Erik Sagstrom

He takes down a year’s salary in half an hour online, but is only just old enough to play live. So what is Erik Sagstrom’s secret?

When I get into my rhythm and play every day, I’m definitely one of the top guys…I feel like I might be one of the absolute best players in the world

Thor said: ‘No-one can beat him. He’s Superman.’ Sounds like a line from some Hollywood film set, but the words were from two-time WSOP bracelet-winner Thor Hansen commenting on the play of 23-year-old online legend Erik Sagstrom. Despite his tender age, ‘Superman’ has actually had his powers for some time now; indeed, he pre-empted the poker boom. While your average teenager would have been busy cleaning his room, Sagstrom was cleaning up on the makeshift poker ‘tables’ on IRC (Internet Relay Chat), which he remembers fondly as having ‘only text and no graphics’.

Since then, the cherub-faced Swede has dominated the online arena to such an extent that he’s now known by some of the best pros in the game by his online monikers – ‘Erik123’ in the US and ‘The Salmon’ in Europe. And no wonder, as the figures that are bandied around are certainly gobsmacking. He routinely plays in cash games in which the blinds are $150/$300 and the pots run into many thousands, and he’s rumoured to make millions of dollars a year from the online game.

Scarier still for the rest of the poker world, Sagstrom has only recently been able to frequent live games due to his age. As you’d expect, though, he’s already making waves. In November last year, he finished tenth in the Monte Carlo Millions, which boasted a superstar field including the likes of Phil Ivey, Antonio Esfandiari and John Juanda. He’s also started taking on the best in the mammoth heads-up games in Vegas, such as his recent encounter with Liz Lieu. We tracked him down to see how he does what he does.

Is it difficult to keep the amount of money you’re winning in perspective, given that you’re so young?

It’s very hard. They’re just figures on the screen, but when you take a break from poker for a few weeks, you realise that in just half an hour, your winnings might allow you to live a normal life for almost a year, which is a pretty sick thing. I think you have to have a screwed money perspective or you’ll end up being very depressed.

Is playing poker still as exciting for you as when you first started playing seriously?

I don’t get the rush any more: it’s much more like a job to me. If I play tournaments, that’s another creature or animal; it doesn’t matter if the stakes are big or small, I usually get a rush anyway. I just want to win! And I would say that’s the same with most players – most poker players like to see themselves as winners always.

Do you find people gun for you because they know who you are?

It’s happened a few times, but it’s never been successful really. It’s like they’re going on tilt. They have an ego problem! People have tried to insult me in the chatbox, but once it’s happened a few times, you don’t pay attention any more.

Would you agree that around 90% of players are still pretty bad?

At the stakes that I play, 80% of the players are actually good, 20% are bad. It’s becoming a lot tougher, so you really have to stay ahead of the game. I don’t know about the lower levels. You have to evaluate yourself; you really have to be objective about everything – your mental state, your ability to play the game. I find most people are really bad at that. There are too many big egos out there. I think a reasonable ego is a good thing; it shouldn’t be too small, otherwise you won’t have the mind-set of a winner.

Although you’ve made your name as an internet player, you’re starting to get more involved in live games as well. How have you found the transition?

It’s not as difficult as it might appear. The best online players are pretty good live; the thought processes are always the same. I enjoy live poker a lot more because of the contact. One of the few weaknesses I have is that I don’t really work on the psychological, talking part of my game, but my goal is to get good at live cash games. I’m going to start getting involved with the $2,000 and $4,000 at the Bellagio.

What would you say is your best live performance to date?

I came in tenth at the Monte Carlo Millions, which probably had the strongest field in any tournament in my opinion. The structure was really slow. I had Aces before the flop against Ivey’s A-Q and he hit trips, so I couldn’t really complain about my performance.

You narrowly lost out in a best-of-three

heads-up limit match with Liz Lieu recently at the Venetian. How do you feel it went? I was kind of unlucky, but at the same time I still only lost 50 big bets – we were playing $2,000/$4,000 blinds with $200,000 in chips. That’s not a big swing. From that point of view, I guess I wasn’t that unlucky. I felt I was playing well, so I couldn’t really do much about things.

You were well ahead on the final deciding match – what happened?

Liz only had $20,000 left – more or less one hand – but from that point, I didn’t win a hand for the next six or eight hours. You could say I was unlucky, but I usually have swings of 150 big bets. I felt as if I played my very best, so I don’t want to take anything away from her. I hadn’t actually been playing much leading up to the game, so I wasn’t into the heads-up rhythm that I usually have at home.

Are you friends now?

Er… I wouldn’t say we’re close or anything, but I guess we say ‘hi’ when we see each other. The match wasn’t personal, of course – just business. I’m not really personal with anyone: it’s hard to be in this business. It ends up being pretty bad if you get into all that personal stuff.

A while back you were quoted as saying that you thought you were the best limit heads-up player in the world. Do you still think that’s the case?

It’s hard to judge just on the strength of that match – as I’ve said before, it wasn’t really close to being a fair structure. I have my days. When I get into my rhythm and play every day, I’m definitely one of the top guys. I also have my bad days, but when my game is on, I feel like I might be one of the absolute best players in the world.

What’s the secret of winning in heads-up limit games?

You have to get under the other person’s skin. You have to be really aggressive and know the value of your hand. Ace-high is a good hand; even the lowest pair on the board can hold up. The flop really dictates the value of a certain hand. That’s the main thing that people who don’t play heads-up much don’t realise. Working out your odds is also crucial for limit. I used to have to calculate what my chances were, but after a while it’s automatic: you just know what the right play is. You come across every situation a hundred times over so you kind of know if you’re meant to call or fold, bluff or reraise.

Do you have any leaks?

I’m trying not to, but I love betting on American football. It’s like drugs! As soon as someone learns how it works, they realise it’s the best sport to bet on. There’s just so much action.

A lot of people turn to poker as a profession now – would you recommend it?

It’s really hard for me to say, as I’ve been doing really good during my whole career and haven’t had any downswings. I’ve never been close to broke. It’s a really weird life. It’s a lot of hard work and it’s not as glamorous as people might perceive. Obviously, there’s a small amount of glamour in that you get some money to travel the world, but most poker players don’t go anywhere unless they’re playing poker.

How do you know when you’re making mistakes in your game?

You can usually judge by the situations. I don’t like to blame the cards any more. You can blame the cards for a day or two, but after a week, or a month or a year, there’s no way you can blame the cards. I like to hear people complain about the cards. It kind of tells you that they’re not very good poker players.

What is it about Scandinavians that makes them so good at poker?

There’s less money in our countries, so people really have to try to become good. Whenever we play, we play to win. In the US, I guess that people can play for fun more. They don’t really have to become as good. Genetically, I think that Scandinavians just like to win. Also, the weather is pretty bad in winter, so we don’t have much to do. If you’re in Miami, you might not want to sit inside all day.

Do you think you could win the World Series of Poker?

Obviously, I would very much like to win it, but it really is a crapshoot. Last year, I went out on the first day. This year, it’s going to be even crazier. You have to try to build your chips slowly. Protect your chips to give yourself a chance. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get 100,000 chips in the beginning when you’re playing against bad players.

What tips could you give our readers to help improve their game?

Read, read, read. Get a few good books that allow you to get the fundamentals right. That’s basically the only thing that you need. From that point, you just need to play a crazy amount of poker. Day and night. That’s the only way to become good.

The last question I have to ask is what are origins of your nickname ‘The Salmon’?

I don’t even remember why. I just picked it because it came to mind one day.

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