EPT9 Barcelona: Hair today, gone tomorrow: the rise of Ilari Sahamies
Things were very different on September 16, 2005. The United States had never had a black president, Charlton Athletic were second in the English Premier League, and the European Poker Tour was giddily stumbling into its second season, only a few months after the end of what was a staggeringly successful debut.
An EPT main event back then cost €4,000 to enter and would attract somewhere in the region of 325 players. The winner could expect to pocket something like €400,000 and it would take him or her no more than two days to complete.
In Casino Barcelona on that date in September, it was day one of what was then known as the Barcelona Open. The two reporters in the entire place were wedged around a trestle table beneath the stairs and they were also doubling as the card callers, taking shifts to grab the microphone and announce the action to the assembled rail, before going back to their 30-pound laptops and writing it all up.
One of those reporters - let's call him "I" because that's his name - didn't think too much when the man pictured below wandered to the feature table, filled the vacant seat eight, and made his bow to the poker world. He just seemed to be another kid in a vast sea of them, but what followed was one of the most explosive couple of hours I have ever seen at a poker table.
It was a fitting start to one of poker's most explosive careers.
"I don't know this guy," said Jussi Tyriseva, a Finnish poker reporter, when shown the screen-grab above a few moments ago. But that was not true. Tyriseva has actually spent the best part of the ensuing six years following "this guy" very closely. He simply didn't recognise the man who in 2005 scrawled the name "Ilari Sahamies" on a piece of paper to help out the struggling card caller.
Perhaps you think you don't know him either, but I can tell you that you almost certainly do. Since that day in 2005, when he brought new meaning to the notion of playing any two cards and playing them aggressively, he has been photographed playing the heads up phase of major tournaments when he can barely open his eyes and he has been captured taking a tequila shot "like a man". He has been regularly involved in the biggest online poker pots of the week, month, year, and he must be the only player with a four-year-old thread on a poker forum detailing his table chat alone.
He often goes by the name of either Ziigmund or Ilari_FIN and is now among the final 16 players in today's EPT9 Super High Roller event. He looks more like this these days:
Sahamies was 23 when he first took that seat in Barcelona, and he is now pushing 30. He has also mellowed somewhat, according to Tyriseva, largely thanks to a new girlfriend to whom Sahamies has vowed not to drink more than twice a week. (That's commitment.)
The Finnish press still love Sahamies though. "When it comes to publicity, Ilari is number one," said Tyriseva. "He is the only one that the afternoon newspapers are writing about."
Tyriseva added that the readership of his own Finnish poker portal spikes noticeably whenever Sahamies is in a tournament. Although his fellow Finns Patrik Antonius, Sami Kelopuro and Juha Helppi are also darlings of the poker press, it is Sahamies who has the crossover appeal.
Most recently, Sahamies popped up at the after-party of the official celebrations for Finland's independence day, partying with MPs and the most famous faces in his homeland. "It was at the biggest celebrity restaurant in Helsinki," Tyriseva said. "Naturally Ilari can go there. He can spend a lot of money when he wants to."
He spent €50,000 to enter this tournament in Barcelona, more than ten times what his youthful incarnation invested all those years ago. But he is also more than ten times the player, more than ten times the celebrity and has won significantly more than ten times what he had back then.
So if you have some time, take a look at the full video debut of Sahamies in the following show. Ignore the amateur card caller / reporter loitering with the microphone at the back and watch the start of that terrific career.
Chances are, you're going to be watching it for at least another ten years from now.
(Sahamies' first appearance is at 10.20; a typical hand plays out at about 17.45 and he is eliminated in something of a cooler at 56.25.)