Juan Carlos Mortensen plays poker with passion, combining a great poker mind with a rich heart. Watching him play from ten feet away is like railbirding Pacino filming a big scene or being backstage during a U2 concert. He’s committed and involved all the way, focused and willing to make any play at any time. His first World Series of Poker cash was a doozie, first place in the 2001 Main Event. He has thrived in big tournaments, and he is the only player with three top Ten finishes this year. Mortensen sat down with us on July 1st, thirty minutes before the $2k NLHE tournament started.
CC: First, I have a very tough question for you: which was more painful for you, England over Ecuador or France knocking out Spain in the World Cup?
Mortensen: I love both countries, probably I respect Spain because they are bigger, more well known, but I am happy with Ecuador, they had a nice run. As you know, I am from Ecuador but now live in Spain. It was more painful for Spain to lose, but I wanted both to win.
CC: You’ve talked about the beginning of your career before, coming back and forth from Spain to the US early in your career. Now closing on 10 years from when you started, what do you take from those early days?
Mortensen: At that time, I was learning so much and there were great challenges for me. I played in Spain and then would head to America to try and win. Right now, I know what is happening in this poker world, but things can be harder now as there are many, many more players.
CC: Many of these new players started online, how different do you think it was for you then vs. now?
Mortensen: The first years that new players came from online, it was difficult for me, probably difficult for all of the pros. We don’t know how they play, they make strange moves, but we learn how to play online too. Now I can say that I think pros are going to win more, but there are some great players online. The experience is there, and those with experience will always be there.
CC: Take me back to 2000 when you came to the World Series and had some good results. How did that prepare you for 2001?
Mortensen: In 2000, I went four or five times back and forth from Madrid, playing tournaments here and in Europe, everywhere. I started playing tournaments in 2000, then in January 2001 I played in the Commerce Casino and had good results. I was very focused coming into the World Series.
CC: If you read about Juan Carlos Mortensen, it says that he came out of nowhere to win the World Series, but you had great wins in Commerce and the Bay 101 prior to the World Series.
Mortensen: Yes, I won at the Commerce a tournament with over 400 players, then I won the Shooting Stars tournament at Bay 101. I won the ticket to play in the World Series Main Event by winning the Bay 101. I was going to play anyways, but I won the free ticket. The World Series, I played great I think. I just put all my chips in a situation to lose, to be out of the tournament, probably three or four times in the tournament, so that in my mind is playing well. The year before in 2000 was one of the best years I played the World Series. I was 4th in chips at the end of the first day. I remember I lost five times with aces, difficult situations. One of these situations I had aces full, and I don’t put all my chips in. He had quads, A-7-5, and a 5 came on the turn, he bets me too small. I had a decision, and I just called all the way, on the river he bet $7k, and I just call, I had $8k more, and he covers me. I was playing great the year before but lucky at the end, Gus Hansen beat me with , I have aces. I lost five times with aces, and I can remember almost all of them. I finished like 68th that year, and I think it is one of my best performances in the Main Event. It showed me that I can do this. I made the right decisions, and made me comfortable for the next year. And the next year, I finished the job.
CC: Tell us about the 2001 Main Event.
Mortensen: After the first level, I had 1300 in chips left (from a starting stack of 10,000). I doubled up against Jennifer Harman, she had pocket nines I have , that was my first double up. Then I took small pots, small pots. I put all of my chips in with a chance to lose four times in that tournament.
CC: And tell us about the final table. I don’t know if there have been tougher players at a final table; we’ll probably never see a final table this tough again.
Mortensen: Mike Matusow, Phil Gordon, Dewey Tomko, Phil Hellmuth, John Inashima, Stan Schrier, yes it was a very good final table, but I was so focused. I think I don’t make a mistakes, I play correctly, even the bluff against Mike Matusow works. (From PokerPages: With six players left, Matusow made it $60,000 to go before the flop. Carlos raised $150,000. Mike came over the top for $350,000 more. Carlos moved all in, Mike folded and then Carlos showed him a Q-8 offsuit. Mike jumped up and walked around in obvious anger. “I knew he was on a bluff,” Carlos said later. I could feel it.”).
CC: After you won, what did that do for you?
Mortensen: After I won, I feel like I can play with anyone, from playing $80/160 or $30/60 to playing the regular games where you can win significant money. I won $1.5 million, and what can I say? I didn’t have any objectives left in poker. I took six months and didn’t play anything. Cecilia and I traveled around the world and took a long vacation. But then we got bored, and we came back.
CC: You seem to focus more on tournaments. Do you prefer them to ring games?
Mortensen: Tournaments, you have to win. If you don’t win, it costs you a lot of money to play all these tournaments. The thing about tournaments is that you can win a big prize one time. Cash games are better, a safer way, and I expect to play live later with the proper bankroll, after I practice my cash game to prepare. Before I was playing tournaments, I just played cash games, that was how I did it, then I started playing just tournaments.
CC: Let’s talk about Event #2, I don’t want to point to specific hands, but I do want to take you back where you had the chip lead down to two tables then went through a very tough hour where you lost 80% of your chips. (NOTE: Mortensen went from $720k to $140k in an hour). You’re a passionate player, you’re very focused, yet it was a series of events that led to this slide. What’s going on in your mind, and how do you get through that, especially because you got through it when most other players wouldn’t have gotten through it.
Mortensen: In my mind, it’s just passing through the next phase. Try to still be there, be there, make good decisions, don’t make a mistake. Always, don’t make a mistake. With twenty-two players left, I was the chip leader with $660k, second had like $300k. We went to dinner, I eat too much, I came back and played a bad couple hands, and that was my mistake. I played a bad couple hands, and that cost me the tournament. If I played well, normal situation is that I have the chip lead at the final table with a lot of chips. I think I made a mistake there, but I made the final table. I had acceptable chips, $337k, the players at the final table were good but to me less experienced than I am. Almost everyone had the same chips, the chip leader had just two times what I had. I double up one time, and I would be the chip leader. I had three race situations, and I lost all three. To win, you have to have the best hand and stay ahead. I expect to be there more this year. I’ll be playing every day.
CC: Well, this will be my first event today. Going back, thinking of when you start and where you are now, what advice would you have for someone in their first WSOP from a World Champion?
Mortensen: Remember there are many, many players who make a lot of mistakes, so you don’t need to make a mistake like trying to overplay a hand. The blinds are so small, so just be patient and wait for their mistakes. The people get nervous. I have amazing hands that I win with. I’m in the small blind, and I limp for $1k with K-8o, and he checks. The flop comes K-8-6, and I check, and the guy bets me $15k, then I double his bet, and he goes all-in, and I have to call $50k more. I think for a bit then call, he has A-2. People make that kind of mistake.
CC: Are you playing today (in the $2k NLHE Event)?
Mortensen: Yes, I’m playing today.
CC: I hope to see you Monday at the final table then.
Mortensen: I hope to see you on Monday too!
(ADDENDUM: He didn’t see me on Monday. Juan Carlos Mortensen made the final table of the $2k NLHE tourney, while I had my A-A cracked by Ah-Qh, all-in pre-flop by the way, so now I’m just like Juan Carlos Mortensen in the 2000 World Series of Poker. )