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Scandinavian Poker Success: In Search of an Explanation

by Conrad Brunner |  Published: Aug 01, 2005


You will have noticed by now that Scandinavians are rather good at poker. Players like Martin de Knijff (Sweden), Gus Hansen (Denmark), and Juha Helppi (Finland) are regular winners of big-money tournaments in Europe and the United States, but they represent just the advance guard of a growing army of young Nordic poker champions.

"The number of young Scandinavians progressing from nowhere to the high-stakes games is simply amazing," said World Series of Poker Champion Greg Raymer.

So, how do they do it? Why are players from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland performing so well on the international stage? Sheer weight of numbers is one obvious reason, but before settling for that explanation, let me relate a few non-poker facts about life in the Nordics. For the second year running, Finland has been judged to have the world's most competitive economy by the World Economic Forum, despite the fact that Finnish working hours are among the lowest in Europe. Norway, described by the CIA World Factbook as having "arguably the highest quality of life worldwide," is the world's third largest producer of oil after Saudi Arabia and Russia. Denmark spends more on education than any other country in the world, and has the cleanest seas in Europe. Sweden has produced more Nobel Prize winners per head than any other country, and also boasts the world's highest Internet penetration – 73 percent. All four of the Nordic nations enjoy 100 percent literacy rates and take the bottom four places in the international crime figures league table.

But it's not all good news. Finland has never won the Eurovision Song Contest in 43 years of trying; the Danes drink more coffee than is good for them; the once dominant Norwegian ski-jumping team is on a losing streak; and the Swedes have a terrible problem with wandering elks on their road system. But it is a reasonable bet that a Martian arriving on earth tomorrow, in search of the leaders of the civilized world, would end up in Stockholm or Copenhagen, rather than Paris or Washington.

What has this got to do with poker? Well, the combination of wealth, education, and technological sophistication – did I mention that Finland has the world's highest use of mobile phones? – are all key indicators of online poker activity. The more sophisticated the society, the higher the demand for more intelligent game playing, and the Scandinavians just love a mental challenge. I am reliably informed that puzzles set in the daily newspapers in Norway are consistently more difficult than those found in most of Europe and North America.

In his book Everything Bad is Good For You, American author Steven Johnson argues that there is a growing demand, worldwide, for intelligent stimulation: "For decades," he writes, "we've worked under the assumption that modern culture follows a steadily declining path toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the 'masses' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies want to give the masses what they want. But, in fact, the exact opposite is happening: The culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less."

Lottery ticket sales are declining and online poker subscriptions are increasing because we want a more challenging method of gambling. Players want to earn, rather than win, their money. This is the case in all developed Western nations, but it is even truer of Scandinavia, because its society is getting "intellectually demanding" at a quicker rate.

There are other reasons, of course, for Scandinavian poker successes, and there is probably some truth in the cliché about the ice-cool Scandinavian temperament. As Sweden's Alexander Stevic explained to me just before winning the EPT Barcelona title, Swedes are calm and inexpressive people by nature, and are unusually sensitive to the emotions of others.

My take on the Scandinavian poker mind is that while they are as susceptible to the thrill of poker as the rest of us, they simply handle it differently. Take Baard Dahl, who lives near Oslo, Norway, with his wife and baby son. He used to play bridge and chess to a high standard as a hobby, and he now makes a living as an online poker player. He is a tremendously ambitious and aggressive poker player, but he never loses touch with the fact that it's just a game, even when there are significant sums resting on the turn of a card. Nor does he get distracted by sports betting or casino games ("The truth is, I'm not much of a gambler.") Watching him on TV in the Invitational at the British Poker Open, you couldn't help noticing that he was smiling more than the other players. It was not a forced grin or a rueful smirk, but a smile that said, "This is fun, isn't it?" I bet it annoyed the hell out of his opponents, especially when he took all their chips.

It's not that the Scandinavians are fundamentally superior as poker players. In fact, I am convinced that if you take away their wealth, intellect, intuition, and competitive instinct, they are really no better than the rest of us.

Conrad Brunner is the European marketing manager for