ever, eclipsing Phil Hellmuth's mark set in 1989 (that record didn't last long, though; the following year, Joe Cada broke Eastgate's record, and still stands as the youngest main event champion to this day).

Eastgate actually remembers the experience immediately following his victory rather fondly, as he thoroughly enjoyed playing poker and traveling around the world.

"It was very enjoyable. It's a privilege to travel the world and play the game that you love," Eastgate said. "All you have to do is put a badge on your shirt and you are getting paid for the thing that you love. It is like being a professional football or basketball player. I can't have many complaints. It was perfect."

Things got more complicated, though, when it went beyond what happened at the table and extended to interviews, appearances and publicity. From the beginning, that was the part of being champion Eastgate was not very fond of.

"It's no secret that I am a pretty introverted guy. I've always said that I'm not good in the spotlight," he said. "I've always been nervous about that, and I don't like the way I sound in interviews."

It was one of the things weighing on Eastgate when suddenly, in 2010 -- just two years removed from winning the most coveted title in poker -- he stepped away from the game and shockingly retired. Many in the poker community were perplexed, particularly since Eastgate was still at a point where he could easily receive sponsorships to cover his poker expenses.

Indirectly, it was the 2010 FIFA World Cup and Spain's historic victory that had one of the biggest and most dramatic effects on Eastgate's poker future.

"In around August 2009, I began sports betting a lot. I was basically sports betting every weekend and I was betting each game. Over an eight- or nine-month period, I lost around $500,000 to $700,000," Eastgate recalled. "Then, for the World Cup 2010, I knew I was going to bet a lot. I originally made a stop-loss of $500,000, but by the quarterfinals, I lost $1.2 million. And then I had one bet left that Spain couldn't win, which was for an additional $500,000. And, of course, they did."

Afterward, Eastgate made what he deemed to be the most prudent decision he could to ensure his long-term financial stability.

"That played a crucial factor of me being very fed up with the whole gambling industry. It's very tiring on your emotional level," Eastgate said. "I decided I didn't want to go to Las Vegas and play the main event. ... Being on a downswing, I didn't want to go to Las Vegas and be in a gambling-related environment, especially when I was losing a lot."

"I could have stuck to my endorsement deal and I would have freerolled the tournaments I played," Eastgate continued. "But I was also a degenerate gambler, otherwise you cannot [lose] $2.2 million in sports betting. So, I was putting a stop to that by quitting the whole industry and poker. I was also tired of my mood being so dependent on how I did in the gambling world, including at the poker tables."

In addition to losing millions in sports betting, Eastgate was also having his difficulties in high-stakes online cash games.

"Although I was doing very well in live tournaments, I was playing in the highest-stakes games online and losing," Eastgate admitted. "I had no game selection and I was clearly losing to players who were much better than me, and they knew it. The game always filled very quickly as I sat down at the tables."

"I could have stuck to my endorsement deal and I would have freerolled the tournaments I played. But I was also a degenerate gambler, otherwise you cannot [lose] $2.2 million in sports betting. So, I was putting a stop to that by quitting the whole industry and poker. I was also tired of my mood being so dependent on how I did in the gambling world, including at the poker tables." Peter Eastgate

Although he officially retired from poker in 2010, Eastgate, now 32, has returned to Las Vegas a couple of times over the years. After he returned to try to defend his title in 2009, Eastgate played the main event twice -- in 2012 and 2015. In 2012, Eastgate final-tabled a $1,500 WSOP preliminary event, ultimately finishing in fourth place to win $209,111 -- showing that he still had the ability to play solid poker.

But after not playing regularly in years, he feels the game might have passed him.

"I do not play much, but if you spot me online, you should definitely join in because I don't think I can beat the online game today," Eastgate said. "I often say that had I been born 10 years later, I don't think I would have become a poker professional."

The moment in Eastgate's career that sticks in the minds of a lot of poker fans came in the aftermath of his retirement. Back in 2010, the former champion decided to put his WSOP main event bracelet up for auction. People assumed he was broke, or just fed up with poker.

Neither was quite true. On the contrary, Eastgate performed a truly altruistic act by selling the bracelet, and ultimately raised $147,500 for UNICEF.

"The bracelet was in a drawer collecting dust. I was never using it. I have never been a jewelry guy," Eastgate said. "I can understand there is an affection value to the bracelet, but for me it was all about the actual resale value for the bracelet. It was a no-brainer to sell it and it could collect a far higher price when it was sold for charity. The bracelet was not worth as much as it was sold for, but because it was for charity, a gentleman [William Haughey] was willing to spend the money for the bracelet."

No matter Eastgate's reasons, there was always going to be some backlash from those in the poker community who felt his actions were all but blasphemous. Though it's the trophy for the biggest poker tournament in the world, Eastgate attached no sentimental value to it.

"I'm just very confused and bewildered that people want me to keep the bracelet when it's just in a drawer," Eastgate said. "I'm being misinterpreted if they believe that it's because I don't appreciate poker and I don't like the industry. It was just a trophy I got which I didn't use and that's why I sold it. They are obviously entitled to have their opinion, but I appreciate poker and I like the challenge of it. It's not to show disrespect to the game or the community, but by no means am I keeping a trophy just because they want me to keep it."

After living in London for five years, the Dane moved back to his home country in 2013 and tried a few new paths. None of those attempts ultimately panned out with a long-term change to Eastgate's life.

"In 2013, I wanted to become an engineer," Eastgate said. "I studied for four months and tried the best that I could. I had four exams and flunked each one of them, which told me that I wasn't equipped to handle this profession. Then, after doing nothing for three years, I thought about becoming a schoolteacher. I did this for three months, and that wasn't as difficult as becoming an engineer. But it simply wasn't my thing, so I dropped that as well."

Today, Eastgate lives a quiet life in Denmark. Some believe he is broke, depressed or lonely. But Eastgate is still living comfortably off of his 2008 WSOP main event earnings with a very humble existence and simply enjoying life.

"Living an extravagant life has never really been my thing. I'm still safely economically independent," Eastgate said. "My spendings are very low. The way I live my life, I could live my life like this for another 200 years. To others, it seems like a big mystery when I have to account for all the times I have done nothing. From the outside, it seems incredibly boring, but I'm thriving. I'm not depressed by any means.

"My typical day includes two to three long walks a day, which takes about three to four hours in total. I really like the exercise, although I'm just strolling. I also often hang out with several close friends. Overall, I'm very unproductive -- just imagine a Sunday, and I live that every day of the week, but I'm enjoying myself."

When he looks back at what he accomplished in the poker world, Eastgate still has pride in his past achievements and poker-playing ability -- and ultimately, he's not concerned with people's opinions of him and his lifestyle choices.

"I don't care that much what people think," Eastgate said. "I hope people will like me for the person who I am and hanging out with me. For me, it was mostly about the money, not being recognized for your results. As a player, I have some pride in my game. If people said that I was just lucky and a bad player, that would obviously hurt my pride. I was playing very high stakes, I was driven by my ego. I wanted to beat the best, and I played at a very high level."

Though it's not the way a lot of others would've handled winning the WSOP main event and the aftermath, Eastgate is happy to be in a position to dictate how he wants to live.

"Currently, I live a quiet simple life. I'm probably not going to do this for the rest of my life," Eastgate said. "I want to put myself in situations where I can evolve and make a difference. But overall, I appreciate what poker gave me and today, I'm just enjoying my life."