In His Own Words: Poker Player Eugene Katchalov Details Escaping Russian Invasion in Ukraine

As the events of the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded, poker player Eugene Katchalov offered a first-hand account of escaping with his family.

As those around the world watched events play out in Ukraine over the weekend, poker player Eugene Katchalov experienced the war first-hand. The country’s winningest poker player documented his attempts to get his family out of the country on Twitter.

Following the feed was surreal and offered an insider’s look at what many in the country are facing. He faced quite a journey as Russian forces moved in and began bombarding major cities.

Katchalov, who divides his time between Ukraine and the United States, started the string of posts by seeking guidance on reaching American authorities. He wasn’t sure on how and when to get out of the country.

“​​Hey guys, I’m in Kiev, Ukraine,” he noted. “Woke up to the sound of a distant explosion and decided to leave the city with my wife. Gathering in a small village with some friends to decide on next steps. Anyone know how to get in touch with the US embassy to advise on suggested next steps?”

That question kicked off an attempt to secure safety for his family. The journey would last for several days and his Tweets offered a real look at the plight Ukrainians were facing throughout the last few days.

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Moving out

Eugene Katchalov at the tables on the WPT. (photo courtesy WPT)

Many poker fans may recognize Katchalov for his win in the World Poker Tour’s Five Diamond World Poker Classic in 2007 for $2.5 million. He is Ukraine’s winningest poker player with $9.2 million and a former PokerStars ambassador. In recent years, Katchalov has led some entrepreneurial efforts as well.

But over the last few days, simply getting his family to safety was the task at hand and the ordeal began on Feb. 24. After speaking with US embassies in Ukraine and Poland, there were no easy options.

Officials just told him it was wise to leave. Finding gas and supplies became a struggle as he and his family looked to get out.

The family stopped in a small village to stay a while and assess what to do next. The threat of invasion and war seemed all around.

“Just saw two military helicopters fly overhead,” he noted. “Certainly haven’t felt nerves like this since 9/11 in Manhattan.”

Seeking safety

As the events continued playing out, Katchalov not only offered insight on his own passage out of the country, but also an insider’s perspective. His sister-in-law’s family in  Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, hid in a basement as the city underwent Russian attacks.

Friends in Kharkiv and other cities attempted to flee as shelling began. Katchalov was especially worried about friends in Kiev who had newborn babies.

At one point, Katchalov decides to head to Poland. With gasoline in short supply, he siphons fuel from his other cars to take along on the trip. The threat of Russian forces is a constant threat and weighs heavily on the family as the journey begins.

Along his route west toward Poland, Katchalov stopped at eight different gas stations. All were out of fuel, but at the ninth he was able to top off his tank. He also had another canister in reserve in case fuel became an even bigger concern.

The family kept driving, avoiding larger cities along the way. Those would be more likely to be targeted by Russian forces. Reports also came that airports were being bombarded as well.

Men ages 18-60 were made to stay and defend the country. Katchalov is a US citizen however, and was hoping to get his family across the border. Despite getting little sleep for days, the Katchalovs kept moving.

“Not hungry, not thirsty, and not tired even with all this driving,” he posted on Feb. 25. “Amazing how your body naturally produces cortisol and keeps you focused on the sole mission – get to the border … #Ukraine.”

A change in plans, constant concerns

As Katchalov continued driving through the Ukrainian countryside, social media played a role in helping. He asked followers where Americans could cross the border into Poland.

Several responses offered helpful information and Katchalov continued the trek. The threat of the Russian invasion stayed top of mind and a constant threat.

That Lviv border option for Amercans caused a change in plans. The family would head to Hungary instead.

“Every update is about some new city or territory being bombed behind or parallel to us,” Katchalov noted. “Feels like we’re driving and there’s a great fire right behind us.”

At one point, the family learned that a missile landed close to his sister-in-law’s home. Thankfully, the weapon didn’t explode and simply lodged in the asphalt in the middle of an intersection. It’s a surreal scene.

As if worries about war and running out of gas weren’t enough, there were other concerns. The family heard of bandits along the route stealing money from those looking to flee.

The Katchalovs divided up their own cash and hid it in different places in the car. They kept going.

Driving and reporting

The Katchalov family drove for hours and hours. At one point the family was stuck behind a long line of cars on a dirt road – all in the middle of similar experiences.

A parade of cars also rolled in the opposite direction – men dropping their families off at the border and returning to fight.

At one point, Katchalov received a tip about a point on the border to enter. The family continued moving. Along the way, Katchalov offered updates on the scene in the country.

After 12 hours of continuous driving, the Katchalovs still hadn’t reached the border. But he remained confident and stayed the course.

About three hours from the border, the family hit heavy traffic. There were reports of nearby towns also being attacked.

“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,” Katchalov posts. “I fear what may happen overnight. Keep them in your hearts Ukraine.”

Closing in on the border

Getting closer to the border turned into a drawn-out ordeal. Checkpoint officers with big guns checked papers. At 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the border, the family gets stuck in a line of traffic that doesn’t move for 30 minutes.

It’s easy to imagine how nerve wracking the situation had to be. The border lies just ahead, but will they ever really get there? And when they do, will the Katchalov family be able to cross?

At one point the family moves only about 200 meters in two hours. Stories of Ukrainian bravery seem to keep Katchalov motivated and proud.

“Hearing so many stories of regular people young and old picking up weapons and volunteering to defend their home,” he says. “Absolutely mind blowing how supportive everyone is during such an awful time. I do think the Ukrainian spirit was greatly underestimated.”

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Safety at last, sharing his experience

As they waited to cross into Hungary, the family even hears from Russian friends who are shocked at the invasion and express their sympathy. Other friends in Ukraine reported shooting and explosions throughout the night.

The Katchalov family ended up sleeping in their car through the night as they waited to cross into Hungary. A short time later that finally happened. 

Katchalov says he decided to Tweet the entire experience so those around the world could see the real situation on the ground. That included some reports from “friends and family who are still there fighting desperately to protect the only home they know.”

Where does the family go from here? That isn’t known, but at least they are out of harm’s way for now. Katchalov hopes at some point they can actually return.

“I was born in Ukraine but immigrated to the US as a small child,” he noted. “Moved back to Ukraine about five years ago and absolutely fell in love with the country. I hope the situation somehow resolves so that I can come back. “

In the days that followed, Katchalov continued sharing first-hand news on the ground from the country. That has ranged from Ukrainian forces’ successes to Russian bombardments near family members.

A friend whose parents live near Kharkiv said a bridge right next to them was about to be bombed so no one could go in or out of the city. Another post noted a woman giving birth in a bomb shelter.

Despite his own ordeal, Katchalov knows many of his countrymen are experiencing much worse than what his family went through. He has faith in his country’s ability to rise to the occasion in such a dangerous time and many around the world are with the Ukrainian people.