It’s not that hard to find Erik Sagstrom, but getting to talk to him is another story. Just flip on your computer and Sagstrom is there. You can find the Swede night or day in his “office.” It’s just that Sagstrom’s “office” is out in public, in basically the highest-stakes poker games on the Internet. And like any sports star from any generation, Erik would just as soon be left alone, so he can concentrate on business and get down to his game. But the fans aren’t likely to let that happen.
It’s not unusual for Sagstrom to be locked up at some table on some Internet poker site, and represented only by a screen name, a pile of chips, and a pattern of decisions: bet, call, raise, or fold. That’s all you can see. And although the hundreds of spectators who are watching these big Internet poker games at any given time may not know his real name, they know who he is. “In America they call me ‘Erik123,’ and in Europe they call me ‘The Salmon,’” Erik said. “It doesn’t really matter.” But such is the nature of being the biggest name in Internet poker.
To those who are up to date on happenings in the poker world, the incredible thing is not that a person such as Erik Sagstrom exists. What’s incredible is that he is only 21 years old. And that’s one reason why I was so excited to finally be able to talk to the man behind the mouse. I caught up with Erik by phone when he was out of the office, when in this generation of always being wired up, Sagstrom was for a few moments unable to connect — because he was driving in a car. And I felt like I knew a lot about him before ever talking with him, because as an inveterate poker “watcher” myself, someone crazy enough to log long hours in Internet poker rooms without doing anything more than watch others play, I have spent plenty of time with Erik Sagstrom. I’ve watched him a lot, and he plays lights out.
“I sometimes play long hours,” Erik conceded. “I’m one who for a fact knows that I am working best from home. I go into these periods in which I play six or seven days nearly all the time, and those are the days when I make the most money. It’s just not something that I can do as well from a hotel room.” Hotel rooms are where Erik spends more and more of his time these days, because while the Internet is where he made his mark in the past, live tournament poker is where part of his future lies, and that now means traveling the world on the poker tour and matching up with the superstars of the day for the biggest money and exposure.
Recently of legal age to play in Las Vegas, Sagstrom played in his first tournament there last December, a $15,000 buy-in affair at Bellagio, and he surprised some but certainly not himself by going deep into the tournament, netting 31st place out of 376 runners and $27,000. “Playing in Las Vegas was a big goal for me. I was going there three years before I could play there,” he laughed. “But I would follow the gossip and results, and remember the names.” One Internet journalist reported that Erik served notice to the live poker world there by bluffing old-time professional Tom Jacobs out of a humongous pot and then showing his hand. When Jacobs took exception to the play, Sagstrom simply turned to his neighbor and in his cherubic innocence said, “Surely, I must be allowed to show I am capable of a bluff.”
Capable is what the Swede has always been able to count on. “I’ve always been fascinated by games,” he said. “I guess I have a winner’s instinct. When I was younger, I used to play a lot of table tennis, and I was pretty good at it. We drove around [Sweden] to play table tennis, and I started to play some poker, as well. I like poker because I started to understand that it’s actually beatable. If you can beat someone at a game that some people think is only luck, that’s nice for the ego and for the intellect. And I think that’s what started me up.”
As for the differences between Internet and live poker, Sagstrom believes the lines are becoming more blurred every day. “I actually think the Internet games are often tougher than some of the live games. The first time that I went to Amsterdam,” he recalled, “I went to the big game and saw that it was mostly older people. Then the next year, there were maybe one or two Internet players. Now, the big game at the Amsterdam tournament is all Internet players!” he laughed. That, Sagstrom believes, is the development of poker. “Online is a great way to learn poker. You can just concentrate on the game. More and more, there will be lots of young players coming into the game from the Internet, and it will just get tougher.”
During our 30-minute conversation, in which we talked about all things Situs Poker Online 2021, the man who one poker site has announced is its top poker earner ever never once mentioned money. Sagstrom didn’t talk about figures or nice cars, big houses or fancy clothes. He talked about swings, about limits, about intellectual and competitive challenges, and about the desire to win. He gives one the confidence that if the game of poker had nothing remotely to do with dollars and cents — there for nothing other than the game itself — he would still be doing it. This is sort of how he got started. Even though Sagstrom is young, he’s been there since the start of Internet poker, and in the beginning, it wasn’t about the money.
“I was about 14 or 15,” Sagstrom recalled, “and I started playing in the IRC game on the net.” The IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, poker game was at the beginning of it all, predating every Internet poker room by some years. “It was just text, no graphics,” Erik laughed, “and there were actually lots of good players. People took it very seriously. There were tournament stats and [play money] bankrolls, and the big cash games were actually very tough.” Sagstrom played one summer there, “thousands of tournaments,” and it proved to be quite a training ground when the first online poker sites sprung up and Sagstrom jumped in.
Nowadays, there’s nothing Erik Sagstrom doesn’t know about online poker. So, when Danish poker champion Gus Hansen was starting up his own online poker site called PokerChamps with proprietary software, Erik was a natural choice as a consultant and partner. Although PokerChamps is still relatively new, it’s becoming quite popular; only an hour before I talked to Erik, the site reached a milestone in having 2,000 players online at one time. A big reason for PokerChamps’ rapid rise is that it has been designed with the players in mind, by the players themselves. “The cash flow programs are revolutionary,” Erik explained, “in that you get automatic rake back every Friday, which is put directly into your account. On other sites, you have to sign up through special codes.” At PokerChamps, every player gets between 25 percent and 50 percent of his rake back, automatically, every week.
Another niche that PokerChamps has carved out is in its software, which Sagstrom has helped design to be user-friendly, with the serious player in mind. “There shouldn’t be a lot of childish graphics [on a poker site]. PokerChamps is for people who want to play.” This is reflected in elements like the screen, which can accommodate six separate game windows inside a single screen, which is unique in the online world. “Even if we go big,” Sagstrom maintains, “I want to see ourselves as the players’ site, for the players who play a lot of poker every day.”