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An Open Letter to My Younger Self

Dear Miikka,

Tomorrow is a pretty big day—a day that will make your poker career. You’re going to play your biggest final table to date, at the Helsinki Freezeout Main Event. And guess what? You’re going to win.

Yes, you read that right. You’ll beat all those professionals, who have years of experience on you. And I mean all of them. No deal-making with Full Tilt Poker pro Jani Vilmunen when it’s down to heads-up. You’ll win outright, and take home just over $100,000.

Better still, it’ll happen at your home casino, a stone’s throw from where you live, in front of many loyal friends, who will rail all 8 hours of the final table. It will be one of those moments that dreams are made of. Your greatest triumph. And it’ll happen here of all places—the Grand Casino Helsinki, where you’ve wanted to win something so badly for so long.

It’s also the same casino that you anxiously entered after a scandal exactly one year earlier. Tomorrow, walking up the stairs towards the final table, you’ll still be a bit cautious.

You’ll recall what it was like walking up those stairs a year ago. The looks you got, old friends turning their backs on you, the awkward conversations. You wanted to run and hide, to get drunk somewhere away from the public eye. But you had to play, and it didn’t go very well. A few days later, one of those haters tried to kill you by putting poison in your drink at a party.

(Editor’s Note: Miikka has experienced some insane things in his gambling career, and you can read all about them in his book Once A Gambler.)

When you walk up those stairs tomorrow, you’ll remember all of this. Then, you’ll wish, again, that you didn’t have to play, which is of course completely crazy—you’re second in chips with nine players left and $100,000 on the line! You’re feeling good about your chances of winning! But those thoughts won’t go away. They never will. But I’m here to tell you that it’s going to be all right. Once you sit down, you’ll see familiar faces in the crowd smiling and rooting for you. You’ll hear people whispering about how you’ve come a long way. And the haters talking you down? They will just give you more energy and motivation.

“That guy? I didn’t see this coming. Not in a million years. He’s not supposed to be where he is.”

Well, the odds of you making it this far, or being alive, haven’t always been in your favor.

You’ll mainly play solid poker, sometimes just trying to hold your own against better opponents, sometimes going for unorthodox plays. For the most part, it’ll just be you doing your thing. And you know that, at such high level, final tables play out according to luck more than anything else. Tomorrow it’ll be your day. I guess I can spoil the final hand for you: you’ll 3-bet shove A-9o over Jani Vilmunen’s open. He’ll call with A-J, and you’ll hit a nine on the river. This will be the first live heads-up you’ll win.

But none of that is particularly important. I’m here to tell you about what will come next.

”Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of the 2011 Helsinki Freezeout is…”

You’ll hear whispers and murmurs. “No fucking way,” some say. But you’ll see familiar faces in every direction, eagerly waiting to shake your hand and congratulate you. It’ll be overwhelming.

”Miikka Anttonen!”

Your name will somehow sound… wrong. You’ll get vicious flashbacks, begin to sweat, and feel a slight panic. Then, upon hearing your name, you’ll almost wish someone else would have won so you didn’t have to step into the damn spotlight again.

The few minutes after your named is called will be a blur. Hands reaching out to you. Shake, shake. You’ll smile a lot. Sometimes a fake smile for photographs. Sometimes a real smile, especially when you see the people who stood by your side during the scandal. You’ll exchange a few words with them.

As for the $100,020, that will be given to you in the form of little plastic disks, which will feel odd in your hands—too light to be that much money. You’ll be able to fit them all in the back pocket of your jeans.

As you walk toward the crowd, more and more people will reach out to you, and that’s when the panic will really hit. Memories of last year will rush into your head, and too many people you don’t know seem to want a piece of you.

“Are you ready to do the winner’s interview?” a reporter will ask. He’ll look familiar because he’s the same guy who covered your scandal a year before. There are two stools set up, and a videographer waiting with a camera.

Shareholders. You’ll hand each of them a piece of plastic. A $10,000 disk to you, and another to you. Thanks. Good game.

“Miikka, Miikka!” Someone will rush over to hug you. You’ll have no idea who that was.

At one point it will all get too overwhelming.

You’ll rush to the toilet, lock yourself in one of the stalls, and whimper as you try to catch your breath. It won’t be the last panic attack you’ll suffer, but it’ll be the worst one. (To date, at least. I’m only 30!)

Your palms will be sweaty, like on a first date, and you’ll be shaking and your heart will be racing fast. You’ll have no idea what the hell is happening—why, after achieving your biggest triumph, are you feeling worse than ever before?

You’ll dial your girlfriend’s number. Yes—definitely do that. This is the best advice I can give you: forget that you told her not to come and rail this final table (sure, you were too afraid that something bad would happen again). You need to call her. Hearing her voice will make you feel sane again, and hearing how proud she is of you will finally make you feel at ease. Oh, and during the phone call you’ll hear a bunch of beeps in the background. Those are all the congratulatory messages making their way through. One of them will be from your first grade teacher, who’s been following your career all along.

You’ll come out of the stall feeling better, but also knowing that you’ll have to go back up there and face the media. And you’ll know exactly what they’ll be asking—the kinds of questions no other winner would’ve been asked.

“Would you say that you’d be here without the scandal?”

“No way,” you’ll answer. “I needed to grow up, and I needed to come crashing down to stop that downward spiral. So, in a way, I’m almost thankful all that happened. Who knows where I’d be if I hadn’t been forced to get my shit together.”

“Would you change anything?”

This is the question I’m here to warn you about. Your answer—my answer—will be a lie. But it won’t be intentional. You won’t realize it’s a lie at the time.

“I guess I wouldn’t. I mean, would I prefer to not have pissed off the entire poker community, have my friends stop calling me, fuck up my relationship, lose my reputation, get poisoned, get scammed for $60,000 myself? Sure. But in the grand scheme of things, all that needed to happen for me to get where I am now.”

It’ll be a lie because, while you almost certainly wouldn’t have made it here without the scandal, the truth is that you would have changed many things.

So many, in fact, that six years later you’ll write and publish a book about your regrets.

You’ll start from the very beginning: how you found sports betting as a kid in elementary school. Then your gambling addiction. Five-figure wins and losses while in middle school. Dropping out of high school. Everything falling apart. Your entire life slipping from your hands like a wet bar of soap.

But you’ll write about the good stuff, too. How you got your life back on track, got a job, swore to quit gambling, and managed to keep things together for years to come. You’ll write about your first serious girlfriend, how you spent over a year traveling around Australia, and how you were happy. Finally happy. The world opened up to you like it never would have while gambling around the clock.

Then, you found poker. You hadn’t gambled for almost five years—the thought of placing another sports bet or spinning a roulette wheel made you feel sick. Yet, there you were, sitting at a poker table.

You won the first sit and go you ever played for $200. You booked a win for your first ever session of Texas Hold’em, and you immediately knew there was no turning back.

The second session didn’t go as well. You lost your entire life’s savings playing $25/$50.

The third, the fourth, and the fifth sessions didn’t go much better. You were soon $20,000 in debt.

Then came the attention, becoming Finland’s most read blogger, rising up the ranks in cash games all the way up $5/$10 heads-up, the sponsorship, your girlfriend almost dying, getting beaten up by Portuguese policemen hours before one of the biggest live tournament of your life, the Vegas strip club incident, finding your name in the tabloids after getting linked to a reality TV buxom, the self-loathing, lighting money on fire (both literally and figuratively), the fall, the desperation, the inevitable crashing and burning.

Of course, you eventually rose like a phoenix, because otherwise you probably wouldn’t be here to tell that story.

And guess what? Tomorrow, the 15th of January, 2011, is the climax to that story. Even though you’ll go on to win half of the Sunday majors out there, enjoy $100,000 winning months online, win a world championship, and have a bunch of other incredible things will go your way, nothing that ever happens to you in the poker world will be quite as memorable as tomorrow. I know you won’t be able to enjoy it, but that’s all right.

You’ll have an absolute ball writing a book about it six years later.

-Miikka

Click here to learn more about Miikka’s book Once A Gambler. If you like crazy gambling stories, this is the book for you.

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Miikka Anttonen is poker professional from Finland with $2.4 million in career earnings and a world championship title under his belt. His autobiography is Once A Gambler. Find out more at http://www.onceagambler.com/

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