While the eyes of the poker world have been trained recently on a player whose extraordinary abilities appear to be very literally unbelievable, another small miracle has been happening in the tournament poker scene. And this one is totally legit.
In Nottingham, England, last week, Simon Brändström won the $3,000 WPT Main Event, beating a 690-player field to pick up a first prize of $330,000. In doing so, the 37-year-old from Stockholm, Sweden, became the first player ever to win both a WPT Main Event and a WPT Deepstacks title, having beaten a field of 1,232 entries in Barcelona in March for another score of more than $200,000. And that’s by no means all. Brändström also won the EPT Main Event in Barcelona in August — a bigger, tougher and even more prestigious tournament. He banked more than $1.4 million for that one after outlasting a 1,489-entry field.
That’s three major tournaments, three major tournament wins, a combined 3,411 entries and no one has managed to knock Brändström out. He is tournament poker’s form player on a hot streak that might not have been matched in recent years.
“I don’t feel I’m unbeatable,” Brändström told PokerStars Blog in an email this week, but added, with appropriate emoji: “I do feel I’m hard to beat though :)”
Remarkable winning streaks are not uncommon in poker. Most famously, Fedor Holz and Justin Bonomo had spectacular strings of results to put them at the top of all the money lists, and then Bryn Kenney came along this year, did the same and leapfrogged them both. But a great number of their victories came in the highest buy-in events, with small fields of the same players, where the rules of random number distribution all but ensure repeat winners and streaks.
The sheer size of the fields Brändström beat makes his victories particularly unusual. Even when Dan Smith won three €5,000 side events in Monte Carlo in 2012, the fields were 101, 175 and 98 entries. Perhaps only Gianluca “Tankanza” Speranza’s extraordinary back-to-back in SCOOP Main Events comes close, but even he “only” beat 654 and 662 entries in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
So what can account for Brändström’s remarkable run? Is momentum in poker really a thing? Certainly Brändström himself isn’t able to reveal any one particular secret to his new-found dominance, but a closer look at his current circumstances might help piece together something of a formula.
While many poker players tend to dismiss success or failure in tournaments with reference to only one word, “variance”, Brändström highlighted four key factors behind his recent success: experience, confidence, the influence of friends, and good fortune. All are seemingly absolutely critical to cluster victories like Brändström’s, and have been of similarly significance to other high-profile players.
“Variance is a large part of the explanation, but perhaps the answer is not that binary,” Brändström said. “You obviously must run very well to win tournaments with that many entrants, but I do believe that the experience that I have now has helped me a lot. I don’t think that this would have been possible for me 10 years ago, given the knowledge I had then.”
Brändström took up poker in his early 20s and turned pro in 2005. That was right around the time that the appearance of a Swede at a poker table sent shivers down the spine of most other players, promising hugely aggressive play and great volatility. (Brändström was formally named Simon Persson but changed his last name when he got married.)
Scandinavians, and Swedish players in particular, had a reputation for a terrifying willingness to get chips in a pot and for pummelling opponents into submission. Many of the brightest talents from those early days couldn’t keep it up, though, and blazed away into other pursuits or obscurity. It follows that any Swede who was around then and is still around now managed to find a way to complement this furious aggression with more subtlety, and how to ride out all the swings. This kind of experience provides a solid bedrock on which to build toward this kind of tournament streak. When you’ve made all the mistakes there are to make, you’re more equipped to be able to deal with them.
(This 2014 interview with fellow Swede Lukas Berglund is pretty revealing on the life of the “aggro Scandi” poker player.)
During the WCOOP, Mike Leah, who plays at PokerStars as “goleafsgoeh”, tweeted pictures of his new-born son sitting beside his computer “watching” him play online, and floated the concept of “baby run good”. (Leah won one title and made multiple deep runs.) Though Leah was obviously making a joke, streak players often point to a rare sense of confidence underpinning their apparently supernatural performances, a feeling that the self-doubt and anxiety of a typical poker player has been temporarily lifted. New parents often say that the arrival of a child helps them put their priorities straight, “understand what really matters”, and it maybe shouldn’t be a surprise that this kind of clarity can help a highly-skilled poker player translate his abilities into results.
Though he did not draw a specific link himself, Brändström became a father in November of last year, shortly after he returned to poker after a two-year absence. Things also began to click at the tournament tables soon after, as he began his run of victories. “Confidence comes with success so that’s no different for me than for others, I guess,” he said.
More curiously, Brändström also added that when he has had good runs in the past, he has been dissuaded from playing more, apparently happy just to put his feet up and bask in the success. “But I’m not sure how this [his current run] will affect me,” he said. So watch this space.
WHAT YOU KNOW, AND WHO YOU KNOW
As noted, Brändström has been a professional poker player since 2005 — “The amount of grind has been real,” he said — playing mostly cash games online, complemented by live tournament play. But he took a long break to focus on other business pursuits, before being encouraged to return by friends.
“I did not really play a hand of poker for over two years, picked it up again late last summer when my close friend and business partner Per Linde started playing again for real,” Brändström said. “His input on my game has been keen and crucial. I’ve always been quite comfortable with my live game, but I believe it has moved up another level thanks to him, Alexander Ivarsson and Anton Sidén.”
Brändström’s close friend Ivarsson also had a superlative EPT Barcelona festival, winning the €2,000 National High Roller for more than half a million dollars, then finishing 10th in the Main Event. He then railed Brändström all the way to victory in the big one, and the pair were also joined by Anton Bertilsson in breaks between hands, discussing how the game was progressing.
In referencing a tight group of poker-playing friends, Brändström is of course echoing other streak players, particularly those in the super high roller world, where poker-playing crews proliferate. Bonomo is always quick to credit his friends Ike Haxton and Scott Seiver, among others, in explaining his remarkable run of victories, while Holz readily credits his German and Austrian poker crew in helping him improve both his technical game and emotional balance.
Poker is a necessarily individualistic pursuit, but successful contemporary players are very rarely totally lone wolves. Brändström and his friends have pushed one another to greater successes. It’s a clear and certain factor.
LANDING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF FORTUNE
Over the course of Holz’s exceptional run, he remained one of the most approachable players in the game, always happy to have a microphone stuffed into his face on various tournament breaks. He was rewarded by having the same handful of questions asked him time and time again, until he got his answers down pat. Chief among them was the most obvious: “How do you account for your streak?” When I put that question to him a few years later, Holz was weary of it, but economical in his answer: “People ask me this a lot and it’s really, really simple. I was one of the best players and I ran very good. That’s the whole story.”
Brändström too admitted that his recent run did indeed depend on some help from the deck. “There have been a lot of moments,” he said, when asked if he recall instances of recent great fortune. “And luck comes in different forms in poker; not being dealt kings versus aces for instance. But the most memorable moment was when I hit a one-outer with 20-ish people left in the Deepstacks. But I’ve probably won 80 percent of my flips too.”
THE WAY WE REPORT ON POKER
There’s probably one other thing that needs to be mentioned when looking at all of poker’s fantastic streaks. How many tournaments did a player enter in order to give the impression of an essentially perfect record? The way tournament results are reported is one of poker’s most knotty issues: the databases that record results pointedly do not also keep track of who entered and whiffed. It’s common knowledge that every player’s total live earnings listed on The Hendon Mob is a far different sum from what has actually ever landed in his bank account.
There’s absolutely no doubt in Brändström’s case that’s he’s massively in the black this year, but his brilliantly unblemished record for 2019 — three wins from three tournaments played, and no other results — does not quite represent the whole truth. “I went to Barcelona/Malta/Deauville/Barcelona/Nottingham this year, and some tournaments here in Stockholm,” he said. “So maybe 15 played all and all.”
There’s absolutely no way the buy-ins from the 12 blanks totalled anything like the money he won, but it’s always worth remembering that tournament poker permits its losers this anonymity. It’s also true that only a select few people are party to the staking arrangements that keep all tournament poker players afloat. I did not ask Brändström specifically what backers, if any, he had during this recent run, but it is probably a fair assumption that he at least had some swaps with his Swedish friends who watched rapt from the rail. It would be highly unusual if he didn’t.
For all that, Brändström’s run is terrific. It is highly unusual (but a long way from Postle-like) and marks a moment when one of the European scene’s most durable and hard-working talents stepped fully into the limelight. I asked him whether he had ever had a streak like this before, either live or online, and he again reached for the emoticons.
“No, never,” Brändström wrote. “Has anyone? 😊”