How often do you get the chance to play against one of the world’s top poker pros – in a humble 60-person, £80 tournament? I know; never. But last night the impossible happened. Thanks to its tie-in with PokerStars and Full Tilt, London’s Hippodrome casino brought Gus Hansen down to play with us mere mortals.
Gus Hansen!! This is how big a deal that is:
Two years ago, for an article in Conde Nast Traveller, I flew to Macau and tracked down the legendary “Big Game”. Here, in the Starworld casino, Chinese billionaires are locked nightly in mortal combat with the best poker players the West can throw at them – the whales against the sharks. The pros that night were John Juanda, Sam Trickett, Tom Dwan and, yes, Gus Hansen.
Gus had “only” about 40 orange chip plaques – each is worth HK$100,000, or about £10,000, so that’s nearly half a million quid. The businessmen’s plaques, on the other hand, rose in front of them like the Great Wall of China.
From my lowly 1-2 table nearby, I crane my head to see Gus push half his stack into the centre of the table — £200,000 in a single hand! His opponent picks up some chips, seems about to call; reconsiders… and folds. Chalk one up to Gus.
I am hoping to sneak a quick interview with Gus, having played on his table at the World Series of Poker Europe (I outlasted him, too), but the pit boss says simply, “No break.” “I’ll catch him when he goes to the toilet, then,” I say. The pit boss just laughs: “That won’t happen. Sometimes they play for 20 hours straight.”
Even so, I hang around, playing 1-2, watching as much of the game as I can see beyond the protective screens. I pack it in at 8am; they’re still going strong. By this time Gus has tripled up – that’s £800,000 profit in six hours. And now I see why he hasn’t stood up from the table, not even once. At that rate, I calculate that a five-minute break to “spend a penny” would cost him, on average, £10,000.
And now we few, we lucky 60 who have braved no more than a Tube journey to sit at the PokerStars Live Lounge’s fourth-floor balcony tables, have the chance to pit our wits against this Poker Master for a measly £80.
So what is it like to play against a man whose live tournament earnings alone surpass $11million? Here’s Six Things I Learned About Gus Hansen…
1. He’s generous. He’s nice to everyone on the table, trading small talk and jokes. When the waitress hands him some water, he slips her a £5 note. “What’s that for?” she asks. “For you,” says Gus. She still looks baffled. “A tip,” explains Gus. The waitress grins like a schoolgirl. She’s not used to seeing anything bigger than a £1 chip tossed on to her tray.
2. Then again, he can afford to be. I tell Gus I saw him at the Big Game in Starworld a while back. He grins. “I’m doing gooood in that one,” he says, elongating the ‘o’ for emphasis. “Doing real good.”
3. He knows when to fold ‘em. Early in the tournament, with the big blind still at 100 on a starting stack of 5,000, Gus raises to 350. Fellow Full Tilt pro Sin Menis Melin shoves all-in. She even gets another caller – now Gus has value. He dwells… and folds Ace-King. Dead right. Sin had pocket Aces.
4. And he knows when to hold ‘em. “I’ve just got this weird feeling I’m ahead,” he says, calling an all-in shove of 2,800 by a previously tight player on the button, with the big blind still at 200. The other guy shows J6, more commonly known as “Jack-sh**”. Gus has A8. Good call! Even so, Gus is just 64% to win… which plunges to 13% when the Jack comes on the flop… until Gus catches an Ace on the river. That’s poker.
5. Even Gus Hansen is still learning. “How’s it going?” asks a passing friend. “Pretty good,” says Gus, “I’ve introduced a new element to my game.” “What’s that?” “Folding!” he laughs.
6. But apparently not fast enough! I twice saw Gus make smallish river bets on a dangerous board, presumably to test the water and dampen down any potential bluffs, as well as maybe squeezing out a little value. One board had three sixes showing; Gus had pocket Aces. The second time, I myself called his river bet with just a pair of fives, on a board with four cards to the straight, just because it would have been cool to say that I had caught Gus bluffing. No chance. He’d actually made trips on the flop with pocket sevens. Later in the tournament, however, the new-found love of folding Gus had joked about deserted him: he was knocked out with what he later called a “ridiculous” river bluff.
What a great night. Daniel Taylor was the guy who knocked Gus out: the bounty on the pro’s head was a seat at the PokerStars UKIPT series here on April 11-13. The first prize of £1490 was won by Sarah Berry. And, I console myself after I bust out against Sin’s second pocket Aces of the night, in a very real sense we’re all winners: the Hippodrome has just introduced a leaderboard, with points for every player – eventual grand prize, a PokerStars sponsorship to all weekend multi-day tournaments including the UKIPT.