High stakes legend Patrik Antonius tells us how it was and how it is: “All my life I was always looking to the future”

Patrik Antonius is renowned as one of the best high stakes poker pros in the world but what drives him to be the best?

After several near-death experiences flooring a cart around a Las Vegas PGA golf course, I finally spot the subject of my interview. Patrik Antonius is standing idly at the 15th tee, looking relaxed as he sweats his companions’ high stakes golf match – which, of course, he’s bankrolled.

Cajoling him away from the action, I launch into what I predict will be a fairly stilted interview. Based on his television appearances and a few previous encounters with him, I’d describe Antonius as a stoic man of few words and a reluctant conversationalist. So how likely am I to elicit emotion from a guy who barely flinches when losing an $ 800,000 pot?

Once I hit the ‘record’ button though, something unexpected happens. Patrik Antonius talks… and talks. He explains that part of the reason for his reserved demeanour in the past was attributable to his poor English, which is now much improved. He’s surprisingly easy company and funny in a goofy, endearing way. I ask a question and a random stream of consciousness pours forth, making up for all those times he’s been silent and impassive in the past.

Those unfamiliar with his background might assume Antonius wasn’t just brought up with the silver spoon in his mouth, but the whole damn canteen. He seems to have it all – a Monaco residence, a pad in Vegas, an Aston Martin and the kind of cash that lets you make six-figure prop bets just for kicks. Like all classic rags-to-riches tales though, his early years in Finland were altogether more humble. ‘It’s a very odd place to grow up. I was very poor and my family were way below the average level of income.’

Staying in Finland once he grew up was not an option for Patrik, a fact established when he first experienced life outside his hometown bubble aged 19, assigned to Gran Canaria on a modelling job. ‘It’s not that open-minded in Finland. All I did during the last year I spent there was work out like crazy in the gym, play online poker and go clubbing at weekends.’ Once he left Finland, there was no going back. ‘I don’t feel American or Finnish. I’m just a unique person and I always knew I’d do something unique.’

As much as Chris Moneymaker’s success paved the way for millions of online hopefuls, Antonius’s emergence in poker circles just four years ago signalled the dawn of a new breed of poker player. Gone was the traditional image of an overweight, unattractive male, living a dubious existence in seedy, smoky poker dens. At 27, the former tennis pro and model is no longer the youngest kid on the block, but he’s still one of the leading players on the scene and the one that most young players would like to emulate.

Ahead of the game

Antonius has come a long way since learning his trade at the $ 1/$ 2 PLO tables at Casino Helsinki five years ago. ‘I played live for the first two years, but live is a very slow way to make money and learn. I made my first $10k live, but then one guy introduced online games to me, I decided to play there and made so much money. I was so bad, but I’m a fast learner and people were worse than I was. I really picked the right time to start because I played heads-up and short- handed and no one knew how to play those games because they didn’t happen live.’ Constantly applying the pressure to his opponents proved to be a winning formula. ‘I was just betting and raising and they’d fold every hand. If they ever played back at me it was easy to fold; I was always one step ahead of them.’

He looks back wistfully. ‘Those days were so good. I can’t believe how many Swedish players I knew who had a big bankroll. They knew nothing about poker, because no one did! Nowadays the games are pretty good and a lot tougher.’

The self-taught internet veteran is now keen to share his knowledge. ‘I’m doing strategy for PokerNews, because if I’d watched a good player doing instructional videos for a couple of months I would have saved four years. I would have learned so fast. I never read a single poker book and no one taught me a thing. That’s why people say I have all the moves – because I figured it all out for myself. I think of all the situations and I don’t play safe or straightforward. I play by my instincts, though of course I still make mistakes. I don’t like the way the books teach you. They teach you to play a certain way and I like to leave the door open.’

It’s not just books that Antonius doesn’t like taking instructions from. In Finland, male conscription is statutory and much of his steely discipline can be attributed to time in national service. ‘I wasn’t one of the best people to serve in the army! I don’t like to take orders, and it’s harder to take orders from people the same age as me. They make you do so much shitty stuff; I was counting the days until it was over.’ It was a world apart from the lifestyle he’s since become accustomed to. ‘We’d spend half of the time camping in the forest, so I’d really appreciate returning to a bed and clean sheets. Having a shower was the best thing ever after the forest.’

Wanting it all

With such a background, it’s easy to see why Antonius yearned for something more. ‘All my life I was always looking to the future, saying that in one, two, three years, things will be better. In sport, you always look to the future, and that has helped me so much in poker. I still remember the days when I had the goal of making $ 300 a week in poker, then $ 9,000 a month. A year or two ago was the first time I stopped doing that, and now I have everything.’

Antonius seems to have found the right balance, splitting his time between Monte Carlo and Las Vegas, where the flexible lifestyles suit him. ‘I’ve chosen a life where I’m going to have good and bad days. I win big and lose big all the time, but I do well overall. That’s the life I enjoy and it’s exciting. I couldn’t see myself working normal hours – work out, eat, go home, eat, bed, and the next morning it’s the same again. I have the freedom to do what I want now. Each day has a purpose and I totally enjoy every moment.’

Life’s pretty sweet for Patrik, and his worries are ones that most of us would relish. ‘The Big Game is physically very hard. I play such high cash games and sometimes the games are so good that I have to play round the clock and not quit because I would rather work for two days than three weeks. That’s very bad because I stay up two days straight and my body’s all messed up and it takes days to recover. Physically, poker is bad for me.’

Was it a difficult adjustment transferring from online to those long, draining sessions in Bobby’s Room? ‘I have my tired moments, as everybody does, but I think my condition is key to me being sharper. I drink coffee to keep me going, which I don’t usually do.’ Even for players of Antonius’s stature, sitting down at the Big Game must be nerve-racking? ‘The first time I played there I was so excited because it was with Gus [Hansen] and Sammy [Farha] playing $ 4k/$ 8k limit. I broke even the first time, but then lost. I thought it would feel more like money in a live game, but it’s all chips you’re tossing.’

Coming from such humble beginnings, what does his family make of the regular gambling of sums large enough to buy several houses in Finland? ‘My family are very proud of me, but sometimes my mother’s worried. She called me yesterday because they track the games online, but only the no-limit Hold’em and PLO ones, so they don’t see that I’m winning in the limit games. I’ve lost $ 800k in the last five days, which is so much money – it used to be the main jackpot in the lottery – but it’s all relative. Everything is good and I have no debts. I also have some assets and the Full Tilt deal, so I don’t need to be worried about going broke at the moment.’

Easy money

Although now accustomed to playing with vast sums of money on a daily basis, he isn’t purposefully flippant. ‘The money means a lot to me but you can’t play at these stakes if it bothers you too much. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and been close to broke many times because I’ve lent money out and made investments. The first time hurts the most. I lost $ 1.2m in the summer of 2006 over two days in the Big Game, but I’d just made $ 2m the month before that. It’s the same with golf. The first time I played for $ 10k a hole I was nervous, but every day now I play that and it’s normal.’

How about when he loses those record-breaking pots – surely that’s got to hurt? Referring to the infamous hand with Phil Ivey (see High stakes thinking #2 below): ‘I lost $ 650k that day because of the side-betting, and in the poker game I lost $100k so it was a very sad day for me – it hurt. Some days if I lose $ 500k but played well, and there was nothing I could do, then I’m just neutral, but it drives me crazy if I lose $ 50 or $ 100k because I played badly.’ Even so, he exudes the emotions of a robot as his opponent scoops a huge pot off him. ‘I show a lot of emotion, but in live poker I keep it together. I’ve broken so many mice and keyboards playing online. I’ve handled myself much better live so far, but one day I’m going to blow up badly. I have a very bad temper – I don’t know anyone who steams more than I do – but for some reason at the poker table, even if I lose $ 1m, I keep my temper.’

With things so good, it seems natural for Antonius to be pushing the stakes higher to satiate the action junkie in him. ‘You find new things, which for me are the tennis and golf bets. I like to do sports bets as it gives me motivation and I train like crazy and succeed.’

One high-profile bet guaranteed to attract worldwide attention is with Doyle Brunson ‘He backed out of the golf part which I’m a little bit disappointed about. He probably got some information from other people that I can play, because the first time he saw me on a golf course I was terrible. Whatever happens, I have an opportunity to play a living legend – the poker grandpa! Doyle has so much life in him and such a bright, young mind. He’s a fun person and I really respect him a lot.’

Laying down the gauntlet

Not always quite as respectful of other players, Antonius recently posted a blog accusing some of the top internet players of ‘hiding behind their screens’ and being afraid to play him. Phil Galfond responded that for the moment he was declining as he felt it was more about ego than the spirit of the game. Was this challenge more about drumming up business for his recently opened high stakes tables on Full Tilt than a genuine call to arms?

‘My no-limit Hold’em game online is so bad, because apart from about 10 occasions no one has played me in the last year. I can’t get better because no one plays me, so I’m saying, “Hey guys, you play every day, you have all the moves, all the experience in this game – why don’t you want to play me?” They have a 100 percent edge against me because I’m rusty, so I just want to play and get my game better. Sometimes I’m so bored. I know these guys are waiting 24 hours behind their computers for some fish to come and play. They’re not going to get better unless they play against their true competitors. That’s how I used to do it. I’d play the big games with the best players, so I got the chance to play against Erik Sagstrom at $ 30/$ 60. I’d maybe lose $2,000, but learnt to beat $ 10/$ 20 limit.’

Although he excels in cash games, he feels tournament success is currently eluding him. ‘Tournaments make me 10 times more nervous than cash games, because I want to win so badly. I’m playing with people I don’t know, and my pulse races, which doesn’t happen in cash games. I don’t feel as comfortable, and it’s hard to make it to the end because the blinds get so high and the coin-flipping starts. I had my rush in 2005 and got lucky many times. Winning the EPT was one of the best things because I played so well – everything I did worked. I was way more wild back then. Now I’ve got a bit better and quieter, not doing that much crazy stuff, but I think I should be more wild in tournaments.’

Certainly when Patrik’s in the zone, he’s untouchable. ‘My poker’s more based on who I’m playing against and what’s been happening before on the table. I do lots of irritating tricks and know when to pull a big bluff or when to call. Playing poker is just based on making the right decisions and in order to do that you have to know everything that’s going on. You have to be in the other guy’s head and put all the factors together. It’s not about how you play A-K – that’s secondary.’

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