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(VIDEO) Thor Hansen: “I'm Not Made of Blood and Flesh. I'm of Steel”
This year at the 2014 Battle of Malta Hansen received the PokerListings Spirit of Poker Award in the Living Legend category and spoke candidly about one of the most amazing careers in poker history.
“I started playing poker more than 50 years ago in Norway and we'd play at the racetrack and in the woods with people,” said Hansen.
“Poker came naturally to me. I was playing a little bit of pool and I was always into gambling. I went to the racetrack when I was seven years old.
“I had an older brother that played a bit of poker and I was with him watching him play. He had to go to the bathroom and I had been watching for a while so he asked me to play. When he came back I had a lot of money in front of me so that's how we started.
“I never thought about what I was going to become. Poker just meant so much to me so quickly I never thought about anything else. I just wanted to play poker. So that's what I did.”
Watch Full Thor Hansen Video Interview
Lodden: “People Have Always Looked Up to Thor”
Though decades younger than Hansen, Johnny Lodden is no longer part of the younger generation of Norwegian poker stars.
Lodden is a legend in his own right and says Thor Hansen was part of what inspired him to get into poker.
“People have always looked up to Thor,” Lodden told PokerListings. “I first heard his name when I was 16 or so and then there was a documentary about him in Norway and they interviewed Phil Ivey and then we really got respect for the old guy.
“He's a good example for how poker players should behave.”
But it wasn't Hansen's model behavior that inspired Lodden to follow in the elder pro's footsteps.
“I also know a lot of his friends from back in the days and they always talk about the old days playing in those games all around Oslo.
“There were poker clubs and blackjack and roulette. It looked like people had a lot of fun back then. I kind of wish I could play in those games.
“Thor always told me stories about partying in the Playboy mansion and hanging out with the celebs in Hollywood and just having a blast. It looked like such a fun life just to move to Vegas, live off gambling and party around.
“When you're 18, 19, 20 that's the dream. You had the whole package so definitely that was the inspiration for making a living like that.”
Hansen Hits Las Vegas, Meets Stu Ungar
Hansen didn't travel for poker until he was in his 20s but set a course for Las Vegas and hit the ground running.
“It was a lot easier to find a poker game in Las Vegas than Oslo that's for sure,” said Hansen.
“And I had a good start. The first time I got there I won a World Series bracelet and won all the money in the cash games.
“I played with the biggest guys in the world like Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese. So I learned in a hard school but I survived.”
Along the way Hansen became close friends with perhaps the biggest poker legend of them all, Stu Ungar.
“Stuey Ungar, I think he was a little bit schizophrenic because he could be a very bad boy but he was so kind and nice outside of poker," said Hansen.
“He was kind to everyone but it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He could be so terrible but he was also so nice and such a good player. He was impossible to beat.
“Nolan Dalla wrote about him and wrote some good things about him but he forgot that they stopped playing No-Limit Hold'em in Las Vegas because of Stuey Ungar. Because no one could beat him. So those games disappeared when Stuey was around."
Hansen doesn't doubt how Ungar would stack up against the best players in the game right now.
“Stuey would beat them all today. He would still be 30 years in front of this crew just like he was back then," said Hansen.
“But he could also lose. He could be a bad player when he had a lot of money because he didn't like money. He got staked by the mafia a lot. When he was broke they gave him money to play and then he won. He always won when he got staked.
“I remember his last couple of months really well because everyone in Vegas gave him up. I wasn't in Vegas, I was in California playing seven-card stud because I owed so much money in Vegas for gambling.
“The games were really good and Stuey called asking for money of course because he was in bad shape. I told him to come out and I would give him ten thousand and maybe we could build something up.
“He came out and we were staying in a motel across from the casino and I think he won $200,000 in a week. But he was in very bad shape. We were walking back to the motel and he just fell down in the street and I picked up. He felt like about 60 pounds and I lifted him up and took him to the room and called a doctor.
“The next day he went back to Vegas. It was about two weeks later I went by because a friend of mine and me, we bought him a ticket to watch football which he loved.
“That week he died. That was the last time I saw him.”
A Decade of Playing and Partying with Larry Flynt
Spending a lot of time playing poker in California, Thor Hansen developed a reputation as a strong seven-card stud player. Word reached Hustler founder Larry Flynt who was looking for a ringer for his game.
“Poker brought me into a lot of stuff and I got to know a lot of famous people, a lot of fun people,” recalled Hansen.
“I was Larry Flynt's man in his poker game. It was his game and we played seven-card stud and I think we played about ten years and we made good money but there was a lot of fun around it.
“Somehow he learned I was a good seven-card stud player and he wanted to hire someone to play for him. He didn't want to learn anything. He liked to lose. He was the game. Everyone won of course because he was such a bad player.
“We became good friends because I won so much money for him. He didn't like me so much when I was losing but we had a make-up deal so I had to catch up before I got to the money again.
“But those were some fun years I will say that. So many strange people in there.
“After his wife died he had a nurse for many years and she wanted to marry him and he said yes so we had his bachelor party in Beverly Hills. That was some party.
“It cost like $2 million. That's what we were supposed to spend but after flying in all the girls we didn't have any money for food so we had to spend a bit more.”
Thor Hansen: "I've Become a Better Person"
Almost three years ago Hansen was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Doctors in America gave him just a few months but with the support of his family and friends and Norway's socialized medicine, Hansen is defying the odds.
Hansen had already been enjoying the opportunities his poker celebrity affords him but after the diagnosis he says his appreciation for everything in life spiked.
“After the new poker came with all these kids I got a lot of new friends,” said Hansen.
“People call me and want to take me out and it's very nice of course, when you're my age and you've got all these young friends.
“I'm happy to have everyone around me. I'm the happy one I think.
“When I got the diagnosis of cancer, that it was terminal and it was very bad, I had surgery the day after they found it in America and the doctor said I had a few months because it was bad. It's still bad but I went back to Norway and started treatments.
“That's almost three years ago and I feel good. I have poker and the guys around me. I have my American wife who takes very good care of me. She makes me eat healthy and do stuff.
“I'm just very strong. That's what the doctor's said. They can't believe it. They say I'm not built out of blood and flesh. They said I'm of steel.
“I'm a bit of a special case for the hospital because they don't understand why I'm holding so good. I tell them I've taken so many bad beats in poker, I'm used to the bad beats.
“I've been dealing with this now for almost three years and now I don't even think about it. I've been on chemo for three years, the highest doses, and I have no problems with it. I don't even feel it and it's very strange because people get sick from that all the time.
“I appreciate small things so much more than what I did in the old days, before in life. Every little thing I see that's nice I can fell a tear and it's more sentimental.
“Some good has come out of it. I feel like I've become a better person because I want to help people and I want to do this and I want to do that.
“The important thing for poker players is to be nice. It's such a nice community. There's always someone trying to destroy it but there's so many nice people in there and as long as they stay nice and can handle the bad beats they'll be okay.”