Unravelling Gus

Updated: October 12, 2006, 4:01 PM ET
By BLUFF

Few people in the poker world are viewed with as much fascination and awe as Gus Hansen. Perhaps that's why he will forever be subject of rumor and innuendo -- "Gus went broke," whisper the chat rooms. "Gus owes the big gamers $18 billion;" "Gus won all his money back and then lost it playing keno at the Gold Coast;" "Where the hell is Gus, anyway?"

Where the hell is Gus? Where is that implacable force of nature that plowed its way through the first season of the World Poker Tour? Who was that guy, twitching and jerking, rubbing his chin, lolling his head and rolling his eyes, flinging his chips into the pot with that inscrutable shrug? And how could he get away with playing that garbage?

Because he's been conspicuously absent from poker's final tables over the past year and a half, people naturally assume Gus Hansen is holed up somewhere in his laboratory, laughing maniacally as he fuses together 7-4 off-suit like some crazed poker alchemist, or slaving over his latest mathematical theorem which proves, beyond a doubt, that two plus two actually equals 511.

And so here it is. A world exclusive. Bluff Magazine can finally reveal the truth. For the past two years, Gus has been … chilling out.

"I'm actually a very simple guy," Gus shrugs as he relaxes at home in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he lives for a couple of months a year, dividing the rest of his time between Las Vegas and his house in Monaco. "I'm doing what I've always enjoyed doing, which is gambling and playing sports. I still play a lot of tennis. I play golf and soccer, too. I have my family and friends and those are basically my hobbies. I guess you can throw in an occasional drink and an occasional girlfriend. I'm a pretty happy camper. I like what I do. It's not that bad, let me tell you that."

And there you have it. The truth. Gus Hansen has spent the last two years being Gus Hansen. And what of the "broke" rumors? Well, on to them later. First, let's go back to the beginning.

In the beginning, there was Gus

Gustav Hansen was born on the outskirts of Copenhagen in 1973. The son of an engineer and a languages teacher, he describes his upbringing as "very normal" -- a happy, textbook, middle-class Danish upbringing. Like most kids his age, he quickly developed a fascination with sports, mainly tennis, table-tennis and soccer.

"You name it. Anything with a ball, I played it," he says.

Gus Hansen
Shelly Castellano/Icon SMIProfessional Poker Player Gustav "Gus" Hansen of Denmark getting ready to play with over $400,000.00 US in chips at the WPT World Poker Tour Invitational at the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, CA. Texas Hold'em card game.

In those days, physical games took precedence over those of mental strategy, but throughout Gus' life, a deck of cards has never been too far away.

"When you were on summer camp playing soccer or tennis, there were always a lot of boys getting together and somebody always brought a deck of cards. So I've always been around card games. We would gamble for nickels or dimes or whatever, so I've always been used to gambling, although on a much smaller scale, of course. But you've got to start somewhere."

Gradually, however, Gus began to recognize his aptitude for all kinds of games -- be it chess, backgammon, gin rummy, or bridge -- and embarked upon what he calls his "first small steps in the gambling direction." When he turned 18, he took a year off before college to play backgammon, which by then had become his main game.

"I never went back to school," he adds.

In his pursuit of backgammon, Gus bumped into the legendary professional gambler Mike Svobodny. The two bonded and Mike became a mentor for the young Gus, who still counts him as one of his closest friends.

"I might have had a small edge on the backgammon table, but he had a big edge gambling-wise," Gus says. "So he beat me for a little bit and taught me about the ins and outs of gambling. There are two things to being a professional gambler. You can be a good gambler and you can be a good games player, and I've always been a pretty good games player. The gambling aspect is something that you have to learn. Basically, Mike is a very good gambler. He has a good sense of people and he knows when he's beat and when he has to walk away from the table. That's always been his strong point, while my strong point has always been the game playing itself. That's where I have an edge. Sometimes my gambling manners haven't been too good. I stay too long, I get too involved. The ego gets in the way. That's a very important thing if you want to succeed as a professional gambler: You can't let your ego get in the way, because you can't win all the time and you can't beat everybody."

Mike introduced Gus to Vegas, as well as to the backgammon clubs of New York, which in the mid-90s, were in their heyday, and a skilled backgammon player could make a lot of dough. It was here that Gus discovered poker -- a game which was, at that time, practically nonexistent in his native Denmark.

"I found poker interesting, like I did most games. I mean, I liked the combination of skill and luck and it's always fun to try and outmaneuver your opponent one way or another," he said. "If I get introduced to a new game, I usually find it fascinating. It was around '97 or '98, and I decided that backgammon had slowed down a little bit. And then there was Vegas. I decided that Vegas must be out there for some kind of reason."

The Wild Man is Born

"He played very bad. I would like to play this game with him every day for the rest of my life," said Freddy Deeb, who had just turned several shades of tilt after Gus eliminated him in third place from the Five Diamond Classic in 2002, with a completely implausible holding. Gus went on to take his first WPT title, and no one had seen anything quite like it. Was it luck? Was Gus insane? Or was he just thinking outside the box? The answer came nine months later, when he won the L.A. Poker Classic. Then two months later, he won the WPT Bad Boys of Poker. Then he won the Five Diamond Classic again. The poker world was captivated.

A phrase that's often used to describe Gus is one that, appropriately enough, was first used to describe his fellow countryman, Hamlet: "There is method to his madness." Unlike Hamlet, however, for Gus, 2-3 or not 2-3 was always the question.

Gus had spent the preceding four years developing a style all his own; a style born of a fiercely independent frame of mind and a willingness to experiment.

"I've always had my own style -- in most things I do," he muses. "First of all, I think it's more fun to find your own little path. A lot of times, just because a lot of people do something in one particular way doesn't necessarily mean that's the right way to do it. It might be a good indicator of the right way to do things, but it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. I like to take a different turn, and sometimes I end up down the wrong street, but sometimes I take a shortcut. Sometimes I'm right. In poker, when you do things differently, you sometimes catch people by surprise -- that's one of the basic elements of good poker. You don't want to do the same thing over and over because people will find it easy to read what you're doing. But if you do different things, and things they don't expect, you catch them by surprise."

He wasn't always a winner, although he was able to hold his own in the early days, testing his theories at the lower limits.

"When I'd just learned poker," he says, "of course I lost in my $3-$6 hold 'em game; but I barely knew that a straight beat a flush." (Um, sorry, Gus. Last time we checked a flush beats a straight.)

"I was a beginner, like everybody else. But I picked it up quickly. I'm really bad at keeping track -- I still am -- but I think I managed to survive and still pay my bills and get food on the table. I think I won a little bit here and there. Then as I got more experienced, things changed for the better. I won a bit more; that's basically how it went."

So how does Gus describe his style?

"I would say I think I'm less of an instinctive player than people give me credit for," he says. "There is a method to the madness, as you say. There's a reason why I'm doing things, and a lot of the time, it just starts out as simple math. Basically, when people see me turn over a crazy hand that turns out to be the nuts -- a 2-3 off-suit or 2-4 off-suit -- a lot of times, you'll find that I had that hand on the button with nobody else in the pot, and I'm raising to try and steal the blinds. When you're on the button, you don't need to be too concerned about your own hand. You might be able to just raise and steal, so that's a perfectly fine reason for playing that not-so-good hand.

"Or maybe I was on the big blind and somebody made a small raise and now I'm actually getting 3-to-1 on my money to see the flop. And those are healthy reasons to play a mediocre hand, too. We know that A-K is very good against a 5-4 off-suit, but it's not like the 5-4 off-suit never wins. A lot of times, you hit a lucky flop and you can extract a lot of money from what was a very poor starting hand. It can turn really juicy after the flop. If you have A-K versus 5-4 and the flop comes A-5-5, the A-K might lose a lot of money. But on the other hand, if the flop comes A-A-5, the 5-4 is not going to lose a lot of money. If the 5-4 doesn't hit anything on the flop, I'm not going to waste a lot of money on a nothing hand, but given the right circumstance or opponent, crazy hands can come up."

The wild man image is, however, to a certain degree, a myth. Or at least misunderstood. The fact is, Gus plays a lot tighter than most people think. Sure, he's loose-aggressive, but he picks his spots carefully. And TV, with its heavy editing, exaggerates the effect.

"TV can show what TV wants to show," Gus said. "They show the most interesting hands. They're not going to show that a guy raised on A-K and everybody folded. They're going to show how a 7-4 off-suit beat J-J because the J-J made too small a raise and now the flop has come 7-4-2. The interesting hands are hands that are not straightforward, A-B-C. That's probably one thing you can't accuse me of: playing straightforward. But I have a very good feeling of how people perceive me. And their perception is, a lot of the time, pretty far from the truth. I guess that helps me a little in tournaments."

We put it to Gus that he's directly responsible for the legions of lunatics on the Internet who will raise into a table of eight other players with 7-4 off-suit because they think they're Gus Hansen; guys who try to emulate his style without fully understanding the subtleties involved. Gus, it's all your fault. How do you plead?

"I think it's probably fair to say that I have something to do with it," Gus says with a smile. "Although, I will also say this: Even though you will see people out there trying to play crazy hands because they've seen somebody, which may or may or not be me, playing crazy hands, and they may not fully understand the rhyme or the reason behind it, and they might do it in some wrong situations, the advantage may be that they can catch people off guard.

"I definitely think I'm part of the reason that people play a little more reckless. Poker has developed a lot and evolved over the past couple of years. People are getting better and people are getting more aggressive. Again, one of the key factors in poker is keeping your opponent guessing. And you don't do that by leaning back and saying 'Check.' Sometimes people play too reckless, but I play like that sometimes. I think it's actually a step in the right direction, because poker is meant to be played fairly aggressively."

And this is Gus' legacy. It's no coincidence that some of the most fearsome players in the world now hail from the Nordic countries. The Swedes and Danes and Finns are a dominant force in poker today.

Who you calling broke?

Just before the 2005 WSOP, rumors began to circulate that Gus had lost a fortune in the Big Game, then skipped town, and no one knew where he was. Cyberspace was fizzing with stories that the wild man with the crazy style was broke. "I'm not surprised with the hands he plays," said the mean-spirited among us. Could it be true? We all know that, in poker, losing money is an occupational hazard, but had Gus been playing out of his depth?

The rumors were fueled by Gus' reputation as a gambler. His fondness for table games and ill-considered sports betting is well-known.

"It's easy and very common in the gambling world to have opinions on this and that," Gus admits. "What's easier to have an opinion on than a football game? In the long run it seems like there are a lot of people out there who have better opinions than I have."

Could it be that Gus got stuck in the Big Game and, unable to quit, had been taken apart by the best players in the world? Gus is happy to set the record straight in his characteristically open and nonchalant manner.

"I don't know if you've heard of Hans Christian Anderson," he says. "He has a famous fairy tale about one feather that became five hens. Basically, the neighbor talked to the neighbor, who talked to the neighbor, and the story got more exaggerated. What actually happened is this: In April 2005, during the $25,000 WPT at the Bellagio, I had a bit of a bad run and might not have played my best. It was the Big Game, with $4,000 and $8,000 blinds. I did very poorly. Sometimes you do well; sometimes you do poorly. And basically, I did very bad, lost a good-sized amount, and I left town. And what I mean by 'left town' is that I went back to Denmark. At that time, I was affiliated with an Internet site called PokerChamps, which was based in Denmark. So I went back there. We had a lot of issues that we had to clear up and we were thinking of selling the company, so we had a lot of stuff to do -- a lot of meetings. So I went to take care of all that. I hadn't returned to Vegas by the beginning of the World Series, and people started asking, 'Why is Gus not here? I heard he lost big and maybe he owes somebody.' Basically the ball rolled from there."

So it was actually a normal bad streak that happens to everyone occasionally?

"Yeah. Bad streaks happen to everybody and some people might not realize that, in poker, there are lots of random draws involved and they can be very streaky. Basically, the truth is that when I left town I owed some money, which, in the gambling world, is about as normal as waking up in the morning. In the Big Game, some guy joins the game from L.A. or the East Coast and he doesn't have the money right there, so he has to wire it. So you'll often lend $100,000, $200,000, or $300,000. So when I left town, I owed my good friend Chip Reese $200,000. And when I got to Vegas, I paid him back. The fact that I owed $200,000 was blown up to me losing $4 million, which, apparently, I paid, then and I borrowed another $4 million. But I think they said I lost $12 million and I owed $8 million and blah, blah, blah …

"As long as there's a game with lots of money involved, there's always going to be gossip. It's like you read about people breaking up with each other in celebrity magazines and, in the poker world, it's just about who is beating whom and who's lost millions. Usually nobody has. Somebody might have won a million and somebody might have lost two, but that's about it."

Gus still plays in the Big Game when he's in town and "in the mood," but admits his run at the World Series this year -- in the tournaments and in the Big Game -- was unsuccessful. The previous year, however, when he was supposed to have gone broke, he says his performance in the Big Game was extremely good.

"In the end," he adds, "it comes down to good streaks and bad streaks."

Which brings us to the killer question. And it hurts to ask it -- kind of like asking Steve Martin why he's not funny any more. Why hasn't Gus won anything recently?

"Well, there are a couple of reasons why. I think that the level of play has increased, which makes it harder to win. The number of players has probably tripled, if not quadrupled, which makes it harder to win. I haven't played a lot of tournaments, which makes it harder to win, because you have to enter a tournament to win a tournament. It just makes it tough. But you can't even compare me now to the player I was when I won my first WPT. I'm such a better player. But maybe I was a little more reckless back then, and maybe that recklessness won me a hand or two that I might not get now, because I now know it's too crazy and too wrong to be right."

And with that, Gus must retire to his laboratory for some more poker alchemy. But before he goes, as a parting shot, we ask what has become the Bluff signature question.

"What's the biggest bluff you've ever made in life? Away from the table?" we demand.

"I don't know. I never bluff," he smiles.

Yeah, right!

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