Miikka Anttonen discovered poker in 2007 while backpacking in Australia at age 20. Since then, the Finnish poker pro has amassed over $2.1 million in winnings, traveled the world, and built an online following as the writer-gambler-degen “Chuck Bass.” We recently spoke about Once A Gamber: The Drift, which is the second part of his three-part memoir about the poker world. Our email conversation, included below in full, discusses Anttonen’s poker and writing aspirations, the boundaries between fiction and memoir, gambling addiction, and the impulse to—literally—light money on fire.
Ben Saxton: How would you describe Once a Gambler?
Miikka Anttonen: The book is, in so many words, a chronicle of my journey in the poker world. It describes my highs and lows—from being so poor that I slept on park benches and inside abandoned houses to having six-figure paydays. But it’s also a story about growing up, both physically and mentally.
I was just a dumb kid when everything started and I had no respect for money, especially when the boom was still going and the games were so easy. There’s a segment in Part 2 where we are, literally, lighting notes on fire because there’s not enough room in my friend’s wallet. Fast forward a few years and I was struggling harder than ever before and needed to mature in order to get my life on track. So the book could be categorized as a coming-of-age story.
There’s also quite a lot of poker content. I’ve had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with many interesting and exciting people over the years. In no particular order, the Hero of the story encounters Phil Ivey, Tom Dwan, Ziigmund [Ilari Sahamies], Paris Hilton, Timex [Mike McDonald], Vanessa Selbst, Antonio Esfandiari, and Johnny Lodden, and these encounters lead into some hilarious and memorable moments.
You write, in the Preface, that “It was my number one rule from the start that I’d have to describe everything that’s gone down in the past fifteen years truthfully, without exaggeration or downplaying.” Why? Did you consider writing a novel rather than an autobiography?
I never considered turning this into fiction, quite the opposite. That note was mainly directed at Finnish readers, I guess. I am, and especially used to be, a pretty controversial character in our poker scene (and for a reason). Everyone here knows about the main events, but not really about how everything went down behind the scenes. It was a pretty big part of the motivation for me to be able to finally set the record straight about a few things. But at the same time, it was obvious that if I was going to write the book, I would have to include everything. The result is that Once A Gambler can be a pretty brutal read at times, because it’s so brutally honest. But I never had an option; it was always going to be that, or there would be no book.
How have your friends and family responded to their appearance in the book?
So far so good, but I don’t think any of the characters in [Part I:]The Escape are really shown in a bad light. It’s the only one of the trilogy that I don’t think would piss anybody off. [Part II:]The Drift is the worst in that regard. Some people are already pissed about their appearances, even that they don’t know what I’ve written yet. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot especially now that Part 2 of the book has been released. I think there’s a very realistic chance a couple of people that used to be a big part of my life may never speak to me again after reading it. But there just wasn’t any other way. It’s not my place to tell other people’s stories or air their dirty laundry, but I can't tell my own story with full honesty if I don’t include certain events triggered by other people. I completely understand if they get angry at me when they read it; it’s a pretty natural reaction. But there just wasn’t any other way, and I can say with clear eyes that I didn’t write a single word with the intention of hurting anyone. I really want the best for everybody, but I also had to write this book.
There are a couple of ex-girlfriends especially who, I suspect, are on their toes already. I ran into one of them a couple of weeks ago—we hadn’t spoken in years—and she seemed generally positive about it, so who knows. Another one I actually sent a whole passage to in advance, and she hasn’t responded yet. I think there’s a very good chance that she’s currently plotting to murder me.
Do you have any favorite passages from the book?
There are a few. From a writing perspective, I like how The Escape ends; I think it’s really strong. Same for the Australia stuff. The excitement of arriving there for the first time, all the new experiences, the magical first date—it really makes you want to be twenty again and go to Sydney. Then less than a year later we return to the same city, completely broke, sleeping on park benches and abandoned houses, yet still I don’t want to leave. Sydney is just a magical city, and I think I succeeded at capturing some of its magic on paper.
The Drift is where, I think, I was really able to let myself loose and dive head first into the dark stuff. These were some extremely dark times, and writing some of the chapters was very tough, yet ultimately rewarding. In a very short time everything went about as wrong as humanly possible—relatives started dying, relationships collapsing, I fell in love with losing and just lit my money on fire. It still gives me the chills just to read those pages; you can feel the pain pretty vividly. Here’s an excerpt about the aftermath of a three-week bender, during which I lost my girlfriend and my entire fortune:
One Saturday morning I wake up from the floor. I’m thirsty, so thirsty. My lips feel like sand paper, and my muscles have lost all fluidity. Whenever I try to lift an arm or a leg it starts shaking violently. I’m staring at the kitchen water tap. It’s two meters away and dripping slowly. Tap, tap. A drop of water every few seconds. I don’t have the energy to get up, so I lay on the floor on my back fantasizing about the water. I imagine myself having a tongue like a lizard, catching the drops. I can’t even swallow, my mouth is too dry. I’m dehydrated like I’ve run a marathon through the Sahara desert. I wonder when I last drank something non-alcoholic. I stare at the tap, and then glance at the roof. The roof has cracks in it. Never noticed that before. My thoughts feel oddly clear. It’s that day at the end of a bender when you realize you don’t want to continue drinking anymore. I think I’ve had enough. Then I remember Serena. Images of her fill my mind. Oh, Serena. Serena doing pirouettes on ice. Serena in her purple underwear under the blankets on my birthday. Yes, yes, Serena. Tap, tap tap. The tap seems to be dropping water at a faster pace now. I can see Serena next to me, rolling to her side, pretending to be asleep. Fuck, no, not this Serena. The sound from the water drops hitting the bottom of the kitchen sink increase in volume. Every tap, tap, tap makes me feel like my head is about to explode. My pulse is racing. The film reel playing inside my head advances to the next scene. Serena vomiting and almost dying. No, no, no. My breathing becomes heavier, panicky. Serena angrily pulling her hand away from mine.
“No,” I say out loud. “This has got to stop. It’s over.”
Lastly, there are a few pretty fun stories in the mix that I had a field day including, like lighting Ziigmund on fire, or how I recruited Phil Galfond for our magazine, who back then was known as the scared money guy from some poker TV show. He was commonly referred to as ”Sweaty Phil” back then. Lots of stories like that from back in the day when the poker scene was very different. It was great fun to reminisce the old times during the writing process; I had forgotten about half of the fun stuff that’s gone down over the years. The Drift is the darkest book of the three, but it also has the biggest laughing out loud moments. In hindsight, they are pretty vital for comic relief amidst all the darkness.
The most powerful scenes in Part I, to me, are when you’re gripped by the hold of gambling—especially by those slot machines in Finland when you’re a teenager and also years later when, upon seeing an Elvis slot machine in Las Vegas, you can “barely restrain [your]self from shoving a $100 bill down Elvis’s mouth.” How important was it to capture the thrill and the despair of gambling addiction?
My fight over a gambling addiction, trying to turn poker into a career while suffering from the absolute nut worst personality for it, is the core of the book. It was those scenes that originally made the 2+2 thread popular, which then spawned the book. I think it was this exact passage that made the thread explode early on:
This is a feeling I’ve struggled with so many times during my career. It’s almost perverse. You do your best to win, you spend endless hours studying and getting better. You fine-tune your game to a point where it's almost too good. Yet you still want to go broke, because being broke means being free. Being broke means that none of the negative emotions associated with poker can touch you, because you can't play. You are free to do whatever you want, you no longer have to experience the adrenaline rushes, your heart beating faster and faster, the disappointment when you catch an unfortunate river. You are free from checking your bankroll 10 times every session, you're free from the stress. You're free from posting hand histories to forums, checking if a push was profitable with SNGWiz. You're free, because you're off the bandwagon. The only way to not be able to play poker is to be broke. This was the first time in my career I felt this strange feeling of wanting to lose. I wanted to commit a poker suicide, or at least take a break.
I think I have a knack for writing about addictions, and those parts always seem to turn out great without much effort. Since the book’s core is my two-sided relationship with gambling—it’s ruining my life from the age of ten, yet it’s also my career—it was vital to capture the essence of my inner battles with gambling addiction.
To what extent do you think poker is “gambling?”
We all know about the luck factor—the worst player in the world can beat the best over a hand or even a hundred hands, so clearly it’s gambling to an extent. The thing in our brains that triggers and controls addiction-related impulses, the amygdala, definitely responds to poker on some level. I’d say that poker is significantly less “bad” in that sense than casino games, since the action is slower, and it’s harder to get quick, instant rewards. But I’d place it somewhere on par with sports betting addictivity-wise. Poker is still very much something that can mess up your life if you aren’t careful.
The title of your trilogy, Once a Gambler, implies that you’ve somehow moved past your identity as a “gambler.” Is this a fair reading of the title? If so, how did you manage to move beyond your gambling addiction?
It’s funny, of all the 300,000 or so words in the book, the ones that were hardest to come up with were those three. I had the book basically ready long before I had any idea what it would be called. Even now, having had the first book do pretty well, I still don’t know if I even like the title. It’s growing on me, though.
Basically, the title is meant to have a double meaning. It’s great when people try to interpret the title one way or the other. On one hand, the title is half of the old phrase “Once a gambler, always a gambler.” It gives it the book a certain undertone, like I’m the zebra unable to get rid of its stripes no matter how hard he tries. On the other hand, it also sounds like I’ve left gambling behind, like you read it. The title is ambiguous for a reason; as both a writer and a reader I like it when some things are left up for the reader’s imagination. Whether I still consider myself a gambler or not is a question I won’t answer, but I can promise you’ll have a pretty good idea about the answer when you've finished the book.
With your memoir written, it seems that an important chapter of your life is complete. As you approach your thirties, what are your poker goals and writing goals moving forward?
I turn 30 this year. It’s absurd. Every time I think about that number, I’m like, where the hell did my twenties go? I was 21 like seven months ago! But honestly, I’ve had pretty amazing twenties. I’ve been to sixty-six countries and experienced so much stuff I never would have without poker. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t change a thing, because I do have a lot of regrets, but they’re still outnumbered by all the great stuff I'm blessed to have experienced. The book is a pretty good chronicle of my heyday, and it definitely does close the circle quite a bit.
I’m still playing poker full-time (MTTs), and this book wouldn’t have happened without poker, either, since I basically took a couple of years off just to write it. But I don’t think I want to play poker for much longer for a living. I don’t really plan my life, and you never know what happens, but if I had to guess, I’d say I'm going to call it quits a couple of years from now. This has nothing to do with money—I’m still doing really well in my games—but ultimately poker just isn’t the end game for me. This is something I couldn’t have imagined myself ever saying a few years back, but the writing experience was really eye-opening in this regard.
Basically, and I really don’t mean to sound like a hypocrite, but I don’t want my life’s work to be beating other people for money in some game. Don’t get my wrong, I think poker is a great game that has given me a lot, and the best thing about it is precisely winning other people’s money. But it’s just not ultimately fulfilling for me. I’m a pretty creative person, and I want to move people, do something that affects people, maybe that even helps people. When you play poker for a living, your work surely isn’t bringing joy to anyone else’s life but your own.
I always wanted to be a writer, but then poker happened and I spent nearly a decade playing it. Writing is what I’m going to pursue in the future, but I want to do it on my own turns. I’m not going to return to school or get a full-time job. I’m in no rush to become a full-time writer, and financially every hour I spend writing instead of playing poker is a small suicide. I think, assuming that Once A Gambler isn’t exactly going to become the next Fifty Shades Of Grey sales numbers-wise, it would be pretty smart to play a couple more years to grind some butter on that bread. So I think that’s what I’m going to do, and I’ll be writing on the side. I still have so much to learn about writing that it’s not even funny. I’m pretty good at writing about real events, but my fiction writing, not so much. I just enrolled in a creative writing course, and it’s been pretty incredible. I feel very inspired. I’m currently working on a pilot for a TV show that I’ve had as a project for something like a year already, a few short stories, a novel. I’m even dabbling in poetry. It’s fairly likely that none of those things will ever lead into anything, but you never know. This is a pretty good time to experiment, and I’m lucky to have poker to fall back on.
Come to think of it, it’s pretty funny. You hear people give this advice all the time: “Have something to fall back on before becoming a poker pro.” Finish your studies, don’t quit your job, just play poker on the side. For me, it’s the exact opposite. I need the financial stability that poker provides so I can experiment in my art projects. I guess that answers your question about whether I still consider myself a gambler or not.