Thor Hansen and Pierre Neuville have about 100 years of poker experience between them.
They are the grand seigneurs of European poker that, up until recently, had completely different stories.
Then, like most of our lives have or will, their stories took an unexpected turn. Both found themselves fighting death.
They won, and poker helped them through. This is the amazing story of two of Europe’s poker godfathers and the spirit of poker.
By Dirk Oetzmann
A couple of years ago Pierre Neuville was close to death after undergoing six operations, two of which went wrong.
The Godfather of Norwegian poker, Thor Hansen, has been battling cancer for much longer now than the doctors said he would live. Neuville remembers the dark times, immobile and stuck in a hospital bed:
“I said to my wife, if I ever get out of here alive, I will stop working and live as a poker player full time.
"Until then, she didn’t know that I had ever played poker. She thought I was delirious and imagining someone I had seen on TV.”
Little did she know that Neuville had played in the 1960s to finance his studies but then stopped to pursue a business career. Only a few months later, Pierre made the last two tables of the PCA main event before being taken out by eventual winner Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier.
"I know I am very, very sick. But I’m a strong guy, I can take a lot."
He's now in the Top 10 of the EPT all-time leaderboard.
"I'm Not Even Supposed to Be Alive Anymore"
For his amazing consistency and achievements in poker, Neuville was awarded the PokerListings “Living Legends” award last year.
Hansen, also nominated last year, is among the Top 3 in voting for this year's award.
Somehow he's also beem strong enough to make his way to EPT100 in Barcelona this past week, despite his circumstances. We asked him first about how he feels.
“I have several tumors in my body. I’ve had chemo for over 24 months. The doctors said I have a couple of months to live.
"That was two years ago. Seeing it like that, I’m doing pretty well.”
Hansen’s condition is not one that can be cured, however, and he knows that treatment can only do so much.
“I know I am very, very sick. But I’m a strong guy, I can take a lot. I’m not even supposed to be alive anymore, but here I am playing the main event.”
In a lot of industries the old are often pushed out and forgotten in favor of the new. The poker world doesn’t - and should never - forget quickly.
Hansen has been nominated for the Poker Hall of Fame this year, although he finds it a small consolation.
“I can’t say the Hall of Fame means a lot to me. I am the first non-American to be nominated, which is a compliment, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really mean much.”
Poker as a Way Back to Life
Hansen has also been nominated for the PokerListings Living Legend Award in both years of its existence. Neuville was the first to win the award last year.
“To me, it was an honor to receive the award," Neuville said. "It means I got the recognition of some competent body in the poker industry, which PokerListings is.
"It also reminds me why we play. I never started playing poker because of the money, although I do have an eye on my bankroll, of course.
"I will never be nominated (for the Hall of Fame) because I don’t play cash games. I don't fulfilll several of the conditions.”
"Poker players have very strong minds."
"These awards value the game," Hansen says. "It is not important that there is no money on it. I’m aware that I’ve been nominated twice, and I do appreciate it. If I win, there is a really good chance I will come to Malta and pick the award up myself.
"Of course, it depends on how I feel and if I need to go into treatment or not.”
Without overstating the meaning of poker, both in general and in the lives of Neuville and Hansen, it's fair to say that poker helped them find their way back to life.
Poker didn’t save Pierre’s life but it gave him something to look forward to. And poker seems to be the one thing that keeps Thor going, no matter what.
If that doesn't exemplify the true spirit of poker, we're not sure what does.
"Poker Players Have Very Strong Minds"
Nobody beats death. Nobody gets out of here alive. Question is, how do you deal with it? As poker players we might even be better equipped to deal with it than most.
"A bad beat is not really a bad beat, it’s just the game."
“Poker players have very strong minds," Hansen says. "They take a lot of bad beats, but they can handle it.
"No matter what sickness you have, it’s your strength of the mind that helps and good poker players have that.”
“In fact," Neuville adds, "bad beats don’t hurt that much anymore. A bad beat is not really a bad beat, it’s just the game.
"I have just written about how not to suffer from bad beats anymore. I know that some players suffer terribly, and I want to make it easier for them.”
Hansen has a slightly different view.
“I’m the opposite. I like bad beats. You don’t get them that often, and you like to see that you get it in with the best hand, so a bad beat means you’ve done it right.
"I really don’t mind bad beats at all.”
Listening to these pioneers of European poker makes you feel that you're catching a glimpse of two long journeys that gave the travelers a certain level of wisdom.
There are loads of stories, good and bad, along these journeys but all have a lesson in them if we're paying attention.
It's up to us, the poker fans and media, to capture these stories and learn from them before they disappear.