Owning the table

Patrik Antonius didn't even know who "KidPoker" was when he first ran into him at FullContactPoker.com. All that mattered was that his new adversary was willing to play him heads-up for absurd amounts of money. Within an hour and a half of $500-$1,000 limit hold 'em, "KidPoker" had taken Antonius for 90K. It was only after he had clawed his way back to a respectable 60K deficit that Patrik learned he'd been tussling with Daniel Negreanu. This didn't faze him, of course, because nothing fazes Patrik Antonius. He simply felt he had been the victim of a stinking run of cards. There would be a rematch, and this time, he reasoned, he would win … naturally.

Of the next 10 sessions, which Daniel would chronicle in his blog, Antonius won nine matches for around 400K. Daniel later told Patrik that the only reason he was continuing to play at all was because he was learning so much.

"I had a pretty big edge over Daniel," explains Patrik matter-of-factly from his suite at the Bellagio, his residence for the past year. "I had a really good feeling for where I stood on most hands, and he would steam a little bit when I put some beats on him."

Thanks a bunch, Patrik! You've just knocked one of our all-time heroes off his pedestal. We haven't been this disillusioned since we found out Milli Vanilli was lip-synching. You know, it would all be a lot easier for us to swallow if you weren't so freakin' good-looking as well.

A little over a year ago, few people had heard of Patrik Antonius. That rapidly changed when the young high-stakes cash game player discovered that he actually enjoyed playing tournaments. He ironed out what he saw as his major flaw in tournament play -- a propensity to gather a mountain of chips, only to dramatically blow them off out of sheer impatience -- and promptly won the Scandinavian Open (imagine a tournament comprised solely of Scandinavians -- how scary is that?). His appetite for victory truly whetted, Patrik jumped on a flight to Barcelona, Spain, where he finished third in the EPT.

He then flew to Aruba and then straight back to Europe again for the EPT in Baden, Austria. Arriving from the airport five hours late, his stack had been blinded down from 10K to 5K. He came back to win the entire tournament. Next, he bought a house in Vegas (which he is still renovating, hence his sojourn at the Bellagio), joined Marcel Luske's Circle of Outlaws, signed up to MartinsPoker.com, met his fiancée, and entered the Five Diamond Classic (because of an unfortunate heads-up beat, he only took second) … all in the space of four months.

Today, he's a regular in the Big Game, and his fame as an online cash game player is such that he's adored by online poker nerds everywhere. We log on just to watch his every move, hoping some of that Antonius magic will rub off on us. Today, still in his mid-20s, he's not only considered one of the best heads-up players in the world, but one of the best mixed-game players, too.

We get the impression that Patrik struggles to understand why things don't come as easy to others as they do to him. You see, while some players like to crow about being the best, when Patrik talks of his poker prowess, he does so almost sheepishly. After all, he's only telling the truth. Words that would sound arrogant in the mouths of lesser players are delivered with a throwaway shrug. The only other player we've met with similar straightforward modesty is Phil Ivey; and it may just be the mark of nonchalant genius.

Things didn't come easy to Patrik right from the start, however. He was born 26 years ago to a low-income family in Helsinki, Finland.

"We never had much money," he says. "My dad was delivering bread from factories to stores, but then he lost his job. When I was a kid, my mom was taking care of us -- me and my sister -- but later, when my dad didn't have a job, my mom started to work in daycare."

Patrik, meanwhile, was a wild kid with an irrepressible energy who was always getting into fights, spending most nights after school in detention. Gradually, though, he began to channel that energy into sports, at which he excelled, particularly tennis and soccer. By his early teens, he had given up soccer because his development in tennis had been so astounding that his trainers suspected they might have a budding Wimbledon champion on their hands.

When he was 15, he badly injured a disc in his lower back, the result of pushing himself too hard -- a 15-year-old training as though he were an adult professional.

He was forced to take some time off, and when he returned, he effortlessly caught up with his peers and put his career back on track. At 18, he spent a year in the military, national service being compulsory in Finland.

"The military is a really good life experience," he says, "but I think it would be very hard to go back. It allows you to appreciate normal life so much. There would be times when we would sleep outside for 10 days straight without a shower, or not eat for a whole 24-hour period."

Despite the day's punishing regime, Patrik would spend any free time he had training and playing tennis, which suggests levels of endurance and dedication far beyond the norm.

"I have a lot of fond memories from the military," he says. "It's great thinking about my time there, but actually being there was a real pain in the ass."

Shortly after his military service was completed, however, another catastrophic injury ended his tennis career for good. Patrik had burned himself out before he'd even got started. He has no regrets, however, about what might have been. After all, it's much better to be an extremely successful professional poker player than an extremely successful professional tennis player, he says. That's
easy to say now, but at the time, the aspiring tennis pro was crushed, although his irrepressible spirit refused to let him despair.

"I have always been such a competitive person," he says. "It's always been in my blood. I kind of realized when I was injured that I was never going to do anything normal. I always knew that I had an extra talent and that I had to use my extra talent somehow. I couldn't just go to a regular job and make regular money."

Patrik spent the next few years drifting around, taking modeling jobs ("You can't make enough money to live on by modeling in Finland," he says) and studying business. He was a door-to-door salesman for a while, and there was a spell waiting tables in Italy. Increasingly, however, his formidable intellect began to drift toward the game of poker, and he just couldn't help noticing he seemed to be winning a lot of money in the process.

Patrik first encountered poker when he was 14 or 15, playing with friends at the tennis club for whatever they had in their pockets. They would make up their own games, until a friend found the rules for Omaha; and then they played that, inventing their own betting structures. When he was 18 he visited the casino in Helsinki, which happened to be the only casino in Finland, and discovered it offered poker. He won the first tournament he ever played -- just $300 or so -- and it felt good.

After the military, Patrik began visiting the casino about once a week.

"I was just playing for fun, trying to make a couple of hundred bucks," he says. "I still didn't know you could play poker professionally. A lot of people in Finland think poker is, like, illegal. Six years ago or so, no one knew about poker. No one saw it on TV or anything."

Just after he returned from Italy, he put his first tentative $200 online, and so began a love affair with the online game. In 2½ months, he had turned his initial $200 deposit into $20,000.

"I still had no clue," he says with a laugh, "but people were so bad. I was playing Omaha, $1-$2 and $2-$4 blinds. I was just betting all the time. I would raise before the flop, bet the flop, and bet the turn. People were just folding, folding, folding. If they raised me, I could always fold. But usually, when the money went in, I had the best hand. I basically had no idea how to play heads-up or short-handed Omaha and I was lucky the people were so bad. But now I had a $20,000 bankroll, and I was thinking, 'Hey, I'm gonna be a professional poker player.' I had never even been broke."

It wasn't long before Patrik did experience what it was like to lose, mainly because of his eagerness to learn new and unfamiliar games and to move up in limits quickly. But he wanted to play and learn from better players, and, with his natural ability to grasp difficult concepts quickly, he wasn't a loser for long.

"I always liked playing against better players," he says. "It was a challenge. You just get so much better, so much faster. I always knew that it was more important to prove my game than make money at lower limits. That's hundreds or thousands of times more valuable than finding the softer games where you could make a couple of hundred bucks. If you get good at the higher games you can really make some serious money."

Patrik was able to explain poker to his anxious mother by showing her the records he'd kept of his winnings, proving that poker was not a game of chance, and that he was able to muscle the odds in his favor through his skill and intellect. Reluctantly, she accepted he'd discovered something he was exceptionally good at; something he wanted to pursue. Patrik knew he'd found his vocation.

Meanwhile, he continued to seek out the best players on the Internet. Three years ago, he says, he was playing against Erik "Erik123" Sagstrom, who was a better player than he was then. But Patrik considered losing $2,000 or $3,000 to Eric the price of a lesson with the best; and besides, he could always make that back at the lower limits. Before long, he was breaking even with the big boys. Then he started to gain an edge. Soon, he was the biggest online winner in Europe.

Owning the table

Today, as he relaxes at the Bellagio, life is good. His days are spent eating well, working out, spending time with his fiancée, and overseeing the ongoing renovations of the house in Vegas (600K and counting, he says). In the evenings, he'll play online or wander downstairs to the Bellagio poker room. Sometimes, though, he's happy to sit around and watch movies, and you get the feeling that the mad intensity of his youth has abated. He's a man at ease with
the world these days; and besides, he has things other than poker to think about: he's soon to be a father.

Patrik has also been visiting the chiropractor in an attempt to get himself fit for one of the most important tennis matches of his career. His opponent? One Gus Hansen.

"I have a decent-sized bet with Gus," he explains. "We're playing at the end of March for 200,000 apiece. I made the bet last August, played tennis maybe six times, and I got injured again. It's really weird how I always get injured. It should be about another month before I can play again, so I hope I'll be in good shape for the match. It's just a fun bet, but it motivates me to play tennis and work out. I really don't want to lose; the money is not the issue."

Money has never been the issue for Patrik. It's always been about the personal challenge. And that's why he'll always be ready to sit down in the biggest game in the world and battle with the best players in the world. Last summer, that temperament led Patrik to the Big Game.

"It's been a roller coaster," he says. "I've been improving so much in those games, playing with these guys. I'm doing really well overall. I was up over 2 million during the summer. Then in two days, I lost 1.4 million. The next day I ended up winning everything back, plus another 200K. Lately it's been 2K-4K mixed games. A lot of limit games. Sometimes 3K-6K. I think I am a couple of hundred thousand ahead over the past few months. I feel and I know that I can beat the game, and play it regularly. I had a pretty bad week last week, but it was mainly from Chinese poker."

In fact, Patrik feels if that it weren't for the games that rely more heavily on chance, he would destroy the Big Game.

"Don't get me wrong," he says. "I have respect for all the players, but if we just played pot-limit Omaha and no-limit hold 'em, I would kill those games so bad. There would be very little money left on the table."

There's the nonchalant genius talking again. At 26, Patrik Antonius knows he's one of the best players in the world. If only he wasn't so freakin' good-looking as well.

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