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The mark of a champion

>i>He’s won over $9 million in live tournaments, a World Series bracelet and three WPT titles, but there’s something else driving Gus Hansen to poker glory. Gambling’s Duncan Wilkie attempts to get inside the head of the game’s mad genius

“I honestly don’t give a f**k – and you can quote me on that.”

These were the words and, indeed, the unwritten of credo of Danish poker legend Gus Hansen when I spoke to him in the run-up to EPT Copenhagen last month. Hansen was fielding a question about whether ousting Peter Eastgate atop his country’s all-time money rankings was a motivating factor, but his callous dismissal of the notion arguably reveals more about the Dane than he’d first intended.

To put it simply, Hansen is a one-of-a-kind success story; a self-made poker professional and a triumph in marketing ingenuity who has relentlessly torn through the poker world since his inaugural World Poker Tour win in 2002. However, the question that most poker scribes – myself included – have wrestled with when facing the enigmatic pro in interview is: who is the Great Dane and what makes him tick?

It is a relatively straightforward question – though one senses that the path toward the answer will be far more winding – and it is one that I intend to tackle to the best of my ability during our designated time together. It’s around lunchtime when I speak to Hansen and though the Team Full Tilt pro is tucking into some food, the interview seems less a distraction to him and more the efficient synergy of two responsibilities.

“It’s a bit of a funky list,” explains Hansen, his tone softening ever-so slightly from his opening salvo. “An all-time money list makes sense in something like tennis where the entry fee is fixed, but to do the same for poker the buy-ins obviously have to be taken into account for it to make any kind of sense. I know, for instance, that someone like Daniel Negreanu will play three live events for every one that I play.”

So if it’s not rewriting the record books that inspires Hansen to continue playing almost a decade after his first title, then what exactly is it? Perhaps it’s the accolades – after all, following his heads-up win at the World Series of Poker Europe last year, the 37-year-old is now only an EPT title away from bagging poker’s coveted Triple Crown – but my next line of enquiry is soon quashed just as emphatically as the last.

“It’s nice that it was a WSOPE event and that I won a bracelet to get me over the hump, but I think that other people – Phil Hellmuth for example – generally put more emphasis on winning titles,” Hansen dismisses again. “For me the important thing was gaining momentum, getting back into my stride and feeling that I had won the tournament by playing well rather than simply hitting a lucky two-outer on the river.

“I think that people put too much emphasis on the name – I mean, I’ve won three World Poker Tour titles and if one of them had been called an EPT instead, I’d have the full set by now,” he laughs. “I’m not going to approach future EPTs any differently because in the back of my mind I’m feeling pressure about finally winning one. It’s just another tournament and the name won’t influence the way I play whatsoever.”

Interestingly, it is only through Hansen’s latest denial that I get my first impression of what really motivates him to strive for success in poker. For all the prize money – at the time of writing he’s amassed over $9 million in live tournament winnings – and all the titles, all Hansen really wants to do is be able to look in the mirror and know that he’s played his best. I asked if perhaps the heads-up format played to such a need.

“I was actually a little bit surprised that it came in a heads-up event because I do play all the games out there,” Hansen confesses. “I felt that there were a bunch of heads-up specialists and it was their game, but I held my own and as time went on I felt that I gained confidence and made more and more right decisions. In that sense, it was less of a surprise than if you had told me the bracelet would come before the event”.

It is a fairly modest appraisal of what – for most players – would be the defining moment of their career and again hints that it is the performance, not the result that Hansen really craves in any given event. In many ways it seems as though Hansen’s biggest opponent is Hansen himself, and it is a point that the Great Dane is only too quick to concede when I ask him about his upturn in form following a barren 2009.

“You could easily put it down to the way the cards fell throughout the year, but I think part of it was me being frustrated with my own game and not making the right decisions at the right time,” he admits. “I think my willingness to compete makes me too stubborn to see what’s going on. The fact is, there are times when you’re beat and you should go home, study and come back better-armed for the next meeting.”

If that’s what Hansen did following a year that saw him make what was – by his own standards – a relatively meagre $223,895, it certainly paid dividends in 2010 when he raked in over $1.5 million and the aforementioned WSOPE bracelet. Noting that all but a fraction of this success last year came in the English capital, I feel compelled to ask Hansen if there is something about London that helps his chances.

“I don’t think I necessarily do well because the place is called London, but I am very comfortable here and spend a lot of time in the city. In sports you talk about having a homefield advantage and though London is not my home, I have good friends here and I can hang out with them whenever I’m in town. I think that’s an important factor in performing well and after two wins, I feel more comfortable in London than ever.”

Given that as I speak to him Hansen is currently en route to the Danish capital to play in the EPT Copenhagen, you’d think that this ‘homefield’ advantage would count for double in his native country. However, these days Hansen lives in Monaco and spends so much time travelling the globe in search of fresh action that the city barely even counts as home anymore, perhaps explaining his lack of success at the event.

“It feels like it should be a good spot and once again I could say that I have homefield advantage playing in Copenhagen,” he explains. “I know my way around the city, I speak the native language and obviously my friends and family are still here. On the other hand, I’ve played the EPT Copenhagen a couple of times before and I’ve had pretty lousy results, so it’s probably time for me to improve on that.”

Changing tack for a moment, I decide to steer Hansen away from the subject of poker for awhile and encourage him to share little of his sporting side. As a former youth tennis champion, sport has been in Hansen’s blood from an early age, but with the next EPT stop falling on a Champions League gameweek, there’s something more pressing than racket sports to talk about: Copenhagen’s clash with Chelsea.

Knowing that the Dane is fond of both domestic football in the UK and Europe and inter-European competitions like the Champions League, I ask him whether he’ll have a vested interest when the Danish minnows take on the Premier League giants. Typically his answer is about as calm and calculated as you would expect from a poker pro, seeing the likely outcome for what it is without the emotional attachment.

“Well, it’s the first time that a Danish team has qualified from the group and progressed deeper into the competition, but it will be very tough for them against a very strong Chelsea side,” Hansen muses, the cogs of his sports-betting brain almost audibly clicking into gear. “I’ll be rooting for Copenhagen, but I’m not going to lie sleepless for a week if they do get knocked out, as it is the most likely outcome.”

It is an analysis of the game that seems thoroughly in keeping with Hansen’s attitude towards playing poker, where the Dane is intrinsically aware of both his strengths and limitations. In football, just as in poker, Hansen is aware of what constitutes an advantageous situation for any side and his enjoyment is derived not from thinking about the overall outcome, but rather the performance and spectacle leading up to it.

“As you know I was a decent tennis player and I have been good friends with the current women’s No 1 Caroline Wozniacki. It makes it so much more exciting when you can be sat on the sidelines and have a good friend playing in a Grand Slam final, where you can watch the game being played at the very highest level. I think that’s the key – whatever the game, I want to watch the best compete against each other.”

And watching the best in competition is something that Hansen is certainly no stranger to at the poker table either. After moving to the States in 1993, Hansen quickly became friends with two of the game’s all-time heavyweights in Huck Seed and the late Chip Reese – and it was his association with these two poker luminaries that provided the foundations for the loose-aggressive style he has perfected today.

“I had been very good friends with the late Chip Reese, so what with him being one of the all-time greats of poker and me being an up-and-coming player, a hand or two was certainly discussed here and there,” Hansen explains. “Huck Seed was also very influential for me as I was staying at his place when he won the WSOP Main Event. It was my first year of playing at the time and to be honest, I had no chance.

“Since I was knocked out, I thought I might as well rail Huck and see how my friend manoeuvred around the table, and watching him win the tournament was a real inspiration to me at the time. It gave me a lot of ideas about how to really play the game and command a table properly, so if I had to mention two guys that were particularly influential for my game today it would be Huck Seed and Chip Reese.”

Clearly the lessons that Hansen learned in his formative years playing alongside the pair have been well-heeded, as commanding the table is something that he now does with considerable aplomb. Given his early success on the WPT and the wide-scale coverage it gave to his loose-aggressive style, Hansen was one of the first faces to be commonly associated with the ‘crazy’ Scandinavian school of poker.

At the time, WPT commentators Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten treated the Dane’s unpredictable play as if it were some kind of poker black magic, exchanging expressions of shock and awe as he three-bet with reckless abandon. However, with the loose-aggressive style being more-or-less the rule rather than the exception these days, I ask Hansen if in a sense he feels he was slightly ahead of his time.

“I think in some ways I was one of the first to take the loose-aggressive style to the next level,” Hansen agrees. “I was almost saying ‘ok, you have two cards and I have two cards; mine are not very good, but let’s take a flop and see what happens!’ I think in those days, people were just playing way too tight and if they opened a pot and got raised, they would look down at ace-queen and think ‘I’m beat here for sure’.

“Nowadays when somebody opens and another guy raises, their first thought is ‘maybe they don’t have anything; maybe I should four-bet my seven-five off-suit’. That’s a huge shift in the way people are perceiving the game and I feel that because I was there at the beginning of TV poker I’ve shed some light on that particular style of play. In that sense, I do hope I’ve done something for the game.”

Of course, given the current over-saturation of poker on TV, hands that Hansen played in his early years on the WPT have since been consigned to distant memory. One thing that has left an indelible mark on the game, however, is his book Every Hand Revealed which, for the first time, revealed the intricacies of Hansen’s strategy and the methods behind his madness. As such, an adaption period was necessary.

“I’ve had to go from the madman, the crazy Dane, to basically being the tightest player at the table,” he laughs ruefully. “Everybody has a picture in their head that I’m the craziest guy they’ve ever seen and when that’s the case, the best way to take advantage is to play really tight. That’s been a big change for me, but I don’t believe in any final adjustments; it’s always a new hand, a new game and a new opponent.”

It is perhaps this last sentence that captures the essence of why Hansen continues to play irrespective of the money and titles that continue to come his way. He is a natural born competitor who likes nothing more than to out-think and out-play the best in the game. As our interview draws to a close, I put it to him that perhaps it is this innate willingness to better himself that continues to drive him on to success.

“I think that because of my interest in sport I always want to compete,” Hansen confirms. “I have a willingness to learn, to study, analyse and work on my game – be it poker, tennis or backgammon – and I think that’s a trait that lends itself to all the best gamblers. I’m sure I’ll make some more mistakes along the way – we all do – but I think it’s that competitive nature that will always drive me to continue playing.”

On finishing our conversation, I’m struck by the fact that maybe people have gotten too carried away with the various portrayals of Hansen in the media, be it the mad genius or the brooding gambler. The truth is there’s a simplicity to the Dane that gets lost in his TV persona. He’s a sports fan and a poker player whose only desire is to play to his full potential – and if he does that, he knows further success will follow.

(Interview conducted February 2011)
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