PokerStars is celebrating its 20th Anniversary: 20 years as the best known and most trusted online poker site. Here at PokerStars Blog, we are looking back year-by-year on those two decades, noting the landmarks and remembering all the remarkable moments, fitting them into the wider landscape of poker’s sensational development.
Today we’re taking you back to December 2010 when PokerStars signed the mysterious nosebleed crusher “Isildur1” to its prestigious Team PokerStars Pro, prompting speculation over his or her identity to reach fever pitch.
All would be revealed in 2011, a year that saw big shifts in the landscape of high stakes online cash games. But who were the nosebleed stars of the time? And who won the biggest pot ever played on PokerStars ($422K)? Let’s go back.
SPOILER ALERT: “Isildur1” is Viktor Blom.
That’s common knowledge today but let me tell you: at the end of 2010, the true identity of the sensational, reticent Swede was a mystery on par with the spinning top at the end of Inception, one of the year’s most successful movies.
“[Isildur1] had lit up the online poker world by seemingly coming from nowhere to play the nosebleed stakes cash games,” wrote Simon Young, PokerStars’ former Editor-in-Chief, back in 2011. “He endured wild swings along the way by winning or losing some of the biggest pots poker had ever seen.
“But what was also remarkable was that Isildur1 was an enigma. Quite simply, no one knew who on earth he (or she) was. There were rumours, of course, but a lot of it was fuelled by over-enthusiastic forum chatter.”
Why was there such fervour surrounding Isildur1? Well, for a while, it seemed like nobody could beat him. Isildur1 had turned a $2,000 deposit into $2 million in just three weeks of playing and then took on the game’s greatest players like Tom Dwan, Phil Ivey and Patrik Antonius–often simultaneously–in some of the biggest poker games ever witnessed. He quickly earned the respect of poker’s legends.
Was Isildur1 a savant? Perhaps. Was he a pioneer of pre-solver poker strategy? Almost certainly. But in 2011, Isildur1 was also just a shy, lanky 20-year-old with messy hair and ripped jeans, as Brad Willis, PokerStars’ Head of Blogging, discovered at the 2011 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.
Viktor Blom was in the Bahamas for his Team Pro unveiling and sat down with Willis for his first-ever interview, as curious onlookers hovered around pondering: Is that him?
“After spending month after month as poker’s Keyser Söze, Viktor Blom is happy to admit he is Isildur1,” wrote Willis. “Blom simply didn’t see any benefit in seeking out fame. He was playing a game he loved, and if he could remain in the shadows, he was fine with that.”
His mysteriousness would inspire the next generation of online cash game phenoms too, but we’ll get to that later.
Blom’s identity might have been in the shadows up until 2011, but the games that he and his fellow nosebleed cash game players played in leading up to that were anything but.
Thousands of fans would tune in to watch gargantuan pots shipped back and forth on Full Tilt Poker, the home of large online cash games before poker’s Black Friday. But it was a bit different back then. Long before the days of poker on Twitch, the only way fervid poker fans could follow high stakes action was to open up their poker clients and observe the tables in real-time. There were no hole cards exposed, nor was there any commentary. It was simply ‘rail heaven’.
But when Black Friday struck in April 2011, the cash game landscape was forced to change. The biggest games relocated to PokerStars, while many of America’s best poker players were forced to relocate to different countries in order to keep playing online poker.
Phil Galfond, known as “MrSweets28” on PokerStars, moved from his custom duplex Manhattan apartment (complete with a slide) to set up shop in Canada, and by July 2011 he was back at the PokerStars high stakes cash tables, tweeting: “After three months off of online poker, I’d forgotten about downswings. Oh well. Still happy to be playing. I love the game.”
Dan Cates, better known as Jungleman, wasn’t as fortunate. Cates–who had been on one of the greatest runs in online poker history prior to Black Friday, winning $7.5 million between 2010 and 20211–also tried to move to Canada. He drove from Seattle en route to Vancouver, but when he got to the Canadian border, he wasn’t allowed in. “Apparently I need a visa to play poker for a living in Canada? Wtf?” he tweeted. Instead, Cates moved to Portugal.
As we approached the end of 2011, the biggest story in rail heaven was the race to see who would be crowned the year’s biggest winner on PokerStars. In the end, it came down to a beast from Finland known for his trash-talk, Ilari “Ilari FIN” Sahamies, and a two-time bracelet winner from Israel, Rafi “refaelamit” Amit.
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Both players were mainstays in the high-stakes games (particularly on the PLO tables), but up until August 2011, Sahamies was a small loser on the year, down $362,660. He then went on an absolute tear and by November 2011 he was up $2.07 million.
Amit, on the other hand, kicked off 2011 in style, hovering at around $800,000 in profits between March and August. He was never in the red all year.
The two also just happened to be involved in the biggest pot ever played on PokerStars, which occurred on September 17, 2011. Here’s how poker journalist Chad Holloway reported the hand:
“The hand occurred at a six-handed $200/$400 PLO table and saw Sahamies ($247,909) opened for $1,400 from the cutoff. While Amit had folded prior to Sahamies’ raise and did not play the hand, he was still present in the game. As it turned out, Andreas “Skjervøy” Torbergsen ($30,208) and “bernard-bb” ($195,609) were the only players to make the call, creating three-way action to the K♠2♥3♠ flop.
“After a check, Sahamies fired out $4,595, Torbergsen raised to $18,380, and both bernard-bb and Sahamies made the call. When action checked to Torbergsen on the 9♥ turn, he moved all-in for $10,428, bernard-bb check-raised to $91,019 and Sahamies called. The 3♥ river saw bernard-bb bet $84,810, Sahamies called, and suddenly there was a pot worth $421,826 on the line.
“Sahamies revealed A♥K♥6♥4♣ for a flush, which bested the A♦A♠2♦7♠ of bernard-bb. Torbergsen simply mucked and Sahamies took down the largest in PokerStars’ history.”
To this day, it remains the biggest cash game pot ever played on PokerStars. And arguably thanks to it, it was Sahamies who finished the year as the winningest nosebleed cash game player, with Amit close behind.
As for Idisulr1, Viktor Blom endured some massive seven-figure swings throughout the year but ultimately had a great first showing as a Team PokerStars Pro. He finished as the year’s third-biggest winner, up $1.47 million — a chunk of which came from winning the SuperStar Showdown matches for $700,000, in which he defeated the likes of Isaac Haxton. His legendary status was cemented.
Blom wouldn’t be the last online phenom to shun the spotlight. A few years after he peeled back his proverbial veil, another online player–equally feared and talented–came close to matching his mystique.
By 2016, the PokerStars screen name “OtB_RedBaron” was synonymous with soul-crushing, but his identity remained a complete mystery. Someone even started a Who is Otb_redbaron? thread on Reddit asking: “I hear this guy is super good, but can’t find anything on him. Is he super lowkey or something?”
OtB_RedBaron was known for consistently playing and winning in the toughest online cash games on PokerStars, and just like a young Blom, he chose not to reveal his identity. But he couldn’t hide his incredible results. He reportedly won somewhere in the vicinity of $5 million in cash games with stakes lower than $25/$50, plus $2.26 million at high stakes.
Today, we don’t get to see OtB_RedBaron battle as much as we’d like, and his identity is widely agreed upon (the player even has a Wikipedia page – Google it). But as he’s never done any official interviews–and as we remember how much fun it was when we didn’t know Isildur1’s identity–we won’t reveal it here.
Anyway, you can take a look at the table below to see the top 10 winners of 2011:
But where there are winners, there are must also be losers.
The year’s losingest player of 2011 was “Zypherin”, widely suspected to be billionaire Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, who ended up down more than a million, as you can see below.
When 2011 drew to a close, we knew several things we hadn’t in January.
We knew that Isildur1 was Viktor Blom. We knew that PokerStars–formerly just the home of the world’s biggest online tournaments–was the new home for nosebleed cash games. We knew that Ilari “Ilari FIN” Sahamies was the most successful online cash player of the year.
But, SPOILER ALERT: We still had no idea whether the spinning top at the end of Inception toppled over or not.
MORE IN THIS SERIES:
2005 – Reporting on poker will never catch on…
2004 – The Year of the EPT
2003 – Chris Moneymaker wins WSOP, sparks ‘poker boom’
2002 – The year of WCOOP
2001 – Electronic poker before PokerStars