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Going 12 Rounds with Jeff Madsen

Two Bracelets for WSOP Young Gun

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Like his favorite character from the movie Fight Club, Jeff Madsen has rebelled against popular thought by taking matters into his own hands. Taking after the crazy alter ego of the movie's main character, Tyler Durden, Madsen recently unleashed a campaign of utter mayhem upon the World Series of Poker, leaving a wake of players wondering exactly what hit them.

In Fight Club, Durden says that real life isn't supposed to be so good. "We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very pissed off," Durden said in the movie. With his recent wins, however, Madsen has shown the exact opposite to be true.

Although this famous movie line may apply to most people who play poker, for film student Madsen the film's gritty reality is not the world he lives in. At 21 and seven weeks, he became the youngest player to defy big odds and won a World Series of Poker bracelet in the $2,000 no-limit hold'em event. Madsen didn't just stop there. Four days after winning his first title, he won another bracelet in the $5,000 short-handed no-limit tournament.

With two bracelets and four final table appearances at this year's WSOP, Madsen has exploded onto the poker scene. Leaving no trace of his competitors, Madsen has railed pros and amateurs alike, showing no mercy on his way to earning over $1.4 million at this year's Series.

Card Player caught up with Madsen after his second bracelet victory and sat down with the young champ to find out what makes him tick.

Michael Friedman: Where were you born?
Jeff Madsen: Santa Monica, California.

MF: When?
JM: June, 7, 1985. I'm 21 years and 7 weeks old.

MF: Where do you live now?
JM: I live in Los Angeles, but I go to college in Santa Barbra. I was raised in Los Angeles, spending my whole life in the same house until I went to college.

MF: How long have you been playing poker?
JM: About four years. I really started playing when I first got to college.

MF: What first got you involved with the game?
JM: My friends really got me into it. It was more casual at first, but once I got to college, I found a nearby Indian casino that would let me play. I started going there a lot and it took off from there.

MF: Was there a defining moment when you realized that poker was going to be your game?
JM: They had a weekly tournament at the casino that I won the first time I played it. It is their biggest event and that made me feel really comfortable. I knew I had a chance to make money and play poker for a living.

MF: What is your major at college and what is it like for you?
JM: I am majoring in film studies. It's a very social life and the weather is nice. It's a small little college community and I enjoy being there.

MF: What's the poker scene like on campus?
JM: It's good. They have occasional poker tournaments on campus and plenty of home games around. With the casino close by, there are a lot of good players around.

MF: What have you taken from your studies to the felt?
JM: I guess it would just be studying itself. I've read a lot of poker books and treated it like a class at first. I really learned to be patient and stay focused.

MF: Were you playing a lot of online poker at the time?
JM: I've never really played a lot online. I've gone through phases when I've played for a little bit, but I'm much more of a live player.

MF: What were you playing live?
JM: I played mostly small limits and built my bankroll. I was playing mostly $2-$5 no limit with a $200 buy-in. Before the World Series, however, I really didn't have a large bankroll. I really didn't have much of a chance to play a lot last year, so I wasn't working with much. I had to borrow money to play in the Series. My parents actually lent me money so I could play.

MF: So your parents supported your play?
JM: My parents have always known I played poker and I convinced them that I was a good player. I explained that I could make money at the World Series and they helped me out. I also borrowed money from my college fund that my grandfather had put away for me. I got just enough money to play in six tournaments and make a run for the final event.

MF: How do they feel about your play now that you've won two bracelets and $1.4 million?
JM: They're really proud of me and excited. Before, like every parent, I think they were skeptical of me playing poker and gambling. When I started winning tournaments they came to see that I could really play.

MF: What is your favorite aspect of the game?
JM: I just love the sheer competition of it. The one-on-one play and the "you versus him" aspect. I love the psychological portion of the game. I love trying to read my opponents and put them on a hand. It's always fun to try and figure out other players' patterns and get inside their heads.

MF: How important is the math versus reading a player?
JM: I think the math used to be important to me. Now math really isn't anything any more; it's automatic. Today I focus more on reading players and seeing their tendencies. Math only comes in when you have to call for pot odds. I use math maybe 10 percent of the time.

MF: Who was your toughest read on the way to your first bracelet?
JM: There were a lot of players who acted the same and have the same patterns. This event had a lot of good pros playing. Probably the most difficult was John Juanda, but I picked up a lot of information on most of the players. I just used what I learned and played my hand accordingly. I really didn't have that much trouble because I think I have a talent for understanding the psychological aspects of the game.

MF: Define your playing style.
JM: I play hyper-aggressive. I'm a "feel" player. I tend to move away from the mathematics and focus on what players are doing at the tables. Every situation is different. It depends on the player, your position at the time, as well as other things.

MF: How do you feel about luck?
JM: On any given day, luck can be a huge factor. It can be 100 percent, but in the long run, no one can continually win based on just being lucky. In the long run, the game is 99 percent skill. For me to have four cashes in four different events shows that it was more than just luck for me. Everybody has to get good cards to win, but that doesn't mean they can outplay everyone else.

MF: Do you feel you have made a reputation for yourself with the four cashes in four different events?
JM: Hopefully the pros will give me some respect. Sometimes it works out better that they don't.

MF: Are you more of a tournament or a cash game player?
JM: I've always been a tournament player. I play cash games, but more for practice than anything else. I'm pretty much a tournament specialist.

MF: What books did you read on poker to help your game?
JM: Super/System and Harrington's books. I read some of T.J. Cloutier's stuff as well. My first book was Phil Hellmuth's Play Poker with the Pros, so I remember that one the most. It was a good one for beginners.

MF: Who has influenced your game?
JM: People keep asking me that and I say Phil Ivey. He's really focused and calm all the time. His style is fearless and he is also a "feel" player. I spent a lot of time watching his play over the last four years.

MF: What happens when you go one-on-one against Phil Ivey?
JM: I'm just thinking about what he's thinking. I'm going to try and get in his head and figure out what he's doing. I've watched him on television and pretty much understand the way he plays. I think we would be a great heads-up match. I play a lot like him. It would be interesting to see if I would be able to get a read on him.

MF: While you're watching another player's tells, are you focusing on your own?
JM: I try to be conscious of how I act. Seeing how people read you is another big aspect of the game. It's a challenge to sometimes give off tells to get people to do what you want them to do.

MF: How tough is the playing at the WSOP?
JM: It's tough being here and playing in so many events. Sometimes they just take so long. It can be grueling but it's fun because it is on the biggest stage in the world. Just knowing that makes it worth it.

MF: What does it take to win in a large field?
JM:
Besides getting good cards, you just have to play your game and stay focused. It's all about being aggressive and taking it to other players. If you sit back and get blinded down, you're never going to win a tournament.

MF: Which is more important, the bracelets or the money?
JM: At this point, definitely the bracelets. The money was good at first, because I didn't have any money. I had to win if I wanted to play more poker. At this point though, the titles are what counts.

MF: Take readers through your first final table appearance.
JM: I was the chip leader in the Omaha event and just played well the whole way. I was happy to make it, but I wanted to win. I thought I was going to be nervous, but I really wasn't. I just played my game and finished third and made $100,000. It was just so much money for me, so I was happy. It was really cool to play against Negreanu as well.

MF: What was it like winning the first bracelet?
JM: It was kind of surreal. I came in at fourth or fifth in chips. There really weren't any big pros at my table. I just thought I could do well. I had been playing with these guys for a couple of days now and had a pretty good feel for what I was doing. I knew if I played well I could take it down. I have to admit, I got lucky in a few situations like when my queens ran into aces, four-handed. I spiked a queen on the flop and got lucky. That hand made me the chip leader. Heads-up also only lasted one hand. It just happened so fast. It might have been a bit better if it had been a longer more drawn-out table.

MF: And the second bracelet?
JM: Winning four days later in the $5,000 short-handed event was just as good. I liked this tournament better because there were more pros playing. With a lot less people and more pros, the level of overall play was better. When it got down to the final table, I was short-stacked, but I really wasn't worried. I basically sat back and let Erick Lindgren do all the work for me. He took out a few players and then I took out the last player. Then it was me and him battling heads-up.

He's a pro, so I kind of know how he plays from watching him on television. I won a big race against him with ace-king and just tried to chip away at his 2-to-1 chip lead. Because I play a lot like him, I felt pretty comfortable being in his head and trying to figure out his motives during the heads-up play. When I won, it was a weird feeling. Two bracelets in one year doesn't seem possible, but it happened.

MF: How hard will it be to sit in a classroom knowing you took down Erick Lindgren?
JM: It will be fun. In the middle of a boring lecture, I'll be able to think about taking him down. I'm sure I'll spend a lot of time looking forward to the next tournament I'm going to play.

MF: Your grandmother passed away during the tournament. How difficult was it to stay in the game?
JM: She had been sick and had cancer for a couple of years. She was doing fine, but a couple of weeks after I left for Vegas she got worse. It was tough. She was in the hospital and in serious condition. I tried to stay focused and play my game. My parents told me that things would be okay and that I shouldn't let it affect me. I don't really think I did. I guess I won it for her.

MF: On a lighter note, $1.4 million at 21, what's the plan?
JM: It's kind of ridiculous considering I've never seen more than $8,000 at once in my life. The $1.4 million is a number I can't really grasp. I don't know what I'm going to do with it yet. I haven't even left Vegas so I'm not exactly sure. I definitely need a new car. I'm not going to gamble it away or be stupid about it. Obviously, I'm going to also play more poker with it.

MF: Are you going to finish school?
JM: I am going to try. I'm going back for my last year. It might be tough with all the stuff going on right now, but I'm going to try.

MF: What did you do to celebrate your victories?
JM: I haven't really done much yet, no real crazy partying. For the second bracelet, I had a bunch of friends come up and we went out. I'll party soon enough!