Making his own luck

Aggressive maniac who rides his luck, or cool, calculating genius misrepresented by TV?
What is the truth about Gus Hansen’s playing style?

Footage of his performances at televised final tables has become the stuff of legends – as well as controversy

Of all the revolutionary changes that have swept the poker world in recent years, the most double-edged has surely been the introduction of hole-card cameras. While they have allowed the public a fascinating insight into the workings of the best poker minds and popularised it as a televised sport, selective editing and short-handed final tables means they have also misrepresented what it means to play poker. What’s more, it’s also changing the very fabric of the game, with many new players attempting to imitate the apparent loose aggressive play of their heroes.

Of these superstars one name is at the forefront, both because he typifies the style of the new breed of hyper-aggressive players and because the footage of his performances at televised final tables has become the stuff of legend – as well as controversy. Totalling over $3 million in prize winnings in four years, yet still disparaged by many, Gus Hansen seems to be either one of the luckiest men alive or a misunderstood genius. Or perhaps both.

His background was the perfect preparation for the high-wire act with which WPT fans are familiar. He’s been gambling his whole life, initially through backgammon, which he played professionally from 1992. As the Nineties progressed he discovered poker, and started the transition in the latter part of the decade, making rapid progress thanks to his innate skill and experience of playing games for high stakes. Two years into the new millennium the dollars began flooding in.

Nowadays, Hansen plays with the likes of Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese and Phil Ivey in the $4,000/$8,000 mixed games at the Bellagio, but what he’s best known for is his appearances on the World Poker Tour, where he’s won three titles from five appearances. Along the way he’s also gained a reputation as a fearless, aggressive – some might say a reckless and lucky – player. On the WPT Bad Boys of Poker episode he made a famous call against Antonio ‘The Magician’ Esfandiari’s substantial raise with the words ‘I have 9 high, how can I fold?’ Of course, the 9 high in question was actually 9-8 suited, and it transpired that against the Magician’s overcards he was getting the right odds to call (plus is was ‘only’ for $25,000). The look on his opponent’s face – both at the call and when the hand hit – said it all.

He’s been bamboozling opponents in similar fashion ever since, including seven of the very best on the Poker Superstars Invitational tournament in February 2005, where he won $1 million for first place. ‘I don’t need as much to call with as you guys,’ he told the table at one point – and never were truer words spoken as he marched relentlessly to victory.

Unlike some aggressive players who raise to force their opponents to make a decision, it seems sometimes Hansen is calling with any two cards. This is partly due to the magic of TV, which sometimes doesn’t have time to discuss previous hands, relative stack sizes or any of the other factors in the decision-making process.

It is a style of play that can lead to some swift exits, however, as 2006 has proved. Hansen went out on the third day of the Bay Shooting Stars tournament, to a runner-runner flush, and was out on the second day of the LA Poker Classic after battling for a long time with a short stack.

And, if you watch him only on the WPT, you can’t be blamed for thinking Gus is a little reckless. In the 2005 Bay Shooting Star he called an all-in holding 10-7 with a flop of 8:-6:-6Ú and won – with 10 high. His opponent, it turned out, was holding 9-5. A similar story was in evidence at the British Poker Open 2005, where Gus put an epic bad beat on Dave Ulliott, calling his third raise in a row with 9-7 off suit and pushing all-in on the flop with second pair against the Devilfish’s overpair Queens. The miracle hit, and the Fish wasn’t one to mince words: ‘Gus is notorious for getting his money in behind and winning,’ he quipped, adding ‘I had him all-in on a coinflip earlier as well, but against him you’re about a 4-1 shot there ’cos he wins them all.’ Carlo Citrone was similarly questioning of his play in the post-game interview. Only commentator Gary Jones was able to balance the argument, suggesting that ‘Gus tends to pick up so many small pots that when he does finally play an all-in from behind he’s basically beating you up with your own chips’.

If this is true and is in essence the conceit that Hansen relies on, then the irony is that it isn’t new at all – Doyle Brunson made it famous in Super System decades ago. But it seems that in the television age no-one is interested in watching for ages while he picks up all the little pots, and it’s only when he finally gets caught that programme editors’ eyes light up.

With Gus, though, part of the attraction is that he’s also prepared to make unusual calls when he thinks the odds are correct. In conversation with him at the EPT Final last year, this ability to evaluate a situation was very clear. ‘Backgammon players in general tend to be a little more mathsoriented and analytical than poker players. But they’re both about making the same equity decisions,’ explained Hansen.

‘I usually start with the worst hand, but it’s really about control and making the best decisions along the way. I also tend to play more hands, so a lot of times when the money goes in I tend to have a little bit the worst of it. I do take risks that no-one else would take, but if I think those risks are justified then there’s no reason for me to back down.’

Amen to that….

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