- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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Before the poker boom and before online poker, many of the game's professional denizens chose poker as a way to make a living because of the personal freedoms it afforded. There wasn't all of the data-collecting technology we have today that displays true indications of our individual skill level. Instead, there was information based on what you witnessed. Simply, there was freedom.
Amongst those who seek such freedom, few can handle the massive volatility that has long branded poker a hard way to make an easy living. A few were good enough to have it pay off in the long run. That combination of liberty, bravery and skill is a rare one, as we see with the number of hopefuls who succeed compared to the vastly greater number who fail.
Carlos Mortensen's example epitomizes what can be if the stars align, but not only because of the success he's found within poker. Mortensen is widely admired by his peers, is free of the attachment to poker that so many of its truth-seekers suffer from and lives life on his own terms. We were reminded last Wednesday, when he won his record-tying third World Poker Tour crown, why he's been able to do that.
Mortensen outlasted a field of 143 players to capture the WPT's Hollywood Poker Open main event at the Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg, Ind., taking home a $393,820 first prize. In doing so, he not only tied Gus Hansen's 6-year-old record for most titles won on that circuit, but also moved past Daniel Negreanu on the WPT career earnings list (with $5,754,308 to Negreanu's $5,574,530). Of course, these are just extra bullet points on the résumé of the only player to have won both the WPT and World Series of Poker world championships. Not that Mortensen cares too much about such frivolities.
"To me, it's like, after I won a tournament, I just forget about it," Mortensen said after his win. "It's part of the past. I just focus on the next tournament and know I get to start with the same chips as anybody. I'm not playing for success or cameras or fame. I just play because there's money involved and I think I can win. It feels good to have those accomplishments. It's nice to tie Gus, to pass Daniel, but there will be more tournaments. If I keep playing and winning, I'll keep raising my numbers."
Asked if the numbers inspire him, Mortensen was quick to dismiss the possibility. "I want to try to play my best no matter what," he said. "It's something I've tried to do all these years. If I'm in a tournament, I'm playing to win. Otherwise it's throwing my money away. Gus and Daniel are great players and they'll try to get their records back, but I don't care about it."
"Carlos is probably the No. 1 most underrated tournament hold 'em player in the world," admitted Negreanu in the wake of his being surpassed. "When he puts his mind to it, there are just not many who are better. He busted me in L.A. and I could see he was about to go on a tear. He's hungry and when he's hungry he's incredibly dangerous. He deserved the record. He has the best ROI in WPTs and he deserves to be No. 1. He motivates me. I want to get back on top. I'm happy for him. I like the challenge."
ROI (Return On Investment)
Mortensen's $5.7 million in winnings have incredibly come in just 58 WPTs, close to a 1,000 percent return on his investment. I'd invest in that stock.
The question is whether Mortensen likes the challenge. After his historic win at the Bellagio's 2007 $25,000 Five Star World Poker Classic main event, Mortensen stepped away from the game that's given him so much.
"The funny thing about Carlos is he's complacent, not always focused," said Gavin Smith, a longtime Mortensen fan and friend. "I get the sense he doesn't love poker as much as he used to. He goes off and rides bikes and does all kinds of other cool stuff and spends his money. Then he comes back when he needs some more and just wrecks people."
With the Bellagio win coming in '07, Mortensen's first WPT win coming in 2004 and his WSOP victory in 2001, he's started to see his success as cyclical.
"I really do win something big every three years, but that's not why I took time off," said the Ecuador-born Spaniard, who now calls Vegas home. "I took that break because I needed time for me. I'd been playing hard for 10 years and I made a big cash at Bellagio and in my mind, I was like 'Well, I win every three years, so you know what? Somehow I'll win in three years, so why not take a break?'
"It's not the principal reason, but I used that time to do a lot of things. I did some sports I never got to do before. Ride motorcycles and surf. I did a lot of fun stuff that could get my mind away from the game for a bit. I took a long break from the table. It wasn't a full break, but it was enough."
Now, Mortensen is back and his results suggest he's playing as well as he ever has. Hollywood was his third six-figure tournament victory in the past half year, suggesting that there was no rust on his game. "When I just got back to playing, there were some changes in the games," he said of his adjustment. "I found a lot more aggression with the young players. The game changes, but it is still poker. I just figured out what is the best play to play now and played that way. It worked well for me. Poker changes, but never a lot. It's still 52 cards. Players can play a little deeper, but it's not that hard to come back.
"I don't know, maybe I'm lucky," he said. "I think that when I really want to do something, I just do it. I came to the U.S. to play the WSOP and win the WSOP. After three years, I won it. It's always been that way for me. Many people say I'm lucky, too. I'm probably lucky, too."
Many would disagree with that last assessment. Some have called Mortensen the best heads-up player in the world and everyone seems to recognize his ability to build a massive stack early, then take a tournament down once he's made it to the final table.
"As a player, just the fact he's won three [WPT] titles, a WSOP championship and doesn't go on the road so often says a lot," said good friend Jeff Shulman. "He's so aggressive, so good at reading people and understanding people. He has a real feel for the game. He's like a dog -- he senses the fear in people. He's so good at closing an event. There are few people who understand how to play a final table like he does. It seems like when he needs to win for personal reasons, he can do it."
Even tournament directors enjoy watching "The Matador" in action.
"He has a unique makeup amongst professionals," said Matt Savage, who recognizes such traits from his unique vantage point. "Yes, the language barrier gets in the way of his recognition, but I'd say he's amongst the top 10 tournament players in the world."
"I don't feel like I'm the best in the world," said Mortensen, downplaying the suggestion as if it were ludicrous. "I don't really think about that because you have to keep working on your game. I always think I have to improve because I have leaks. I'm not perfect. I would like to improve and be perfect, that's my goal. I'm not trying to be recognized by the other players. To me, being the best is about doing things right in every hand. That's what would be the best for me. I'm not even close to being that good, but I'm always trying to get better. I just keep working and learning and learning from the rest of the players, too. We all just try to do our best."
It's that attitude in the face of overwhelming success that keeps him so popular amongst his peers. In fact, Mortensen seems to have changed little since his initial successes a decade ago. "I don't even think about the cameras," he said. "I just focus on the game. I forget about the cameras. I just try to do my best and win, because that's the only thing that matters to me. If I play well, I like to be recognized for my victories, not my actions. I'm not a media guy, I'm just a player. I don't like to watch myself play. I don't have any of my tournaments on DVD, not even my WSOP win. Can you believe that? I don't like to watch myself play. When I do, I see lots of leaks. I just want to play."
"For anyone who knows him, it's hard not to love the guy," Shulman said of the champ. "He's just one of those guys you cheer for. A lot of people like to cheer for Phil Ivey because he's a fun champion. Carlos is the same. There are guys who you want to win and Carlos is one of them. He plays by more than just the ABCs of poker."
It's that creativity and his success at employing it that makes him a great champion. If Negreanu is right, if Mortensen is indeed hungry again, there's probably a lot more to come.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.
Admired, respected and talented at the felt, Carlos Mortensen is one of the best.