Malta Poker Festival: Espen Uhlen Jørstad’s pursuit of poker excellence

Malta Poker Festival: Espen Uhlen Jørstad’s pursuit of poker excellence

Lee Davy sits down with Espen Uhlen Jørstad at the Malta Poker Festival to talk about his migration from cash games to tournaments, his views on health and meditation and much more.

Malta Poker Festival: Espen Uhlen Jørstad’s pursuit of poker excellenceImagine washing your knickers in the froth surrounding Lindisfarne, and seeing shiploads of Vikings heading your way.



Technically, Norway doesn’t have any Vikings these days. They only have five ships. Make that four, after some doughnut sank one earlier this month, running it into a Maltese oil freighter. And in October, 50,000 NATO troops teamed up with Norwegian armed forces in a military exercise to defend a smaller nation from the threat of attack from a much larger bastard.

But there are Vikings.


Espen Uhlen Jørstad is one.

And had he made one or two different decisions in his life; he could have a part of Trident Juncture 18.

Thankfully, he gave the army the two-finger salute and became a professional poker player.

Let’s see how he is doing.

What are you doing at the Malta Poker Festival?

I came here from the Battle of Malta,” says Jørstad. “It’s brilliant that they have two festivals in a row. I thought that this festival would have been much tougher than the Battle of Malta. Battle of Malta is bigger so most recreational players will come to this event because they can’t take two weeks off. The pros will take two weeks off and play in both. But in my experience playing yesterday, this event {Malta Poker Festival} was even softer than the Battle of Malta.”

I am curious.

Is it a relief to play in a lower buy-in event, or does Jørstad feel like he is a peach-perfect perch swimming in a rank garden pond?

“It’s changed a bit over the last year or two,” says Jørstad. “A couple of years ago a $500 buy-in would have been one of the biggest I would be playing. Now I have moved up a bit in stakes, so a $500 is basically the lowest I will play live. Even playing these, my hourly rate would be better just playing online. But then you have to factor in other things, like the glory of winning a big tournament, getting to meet your old friends and socialise, and  maybe most importantly, actually being away from your computer for a few days.”

Several months ago, The Unibet ambassador hit the headlines, teaming up with Rauno “Estonian Jesus” Tahvonen, and Rauno Kiviloo, in a project dubbed One Year, One Million where the three players would attempt to win a million in 12-months playing poker, and trading in cryptocurrency.

I ask Jørstad how the project is going?

“To be honest, I was a lot more enthusiastic in the beginning,” says Jørstad. “I was attacking it from an uncomfortable place when it comes to vlogging. I am fine talking poker hands or discussing strategy because I think I can do it fairly naturally. But if it was just me walking around the streets of Malta talking to a camera, I felt uncomfortable with that. So in the beginning, I thought if I did it for a while, I would become more and more comfortable in front of the camera. To some degree, I guess I did, but I didn’t really enjoy doing it too much. Estonian Jesus enjoyed it a lot more, however, so he basically became the main character in the story, with me and the last guy {Rauno Kiviloo} being more side-kicks.

Malta Poker Festival: Espen Uhlen Jørstad’s pursuit of poker excellenceSo is the financial goal gone the way of a surfboard on the set of Jaws?

“In the beginning, we were tracking progress weekly,” says Jørstad. “Crypto was going really bad, and poker was going well. In poker, we were up about €200k after a few months, and then we all went on pretty big downswings in both poker and crypto. I went on my biggest downswing ever. My goal for the year was to become as good as I could be and to reach high stakes. I decided I would take a rather aggressive approach, and take some shots at fairly high stakes (€5,000 NL cash games and some $5,000 MTTs). The cash games were okay, but I got destroyed in high stakes MTTs and lost quite a bit of money in the process.  It was a conscious decision though, and I don’t really regret taking those shots. I don’t have any real responsibilities, like a mortgage or kids, so I knew that if I lost a significant portion of my bankroll, I could move down and work my way back up.

“In the beginning, we had different ideas on what the project would look like. I would have preferred it to be focused on poker and strategy, while I think Rauno wanted it to be more lifestyle orientated, and we ended up doing a mix of both, which I think was bad. We should have had a long talk about it. You’re not going to hit a niche audience in a big way by being so broad.”

When I first met Jørstad I learned that he was ostensibly a cash game grinder, who used to be a fiend at World of Warcraft (WoW) and also served some time in the Norwegian Armed Forces, an experience that woke him the fuck up.

Today, he is playing more tournaments.

I want to find out why.

“I have been spending the last three months or so focusing on tournaments, playing and studying,” says Jørstad. “I think it’s somewhat of an ego thing. There is a lot more glory in the tournaments, right? In the cash games, I was climbing the ladder and reaching the first levels of “high stakes” online. I was playing still mostly NL400 on Unibet but also some NL1k, NL2k and a little bit of shot taking at NL5k. Unless you reach the nosebleeds playing in Macau for hundreds of thousands though, nobody is going to recognise you. Apart from the ego-aspect and the need for recognition, I also realised that more and more of the recreational money were in tournaments and that they were quite a bit softer than the cash games I was playing.

Talking to Jørstad, I learn that he will soon have a Tallinn-based bachelor pad, as his two vlogging buddies are moving to Canada. Given the three of them played poker and studied together in the same Estonian base, I ask Jørstad to share his viewpoint on the bitB Staking Office Instagram picture furore.

“I think it’s more of a problem if maybe three people live together and one is an End Boss, and the other two are playing mid-stakes,” says Jørstad. “I think it’s going to be a problem if one of the mid-stakes players reaches the final table of the Sunday Million, then it’s likely the End Boss will be advising how to play hands.

“In our apartment,  I would say we are all on similar skill levels. For sure, if we have a deep run we rail each other, but it’s never like, “Yes you should do this or that”. The guy plays his hand, and we discuss it later as a trio, and that’s simply because we are at such a similar skill level.”

I ask Jørstad if he feels staking groups like bitB are an essential part of becoming a professional poker player these days?

“For sure, no,” says Jørstad assuredly. “I have never been staked or a part of a house like that. I can see how it can boost you a lot in the beginning. If you get accepted by a staking group, you get one on one coaching, webinars, etc., and you can progress fast. One of my friends started poker one and a half years ago, and he quickly became a member of a staking group. He has since had coaching from Dara O’Kearney, and he has progressed incredibly fast. So I think if you’re just starting out, and you know nobody in poker, then these stables can help, but it’s not the only way to learn. You see some geniuses who basically never even study. Viktor Blom, for example, has always said he just figured shit out by playing a lot and thinking about the game.”

Malta Poker Festival: Espen Uhlen Jørstad’s pursuit of poker excellenceI move into the rapid fire round.

Jørstad is a fine specimen of a man, but that wasn’t always the case. How necessary was willpower in his health and wellness goals? Does he believe willpower exists?

“For sure, I think it exists,” says Jørstad. “There is clear evidence that we have diminishing willpower as the day progresses, a phenomenon known as decision fatigue. If you’re super tired by the end of the day, you will probably make shitty decisions. For me, it doesn’t take that much willpower to try and stay in shape now, because I have been so out of shape and I can feel how much better it is to be in shape. I feel mentally more aware, and I am as happy as I have ever been. I definitely think that being as healthy as I have ever been is a contributing factor to this happiness.

In my first interview with Jørstad, he spoke of his younger days where he spent most of his time holed up in his room playing World of Warcraft. The net result was an out of shape young man. I put it to Jørstad that today, the pleasure of exercise must outweigh the joy of sitting on his butt playing video games.

“I had nothing to compare it with,” says Jørstad. “That was my life. All I knew was how to play World of Warcraft. I had no idea how it felt to eat healthily, exercise regularly and practice meditation. I just knew how it felt to eat frozen pizza, drink Pepsi Max and play World of Warcraft. Now that I have done both; I can safely say that my current lifestyle makes me a lot happier.”

I ask him to quote the one part of his whole regime that he would never let drop.

“For sure, it would be exercise,” says Jørstad. “For me, meditation – I have been on and off it for 2-3 years, and I honestly don’t see any benefit yet. But I think that’s just because I am a shitty meditator. I haven’t progressed enough. Sometimes I do it every day for weeks straight, but then I travel and fall off the wagon for a few months. I guess if you do it every day for an extended period you will see the benefits. I really want to get to that state. It’s been a goal of mine for a long time.

“The sad thing is that I am just really stupid for not doing it. From a theoretical standpoint, I have a lot of faith in it. It doesn’t matter what field you look at – top-level athletes, the biggest CEO’s, the best poker players, the best whatever it is. The top performers all have some form of meditation incorporated in their life. It’s not just bullshit. Logically, I know I should be doing it, but I have a really hard time doing it consistently.”

I ask Jørstad to name the most inexplicable thing you have ever witnessed at the poker table?

“I can’t recall one particular mind-blowingly stupid thing, but you see stupid shit all the time from people who are clearly not meditating,” says Jørstad. “People who are raging when they lose a hand, no matter how it played out. They throw their chips, tear up cards, curse at the guy who just put a bad beat on them, verbally abuse the dealers, etc. That stuff just blows my mind every time. It’s very much the opposite of who I am trying to be, and how I think you should approach the game. You even see pros behaving like this sometimes. Crazy.”

What winds Jørstad up?

People being disingenuous, dishonest or not speaking their mind,” says Jørstad. “I have been focused on being a straight shooter all of my life. I make a conscious decision not to have dishonest people in my life. I think it’s very essential who you choose to spend your time with. There is a saying that you are the product of the five people you spend your time with. I always try to surround myself with people who can inspire me to be and do better.

Who would you like to spend more time with?

Right now it is improving at poker and reaching high stakes, and I don’t have many other goals in life except for being healthy. I guess the answer would be to surround myself with people who are funny and have good vibes, people I can talk poker with, people who are healthy and… that’s about it. That was the main benefit of moving in with my current roomies in Tallinn. Both of them are into meditation, exercising regularly, eating healthy and in general living very healthy lives. Jack Sinclair is another excellent example. He is one of the people I would like to spend more time with. Every time I spend time with him I feel energised and happy. He is a straight shooter, funny as hell, and also clearly very good at poker.”

I wonder if being in the midst of a heater like Sinclair’s rubs off on Jørstad’s game?

“No, not really. I do however really enjoy it when people I know have big scores like that,” says Jørstad. “You always read of the nosebleed end boss you don’t know who has a big score, and you automatically think that he is an absolute wizard who knows the GTO solution to every single spot. But when you see someone you know personally who gets a big score like this, it shows that it’s actually achievable for real human beings too. I’m not saying Jack isn’t a total wizard; he’s an exceptional poker player, but I also know that he is a human being.”

I ask Jørstad for his views on perfection?

As I alluded to in our first interview, I was never the popular kid in school. I was never good at any sports. I was socially very awkward. I was basically drawing dead trying to get any sort of attention from the opposite sex. In my adult life, I think I actually benefit quite a bit from this background. I’m not sure exactly why this is, but often you see kind of a role reversal from high school to adult life. The losers in high school become the winners in life and vice versa. From my own introspection and self-analysis, I think this was all about me subconsciously trying to ‘prove them wrong’. The guys who were the winners in high school – be it popular with girls, good at sports, rich families, or whatever – probably don’t have the same sense of insecurity and the same need to ‘prove them wrong’ as us high school losers do. Hence they don’t feel the need to sacrifice a lot of time/energy/comfort trying to reach the same levels of performance”.

Malta Poker Festival: Espen Uhlen Jørstad’s pursuit of poker excellenceWhile reaching, and improving, does anyone ever try to tear him down?

“Right now I just feel positivity,” says Jørstad.”I can’t even think of the last time someone was negative towards me because of this. Maybe I just haven’t had enough success yet, and that the haters will be quick to show up once I do?

Does Jørstad get envious of other people’s success?

“I have not been like that for a very long time,” says Jørstad. “I used to feel more envy back in the days when I was more insecure. Right now I am very happy about my own progress and my own journey, which also makes it easy to also be happy for others.”

I wonder how gratitude manifests itself in Jørstad’s life?

Similarly to meditation, I am doing morning/evening journaling on and off,” says Jørstad. “I, like most people, just rush through life and don’t really have time to see what’s going on. We don’t stop to think about the good things in life. Having a journal like that has helped me a lot, although I have not been doing it for a month or so. Thinking of it, I am actually going get back on the journaling grind tonight.”

How does poker make Jørstad feel?

“It brings out different emotions, and it’s always going to be like that,” says Jørstad. “I get a lot of enjoyment from playing spots perfectly. If I play a hand – then later see that a solver, or a better player, would play it in the same way, then this is very rewarding for me. On the other side, I am not immune to the frustration that arrives after final table-bubbling five big tournaments in a row. This is probably my main struggle with transitioning from cash games to tournaments. In cash games, I never experienced much frustration after losing big pots. In tournaments I find this to be way tougher, especially if I am tired, stressed, hungry or underslept. I guess this is why we eat healthy, exercise, meditate and make good sleep a priority!”

Jørstad finished sixth in the 1,366-entrant field €550 Malta Poker Festival Grand event, earning €28,000.

It won’t be long.

Poker players will be washing their knickers in the froth surrounding Lindisfarne, and they will look up and see Espen Uhlen Jørstad flying towards them.