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The Great Dane Speaks Out

Gus Hansen, about the 'big game,' televised poker, the ladies, and going broke; or, what it is like living the life of a high-stakes gambler

by Rolf Slotboom |  Published: Jan 01, 2007

It's the start of the third season of the European Poker Tour, in Barcelona. As is so often the case, "Great Dane" Gus Hansen is the center of attention, as one of the star attractions at this prestigious event. At the poker table, he and I agree on doing a short interview once play concludes for dinner, but I have such a long list of questions I want to ask that I already know that just the 90-minute dinner break will not suffice. Gus takes all the time necessary to answer my questions, though, and doesn't object the slightest when I ask him to complete things once the tournament action is done.

His return turns out to be quicker than I expected: Just an hour or so later, Gus is back in the press room after a self-proclaimed "case of absolute brain damage," which had led him to bust out on the first day of this three-day event.

I expect him to be upset because of his elimination, and don't think for the remainder of the interview that he will take as much time with me or be as open as he was in the first session. As it turns out, he is even more open than before. Heck, he even lets the cameras of lovely EPT host Nathalie Pinkham wait, "because this interview needs to be finished first." Was it a weak moment on the part of the ladies man, or did he simply find the conversation interesting enough to let lovely Nathalie wait for a while? You judge for yourself. Because of the high quality of the material, and the fact that I didn't want to cut his story just to have it fit in just six pages or so, this interview is almost certainly the longest and most in-depth that has ever been written about the Great Dane. It is divided into two parts: our pre-elimination discussions, and then the post-elimination talks.

Session No. 1: Pre-elimination discussions
We are in the press room in Barcelona, where Gus combines talking with having dinner. Despite being seated at a pretty tough table, he has accumulated a fairly decent stack in the first few hours of play. My role in this interview is quite simple: When he talks, I write and listen - and when he starts eating, I start talking.The backgammon years

Rolf Slotboom:
Gus, before you switched to poker, you were an absolute star in backgammon, right? Did you play any big championships, as in poker, or were you more of a "hustler," who would try to play for big money against anyone who could be lured into playing?

Gus Hansen: I have never really been a hustler, Rolf. Hustling is saying you're this when you're that — and I am usually too honest for that. I used to say: "OK, we can play, but I'm probably the best player in the world." So in that sense, I couldn't be called a good hustler, I guess. The only hustling I do is with the girls. No, come to think of it, not even there. I am usually very honest and open there, too, rather than come up with all kinds of stories that are just not true. As for backgammon, yes, obviously, I did play some tournaments, but just like poker, I was a bit more of a cash-game player. It was because the prize money in backgammon tournaments was much, much smaller than it is in poker now; in other words, it was not that interesting.

Did you play any games other than backgammon at that time - like chess?

Well, yes, some chess, but never on a pro level. I also played bridge and gin rummy, but the only games I have played professionally are backgammon and poker. Quite simply, many of these games are at least somewhat related, and I find almost all strategic games intellectually interesting. I would say that games in general interest me.

In recent years, lots of people have switched from chess, bridge, and backgammon to poker, simply because there is much more money to be made in poker. I assume that has been the case with you, too.

Yes, definitely, for the most part. Plus, backgammon is more personal, and sometimes you are not allowed to enter events simply because you are too good. In poker, it is different, because the players never know where the money will really go, and because it is easier to fool yourself with regard to your abilities. In poker, the short-term fluctuations make it easier to dismiss a great player as being just moderately good, and conversely, to think of yourself as a much better player than the below-average or even awful player that you may actually be.

RS: Do you think your backgammon background has helped you in any way with your poker career? If so, in what way?

GH: Well, quite simply, good backgammon players tend to have a better understanding of what constitutes "equity." And in general, they may simply be a bit brighter!

Inasmuch as you are in a good position to make a proper comparison, what do you think are the most important differences and similarities between poker and backgammon?

Well, as to the differences, in backgammon, there is very little psychology. You almost always make the best possible decisions there. In poker, on the other hand, you sometimes have to deviate from proper or optimum strategy; for instance, preventing players from getting a good read on you from always playing your good hands the same way. As to the similarities, both are math-driven games. While it seems that former backgammon players may tend to overestimate the importance of mathematics in poker slightly, there can be no question that most "normal" poker players underestimate the math grossly, while overestimating the psychology.

Poker tournaments and strategies
RS: You have won many poker tournaments, especially WPT and televised events. What is the one you are most proud of, and why?

GH: Well, I guess that should be the first WPT event that I won in Vegas. I didn't even mean to play the tournament, but I actually felt that I played really well, and caught the people by surprise. I was able to steal so many antes that I could suffer a few beats. I basically stole my way throughout the event, so that I could get lucky later.

RS: Speaking of luck, when doing research for this interview, I found this famous quote by Freddie Deeb, who said, right after you busted him with Q-10 versus A-K: "I wish I could play [Gus] Hansen everyday for the rest of my life." Based on this quote, he obviously didn't think very highly of your skills. What did you think about him saying that?

GH: Well, you want to know the truth? I hardly ever watch the DVDs of the various WPT tournaments, but this specific tournament happens to be one that I have seen a couple of times. I can assure you, it would have been so unbelievably unfair if anyone else at that final table had won. There were six players at the final table, and in all honesty, five of them played pretty badly - and I can tell you, I wasn't one of them. But just about every hand before the commercials, I would suffer a beat. For example, I started the day with $1 million in chips, and had gotten four players all in one time, and one player all in two times. I happened to lose all of those pots. Yet, even after losing all of those pots, I still had a $1.2 million stack - $200,000 more than I had started with! So, it should be quite clear what my views are.

RS: After winning a tournament, you always show your muscles in a Popeye-like manner. I think that is very funny. Is there a story behind that?

GH: It is an old tennis habit, a focus thing. But because people have misinterpreted it, I have simply stopped doing it.

RS: You have won many WPT events, but you have yet to win your first EPT event - for the most part, obviously, because you just haven't played all that many. If I remember correctly, the closest you got to winning an EPT event was here in Barcelona, last year. You had lots of chips going to the final table, just like Patrik Antonius. It seemed set in stone that one of you would win it - yet in the end, it was Jan Boubli who took the title. What went wrong?

There was one hand specifically, when I was a bit annoyed, which wasn't even shown on TV. I had raised before the flop with an A-10 or A-8, I don't remember exactly, and the big blind, Chister Johansson, had called. He had worked his way up to the chip lead. With a 9-high flop, he had check-called my bet, and this meant for me that I was basically done with the hand. But then an ace came on the turn, and suddenly I had a hand. I should have checked then, and then maybe made a small value-bet on the river. But I decided to bet on the turn, and got check-raised off a hand that by all means could have been the best. After that, I was simply a bit off my game, and couldn't recover.

RS: You are known for your special type of play: Always dancing around, taking many flops not just by raising a lot but also by calling raises loosely even from out of position, loving the small suited cards while being a lot less fond of hands like A-10 or A-J, and so on. Can you explain what this strategy of yours is about, and do you think that by now your opponents have made the proper adjustments to it?

GH: Any good style should be ever-changing. This tournament that I am playing right now, I haven't played any suited connectors because people are playing very aggressively with a big stack. In some situations, even an A-9 offsuit can be a big hand. Style changes with table image, and I don't think I can be pinned down to just one particular style. But it is correct that I tend to play more hands than others. I can be blamed for lots of things, I guess, but probably not for getting anted off.

Session No. 2:Post-elimination talks
Surprised as I am that Gus Hansen has been eliminated so quickly in the EPT Barcelona, and even more surprised that even after a disappointing early elimination in a major event, a superstar like Hansen keeps his promise to complete what (from his perspective) can possibly be viewed as just another interview, we take our old positions. We sit down again, continue our chat, and basically go on from where we left off about an hour ago.

RS: A large part of your successful strategy is probably based on the assumption that people are afraid to reraise you or bet into you, and this enables you to get away with calling and raising with a wide range of hands - correct? But if I am not mistaken, recently, more and more players have started playing back at you on a structural basis. Do you agree with this premise, and if so, how have you adjusted to it?

GH: Some people are definitely reraising me more. And if they do, I usually adjust properly - for instance, by limping more and raising less, so I can take the reraising play away. But not this time; this time, I had maximum brain damage!

RS: What happened?

GH: I was up against a player who would raise only with a real hand. Then, in a blinds-only confrontation, he reraised me a small amount for what was 100 percent certain kings or aces. Yet, for whatever reason, I decided to come over the top with garbage. I simply handed my chips to this player, and that was that. It was brain damage, all right!

RS: Maybe it's not the best timing on my part, now that you've just been knocked out - but what do you think of the EPT in relation to other events? What do you think could or should be improved, and conversely, are there also things that the Americans can learn from Europe?

Well, we are in Barcelona now, and apart from being mad at myself for playing like an idiot, I think it is OK. But because of the demand, they easily could have had 200 players more, and I think it is a shame that they capped the field. This was the case here last year, as well, and also in Copenhagen. If the venue is not big enough, I think they should simply add a third day or so, because it would be frustrating to come over here, only to see that you cannot play. As for the rest, I like it over here. The structures are OK, and the 60-minute levels suit me fine. I believe that the two-hour levels that many people speak so highly of simply make the game too slow. And I also like the fact that most EPT events are played at eighthanded tables, because eighthanded suits my style of play better than 10-handed.

RS: Whenever you are playing in an event, all eyes tend to be on you - and also, the reporters love you. When I do the TV commentary for the EPT shows in my home country, I am always very happy if you are still in - because you are so colorful and there's always something happening. Is this one of your goals, being a player whom people love to see in action, or is it just a by-product of the way you play? In other words, is pleasing your audience a goal in itself for you, or is it just about the money and the trophies?

GH: It's probably just a by-product. Some people could probably learn something, though, from the way I act and the way I treat people at the table. Quite simply, I think the fact that I play a bit differently than most others is what interests people; I just don't do the straightforward things. But I don't run around or act crazy just because I am on TV. And I also don't make an entire show just because I have been fortunate enough to first get aces and then have them hold up. I just try to be me, and if it turns out that people appreciate it that pleases me - nothing more, nothing less.

Your stats seem to indicate that the period from May 2002 to February 2005 was the time when everything seemed to go your way. But right after that, there was also a relatively long period of time when you did not win any events, until - more recently - you started having lots of success in the invitationals. Do you agree with this analysis, and do you like invitationals as much as "real" events?

Well, I think they simply suit my style very well. A little shorter, shootout type of structure tends to favor aggressive play right from the start, and in those situations, I tend to fare pretty well. If I survive day one in a regular three- or four-day tournament, I tend to do pretty well, too, but sometimes because of the slow structure, I tend to play a bit too loose in the beginning. But in the invitationals, they sometimes cut the first two levels - and this seems to benefit me somewhat.

About the big games and the big money
RS: Here's a personal question that you don't need to answer if you don't want to. Last year at around this time (September), you were said to have gone broke in the "big game" at Bellagio. In fact, you were said to have owed some money to one or two players in that game. Is this true, and if so, can you explain how you have gotten back on your feet again so quickly?

GH: Basically, people just like to talk about what it is that the big players do - and the juicier the story, the better. It is true that I had a bad run, and that I lost fairly big. But according to some stories, I lost $12 million, when it was probably more like $2 million. What started the rumor was that I left Vegas. I had some business to attend to in Denmark, but it took a bit longer than expected, and for this reason, I couldn't attend the 2005 Series. And, yes, I indeed did owe a few hundred thousand, but that is nothing extraordinary within the limits that we play. So, when I got back, I paid, and that was it.

RS: Do you think there is any shame in going broke, or do you think it is just part of the life that you lead? I can imagine that because you probably like to gamble as high as possible, it carries a relatively high risk of going broke. But at the same time, because you've got so many contacts and friends who are willing to help you get back on your feet again in case you do go broke, you are simply willing to take that chance. Is this reasoning of mine correct?

GH: About 10 years ago, it was claimed that you're not a real gambler if you haven't gone broke at least once. Nowadays, many young people who have made their money on the Internet probably never need to go broke - and that's a good thing. I have been broke a couple of times. It's a natural thing, but not a necessity. Also, with the FullTilt deal that I have just struck, I have given myself a bit more financial stability. I am good friends with lots of the guys - Phil [Ivey], Erick [Lindgren], and all - and I am certain that this will be a good deal for both us - the players and FullTilt. Obviously, because I'm a big name in the industry, I got one of the best deals here, and I have concluded that a deal like this is better than staying my own little entity. Anyway, also because of this deal, it seems reasonable to assume that the likelihood of me going broke has gone down somewhat. But knowing my habits, there is always the possibility that it will happen, and I am not bothered by it if it does.

RS: I recently read a column in Card Player by Phil Hellmuth. It was about him and a few other players, including you, who had played a tournament somewhere and then flew back with a specially hired dealer on board. All in all, this meant four players were playing a high-stakes cash game while in the air. You were said to have been one of the winners there. Can you tell me a bit more about that flight?

GH: It was a $500-$1,000 game between Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey, Mike Matusow, and me. When analyzing later how that game had gone, we basically got quite a few different versions. Hellmuth's version was that Gus played crazy poker all the way but got lucky, that Ivey played decently and also got lucky, and that Hellmuth himself played well but had gotten unlucky. Matusow said he had gotten very unlucky, and that I had been very lucky. Surprisingly enough, the two players who actually won agreed on how things had gone: plus 60K for me, plus 50K for Ivey, minus 20K for Hellmuth, and minus 90K for Matusow. Ivey said that this result was quite fair, and so did I. Quite simply, there were two winning players and two losing ones - as was shown by the results. There you go, Rolf - a little needle for Hellmuth and Matusow.

RS: Sometime ago, you sold your share in PokerChamps. Why did you do that? Was it a good deal, did you simply want to spend your time elsewhere, or do you have plans with another site?

GH: PokerChamps was a good idea, and we had some good people working - but all in all, we were not professional enough to make it flourish and shine the way it should have. I think we did a good job for our customers, and I am certain that most of them were very happy with us. But it was my view that we should sell the whole thing, and ultimately, the others agreed - for what in the end turned out to be quite a profitable deal for all of us.

RS: OK, Gus, let's get back to this big Bellagio game - where you regularly play with Doyle Brunson, Sammy Farha, Chip Reese, Chau Giang, Barry Greenstein, and the likes. Can you tell me about the size of this game, and just as importantly, what it takes to beat those games?

It's a big game. Usually we play six limit games, then pot-limit Omaha, no-limit hold'em, and no-limit deuce-to-seven lowball. There's a cap of $100,000 on every hand, meaning no one can lose more than 100 grand on a single hand, and this makes it a bit of a tournament structure - very aggressive by nature. The edge in this specific game is good knowledge of your opponents, I would say. This factor alone could easily make or save you 70K on a single hand. Also, a little bit of recklessness, and good knowledge of which cards play well in which situations, is required. As for the limit games, a good understanding of the cards and the odds is imperative, and a fairly straightforward, aggressive style is recommended. All in all, it is beatable, all right, but it's not easy.

RS: You are often portrayed as a "bad boy" - in the WPT Bad Boys of Poker, for instance. Doesn't this nickname irritate you?

GH: In general, I don't pay much attention to what people call me. If the truth is negative, it is OK. The only thing I don't like is negative rumors. But you can't care all the time about what the world says or thinks. Just take President Bush; if he cared, he would have a hard time sleeping at night.

You regularly play in High Stakes Poker, the televised cash game. Can you tell me about that game, the things that you like, dislike, and so on. And, of course, how good have your results been?

It has a pretty good structure: $300-$600 blinds with a relatively high $100 ante. High antes stimulate action. But we are all very deep-stacked, with a minimum buy-in of $100,000. It's a good mix of action, yet there's still enough room for play, and there are always lots of stars. It's good that they haven't made the blinds 1K-2K or so; the current formula seems to work quite well. The show is fairly popular, and not without reason, I would say. I play for myself, with 100 percent my own money, and I am pretty certain that for most others, it is the same.

RS: Here's a simple question: How did you do in the World Series?

GH: Simple question, simple answer: Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. I did poorly in the cash games. I played in five of the events - and did not make any kind of money. For the Omaha eight-or-better event, I made a last-longer bet with Sammy Farha - who happened to win it. And then I made another last-longer bet with Chip Reese for the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event - and he won, too! And in the main event, I was eliminated 15 minutes before the end of day one. All in all, it was not a good World Series - but hey, life goes on.

RS: About two weeks ago, I played for the first time in the big FullTilt pot-limit Omaha game. As opposed to the regular shorthanded $200-$400 blinds game, this was a full-ring $100-$200 game. The funny thing is, we played just 26 hands together in that game, Gus - yet in those 26 hands, you managed to make almost as much as I had made in the previous 80,000 hands! Anyway, I have followed you quite a bit in those $200-$400 games, as I hope to step up to that game fairly soon. In addition, I also check out the no-limit hold'em games every now and then, simply because they are so exciting. Do you agree that they are exciting, and can you tell some more about these games?

GH: I've been playing there on and off since the World Series, and I would rate my results as mediocre to poor. I've had fairly bad success in the pot-limit Omaha games, good success in Omaha eight-or-better, and I don't play a lot of no-limit hold'em. Since starting, I am about even now. Or, to be exact, I am stuck $12,000, but within the limits of these games, this is nothing, of course. Sometimes I am just not focused enough, because I do so many different things while playing that I should refrain from doing - like answering e-mail and such. And with pot-limit Omaha - well, you know how it goes. The swings can be huge, and especially in the really big pots, you are almost never much of a favorite. Heck, sometimes you are not much of a favorite even when you have the nuts on the flop! I remember a hand in which I had A-A-8-2 on a flop of Adiamond 8spade 4diamond, when my opponent had 8diamond 7diamond 6spade 5spade - meaning that despite my top set, I wasn't exactly in great shape. And, quite clearly, winning or losing one or two of these massive 55-45 or 50-50 pots can make a huge difference overall.

RS: In these big games, who do you think are the biggest winners? I have heard Patrik Antonius and David Benyamine; is this correct?

GH: No. In fact, despite being a good player, David is actually a fairly big loser in these games, mostly because there is too much difference between his winning and his losing game. Patrik Antonius is indeed a very big winner. I think this has to do with not just the fact that he is a great player, but also because he has gotten his education on the Internet. As is the case with Erik Sagström, another big winner, Patrik is basically playing on home territory, and this gives him a big edge on almost all of the good brick-and-mortar players, who only recently have made the transfer to online. While for the young Internet guys, everything comes naturally, I know I need to make some adjustments to the things I do now. For instance, I know that I have more trouble than they do with playing multiple tables, so if we all play in four or five games at the same time, this will be to their advantage. All in all, I have done quite decently, but not great just yet. Of course, it is a very streaky game - and I can only hope that soon I will catch one of those lucky streaks again.

Gus, the Ladies Man
In addition to his performance at the table, Gus is known to have quite some effect on the ladies - on both their mental and physical states of mind. No interview with the Great Dane is complete without at least some talk about the ladies - so I decided to give him some room to talk about his favorite subject. As it turned out, it was I who did almost all the talking.

RS: Just before your elimination, I saw you have a little chat with Isabelle Mercier, as you always do when the two of you are playing in the same tournament. A while ago - as you know - I did a cover story about Isabelle. In that interview, she had the following, what I viewed to be interesting, remark. In response to a quote from one of her earlier interviews, which was, "I did have a relationship with another poker player - but I kept beating him," she argued about having been misquoted in that story. She then explained to me: "I hadn't said I was beating him all of the time, just that I was a slightly better player overall. Still, because this was someone who was considered a brilliant mind, his ego couldn't stand getting things rubbed in by me, a girl."

So, my obvious question to you is: This guy couldn't by chance have been you, could it?

GH: No. The truth is that Isabelle and I are indeed very good friends, but we have played poker together only maybe one time or so. So, good investigative journalism, Rolf - but the answer is no.

RS: On the circuit, you are known as a real ladies man; you're always busy talking to the girls and all. In fact, I just watched one of the WPT tapes with Daniel Negreanu as the commentator, and this is exactly what he coined you: Gus, the ladies man. Can you tell me more about this?

GH: Well, I'm single, I'm a poker player, and I travel a lot. Being a professional gambler, I guess I simply do whatever I want, and whenever I want it. No one dictates whether or not Phil Ivey and I go out to play golf - we just do it. Take these personal characteristics of mine, and all the traveling, and it shouldn't be hard to see that all of this doesn't fit very well within a serious relationship. You never know when a good poker game will come up; it just might be her birthday! Quite simply, I like to keep my options open, and if occasionally I bump into a good girl - well, I don't mind. That's all there is to it, basically. spade