Ziigmund: Mad, Bad and Dangerous

Bluff Europe March 2009

05 March 2009

“Who is Ziigmund on FTP?” The inevitable post flashed up on the 2+2 forums sometime around the middle of 2007 in response to the curious emergence of a wildly aggressive player tearing into the highest stakes on the net. “He is rumoured to be a Finnish player called Ilari Sahamies,” came a tentative response.

And so began the online poker community’s love affair with the heroically reckless, tilty, erratic, loveable, brilliant one they call Ziigmund. From that moment on we gasped at his death-defying million-dollar swings, we chortled as he insulted our heroes in the chatbox, and the more childish it got the funnier it was. Watching “Ziiggy” play poker was like watching Keith Moon demolish a drum kit – it was the closest poker got to rock n’ roll. Yes, the Clown Prince of online poker had arrived, but who was he?

Ilari “Ziigmund” Sahamies emerges slightly flustered from a black London cab a whole hour late for lunch. He apologises, but truthfully I think I’d have been disappointed if he’d been punctual; it would hardly be consistent with his image. “I guess the games on Full Tilt were good this morning,” I venture. Ilari confirms my suspicions: “Well, I won a little bit… like… $200,000,” he shrugs.

“Are you running good?” I ask.

“I’ve had massive, massive swings – but last month I played very solid.” He checks himself and breaks into a grin: “Well, not very solid… a little bit solid. But it’s a very big game. You can lose one million dollars in like 30 minutes. The swings are huge!”

We chat about the recent episode of High Stakes Poker in which he appeared and I ask how, as an online PLO specialist, he faired playing the big live NLH cash games. “I was the worst player there,” he announces with devastating honesty. “I’m a total fish in No Limit – a total fish! Last time I sat at a big No Limit table online it filled up immediately and there was a list of about 25 names trying to get a seat. That’s not a good sign. That should tell you something.”

Ilari takes a desultory look at the menu but nothing appeals. He’s off burgers and pizza this month, he says. It’s part of a bet. My choice of eatery, therefore, is completely inappropriate. “It’s a small bet,” he says, “just $2,000 – but I’m not going to eat a burger and pay $2,000 – that’s stupid. There are only two days left of the bet and then I’ll start to eat a lot of shit things again,” he reassures me. He glances at his watch – a beautiful, shimmering Rolex with a diamond-encrusted bezel, which may or may not have been paid for by Gus Hansen (although he grins at the suggestion). He decides that the sun is over the yard arm and opts for a beer.

“Are the rumours true that you play drunk sometimes?” I ask when the beers arrive.

“I don’t play drunk anymore,” frowns Ilari. “For four years I played online poker and a lot of the time I was drunk. I think I must have lost at least $3 million playing drunk. The worst was probably about $700,000 in one day. It doesn’t matter if I have one or two beers now, but when you come back from the bar and play – that’s really bad. Live games are different. I can play live games drunk and that’s a fun, social thing.”

And that’s the thing about Ilari – he lives up to the legend. You hear all these stories, like the one where he dropped $1.7 million because he had a stinking hangover and simply didn’t care, and you think it must be exaggeration, or hearsay. But no. If you hear a story about Ilari, it’s probably true.

“Yes, that one’s true. I was totally hung over and I lost $1.7 million, but the next day I had my game in very good shape. I didn’t tilt. After that 1.7 million I went on a run and won about – I don’t know – maybe $3 million or something. If only it wasn’t for that fucking hangover!”

Good poker players should be, in theory of course, emotionally impervious to the vicious swings of big bet poker. It’s just variance after all, and if the fundamentals of bankroll management are adhered to, the swings and losses should be manageable. But a $2 million downswing? That’s got to hurt no matter who you are.

Ilari looks sheepish: “I’ve never practised bankroll management,” he says with an impish smile. “I try to a little bit now, but in the past – never!”

So if you lose a million it really, really hurts?

“Yes, it hurts a lot! You try not to think of the money when you’re playing, but afterwards you can get depressed. I’ve never practised game selection either, and that’s a bad thing also. I’ll play against anyone at anytime and that means I often don’t have an edge. I just like to play.”

I guess this is what drives Ilari and many of his fellow highflyers. He doesn’t play for the money – he could retire on one of his weekly upswings – neither is he concerned with playing with an edge, and he flagrantly ignores many of poker’s cardinal rules, from bankroll management to poker etiquette. Yes, he’s a thrill seeker – he once won and then lost back $200,000 coin-flipping (“the sickest thing I’ve ever done,” he admits), but ultimately, all he’s really concerned with is playing the biggest games he can and administering as much good old-fashioned ass-kicking as possible.

“You’re right. It’s not the money,” he says. “Everybody wants to be the best: Durrrr, Patrik Antonius, Phil Ivey, me... we all do.”

Ilari Sahamies was a 15-year-old two-time Finnish national pool champion when a slightly older kid by the name of Patrik Antonius turned up at his local pool hall in Helsinki. He and Patrik quickly hit it off and Patrik began to tell him about his newfound love – poker.

Ilari’s first experience of poker was a small home game at Patrik’s house and it’s extraordinary to consider these two future goliaths of the poker world playing for peanuts around the kitchen table. Patrik and Ilari became close friends and spent much of their time talking about the game which soon developed into an obsession. “Patrik has been a very important person in my life. He has helped me a lot,” says Ilari. “When I’ve been broke he has backed me. I’m very happy I met Patrik.”

When he was 18, Ilari discovered the delights of the Casino Helsinki where that fearless appetite for gamble was whetted at the roulette, blackjack and poker tables. Within a year, however, he had quit the table games to devote himself entirely to poker.

“I had a regular job then and so the game was very big for a normal kid – it was €2-€2 at the Casino Helsinki – and so there were big swings. I went broke many times. But I understood that I was better than average at this game and I knew that I would win money if my bankroll was big enough. I was waiting for the big upswing, and then it came.”

Five years later Ilari was playing the biggest games in the world.

“People are realistic in Finland,” says Ilari thoughtfully, when I ask why the country has produced so many of the world’s top players. “They don’t believe so much in God or luck or magic… but the reason why there are so many good poker players among a population of only 5 million? I don’t know...” and here his English fails him, “...I guess it’s a kind of miracle,” he says eventually.

It’s clear that Ilari is frustrated sometimes by his grasp of the English language, especially in interviews, and that that the language barrier is suppressing a big, articulate and hugely funny personality straining to get out. His grasp of certain colourful Anglo-Saxon words, however, seems to be spot on, judging by some of his table chat, which often contains streams of invectives directed at his opponents. While mostly unprintable, these episodes are gleefully seized upon by railbirds who immediately reproduce them on internet forums. Our personal favourite is an entertaining, offensive and completely surreal rant in which Ilari suggests that Gus Hansen resembles the Romanian entry in the Eurovision song contest.

So here’s an opportunity for him to set the record straight: Ilari, say something nice about Gus Hansen.

“Gus is a very nice, very cool guy. Gus will be boxing Theo Jorgensen next month in Copenhagen and I’m going to go and watch. Good luck, Gus!”

That wasn’t too hard now, was it?

“What’s the rudest thing you’ve ever said to an opponent?” I ask.

At this, Ilari suddenly looks very grave and the colour drains from his face. “The rudest? I can’t say. It’s too bad. It’s not for print. Turn the tape off and I’ll tell you…”

“You see, what people don’t understand is that Gus and I are good friends,” announces Ilari when we meet the following day at a London hotel. He has one of his famous hangovers this afternoon and has just managed to wash down the “worst chicken salad ever”. His dining companion is, as he delights in telling everyone, much to the poor fellow’s embarrassment, the “most famous actor in Finland”.

“Yes, I enjoy being rude to Gus, but Gus enjoys it too. It’s never serious. A lot of people think it is. It’s not.”

Does he use table chat as a tactic to wind people up or is it simply to amuse himself?

“Both. But sometimes it’s not even funny, not smart. People don’t realise that sometimes I just do it because it’s 4am and I’m on tilt. But I never mean it. I’ve never meant it ever.”

Is tilt a problem?

“Yes, it has been. I’m the worst player when I tilt. It’s so sick. I just give money to everybody. But nowadays I’m better: when I see I’m going to tilt I stop. It used to be very bad for me and I’m still not cured, but – well, we’ll see...”

Is Ilari becoming a reformed character, I wonder? It seems he’s ironing out his flaws: he claims he’s playing less crazy these days; he no longer plays drunk and he’s working on his tilt issues. He’s also becoming a more visible figure on the poker scene. Until recently a shadowy internet phenomenon, he’s lately appeared on High Stakes Poker, he’s played the Big Game in Bobby’s room, and he vows to be a more conspicuous force on the tournament scene this year as a representative of PowerPoker.com. He has sponsorship and responsibilities now, and while he admits that he quite likes being “a little bit mysterious” and says he doesn’t care anything about fame, he understands that these interview things are good for his career. He also has his own site to promote, the appropriately named www.coinflip.com, which, after all, is what he’s here to talk about.

“It’s a cool site,” he explains. “There’s my blog, a little bit of strategy, a forum – it’ll be a big poker community. I hope everyone visits the site and posts some questions. I’ll be happy to answer them.”

Three days after I bid Ilari goodbye and wish him well in his adventures, and only several minutes after I’d finished writing the paragraph about the “new” Ziigmund, a message from his associate, the most famous actor in Finland, pings into my inbox to say thanks. “Ilari just tilted and lost $500k,” he adds. “He needs to take a break for a while.”

Oh well, not completely cured then, but something tells me you’ll bounce back, Ziigmund, you crazy tilting legend, you.