Inside the mind of the great Patrik Antonius according to UK poker pro Roland de Wolfe: “I had been beating every hold’em and Omaha game at the biggest limits online but I’m so much better live”

Roland de Wolfe, the UK Player of the Year, helps us get inside the fascinating mind of Patrik Antonius

Roland De Wolfe swings open the door of his Bellagio suite and waves me inside. ‘We’re playing some poker. It’s just another working night in Vegas,’ he says with a broad smile. Inside, the room is typical of a travelling poker player; bundles of cash and chips on the table and a laptop screen glowing on the bed.

The game is $200/$400 pot-limit Omaha, but De Wolfe is just about done for the night. Perhaps it’s fatigue. But it may be because his close friend Patrik Antonius has just sat down at the table. ‘Why would you want to play Patrik?’ he says with a laugh. You can see his point. Playing against the Finnish ace has been a fast track route to ruin in the past 12 months.

Later that night I watch as Antonius sits down to play some cards, and with almost casual ease, he begins to tear up a $300/$600 nolimit table. In the two days leading up to the interview alone he was up over $600,000. If 2006 was the year of De Wolfe when it came to tournaments, then in cash games, it belonged to Antonius. He dominated the big online games – winning millions of dollars and attracting a legion of devoted internet fans along the way.

But Antonius’ stock really started to rise last year when he took a shot at the world’s biggest cash game in Las Vegas. Stepping into the ring of the Big Game – arms swinging like a prizefighter – the Finn took down all opponents, raking in over $2 million in just three months. A winning streak of that magnitude – and at that speed – is just not supposed to happen, especially where newcomers to the Big Game are concerned. But Antonius has always seemed to operate on a different level to those around him. It’s something that is not lost on De Wolfe, who says: ‘Every sport has someone who is so much better than anyone else. He’s like Federer in the tennis and Woods in the golf. He just has so much talent.’

The UK tournament destroyer knows the ice-cool Finn as well as anyone, which is why I’ve asked him to come along to the photoshoot and put some questions to his good friend. Straight away the two are sparring as a smirking De Wolfe asks Antonius what he will be wearing for the Five Diamond main event.

‘I’ll be wearing an unusual outfit: sneakers, black sports pants and a fancy Bellagio robe from my suite,’ says Antonius. ‘That is because of a bet with Roland and that’s all I will say. By the way I was a big favourite for the bet. I got a bad beat there.’ De Wolfe laughs and hurriedly starts to speak: ‘You were so not the favourite…’ He tries to finish his sentence, but whatever the bet was, Antonius doesn’t want the world knowing. ‘Can we just move forward? I’m busy,’ he says. Both players burst out laughing.

It’s a snapshot of Antonius at odds with the image of a poker player who has ice flowing through his veins. Much like Phil Ivey – who he is frequently compared to – he’s emotionless at the table, but an easy-going and warm character off it.

Dressed causally in an expensive designer T-shirt and tracksuit, he’s relaxed and thoughtful. The bling is kept to a small diamond earring and a chunky platinum watch. And refreshingly, he’s not obsessed with his earnings. He throws around numbers like $200,000 with the same ease that most people would talk about fivers or tenners. But there’s no arrogance behind the answers and plenty of life behind the cold eyes.

Watching him clown around with De Wolfe in his Bellagio suite, it’s easy to forget that Antonius is still a young guy. More surprising is that for such a naturally gifted player, he may never have taken up the game were it not for a piece of bad fortune. As a teenager he played card games with friends, but his real passion was tennis. He was on course for a career as a pro, but an injury cut short his dream, leaving a huge hole in his life. He still had a part-time modelling career and university studies to worry about, but his competitive nature was to seek out new challenges.

The venue for the game that would change his life was the modest Casino Helsinki in Finland’s capital. Aged just 19 – and fresh from a year’s military service – he started playing at the very lowest stakes, but admits he was a losing player for the first year of his playing career.

Nonetheless, he managed to pull one of those stories out of the bag that every poker pro seems to have; he entered a $20 no-limit hold’em tournament and won. It was his first tournament, and the first time he’d ever played hold’em. ‘That got me,’ Antonius adds with the widest of grins.

The Finn then spent some time in Italy shortly after as part of his management degree, before returning home to take up poker in earnest once more. By this time, he was a winning player, but the games were so small in Casino Helsinki that he found himself looking for new places to play. So he decided to take his game online and started playing pot-limit Omaha on the B2B network.

‘The games were super good,’ he says. ‘People were so bad in those days. I had no idea how to play heads-up or three-handed, so I would raise every single hand pre-flop, on the flop and then bet the turn almost 90% of the time; they would just keep folding. If they raised me on the flop, I would just fold my hand. People would just take $100 to the table and then fold until they had $40 and then go all-in with some shit. I made $20,000 so fast without having much of a clue about the game. That is when I first thought “okay, I am going to be a professional player now”. I haven’t been broke since.’

Everything moved very quickly after that. Within a year he was playing $50/$100 limit games and by the age of 23 he was a regular on the tournament circuit. Just a year later he exploded into poker’s top tier with a sick run of results, finishing third at the Barcelona EPT before winning the Baden EPT event less than a month later. He shortly followed that up with a second place finish at the WPT Five Diamond event.

The instant success allied to his model looks brought him fame, but it also brought an uncomfortable level of expectation. ‘I feel like I have a lot of pressure in tournaments now because people just expect that I will win,’ Antonius admits. That was borne out in the recent Aussie Millions main event after he went on a rush to finish day one as chip leader, with people instantly talking as if it were his to lose.

‘I don’t feel any pressure in tournaments because I have had some big results recently,’ De Wolfe says. ‘One thing I find surprising is that you get nervous making bluffs in tournaments, but not in cash games. How can that be when there could still be 200 players left?’

Antonius stops to think for a second, picking up a tennis ball and bouncing it steadily on the floor. ‘I only play to win tournaments, and sometimes I want to win too much,’ he says – at last. ‘When the money goes in during a cash game it’s just one long run. I don’t get excited at all. If I make a big bluff for really big money, then my pulse may shoot a little higher, but mostly it feels like a job. You don’t get the same kind of kicks as from tournaments. If I push my 10,000 chips in on day one, I could be ten times more nervous than playing a $200,000 pot in a cash game.’

Most of the tournaments that Antonius plays these days are in the US, so De Wolfe asks if he thinks the standard of play in America is higher than in Europe. ‘The standard in the EPT is pretty high,’ Antonius says. ‘They are tough tournaments, but it’s different over here. In America people play so much tighter. That is partly down to age, because the average player over here is around 35 where in the EPT it is more like 25, wouldn’t you say?’

De Wolfe nods, and smiles; he’s clearly been setting Antonius up. ‘So do you think it would take a really special type of player to win an EPT and WPT event?’ De Wolfe asks, referring to himself.

Antonius breaks out into a broad grin. ‘It’s not impossible,’ he replies. ‘I almost did it, but one guy has now beaten me to it – and all credit to him.’

Cash games – and not tournaments – have always been Antonius’ first love. And for the true cash game player, there is only one game that matters: the Big Game. During the 2005 World Series of Poker the Finn found himself frequently breaking off from the cash games in the Bellagio to watch the action. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. ‘I went to Bobby’s Room so many times and saw there were people I could beat. I promised myself I would take a year and learn the games I didn’t know, then I would take my shot.’

It’s a surprising assessment for a player who makes most of his money online. Few of the online ‘names’ have taken on the challenge, preferring to mine the deep seams of gold they have found. It takes a precocious talent and a confidence bordering on arrogance to even want to take your shot. But Antonius, of course, is no normal online player.

‘I had been beating every hold’em and Omaha game at the biggest limits online. But I’m so much better live, and if I want to play big there is nowhere else to go. I felt I had enough money to take a shot, and I decided that if I lost $1m, then I would quit.’ He returned the following June and played a three-handed mixed hold’em and Omaha game with Sammy Farha and Gus Hansen. He broke even in the first few games, going up in three sessions, then losing $800,000. But then he started to make money. ‘I won nine sessions in a row, winning almost $2m,’ he says with an unnervingly flat tone.

Antonius admits he had a baptism of fire in some of the more esoteric forms of poker. He played his first game of Omaha 8 in January 2006, and didn’t play a hand of seven-card stud until April of the same year. And the stakes when he started to learn the seven-card game? $1,000/$2,000. ‘I don’t think I won many hands the first few times I played stud in the Big Game. I think I was down about $500,000. But lately I have been making the most money from stud and triple draw. Stud games seem to be pretty easy.

‘There is so much more skill to deep stack no-limit and potlimit games. I respect people who can handle the pressure and throw out three stone cold bluffs straight.’ But, it clearly frustrates Antonius that the no-limit games at the Big Game are played with a $100,000-cap on the most any player can lose. ‘It’s such a stupid thing because often the money goes in preflop and on the flop. Then it’s just a case of seeing who gets it.’ Antonius’ relaxed confidence makes it easy to forget he is not immune to the big losses that affect everyone at the Big Game. And, at the time of the interview, he’s taking a break from Bobby’s Room. ‘My last day at the Big Game was brutal. I was so card dead. I played heads-up with Sammy Farha but couldn’t beat him in a single pot. I don’t even understand how it’s possible. I lost $1m in four hours. I was up $500,000, so it was such a huge downswing. It’s always good to take a little break after that.’

It’s a statement that De Wolfe is intrigued by. ‘I’m not sure I would be OK with losing a million in a night,’ he says. ‘If I lose $50,000, I don’t really get too bothered about it, but losing $1m is 20 times bigger. How do you feel when you lose that much?’ Antonius shrugs his shoulders and carries on bouncing the tennis ball between his legs. ‘It depends on what happened. Sometimes when I lose $200,000 it hurts more. It makes me more unsatisfied or pissed off if I lose because I’m tired. If you have just been unlucky and there was nothing you could have done, then you can’t be mad about it.’ De Wolfe comes back: ‘Does it feel amazing when you win $1m in a night?’ ‘No,’ answers Antonius almost instantly. ‘If you win, you don’t feel anything, but if you lose, you feel like shit.’

Despite his break from the action, Antonius is classed as a regular fixture at the Big Game, where he takes a stake in David Benyamine when he is not playing himself. A Las Vegas man through and through, he is due to move out of his suite shortly with a house being renovated for him and his fiancée – who is expecting the couple’s first child later this year.

You’d expect the stresses of a losing run and impending fatherhood to wreck havoc on the Finn, but he seems sanguine. It’s hard to see that implacable façade ever breaking under the strain. Even when he breaks off from the interview to take a call passing on bad news from Benyamine he sighs for a moment, then quickly regains his composure.

It’s far from the high-emotion of some of his peers, but Antonius is not the typical Las Vegas poker player. It’s tempting to think of him as a reaction to the cigar-chomping veterans, but the truth is simpler than that: he’s part of a generation where the moral tarnish has been cleaned off the poker world. This is not gambling; it’s extreme sports.

‘Poker is such a tough sport for the head that you need to do something that lets you clear it. And working out is so good for that. You can still play poker and be in bad physical condition, but I strongly believe you need to be in good shape if you want to play the highest quality poker,’ Antonius says.

‘It has helped me so much in my career. I can’t even imagine how some people keep their heads straight. Even if you know all the situations and how to play, there are still a lot of things – such as body language – that you will miss if you are not 100%. In the smallest games it’s enough to play every hand the same way, but that doesn’t work in the biggest games.

‘Some people have extra power and instincts they can use. You can develop those skills, when you start to listen to your body. A while ago I would get some headaches and other bad vibes, but I didn’t know what it meant. It took me a couple of years to develop that side of my game.’

The conversation seems to be taking on a more spiritual turn, and De Wolfe starts to tell me about the tattoo Antonius has just had done. It covers his upper back and comprises four letters in Hebrew script, spelling out the word ‘Sisu’. ‘Sisu is indomitable will, stamina and strength. We both use that word a lot,’ De Wolfe says.

Antonius adds: ‘I set a lot of goals for myself and am super disciplined. I have a lot of Sisu and I feel that I can carry that symbol on my back. Roland now has a little piece of Sisu, since he has started to spend time with me. He has a little Sisu now.’ They both break out laughing again, and we wind up the interview. Straight away Antonius gets up and stretches. He’s getting ready for another night’s work. It’s 11pm and there are millions to be made. It’s just another night in Sin City.

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