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The Family Man Can

Juha Helppi mixes family and poker for one sweet treat

by Sami Hernesaho |  Published: Oct 01, 2007

At the 2006 World Series of Poker, Juha Helppi was one card away from fulfilling a lifelong dream - becoming the first Finnish player to win a coveted bracelet. That dream was dashed, and with the birth of his son, increasingly restrictive legislation, and a possible move away from his beloved homeland, the landscape for this unassuming poker player has changed dramatically.

Helppi's home gives few clues about his successful career as a poker pro. There are no open laptops lying around, no poker magazines here and there, no chips scattered on tables. Only a trophy for his $125,000 win in the televised, all-star lineup PartyPoker Premier League championship in March 2007, sitting modestly beside the television, hints at his day job.

"If I don't think about prize money, the most valuable trophy for me so far is the Premier League championship. It was a tough one-week tournament, and I was happy to beat Phil Hellmuth," said Helppi, smiling.

It's understandable that Juha enjoyed pushing Hellmuth from the final table, because Phil left Juha one crucial card short of a WSOP bracelet in the $1,000 no-limit hold'em rebuy tournament in 2006, when a long-shot river card gave Hellmuth a winning hand. Fewer than 10 hands later, Hellmuth won his 10th bracelet.

"It took a lot of time to swallow that defeat," said the Finn. "If I had a bracelet already, it would not have hurt so bad, but I was so close to my first one, and also a major international tournament win, and this year I've tried hard to make it up to myself."
A well-known hothead, Hellmuth lost his temper and focus at the final table of the Premier League.

"Away from the tables, Phil is a nice guy, but in poker, he gets overexcited. I heard later that he was eager to meet me after his loss in a $100,000 heads-up match, but he never made this proposition to me."

Extreme Professional
The Premier League, filmed in the UK, is currently being shown across Europe, and it featured 12 world-class players, including Hellmuth, Tony G, Andy Black, Liz Lieu, and Dave "Devil Fish" Ulliott.

Helppi's win has provoked lots of invitations to participate in other TV tournaments.

"TV cameras, hot lights, and all of that certainly mess up the concentration of less-experienced players, but they do not affect my game. Exceptional circumstances do not stop me from playing my very best," claimed Helppi, referring to his much publicised participation in a remarkable invitational underwater poker tournament.

"It was total fun. I had never dived before and the game was 10 meters below the surface in full scuba gear. If someone ran out of oxygen, he was automatically out. Half of the success was the ability to breathe slowly to save air. The game was finally over in 30 minutes."

Another extreme tournament by Juha's sponsor Interpoker was held in freezing conditions on ice. The preliminary plan was to play in a spacious snow castle on firm ground, but prohibitive local regulations prevented this, and the game was moved from the city of Kemi in northern Finland to a frozen sea.

"When someone was busted out, he had to make a rebuy against his coat. Some of the guys ended up playing with only a shirt on; that was tough," said Helppi with understatement.

He obviously thrives in extreme conditions, but one offer was a step too far.

"In conjunction with last year's WSOP, a tournament was played in a freight plane over the Nevada desert. If you busted out from the game, you had to parachute to the ground. They asked me many times over to get into this game, but since I have a mild phobia for high places, I skipped the offer."

Legislation Kills Limit
Helppi worked for the Finnish gaming monopoly until 2003 as a dealer in his native town of Turku, Finland. This taught him a profession, and in his free time he participated in cash games at Casino Helsinki, still the only legal grand casino in Finland.

"Well-known poker faces then and now in Finland are about the same. I got to know them early, and they know now that I'm not an easy opponent to beat," Helppi stated.

Around that time, he was introduced to online poker by a friend. He started with $200 and never made another deposit.

"My first game was fixed limit, especially heads up. I was too impatient to take part in full rings."

Big-limit games were his bread and butter, but changes in U.S. legislation saw big-money players vanish, and that killed the games almost totally, hurting many professional players.

Changing Landscape
His next game of choice was pot-limit Omaha. He plays online 20-30 hours a week, although his newborn son restricts his online hours now.

"I play when my son and wife are asleep, or away from home. Especially now that my son is still very young, I wish to spend as much time with him as possible. This also means that I do not travel as often as I used to. I'll go to the U.S. only twice this year, when I used to go four times," explained Helppi.

During the last three years, he would travel as much as four months each year chasing suitable games. Travel, hotels, and being away from home are a physical and mental challenge, and from time to time, also a financial one.

"You need to be a tough guy to manage in pro poker, because it takes not only mental and physical stamina, but also the ability to deal with expenses; flights, buy-ins, lodging, and all of that costs a lot of money," he said.

Sponsorship deals help in some cases, but not always, since in TV tournaments, more often than not, sponsor logos are not allowed. Changes in the U.S. law also killed the interest of outside sponsors.

"It's so sad, because many large companies were already considering poker sponsorships, but when the law changed, they withdrew almost overnight. It cost poker companies and poker players worldwide a lot," he bemoaned.

Move on Monopoly
Helppi's old employer, the state gaming monopoly, politically commands the sector in Finland, and he is outraged at the incompetence and ignorance of the local legislators.

"I'm amazed how the current CEO of the games monopoly, former Cabinet Minister Sinikka Mönkäre, publicly hails Great Britain and Germany for forbidding online poker. She also maintains that France is considering a similar action."

He wonders where Mönkäre got this false information and why she isn't straightened out in the media. The Finnish pro confesses that he cannot avoid fears that the local politicians in Finland may try to copy the U.S. legal move.

"They should understand that in the U.S., the motives were purely financial. My guess is that sooner or later, the U.S. government will overturn this peculiar law when it first secures the profits and taxes of this huge business area to stay inside U.S. borders."

Helppi currently resides in Helsinki, where an ordinary suburban home is the family "castle" for the world-class poker pro, his spouse, and now their newborn son, Sami. He does not deny that he has had serious thoughts about moving from Finland to ease participation in the biggest live games.

Online poker has made it possible for him to stay at home, but the situation may change, and then Finland will be short one top player and prominent taxpayer.

"If they decide to forbid online poker here, or if they try to make it more difficult for us, I will have no choice but to move abroad," stated Helppi. "It is my profession, and without online poker, I'm not able to support my family. Except during a few international tournaments, games at the local casino (owned and operated by the state monopoly) are too small for most professionals."

Ego and Tilt
When games get tougher and interesting tables are fewer than before, Helppi is even more keen about his bankroll.

"I represent the younger generation of players, and among my peers I'm probably the most careful. I never risk more than 5 percent of my bankroll in one session. I'm happy to keep money in the bank when I do not feel like playing or when I just need to take a break," he explained.

"I do not have a compulsion to play against pros who I know to be better than I am. I always pick levels that are suitable to my game, and only occasionally visit levels higher than that. I seldom play against Phil Ivey or Patrik Antonius, because they are so good," he confessed.

He does not like the way the media portrays pro poker careers.

"Everyone should understand that you cannot become a pro on a par to Patrik Antonius overnight. Most people never make it. Even the best of the best may tilt sometimes; that's the reverse side of the chip."

He gave two major reasons why a pro may go broke. He also said he wholeheartedly tries to avoid them in his own game.

"Some players are just tilt-prone, and their egos are too big. Especially in online poker, you can destroy your career with just one click of a mouse. Ego problems also plague many young and good players, and stop them from hopping into pro boots, because they may be reluctant to recover from a bad beat at lower-level tables."

He claims not to have a tilt problem, but admits that he may curse aloud if a big fish slips through his fingers.

"I seldom say anything during a tournament, but at the Premier League, I broke my image of the 'Silent Finn' by provoking Phil Hellmuth as best I could. It went well, I suppose," he said, grinning.

Telltale TV
Many pro players may use colorful language and grand gestures in front of TV cameras, but outside that, they are just ordinary guys, said Helppi.

"With Hellmuth, Mike Matusow, and Phil Laak, it's 100 percent show to provoke media and TV attention," he said, hinting that he is intentionally more conservative. "One slip of the tongue during the game may give your opponents a crucial tell. That's why I keep my mouth shut when the cards are in the air. I admire Chris Ferguson and Phil Ivey for their sixth sense, which always helps them to know who is on tilt and who is protecting his stack to the next day."

Helppi is modest when talking about his skills, eventually listing an ability to read tells and sense the state of mind of his opponents.

"In live situations, I try to check the sense of mind of all players as soon as I can. Naturally, it's more difficult in tournaments if tables are broken every so often. Online, it's virtually impossible, except in cash games. That's why my way is to be as quick and aggressive as possible in heads-up games, to make my opponent tilt and pick off his money."

In the earlier stages of his career, he was even more aggressive than now. TV appearances have moderated his game, but they also have been extremely useful. "I watch all of my performances at TV tables and try to learn from them," he confided. "Then I have a way of rethinking if something I did was right or wrong. Cameras that reveal cards also work for my opponents, so I play nowadays with a more limited selection of hands than before."

Family Guy
Long tournaments and extensive travel are easier if his friends also participate. He is happier when he is joined by his countrymen Ville Walhlbeck, Jani Vilmunen, Jani Sointula, and Thomas Wahlroos at WSOP or European Poker Tour events.

"They are all very talented, and it's amusing and useful to exchange thoughts with them about situations in which we all have been. This gives us more confidence and makes it possible to play even better in the future. Friends also can give you tips about opponents that may be unknown to you but known to them."

But, naturally, it happens sometimes that the best of friends end up playing against each other.

"In poker, friendships are set aside. But since you know how your friends play, it makes the situation even more challenging. On the other hand, since I know some of them so well and really appreciate their skill, I try to avoid playing against them with lesser hands that are perfectly OK against less-skilled players."

If he suffers a tournament loss, Helppi often goes straight home, although big side games can be tempting to help rebuild both his bankroll and confidence.

"It always hurts to be number two; it's much worse than being number three. After a heavy loss, you do not have a restful state of mind, so the worst thing to do is to sit down in a big cash game. And it's also a tough situation for me if I drop early. I cannot take it easy, so I need to avoid cash games then, too."

The urge to rush home is greater now that his family situation has changed. "I try to spare as much time for my son and family as I can; less travel, less online poker, but better results, due to positive feelings and self-confidence," said the happy new father.