If Petter Northug and Marcus Hellner had any doubts as to whether they’d be out of their element during the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, the high temperatures in the triple digits over the weekend should serve to quash them.
The two may be Olympic gold medalists, but they’re also unseasoned card-players. If they hope to fare well in the tournament, the Scandinavians will have to better old-school pros, new-school math-whizzes, and hundreds of amateur card sharks who proven their skills and earned their spots in the World Series by winning lower-level tournaments.
To be fair, the contest would be far more one-sided if the poker players were matched up with Hellner and Northug in a 50 k. But nonetheless, the two will face long odds when they take to the tables for their first round of play in the No-Limit Hold’em World Championship early next week.
Organizers haven’t released numbers for this year’s tournament, but there were over 6,000 entrants in the World Series in 2009. The first round alone will take place over four days, with hundreds of poker tables spread out over more than an acre of convention center space.
Hellner is said to have little card-playing experience, and while Northug has more—he competed in a high-level European tournament in Monaco this spring—he won’t even be the most heavily favored Norwegian participant.
That honor goes to 21-year-old Annette Obrestad, who won the European version of the World Series of Poker back in 2007, when she was just 19. Her debut in Vegas—which was held back until this year due to her age—has been hotly anticipated by poker websites and fans.
Based on the press she’s gotten in the past few months, Obrestad is as Northug-esque as anyone else in the tournament save Northug himself. The cocky, trash-talking Obrestad slammed her fellow female competitors in a recent profile in ESPN The Magazine, telling a reporter that “girls suck at poker.” In another interview with a newspaper, she added that other women cover up their poker shortcomings “by looking good in a bikini.”
But before they take on professionals like Obrestad, Northug and Hellner will have a chance to get warmed up on Sunday night. Before their first day of tournament play, the pair will go head-to-head in a one-on-one poker match-up orchestrated by Vi Menn, the Norwegian magazine that sponsors Northug and paid his $10,000 entry fee to the World Series.
According to the World Series of Poker’s website, Northug and Hellner will take home money if they are among the last 10 percent of players remaining in the tournament. For that to happen, though, the Scandinavians will have to survive roughly a week of poker and Vegas heat. And in the unlikely event that either qualifies for the final table of nine, they’ll be forced to schedule another trip to the U.S. in November. The World Series postpones its last round of play until then to allow players to line up sponsorship and for networks to hype the event.
The World Series of Poker is held at the Rio, while the one-on-one competition will take place at The Palms Casino—also the site of a rollerski race between the two Scandinavians on Tuesday. Exact details of that race are still unconfirmed; FasterSkier will have a full preview as soon as they become available.
FasterSkier has arrived in Vegas and will be providing coverage of the entire trip—stay tuned!
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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.