Staring down at a Jack and a Four for the second time during the heads-up contest, a visibly rattled Adrian Attenborough wanted to make the call. A high-level-thinking, combination-counting savant, he knew it would be, in all likelihood, a bad call. He knew that to do so would be leaving the game tree versus a player with whom that would be very dangerous.
Jørstad was deep in meditation
On the other side of a table was a lump of elegantly sculpted Norwegian granite. Espen Jørstad was deep in meditation, his eyes closed behind a pair of sunglasses reminiscent of the pair that Stu Ungar wore when he won the 1997 Main Event. His job was done. He 3-betted the flop with his trips, he sized up on a blank turn and when the river boated him up, he made the easy decision to shove for two-thirds pot.
Composure personified, Jørstad was motionless, as he had been for his Australian opponent’s twenty-minute tank during the first hand of heads-up play. On that occasion, Attenborough came to the right decision. On this occasion, he did not. In a spot not nearly as close, it was as if he couldn’t help himself. After eight minutes, he plonked in the calling chips and that was all she wrote.
Burning the midnight oil
One of the longest days in World Series of Poker (WSOP) history, Wednesday night saw the Main Event field whittled down to ten players over 16 grueling hours. When the dust settled, Jørstad was atop of the leaderboard, his elimination of Robert Welch leaping him to joint-first position with the US’s Matthew Su.
The Main Event is always a marathon but this was an especially demanding grind for the remaining competitors who had to burn the midnight oil and dig deep into their adrenaline reserves in the pursuit of poker immortality. At one point, commentator Ali Nejad was funking for a player mutiny as legitimate questions were raised about putting the players through such an egregiously long day.
Jørstad and Su had 83,200,000 (69 big blinds) apiece
The original plan was to play down to nine players but in the end, common sense prevailed and a halt to proceedings was called at 6.10am with the players returning for the ‘unofficial’ final table of ten after a well-earned day off. When they returned, Jørstad and Su had 83,200,000 (69 big blinds) apiece.
A hard slog for a desired goal
Jørstad’s tournament reached its nadir early on Day 2 when he had just 17,000 chips to work with from a starting stack of 60,000. I bumped into him on the first break at exactly this point and the former Unibet Poker ambassador turned Overbet Express founder was his usual stoical but also ‘never-say-die’ self.
“It is what it is,” he told me. “I’ll just play my stack as best I can and hopefully win some pots.”
Ten hours and a few won pots later:
Jørstad is originally a gamer and it has always struck me that he gamifies many aspects of his life. That type of solipsistic outlook can be a defense mechanism against trauma but it can also be a way to confront challenges. Jørstad has always met adversity with a combination of single-mindedness and honest self-reflection.
a centered, confident gym-bunny
As a teenager, he struggled with anxiety, shyness, weight issues and a lack of purpose. Today, he is a centered, confident gym-bunny and a master of his craft. That’s testament to how he is willing to put in the hard slog for a desired goal but also how he has applied positive changes to his life so diligently that they have become habit-forming behaviors.
Getting the results
When you are process-oriented, the results often follow and that they did for Jørstad who took a similar approach to his poker, working especially hard on his game in 2020 and 2021. When I asked him how his game had progressed, he pointed to the pandemic lockdowns as a catalyst for his success:
“From a poker player perspective, my game now is not really comparable with what it was pre-COVID. Being more or less forced to just no-life it for two years straight meant there was a lot of time to grind and study, and less time for travel and other distractions. Also, the fact that I spent these two years locked up with other high stakes professionals was very beneficial to the progress curve.”
Through that period, Jørstad rose up through the stakes. There were, of course, little downswings but the overall trend was upward and in September 2021, he capped things off by making the GGPoker Online WSOP Main Event final table. A bad beat with pocket Kings sent him to the rail in sixth but the $603,057 payday was his career-best and a significant marker.
A bump on the road
Seven weeks ago, Jørstad was again faced with adversity. In fact, his financial world was turned upside-down when the cryptocurrency (Terra) Luna collapsed. He was over-exposed to tokens on the Terra ecosystem, costing him seven figures, an enormous percentage of his net worth. Several years of positive poker results and crypto-investments were wiped out in a matter of days.
my most sensible course of action is simply to step back”
Jørstad took to Instagram to offer a very honest appraisal of what had happened and how it could curtail his upcoming WSOP:
“I think it’s important to take a step back and realize that I can’t take on the same variance as I could a month ago,” he said, adding “I think it’s important for me to not let my ego tell me that I belong at these higher stakes tournaments just because I was playing them a month ago. The reality is that my most sensible course of action is simply to step back, grind it back up and to not take overly aggressive shots at higher stakes.”
On reading this, I reached out to Espen. I commended his decision to play lower and rebuild: “It’s a devastating number of course and hard to wrap your head around in the moment but years from now looking back, I promise you will just think of it as a bump on the road.”
He replied: “Yeah, I mean it’s a big hit, but if I take a birds-eye view of my life I have no reason to be bummed out.“
Half a bracelet and $74,000
There’s a tremendous lesson there for any players who find themselves in their biggest downswing. Many succumb to that awful instinct to chase losses with reckless abandon, unable to take a moment, take stock and see the wood from the trees. It was good to see that Jørstad understood what he needed to do:
“Both for my bankroll and mental health, I’m just going to enjoy playing the WSOP at a lower buy-in range.”
For the first four weeks of the Series, a live deep run alluded Jørstad but on June 26th he found some heat in the quirkiest of places. Partnered with Patrick Leonard in the tag-team event, the pair got to heads-up play, coming back from a 5:1 deficit to defeat Jamie Kerstetter and Corey Paggeot. Half a bracelet and $74,000 represented a modest financial uptick but a significant morale boost. Jorstad was able to go into the Main Event with the wind at his back.
Preparation meets opportunity
When Jørstad woke up last Thursday afternoon, he was all business. A rest day is not a day off and he and Leonard spent the evening watching the footage from Wednesday, formulating player-specific game plans and running through hypotheticals of how the final table might pan out. When I spoke to him briefly, he told me that he was using the day to “prepare as much as possible.”
Jørstad’s friend and partner on Overbet Express Henry Kilbane reiterated that point to me, saying that this was “a classic case of preparation meets opportunity,” adding “Espen is one of the hardest working people I know and his elite mindset has really shone through.”
Jørstad and his support team had identified the major threats
In poker, there are too many stones to unturn but it was obvious that Jørstad and his support team had identified the major threats on the final table and were planning tailor-made strategies for each of them. On Friday afternoon, when the ten remaining players returned to Ballys to remove their Main Event chips from a bag for the seventh time, Jørstad was ready.
Ten to Five
It wasn’t long before ten became nine after Asher Conniff lost a flip with pocket tens to Michael Duek’s Ace-King, a King-King-King flop sending him to the rail in clinical fashion. Nine would remain nine, however, for four more hours before overnight co-chipleader Su bowed out after his pocket Eights lost to Phillipe Souki’s pocket Kings.
The celebrations were short-lived for Souki, who to be fair, had ridden his luck to the ladder. He bust in eighth when Matija Dobric cracked his pocket Aces. Aaron Duczak was next to go after getting crippled in a spot with the Ace-King of diamonds on a Two-diamond flop versus the slow-played pocket Aces of John Eames.
The sixth place finisher was Jeffrey Farnes who started the day well after flopping a set but got little going thereafter. He went for a creative play, stop-going pocket deuces into two players on a Six-high flop only to be called by Eames whose gutshot, flush draw, over cards and counterfeit equity prevailed.
Five to three
During the first seven hours of final table play, the chiplead was shared around but with five left, Jørstad was back in the top spot. Then came a crucial hand involving him and Dobric, one of those players no doubt identified ahead of time as a particular threat.
an unenviable flip for an enormous pot
Dobric opened pocket Sixes and when the action came to Jørstad, he elected to 3-bet induce Ace-Queen rather than shove. In a high ICM spot versus an aggressive opponent, that was playing with fire but clearly Jorstad felt that he could induce worse Ace-X to shove. The fact that Dobric went with Sixes suggests that he is right about that but nonetheless this spot put him in an unenviable flip for an enormous pot.
Had Dobric held, he would have been the chipleader and Jørstad would have been short but it went the other way and the fearless and aggressive Dobric was out in fifth place, beating his 32nd place finish from last year.
The denouement of Day 8 saw the chip lead go back and forth one more time before another huge showdown sent Eames to the rail. With 23 big blinds, he re-shoved Ace-Jack, ultimately no match for the pocket Kings of Jørstad.
A worser angel
When Jørstad, Attenborough and Duek returned for Day 9, the former held a commanding lead with almost 60% of the chips in play.
It wasn’t long before the penultimate elimination when Duek’s turned top-pair was doomed to the turned broadway of Attenborough. That squared things up somewhat for what promised to be an engrossing heads-up contest with Jorstad enjoying a slender 55%/45% advantage.
Right away, Attenborough was put in a really tough situation after he 3-bet pre with J4, fired a 30% c-bet on K108, opted for a two-thirds pot merge-bet on the turned 4 and then faced a shove after he checked the 8 river. Jørstad had KQ but in this spot, he can have a lot of potential missed draws so Attenborough’s hand can be good. After a twenty-minute tank, Attenborough let it go, living to fight another day.
probably wondering how he’d let the pot get so bloated
That day came thirty minutes later when again he had Jack-Four, this time J4 in a limped pot versus the Q2 of Jørstad. On a final board of 2428Q, he faced a bet of two-thirds pot and was probably wondering how he’d let the pot get so bloated.
Throughout the eight minutes of deliberation, his brain was telling him to fold but it seemed as if another force was at play, a devil on his shoulder, a worser angel willing him to make the call. In the end, that force was irresistible and Jørstad was the champion of the world.
Jørstad’s sights set high
In his post-match interview, Jørstad made his intentions clear. They are the very same intentions he had before his financial woes of what must seem like seven years and not seven weeks ago .
“My goal has been to reach into the High Roller scene and play more $25,000 tournaments and stuff like that. I’ve dipped my toes, but now I have a bigger bankroll to take some shots in those tournaments. I need to get in the lab and make sure I’m good enough to play them… And make some very sensible investments – cryptocurrencies and tech stocks, probably.”
At this World Series, Jørstad has showcased a special type of determination, strong-mindedness, and conviction. With this World Series Main Event performance, he has showcased both his poker skills but also the resilience that he will need when tussling with poker’s elite. Will he find success in the nosebleeds? I, for one, wouldn’t bet against him.