Jeff Madsen

He’s the youngest ever player to win a gold bracelet and we were on the scene to bag his first interview

My strength is reading the players… I play [them] much more than I play the cards

I’m about to meet a 21-year-old film student from California. So why am I nervous? I’ve interviewed presidents and prime ministers, film actors and sports stars… so what’s the problem? It’s not because of who he is. Actually, let me correct that; it’s not because of who he was – a few weeks ago, when he came to the 2006 World Series of Poker, he was nobody, a complete unknown. No, the reason I’m nervous now is because of what he’s just become. This kid is a phenomenon, a oneoff, an unbelievably gifted poker player who is the story of the World Series, indeed one of the stories of World Series history.

I’m nervous until I see him walking towards me in the hotel foyer, but as soon as you see him, you know you’re going to like him. He’s clean cut, cooperative and friendly and he comes from the laid-back beach community of Santa Monica. His teenage years were relatively uneventful… hanging around with his friends, skateboarding, that kind of thing. He achieved satisfactory grades at school effortlessly because he’s clever, but says he probably could have done better if he’d tried harder. But the fact is he didn’t have to. His dream was to be someone in the film industry – hardly surprising with Hollywood just down the road. So he enrolled as a student at UC Santa Barbara, studying every aspect of film production, his ambition to be a writer or director.

He also played a few home games of poker with his friends and from there began playing in the cardroom of a nearby Indian reservation casino where he started at the lowest level – $l/$2 limit – and then found he could beat most of those who were there. He won a couple of $2,000 tournaments. He couldn’t, however, play at the Bicycle or Commerce casinos – the top LA poker rooms – because he was under 21. So he started reading about poker instead and watching it on TV. And then, just a few weeks after his 21st birthday, he set off this summer for Las Vegas, quietly confident that he could cash in a tournament or two.

First mention

No one particularly noticed when he came third in the $2,000 Omaha High-Low 8/OB event, picking up $97,552. He achieved just a paragraph in Nolan Dalla’s (WSOP head of communication) daily report, noting his aggression and a nightmare run of cards that prevented him doing even better. Dalla, a renowned observer, admits that, ‘I thought he was just one of those played-out-of-their skin World Series stories – and that afterwards he would just disappear.’ And that goes for all of the media at the Rio; we wrote him off as one of those kids who come from nowhere, get lucky, get a result, and say goodbye.

Then a few days later, on July 16, Madsen stunned everyone when he became the youngestever WSOP bracelet winner, snatching the record from Eric Froelich, when he won Event 22 – the $2,000 No-Limit Hold’em tournament, involving 1,579 players and paying a first prize of $660,948. Two Brits witnessed it first hand, John Shipley and Julian Gardner, both of whom made the final table. Shipley, the short stack, was first to leave, while Gardner came third.

In fact it was Madsen who eventually knocked Gardner out, when the Mancunian player hit top pair, but was trumped by the young Californian who landed a spade flush. Gardner says, ‘I was impressed. He was cool, he didn’t make mistakes.’

Is he another one-off then? Still just a lucky kid from California? Apparently not, after entering and winning his second bracelet in the $5,000 Short-Handed No-Limit Hold’em event with 507 players and a first prize of $643,381. Some of the world’s top players were left lying injured in his path. And he beat top pro Erick Lindgren in the heads-up battle.

As Nolan Dalla commented, ‘No player has ever sky-rocketed to the top of the poker world so quickly, and so effortlessly. Not Stu Ungar. Not Johnny Chan. Not Phil Hellmuth. At 21 Ungar was still hustling Gin games in New York. Chan was washing dishes in his parents’ restaurant. And Hellmuth was a University of Wisconsin student, playing in $20 buy-in Hold’em games.’

More than lucky

In this event Lindgren was the popular favourite. Generally believed to be one of the best players not to have won a gold bracelet, he was supported by a noisy fan club and kept them cheerful by leading for most of the heads-up. But the 21-year-old appeared nerveless, unaffected by the crowd, and composed as the cards began to come his way. Come the final hand, Lindgren held A-J suited and Madsen Q-9. The flop came K-Q-2 followed by 5-3 and the Queens held up for the youngster.

A second gold bracelet – unbelievable. But he still wasn’t finished. Back he went on July 26 to take third place in the $1,000 Seven-Card Stud High-Low 8/OB event, winning another $65,971. This took his winnings to nearly $1.5m and made him the No. 1 player at the World Series with the Main Event to come.

By this time no one could entertain the notion that luck was the main factor; we’re witnessing the emergence of a sensational poker player.

And the extraordinary thing is that he doesn’t think he’s extraordinary. When you say to him, ‘But this performance is amazing’, he just says, ‘I know’, and then looks at you as if to say, ‘You tell me how I did it.’

Undoubtedly he’s got the perfect temperament for poker. ‘I’m extremely calm. I always am. I think it comes from my Dad – he always stays really calm. But it means that when I’m playing I really can focus on what I should be doing – reading the game, reading the other players. I’m just into the game. I think my strength is reading the players. I play the players much more than I play the cards. In fact I think when the games appear on TV and everyone sees what cards I’m playing, like bluffing, raising and re-raising with what will appear crazy cards, they’re going to think I don’t know what I’m doing… but it’s because I’ve read the situation and know they’re going to fold.

‘And I have a really analytical mind… I’m good at thinking through every situation as it comes and, when I think I know something, I just have no fear.’

So he would be in the Ivey, Hanson and Negreanu camp then, rather than, say, Harrington or Cloutier’s? ‘Definitely, I would say Ivey is the one I model myself on.’

And what now? ‘Well, I haven’t got a car. So I guess I’ll buy one. Then I hope to stay at college. But I’m getting a lot of offers.’ (Since the interview Jeff has been signed up by Full Tilt.)

Whether or not he plays fulltime is going to be a big and difficult decision. But you only have to spend a few minutes with him to know he’ll make the right one. This is a level-headed young man, his values firmly rooted in family and friends. He could also be on course to be the greatest poker player ever.

Career highlights

Tournament winnings: $1,467,852
3/7/06 37th World Series of Poker 2006; $2,000 Limit Omaha High-Low 8/OB – 3rd, $97,552
14/7/06 37th World Series of Poker 2006; $2,000 No-Limit Hold’em – 1st, $660,948
20/7/06 37th World Series of Poker 2006; $5,000 Short- Handed No-Limit Hold’em – 1st, $643,381
24/7/06 37th World Series of Poker 2006; $1,000 Seven-Card Stud High-Low 8/OB – 3rd, $65,971

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