Former Poker Pro Eugene Katchalov Trying to Flee Ukraine

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Eugene Katchalov is trying to flee Ukraine into Poland or Hungary with his wife and some friends and is tweeting updates as he goes. [Image: World Poker Tour/Flickr]

UPDATE: Eugene Katchalov, his wife, and traveling party made it safely to Hungary the morning of February 26.

Difficult decision: stay or go?

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine moves into its second day, the airwaves and the internet have been flooded with the harrowing stories of thousands, millions of Ukraine residents trying to survive. One such person is former poker pro Eugene Katchalov, who began updating his Twitter followers on Thursday of his efforts to get out of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

woke up to the “sound of a distant explosion”

Katchalov’s first tweet was at about 9:26am Kyiv time (2:26am ET), when he said he woke up to the “sound of a distant explosion” and made the decision to try to get out of there with his wife. An American citizen, Katchalov said he was able to get in touch with the US embassies in Ukraine and Poland, but their only suggestion was to get out of the country. He and his wife met up with friends at a hotel in a “small village” outside of the city.

Katchalov is Ukraine’s all-time leader in live tournament earnings with over $9.2m. He retired from poker in 2018 and now works in esports. He is the founder, along with fellow poker player Luca Pagano, of QLash, a professional esports organization.

And so they had to formulate a plan. Neither of the two main options was without risk: flee and risk getting stranded on the highway in the middle of nowhere without fuel (or in immovable traffic) or stay, hunker down, and hope the bombings – which have already started – miss you.

Fairly smooth sailing for a while

Katchalov eventually decided to leave, heading out around 5:00am Friday. The goal was to head west in two vehicles to Lviv, then on to Poland. He added that he had friends with newborns in Kyiv and his wife’s family was taking shelter in their basement in Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border.

One of Katchalov’s biggest concerns was gas for the cars, so whenever he could – and most gas stations were closed – he would stop to fill up, trying not to let the tank get below three-quarters full. He said he has an extra gas can, so his group is prepared to abandon one vehicle if they run out of fuel.

Another concern of his is the government order that all men aged 18-60 remain in the country to help fight, but he has been hopeful that since he is an American citizen with a US passport, he will be allowed to leave. He has so far been permitted through various roadblocks and checkpoints after furnishing documentation.

Katchalov reported that he has seen cars occupied only by men going back toward the way he came. He assumes that they were turned away from the border, perhaps dropping their wives and children off, knowing they wouldn’t be able to join them.

Journey became plodding and more dangerous

As Katchalov and his wife proceeded, he wrote that he kept hearing reports about more and more cities being bombed, so they decided to try to avoid big cities. A bit after noon on Friday, he commented, “Feels like we’re driving and there’s a great fire behind us.”

He then found out that Kyiv is closed because of bombings, so he was going to try to divert to Hungary. In the meantime, his traveling party decided to take precautions to protect against reports of bandits, splitting up their cash and stashing it in different places, in case they are stopped.

And back in Kharkiv, a missile landed 50 meters away from where his wife’s family is taking cover. Fortunately, it did not explode, instead embedding itself in the street:

At about 3:30pm, traffic slowed considerably after hours of making surprisingly good time. One friend who used to work in the border patrol was sending Katchalov directions to try to avoid as many roadblocks as possible.

Nearing 7:00pm, Katchalov tweeted that they were just three hours from the border, but at that point, progress nearly stopped, as traffic was packed and checkpoints were frequent. As of this writing, Katchalov’s last Twitter update was at close to 11:00pm and he, his wife, and friends were still about 120km from the Hungarian border and barely moving.

it’s literally nothing compared with what our friends and family are going through in Kiev and Kharkiv”

Through the entire trip, Katchalov has sung the praises of those who have had to stay behind. “Whatever fear I’m going through now, it’s literally nothing compared with what our friends and family are going through in Kiev and Kharkiv, which are both currently under literal siege. I fear what may happen over night. Keep them in your hearts #Ukraine”