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No fear

Ilari ‘Ziigmund’ Sahamies is known as one of the wildest high-stakes poker players, both in cyberspace in the live arena. It is a reputation well deserved, as Gareth Bracken discovered

Gambling’s interview with Ilari Sahamies has to be postponed by 24 hours at the Finn’s request. “Last night”, explains the man known as ‘Ziigmund’, “I was drinking.’ There is no need for further elaboration.

Sahamies is a man whose reputation goes before him. An online poker specialist, the shaven-headed Finn is renowned for playing for some of the highest stakes around whilst firing ridiculous insults at his opponents. Then there is also the small matter of playing whilst inebriated.

Sahamies has always been very honest about his drinking and has openly discussed the occasion when he lost $700,000 in a single day through playing whilst drunk. He estimates to have lost around $3 million in total in this manner, but says that he has done his best to calm that side of things down. “If I drink and I don’t feel good then I don’t play” he explains.

The size of pot that he regularly plays for would in itself cause most men to reach for the bottle. A quick glance at his blog reveals the huge swings he endures. “Had a fresh feeling today. Won like $120k,” one post states. Two weeks later: “Came down $2 million in one week. It’s unbelievable how bad I have played.” Asked how he stays relaxed and focused when playing for such huge sums he replies: “I don’t think about money, only about chips.” Does he get nervous or even scared playing for big money? His answer is definite and telling: “I’m not scared to lose – maybe that’s why I win so much.” The PLO specialist feels that this fearless reputation he has built up has helped his game, as opponents who are familiar with his style can sometimes revert to a more defensive mindset. He is keen to point out though that there is more subtlety to his game than simply all-out attack. “You can’t always push, push, push,” he explains. “You have to be aggressive but clever. Clever-aggressive, that’s the best mix.”

It was this aggression that first caused waves in the online poker world a few years back when a player known as ‘Ziigmund’ began making a name for himself on Full Tilt Poker. Ziigmund soon made the transition from enigma to cult figure as a result of both his style of play and choice of chatbox comments. Opponent Gus Hansen has been on the receiving end of some of the more inventive tirades, having been accused by Ziigmund of being “a fish” and “liking Eurovision”. Sahamies insists however that this all part of the banter and whatever he says is almost always a joke. “I don’t mean what I say. I’m not serious,” he says. “Very seldom.” Seeming keen to further underline the point, he adds, “Sometimes I say something then after five minutes I think ‘why did I say that?’”

Sahamies’ English isn’t perfect by any means and it sometimes feels like he has more to say than he is actually able to express. This makes him a difficult character to judge. That said, he does offer some interesting insights into the game he plays for a living. Speaking about the risks he takes when playing for high stakes he says “If I lose then the money goes back into the game. It’s all part of the game.” For a man known for his spontaneous – and occasionally reckless – play, there is certain thoughtfulness to him. Asked about why there are so many good Finnish players he suggests it’s because “people in Finland are very realistic. They don’t believe that much in God or anything like that.” One such Finnish player is Patrik Antonius, the man who got Sahamies into poker in the first place. Antonius’s current claim to fame is holding the record for the highest online poker win, an astounding $1.3 million. Can Ziigmund ever better that? The expected bombast is not forthcoming. “Maybe someday” he considers, “although there aren’t so many big games at the moment. Maybe in a few months I could do it, but I’m not especially trying to for any reason.”

Speaking of the future, Sahamies reveals that he has a trip planned for the summer. Having only recently returned from one that took in Spain, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada and America it seems fair to think that he might keep it nice and local and low-key. “I’m going to Johannesburg to watch the World Cup. Nothing else special.” he says, as matter-of-factly as if he’d just announced he was popping out to the local shops. There is no arrogance here, more a confidence that comes from being successful enough at your job to be able fund such a lifestyle. Indeed it’s pretty hard to begrudge Ziigmund such success when he entertains so many of us with his high-stakes play and chatbox trash talk. Just don’t let him catch you watching Eurovision.
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