I step off the bus from the Strip into the Las Vegas evening and walk inside the Palms Casino, about 40 minutes early for the poker game between Marcus Hellner and Petter Northug. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and I’m just coming off a two or three mile walk in search a loaf of bread, jostling tourists in 100-degree heat. The only place I can find to make my peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a bench in the parking garage, where I sit watching security guards rolling by on bicycles.
At 7:00, it’s time to go meet Thorkild Gundersen, my contact from Vi Menn, the magazine that sponsors Petter Northug and brought him to Las Vegas. Thorkild brings me up to the poker room. I don’t know what I expected, exactly, but it wasn’t this: a private meeting room filled with a dozen journalists, an open bar, a couple of card tables, even a backdrop for photo-ops. Thorkild and Alex Oysta, the Vi Menn editor-in-chief, are wearing tuxedos, and while there are a handful of people dressed casually, there are also a bunch wearing really nice clothes. I was as dressed-up as I ever get—corduroys and a polo shirt, which I’d even taken the time to steam in the shower in the morning—but it didn’t feel like enough.
I‘m introduced to Thor, a kind-looking older man who apparently is a Norwegian poker legend—the “godfather” of the game in the country. I stand around and talk awkwardly for a bit before Thorkild gives a short speech in Norwegian, and everyone sits down at the card tables. Alex tells me to take a seat. Apparently, we’re playing some informal cards with all the other journalists, as well as some professional Swedish and Norwegian poker players who are mixed in—they’re here to watch Petter and Marcus.
It’s hard to tell exactly who’s who, and though it’s a pretty friendly atmosphere, I’m anxious. It seems like there are high rollers everywhere, and then there’s me—an unshaven 22-year-old in sneakers who doesn’t speak Norwegian.
The dealer flicks each of us cards. We play an open hand on behalf of the reporters at the table, then a few more. After 15 minutes, Northug and Hellner finally show up—and Northug is shown to the empty seat directly next to me. Like, six inches away. Like, close enough to smell his cologne, and for me to be worried about the fact that I was walking around baking in the sun for two hours that afternoon, and probably smelled pretty bad myself. I know that the whole Scandinavian hero-worship thing isn’t cool, but I am a ski journalist and, ultimately, a ski fan, and Northug is the very best skier in the world, so I was incredibly nervous—even though I look down and notice that his shoes are untied. As we play our first few hands, Northug does interviews with Norwegian television stations. Sitting right next to him, I’m obviously in the shot—the cameras are almost pointed straight at me—and I try not to fidget and screw it all up.
Eventually, I end up in a predicament with Thor, the Norwegian legend. I have Ace-Nine, and Thor has just gone all-in—wagered all his chips on a single hand. I have the option to call (to match his bet), or to fold. I consult with the Norwegian poker player to my left, and then Thorkild walks up behind me and asks Petter what he thinks I should do. I show him my cards. He leans back in his chair, contemplating. Thor doesn’t care—he has played poker with Larry Flynt and L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss—and is amiably chatting with the guy next to him; my heart is pounding as I wait for Northug to give me some advice.
He looks at the cards one more time, giving me a pained expression. “I would play it—that’s what I’d do,” he finally says. So I do, obviously, pushing my chips to the middle of the table.
Because we’re “all-in” and have no more chips to bet, Thor and I each turn over our cards, revealing the worst possible predicament for me. Thor has Ace-10, which means, essentially, that I am screwed. We’re playing Texas Hold’em—the same type of poker played at the World Series—and the way it works is that after getting your own hand of two cards, five additional communal cards are dealt in the middle of the table. Now, since Thor’s own hand is better, pretty much the only way I can possibly beat him is if a nine turns up.
The first four cards are flipped over and offer no help to me. I’m about to lose, to be forced out of the game. And then the dealer turns over a nine. The whole table laughs and cheers, as Petter turns to me with a grin. “I told you to play it!” he crows.
I’ve won the hand. I’m shaking as I reach out to pull all the chips back into my corner, and trying not to let anyone notice— although if Petter is anywhere near the poker player everyone says he is, there’s no way he didn’t.
After another few hands, it occurs to me that I should probably introduce myself. Eventually, I work up the courage to stick out my hand, tell Petter my name, and ask about his training that morning. Surprisingly, he gives me his full attention, telling me about his rollerski workout in Red Rock Canyon.
I’m 22—one year out of school and finishing eight minutes down on Simi Hamilton in college races. Today, I’m sitting a foot away from the best cross-country skier in the world. And despite the fact that I’m supposed to be a journalist who would kill for a one-on-one interview with Northug, I can’t think of anything else to ask him. Tomorrow, and the next day, and the rest of my life, there will be time for professionalism, but for now, I’m out of questions. All I can do is sit, and soak it in.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.