Jesper Hougaard

Jesper Hougaard

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

At last year’s WSOPE bet365’s Jesper Hougaard picked up a nice shiny bracelet. This year around, the poor lad can’t seem to win a race, so we talked poker politics instead, and it seems like there’s something very rotten in the state of Denmark…

So it hasn’t been your trip this year, Jesper…

It hasn’t, no. I played the preliminary events and I just wasn’t really mentally prepared for them. I wasn’t in the zone. After I busted in the Omaha tournament I was quite disappointed with myself because I played really badly. And I phoned my coach – I have a coach who I use – he works with the best Danish golfers and coaches them on the mental aspects of their game.

Sports psychology?

You can say that, yeah. We have a dialogue. He plays a bit of poker so obviously knows how everything works. We just talk about how I can play optimally, because a lot of poker players underestimate the fact that this is kind of a sport and to be mentally alert and be mentally sharp all the time is super-important. So we went through some visualisation exercises and techniques…

Do you chant, “I am a winner, I am a winner,” to yourself?

There are quite a few things involved. I have a bunch of keywords, a bunch of words. I need to have a trigger at the table, which reminds me of the words.

A bit like NLP?

I spoke to a cab driver recently and he told me about NLP and I hadn’t heard about it before. I think it is similar. I realised I needed to be using the 20 minute breaks better. So what I normally do now is have a break, a cigarette a chat with people, see how they’re doing, discuss a few hands and then I will take the last three or four minutes of every break, put on my headphones and stand by myself, just getting into the zone again – thinking things through – and I have this picture of myself where I feel I’m playing really well. When you play really well you get in the zone. It’s like clockwork, like one big rhythm, and I visualise myself getting into that rhythm and when I get to the table I feel mentally fed again.

Is there much of a live poker scene in Denmark?

There are casinos in Denmark but they’re not very attractive for players. The rake is horrible, the service is bad. I actually started playing live when they began showing Gus Hansen on Danish TV. All of a sudden this was the hot topic of conversation. Everybody wanted to be Gus Hansen, everybody wanted to play poker. So at college there were about eight to ten of us that organised this game that ran everywhere – at school, at our respective houses, we’d play all the time.

At this stage I knew that online poker existed but I never really tried it. And after I played for nine or so months, I was a winner in those games, but I wasn’t a massive winner and I wasn’t very good. I just felt that because I had natural ability with cards I that I could make a little profit, which is nice lunch money, but if I started focusing and really concentrating on this game then maybe there could be a lot of money to be made. I started off posting $100 on an online site, lost it; put on another $100, lost it; another $50, lost that, and I figured that maybe this online poker wasn’t for me. But another online site I signed up with gave me $10 free and I’ve spun up that up into a major bankroll with a few big tournament wins.

So after that $10 you’ve never had to re-deposit?

I’ve never re-deposited. I think one of the reasons I’ve done well because of strict bankroll management and it still shocks me to this day when I speak to a lot of the British pros and hear how little respect they have for bankroll management. I think that it’s the absolute number one key thing for a successful poker player because, by using bankroll management, you know that you’re able to beat the small stakes games because you’ve worked your way up through the small stakes games, slowly, gradually, and that’s why you can improve your game at a comfortable pace. And you’re always in action. Any time there’s a game I can always play it if I want, whereas someone who has, say, $20,000 – they’ll go and sit on a $50/$100 table, lose a couple of buy ins and – oh well, it will be another couple of weeks before they play again. They don’t have this continual improvement in their game. I coach players and it’s the first thing I tell players. Bankroll management is the absolute number one thing to look out for.

Can you tell us a bit about the poker situation in Denmark, politically, what with the government monopoly and the taxation headache?

Well, the taxation has been a reality always. If I come to London and win, it’s tax free. If I go to Barcelona and play there, it’s tax free. Vegas, Australia or anywhere outside the European Union, we pay 62% on any winnings which is obviously quite steep. It’s pretty much not ever profitable.

Like in Peter Eastgate’s case: 62% on $8.5m – that’s gotta sting!

Peter moved to London, which I can kind of understand. His tax matter – I don’t know if it’s solved or not. The tax issue has always been the way it is. The interesting thing is that Danish law says that it’s illegal to make a living from gambling and poker is still legally considered to be gambling. At the moment it’s currently illegal to make a living doing what I and hundreds of others do.

It’s kind of scary because the reason the whole thing came about was there was a guy who had about a quarter of a million Danish Krona in his apartment – about £30,000 – he had that lying around in cash. The police said to him, “How do you have this cash, you’re on welfare,” and he claims he won it playing online poker. The police say it doesn’t make any sense. And to me it doesn’t make any sense. If you were winning at online poker, why would you have that money lying around in cash? It would make more sense that you had it in your poker account; plus, it’s very easy to go to a poker site and prove where the money is from.

The police were 100% that this guy was doing something illegal. Drug dealing, whatever… but they couldn’t make it stand up in court and they wanted to nail this guy so they went into the constitution and found a law from 1911, a 98-year-old law that says it is illegal to make a living gambling. And this goes back to the days where if you were making a living gambling you were probably hustling or bookmaking and that was frowned upon. It was illegal by law. This law hasn’t really been in effect, it’s like a dusty old law, that they found pretty much just to bust this guy. This guy went to court, lost the case, was fined and had to give away all his money, which now by law means that they can come and take all the money that we’ve won. Theoretically the police can come to me and hundreds of other Danish poker players and say, “Hand over the password for all of your poker accounts please. We want all your money because what you’ve been doing is illegal. It says it right here in the constitution.”

Yikes! Are they actually doing this?

No, no. I don’t think they will be doing it. Basically what happens now is there is a major debate going on at the moment about the monopoly. Should we have a gambling monopoly? How should the government react to all these poker sites? What is the way we’re going to handle this? And that is going to have its conclusion next month. So everyone’s pretty much waiting for that bill to be passed, waiting to see what’s going to happen. I don’t think they’re going to take our money but if they do there’s not really much we can do. My lawyer, a specialist in this area, has said that if they want to bust you they can bust you.

Would you consider moving away from Denmark?

Oh, absolutely. If there’s no clarification on the issue once this law goes through then I’m definitely moving.

How does the gambling monopoly affect the Danish poker community?

It affects it as insofar as there is very little casino action. I come to London and there are cash games everywhere pretty much all the time. In Denmark there are two casinos, two poker tables in each casino – you very rarely see any action. So the Danish game is in privately run home games or poker clubs where you play for very, very small money – or online play. I think online play makes up 95% of what Danish players play.

How about tournaments? I hear that many Swedish players boycott the national championship because it’s part of the government monopoly. They’d rather have their own championship, organised on the sly. Is there a sense of boycotting stuff?

There has been a lot of discussion. The Danish Championship is actually coming up and I’m going back to play that now. There’s been a lot of talk about boycotting it. A lot of people say if we all went together and not turn up the event would be worthless but people don’t stick together enough, they think about themselves. It’s not going to be effective if just five people don’t turn up. It needs everyone to go together. I’m no different. I want to play the Danish championship.

Nothing’s going to happen until there’s an alternative and if there is an alternative and there are people willing to sit down and work to arrange a good tournament which would have to be held abroad, probably in Malmo, Sweden, which is right across the border, or possibly in one of the Baltic countries. I know the Swedes go to Tallinn and the Norwegians have theirs in Nottingham. So if something similar is set up for the Danes and there is a good alternative to what is being offered, then it is possible that people would boycott the monopoly. As it is at the moment it’s unfortunately not the case.

It seems crazy when there are so many good Danish players. The government should be embracing that fact.

The government should also be embracing the fact that we’re bringing in a lot of tax money and the fact that we spend more money in society than most people. In bad economic times, that can only be good for the country. So yes, I agree that it’s very, very strange that our government is so anti-poker.

How about the Scandinavian style of play? Scandinavians were dominant three or four years ago but it seems less so now. Is that because people have adapted to the Scandinavian style of play or has the game changed and the Scandinavians failed to adapt?

I absolutely see what you mean and I think it’s a combination. I think, when the first Scandinavians started on the poker scene, the style was so super-aggressive and no one had ever seen it before. They didn’t know how to deal with it. I think now people have experience and they know how to handle an aggressive Scandinavian.

I also think that the game is evolving. I think that the players that are successful now have adopted the Scandinavian style and so the Scandinavians aren’t bringing anything new to the table. The people who are successful now are the people are on the forefront of this development. They think about the game very seriously and think about all the edges that you can get in poker. It’s no coincidence that Patrik Antonius, Phil Ivey and a lot these really, really top players are in excellent physical condition. They’re in great shape, they eat healthily and I’m sure many of them have mental coaches, sparring partners of some kind.

These are the ones who are successful now, the ones who treat poker like a sport. Look at Tiger Woods. Before he came along, golf players were typically guys who sat in the bar for hours, smoked cigarettes and weren’t really serious athletes, whereas now they’re highly serious, highly competitive and very, very focussed on becoming the best. And I think in the next three to four years the players that will be successful will be those are treating this 100% poker a sport and taking it as serious as the top footballers and athletes.

As a professional how do you adapt and keep on your toes?

First of all I’m the main face behind a Danish poker forum,, where we do coaching videos and strategy articles. A poker community like this is a good way of discussing new strategy, staying alert and being at the forefront of where the game is going. Poker is changing all the time and a lot of the players you saw at the top three or four years are pretty much nowhere now. There’s always new people coming in – people who are smarter, hungrier.

The Danish poker community is very good at discussing poker strategy with each other, at least it was. In 2008, both online and live, there were lots of Danish players doing very, very well. Back then we saw ourselves as a group – all in it together – and now that people have broken through and made big bankrolls for each other we are seeing each other more as competitors. It sounds like how the British pros view each other. They’re not very forthcoming about sharing information with each other.

For a long time that attitude to stunted the development of the game in the UK…

That’s what I’ve observed. The Danish poker world has gotten so big now…

As it becomes bigger, it becomes less of a close-knit community sharing information…

Exactly. And that’s a big problem. I have about 10 close friends I discuss strategy with. I see these players as at the forefront of poker development. I want to continue discussing strategy and continue to improve myself. I’ve started talking to Swedish players, British players – getting a feel for where they’re at. If you continually discuss poker and strategy, then you’re going to be at the forefront of any developments in the game.

Tags: Poker News, Jesper, Hougaard