Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Curler is coming up aces

Poker-playing Olympic hopeful leaves nothing behind on the ice

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Card players often live on the fringes -- think Edward Norton in Rounders, where the pursuit of poker action and cash plays havoc with his life.

One would expect to run into a professional poker player in a casino or at a game in the basement of a bar. But a curling rink? Phil Helmuth or Mike Matusow in the hack just don't seem like a fit.

Jason Gunnlaugson, however, just earned himself a berth to Canada's Olympic Trials in early December and when you ask him what he does for a living, the 25-year-old wisp of a man, sort of mumbles, "I curl and I play cards."

Gunnlaugson, he of the wild mop of hair and exuberant fist-pump, lives in a Winnipeg crash pad with five other 20-somethings and when he's not throwing rocks and working on his plot to overthrow the old boys of curling, Gunnlaugson flops down in front of his computer and attempts to grind out a living playing online poker.

"It's a bit of a different lifestyle but I'm basically in love with the game of curling. I want to spend as much time as possible playing and learning about it and to do that... well, the cards thing just came about because of the amount of time we have to take off to play. Most employers aren't cool with that, so I had to find something on my own that was a financial fit," said Gunnlaugson, who last weekend clawed his way through the pre-qualifying event in Prince George to grab a berth in the Road to the Roar Olympic qualifying event in Edmonton.

"I make a little bit of money. Nothing fancy. It kind of becomes like a normal job where you sit at the computer for a couple of hours and you make like an hourly wage. It's better than anything else I could do."

Gunnlaugson will be the dark horse in an elite field of eight squabbling over the right to be Team Canada in Vancouver.

He shows up for lunch in a curling jacket with hair that likely hasn't seen a comb in weeks and a smattering of stubble on a face that could double as a label on a can of peaches. He's fresh off the biggest win of his career and ready for more.

"We'll be seeded eighth. The rest of the field has more experience and there are a million reasons why we shouldn't win, but we don't care," said Gunnlaugson, who claims to carry 165 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame. "They all execute a little better than us. They'll curl, like, five per cent better than us over a game. But we can make all the shots and we've beaten everyone in the field at least once. We can find some advantages. Scouting for instance, we'll know more about them than they will about us. And fitness. We've got a guy in our front end that is 21 and other teams have guys in their 40s. You never know. The odds are against us, but if you can get on a roll and get the crowd behind you, good things can happen."

Strategy is a big part of the game, says Gunnlaugson, who is joined by third Justin Richter, second Braden Sawada and lead Tyler Forrest.

"We try and use some of the scouting we do to employ an exploitive strategy on the perceived weaknesses of the other team," Gunnlaugson said. "We don't play the same way all the time. We mix it up depending on who we are playing."

Television is a tool he uses to hone his style.

"TV and curling is ridiculously awesome to watch and awful at the same time for the teams that are playing, in that everything they say and every thought they have gets broadcast," said Gunnlaugson. "It's like if you were able to hear everything Tiger said in a round of golf. You would learn so much every time he teed it up. So when you've got guys like (Kevin) Martin and (Glen) Howard playing in the worlds and they play 10 or 11 games and you hear them talk about every shot, pretty soon you know what they're thinking and you can try to exploit that. You still have to shoot well enough to have a chance, but it is a big aid in learning."

Gunnlaugson understands he might have ruffled a few feathers with his sometimes over-the-top intensity, but he says most people know it comes from his passion for the game.

"It's a mixed bag of reaction. Some people probably can't stand me. I'm hyper and outspoken and I'm not what you expect from a curler," said Gunnlaugson. "But people that know me, they realize that I love the game so much, and those with the same quality, they appreciate that."

Gunnlaugson says he and his team understand what they're up against but they're living in the moment.

"I kind of play the game in two parts. I play the game like a chess match when I'm behind the T-line and when I'm throwing, and in between ends, you let it flow and let the passion show. We've had the fans get behind us at a few events and it's so amazing," said the Shaftesbury High School graduate. "Not many people get to do what they love every day and I'm doing that right now. I'm loving the ride. We're not scared and we're not intimidated. You never know."

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca


A day in the life ...

Potential Olympian Jason Gunnlaugson splits his time between curling and playing online poker. Here's a typical day in the 25-year-old's life:

The morning: "I get up late. I sleep in until 11 or 11:30 a.m. I'm usually not in a rush. Today was a busy day but usually I would have hit the snooze button on my phone when you called."

The afternoon: "We try and throw rocks in the afternoon if we're not practising at night."

Late afternoon: "I'll try and squeeze in a couple of hours of cards. That's one of the great things about it. I can do it anywhere. If we're on the road and between draws, I can work for a couple of hours."

The evening: "The guys come home and we usually cook something for dinner and hang out. I have a girlfriend so I try and see her, too."

'TV and curling is ridiculously awesome to watch and awful at the same time for the teams that are playing, in that everything they say and every thought they have gets broadcast. It's like if you were able to hear everything Tiger said in a round of golf. You would learn so much every time he teed it up'

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2009 C1

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