Gus Hansen is one of poker’s great enigmas. In live MTTs he’s the mad genius who’s won four WPTs and a WSOPE bracelet, yet online he’s a high-stakes fish, currently down over $8.5m. PokerPlayer gets inside the mind of the Great Dane…
If you don’t take that f***ing camera out of my face, I’m going to knock you out.’
It’s the final, resounding piece of vitriol directed at me by Gus Hansen and a somewhat fitting end to probably the most explosive interview I’ve ever conducted. Even though I think he’s joking, I put down the video camera and tell the photographer it’s probably best to call time on the shoot. As the saying goes, every joke has some truth and I’m pretty sure laying me out cold on the floor isn’t a million miles from the Great Dane’s thoughts.
I’ve been a deliberate thorn in his side for the past few hours, intent on deciphering the enigma that is Gus Hansen and finding out what makes him tick. As I hail a cab for him, just off a bitterly cold side street in Shoreditch, London, my head is spinning from the revelations of the last few hours.
So sit tight and get comfortable, I have quite a bit to share…
Morning has broken
It wasn’t the most auspicious of starts this morning. We’d set an intercept course for Sky Studios in Isleworth where Gus Hansen was doing some promo work the day before he was set to play in the Poker Million IX final.
Despite some weeks of preparation for the photoshoot and interview, Hansen can’t hide his surprise and dismay when he sees us ready to whisk him off.
Suffice to say he’s not exactly dressed for the occasion he sports a white tee, some creased-up tracksuit bottoms and trainers with the laces flailing.
Perhaps I should have heeded Jesse May’s recent column that revealed that Gus’s memory ranges from savant-like to amnesic.
‘Er, I kinda had some plans,’ he says, screwing up his face. ‘Can’t we do it another day?’ The fact that he’s just lost ten points to Patrik Antonius as they whiled away a few minutes playing Chinese Poker for $5,000 a point isn’t helping matters. That means he’s lost $50k before breakfast. Great. On the flipside I know that rescheduling is basically impossible, so I run the sorry-the-venue’s-booked-and-the photographer’s-prepped guilt trip. It works but his disposition is getting sourer by the second. ‘I don’t mean to be rude but I’m not in a great mood,’ he says with not a hint of irony.
Things go from bad to desperate as we clamber into the taxi. I planned on getting the bulk of the interview out of the way during the 45-minute journey to the photoshoot but straight away he’s on the phone in Danish.
‘Sports betting’, ‘Phil Ivey’, ‘interview’, ‘poker’, ‘football’, are pretty much the only words I pick out as he chirps away. Forty-five minutes later, he’s still going, but I’ve been given a lifeline. The student protests in central London have brought the capital to a standstill and we are crawling along at a snail’s pace. The driver reckons it could take another hour to get where we’re going. I cheer inwardly. Gus curses outwardly. ‘F***ing traffic,’ ‘London, f***ing traffic,’ ‘What the f***?’ are a few choice phrases that he sends down the phone line. He finally hangs up with a sigh and I gingerly test the waters. ‘Er, Gus I thought we might do the interview in the taxi and get it out of the way?’ A pause. ‘F***, yeah,’ he says with a sardonic smile. ‘The more we do now, the less we have to do later.’
I look down at my interview questions sheet, scrawled with ‘Who is Gus?’ several times. My editor’s words ring in my head. Find out who Gus Hansen is.
Who wants to be a millionaire
I start off gently, launching into the obvious topic of the Poker Million IX final tomorrow. The prospect of winning $1m barely registers on his emotional scale, but at least I can detect a glimmer of a smile as he rolls over the mathematics. ‘The equity is very substantial; it’s $125k a man, assuming it’s all even. I feel pretty good and I’m actually advocating or at least hoping that you’ll see more of the “winner takes all” mentality because I think it’s very suitable for poker in general.’
Hansen actually went on to win the eight-man tournament in dominant style, totally delivering on the strategy that he divulges to me. ‘I’ve come to realise which I realised before that people give me credit for absolutely nothing, no matter what has happened. If I’ve folded the last five hours straight and then I raise, people put me on 8-T suited. So if that’s the mentality of 90% of my opponents, then obviously I should tighten up a lot and that means more folding.’
This new, snug style seemed to pay dividends throughout the year. In January he almost repeated his Aussie Millions triumph but fell short in the main event in 23rd place. ‘Actually I think I played too tight at the end,’ he says. ‘That’s not my usual MO but there were a lot of aggressive players round there and I think I gave them too much credit in some situations. I think that may have cost me a better chance at maybe winning again.’
It all came together in September for the ?10k WSOPE heads-up event, a victory which he naturally plays down. ‘I had one bad match where I hit a very lucky card against Phil Ivey but I think all the other matches were played fairly well on my part.’
He counts his first bracelet win as his poker high point of 2010 but he kicks any ideas of WSOP sentimentality straight into touch. ‘I have no f***ing idea where [the bracelet] is. I don’t know. I don’t even know if I have it. I think I have it but I don’t know.’ Just to draw a line under the whole bracelet topic, I ask him whether he reckons he’s less bothered by the idea of bracelets than most players. ‘Oh yes, by far,’ he says staring out of the window.
Talking tournaments is always pretty easy when a player is winning and although I wouldn’t say it’s made us best buddies, the Dane is beginning to let his defences down. He’s stopped complaining about the traffic so I switch the conversation to the more contentious topic of high-stakes cash games contentious because Hansen is renowned for being a perennial loser.
What I really want to manoeuvre around to is the astounding figure of $8.6m which highstakesdb.com says he has lost in the last three years more than anyone who plays the nosebleeds.
Jumping straight in is just asking for trouble, so I kick off with a little guessing game. He is a self-confessed maths geek after all. I ask him whether he’s aware that he is by far the most prolific player in the games over the past three years, logging over 18,000 sessions (durrrr is the next busiest player, with 11,000). ‘18,000?’ he asks with genuine surprise. ‘I would not have guessed that. But that must mean they count each individual sit-down as a session,’ he says to himself. ‘Numbers are interesting in that they give you a picture and they usually measure correctly. Numbers don’t lie. On average it means I log in and log out 18 times a day and that doesn’t seem logical. It seems impossible.’
He’s taken the bait and seems hooked on solving the mystery. ‘My guess would be more like 2,000 because there can be plenty of times where you can play for four hours a day, go for a bite to eat, play for another 45 minutes, then talk on the phone for half an hour, play again, watch a TV show and then play for another 45 minutes. I’m just curious about the amount.’
I wonder whether he can work out his ‘number of hands played’ value. He rolls his eyeballs up and left. ‘Okay, a session, playing three tables, four tables… I don’t know, probably a million.’ This time he’s spot on and is enthused by his accurate estimation. The actual number is 962,519, again the highest of any player. ‘Wow, that’s a lot of hands!’
He seems genuinely interested in the topic now, and I know this is my chance to dig for juicier information. I’m met with a typically cryptic answer about the size of his bankroll. ‘Since I’m still around and I still play fairly high stakes on the internet and I’m not staked by anyone, it probably means I’m doing okay. The good thing about losing that kind of money is that you must have had it from somewhere.’ I tentatively approach the subject of the $8m+ in losses by framing myself as a lowly messenger. There’s a pause as Hansen lets the information filter through. I gaze down waiting for the reproach. ‘Uh, that sounds about right,’ he says. ‘I think it is probably slightly on the high side but it’s not way off. Obviously it’s not plus.’ I casually drop in, ‘That’s quite a big figure,’ to which he grins and scratches his chin. ‘It’s a very big figure.’
Wild at heart
Perhaps the most astounding aspect of Hansen’s cash game statistics is that his loss/profit line is so skewed. In H.O.R.S.E. for instance, he was up $1.99m in 2010, the most of any player. He is the second biggest winner in Omaha hi/lo ever, after Phil Ivey, with $3.5m. But those winnings are almost completely cancelled out by his pot-limit Omaha losses. Over the past three years, PLO has been responsible for an $8.9m deficit.
Isn’t the obvious move then just to stop playing PLO? ‘I know my big downfall has been the PLO,’ he says. ‘Obviously you’d be very stupid not to listen to what the numbers are indicating. It seems like I’m not learning quick enough in the PLO.’
For a moment I think the unthinkable that Hansen has just admitted he is giving up on PLO, but he jumps in before I have time to process that extraordinary thought.
‘I’m not too surprised about my big negative figure and I think I can just repeat myself and say PLO is just a very, very streaky game,’ he says.
‘There are going to be some ups and downs and I think all in all it’s not impossible there are some ups and downs coming around the corner. It’s December 2010 today and I’m planning to keep an arrow in the upward direction over the next couple of months or more.’
He admits that his peers probably think he’s easy pickings. ‘In general I am viewed by a lot of pros as someone you’d want in the game, either because they think they’d outright beat me or because I create a lot of action in the games. If I asked them to my face, they might give me a different answer but I know that’s the answer they think about. I’m aware of that and I take it into consideration as well, because if 20 people have one opinion and you have another opinion, the chances are you’re wrong.’
It’s the first sign of vulnerability Hansen has let slip, and I pounce on the opportunity to venture into the non-poker side, the side the cameras don’t see, the stuff you can’t search for on HighstakesDB: the ‘Who is Gus?’
objective. However, as I start to voice the question, he interrupts me mid-flow and tells me in no uncertain terms: ‘I have some personal stuff but I’m not going to dwell on that. Things obviously happen in your personal life. Whether it’s this or that, I’m not interested in talking about that specifically and I’m not sure the reader is interested in that either.’
Recalling that Hansen’s mother passed away six months ago, I take the hint and back off. Opting for a softer approach, I figure it’s best just to lay it out straight.
I tell him the readers want nothing more than to know about the human side of Gus Hansen.
Incredibly, the direct approach works. He starts to regale me about his first ever trip to Uganda to do charity work with fellow Full Tilt pro Chris Ferguson. ‘It was a different kind of experience, it kind of gives you a different perspective on things, a different outlook on life. Being in the middle of nowhere with no running water, figuring out if there’s any food that day is obviously completely different from the luxurious day-to-day of Monaco or wherever it is I travel.’
Intuitively, I ask him whether the experience changed his perspective on poker. ‘There’s definitely a lot of money going around the poker world and there’s a lot of room to spare if you take the world of a professional poker player and the world of an orphan in Uganda. But then again it’s important to realise you can’t change the entire world.’
Branching out into whether it’s affected his life permanently is a step too far and in that single moment it obliterates any rapport we may have built up. ‘Has it had a permanent effect on my life? That’s a question for my f***ing psychologist,’ he spits. ‘I’m not going to dwell on that.’
An uncomfortable few seconds ensues. Hansen starts asking the driver how far away we are and he’s starting to complain about the traffic again. I feel I’m in danger of losing him but it seems crazy to let him wriggle free after all this.
End of the line
The interview has now turned into a game of cat and mouse, with me desperately trying to slip through the chinks in his armour and Hansen trying to throw me off the scent. He seems more receptive to the wider question of whether playing for hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars every day is a fulfilling, satisfying venture. ‘I think it depends on who you are and what you want to do,’ he says. ‘Do you create anything by being a poker player? Not really, but a lot of people enjoy it. I think if we give it a different name as a form of entertainment, then it definitely has value. It’s entertaining for people to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi play against each other. So in that sense, I think it has a very positive purpose.’
I switch back to a more personal slant, specifically whether he’s looking for more fame and fortune than he currently has. He sees my angle a mile off and stonewalls. ‘You are trying to get into places I don’t really want to go,’ he snaps. ‘I’m fine. I’m happy with the way things are.’
This time, he really has reached the end of his tether. He’s not even facing me now and tells me over and over again that my questions are too deep and that he isn’t on a psychologist’s couch. I try to dart back in to the fray with more anodyne questions, about how life is in Monaco and whether he’s thinking of heading over to Macau to join Dwan and Ivey in the amazing cash games. He rebuffs every question with monosyllables and a dispassionate sneer.
I apologise for my probing questions to break the silence if nothing else but it’s no good, Hansen is done with the interview. He’s back on the blower again, this time to a girl, who manages to turn his temperament the other way. At least he’ll be in a decent mood for the photoshoot.
As I stare at the scribbles on my sheet, it’s hard to know how to answer the ‘Who is Gus?’ question. In terms of poker, he is as honest as they come and will talk about his million-dollar losses without a tinge of regret. He even seems happy to admit that in the eyes of his nosebleed counterparts he is the big fish in the game. But veer off the poker piste even slightly and he’s as defensive as any player I’ve ever spoken to. He becomes most resistant when confronted with the disparity between the rich and the poor and how it might affect his outlook. Does that mean he feels playing high-stakes poker is a vacuous lifestyle, or is it just that he thinks the interviewer/interviewee relationship is crossing unspoken boundaries?
Before I have much of a chance to evaluate the last few hours, Hansen gives me one last surprise. We’re a few hundred yards from the photoshoot venue, still in heavy traffic and bizarrely he announces he’s going to get out and run there. Is he that desperate to get away? Shunning my advice that he might not find the place on his own, he flies out jacketless into the sub-zero air, mobile still glued to his ear, leaving behind more questions than answers. I guess I won’t be finding out who Gus is – not today anyway.
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