Marcus Hellner one, Petter Northug zero.
In an hour-long production worthy of two A-list celebrities, Hellner outlasted Northug in a one-on-one game of Texas Hold’em at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas on Sunday evening.
Orchestrated by the Norwegian men’s magazine Vi Menn and the online gambling company PokerStars, the event showcased the kind of status that the two athletes enjoy in Europe.
Clad in a crisp white button-down shirt emblazoned with a Norwegian flag and a Vi Menn logo, Northug spent the first portion of the evening playing a casual game of cards and hobnobbing with media and Scandinavian poker professionals. The event was held in a private room at the Palms, complete with an open bar, although neither Northug nor Hellner appeared to drink any alcohol.
With half of his attention on his cards, Northug gave interviews to television stations and poked fun at Thor Hansen, the man considered the “godfather” of poker in Norway, who was sitting at Northug’s table.
After the athletes relaxed for half an hour, it was time for business. Thorkild Gundersen, who coordinated the event for Vi Menn, introduced the match-up as the first in a best-of-three contest that would also include the World Series of Poker tournament, and a rollerski race on Tuesday.
The first hands were then dealt by a professional dealer enlisted by PokerStars, this being not just any basement game.
Displaying the same steely focus and drive that he does on the race course, Northug got out to an early lead, reducing Hellner’s pile of chips to what seemed to be dire levels. But Hellner never panicked, slowly working his way back into the game and ultimately forcing Northug into betting all of his chips on an ace-five hand. Since Hellner held ace-ten, he was all but guaranteed of victory—which was ensured when another ten was dealt, giving Hellner a pair, and the win.
Given Northug’s reputation as a cutthroat poker player, Hellner’s victory should probably be considered an upset—even though the Swede didn’t look at it that way.
“I thought that he maybe would be afraid of me—I think he saw me as a very tight player,” Hellner said. “I got some good cards.”
The extravaganza continues at noon western time on Monday, when Northug and Hellner compete in the first day of the World Series of Poker tournament at the Rio. Despite Northug’s loss, Hansen, the Norwegian poker legend, said that he thought that that the quadruple Olympic medalist was a skilled player.
“All the Norwegian kids [young poker players]…tell me he’s good,” Hansen said. “He wants to be good—that’s the competition in him.”
While playing live poker for money is illegal in Norway, Hansen said that Northug enjoys the support of the country’s people in his card-playing habits, even though he was criticized by the general secretary of the Norwegian ski federation for setting a bad example for children.
In the same vein, Hellner’s appearance in Vegas is part of a strategy by PokerStars, his sponsor, to push poker into the mainstream in Sweden, according to
Murat Sahan, the editor of a poker magazine in the country. Sahan said that PokerStars has recruited athletes like Hellner, hockey star Mats Sundin, and former tennis great Boris Becker to its team of players because they make the game seem more accessible.
“This is, of course, a way of making poker more accepted in the general public,” he said.
Not Just Fun and Games
Northug and Hellner were so focused on poker on Sunday night that one could almost have forgotten the two were professional athletes.
Scandinavian fans can rest assured that they haven’t. After a three-hour bike ride on Saturday, Hellner, Northug, and Northug’s younger brother Thomas—a world junior champion who is here watching—all drove out of Las Vegas to the scenic Red Rock Canyon for rollerski intervals Sunday morning, while the rest of the town was probably still nursing their hangovers. (Click here for photos.)
More details also emerged about Tuesday’s rollerski race between Hellner and the elder Northug.
According to Vi Menn Editor Alex Oysta, the event will be held in one of the Palms’s parking lots, the course being a lap and a half of a short, figure-eight loop around two traffic islands. Because the loop is so brief, Hellner and Northug will race a best-of-three-heats series.
Vi Menn and PokerStars had to wrestle with Las Vegas’s dearth of nordic knowledge in order to line up the race. It was originally scheduled for Monday, but Oysta said that the date had to be changed because the Palms wouldn’t be able to clear the lot the day after the Fourth of July.
And according to the PokerStars manager who coordinated the event, the Palms’s staff was flummoxed by the idea of a rollerski race—making it difficult to insure, which the casino required. The insurance wasn’t even for the athletes, the manager said—instead, it was in case Northug or Hellner crashed and injured a spectator or damaged a vehicle.
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Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.