"Do you want to go to Sweden?" Benjo asked me a couple of weeks ago.
Sweden. The land of Ikea, Abba, and the Swedish Bikini team, not to mention the homeland of NY Rangers goalie Henrik Lundquist. I dreamed of going to Sweden and finally had an opportunity.
Benjo is friends with several guys from a bigtime online gaming company in Stockholm. He did some freelance work for them in the past. They happen to be avid readers of Tao of Poker. When they heard that I was in Europe, they not only invited me to a conference, but they flew me in and put me up at a swanky hotel a few blocks from their offices. Benjo and our roommate RK was also invited to attend.
We left Amsterdam on a sluggish rainy Monday morning. I traveled super light and only brought my laptop and two days of clothes with me. I flew non-stop to Stockholm on SAS (Scandinavian Airlines). They did not serve free food or drinks, but you could buy stuff priced in either Euros or Swedish Kronors (SEK). $1 US = less than 7 SEKs.
The flight to Sweden from Amsterdam is less than 100 minutes. Stockholm is in the same time zone, but to the North. I passed out on the flight for about fifteen minutes and when I woke up, we were on the descent into Arlanda airport. I looked out the window and saw dense forests and lots of blue sky with white fluffy clouds.
Two stoic people in blue uniforms greeted you before you could step off the jetway. A middle-aged woman said something to me in Swedish. I handed her my passport. She glanced at it and said "Thank you," in English.
I changed $300 US for about 2000 Kronor. The airport is about a twenty minute drive from Stockholm and linked up by an express busses and a train. The line for train tickets into the city was too long, so we opted for a cab. They have a flat rate posted on the outside of the cabs. 440 SEKs. That was over $60 but I had been dealing in Euros so I thought 44 Euros wasn't so bad. It didn't matter anyway since it was a business expense.
The first ten minutes of the drive featured plenty of trees and reminded me of Seattle or Portland in the summer. The land was lush and as we slowly approached the city, more of the landscape took on an urban vibe.
We had about an hour to kill before the conference. I showered quickly and watched five minutes of Swedish TV before Benjo and I headed downstairs to a fast food burger joint called Max. It is the equivalent of In & Out Burger for Sweden. I stopped and stared at the window advertisement of a Frisco Burgermal (with those funny dots over some of the letters). It made my mouth water... bacon, cheese, special sauce on a sourdough bun.
I walked up to the counter and the workers wore all white. Two of the most adorable girls worked the registers. One was a blonde and the other had dyed bright red hair. The freaky one took my order. 61 kronors for the Frisco Burger, Orange Fanta, and fries. We ate outdoors and soaked up downtown Stockholm.
Ah, the bacon cheeseburger... good stuff. Better than BK and definitely better than McDs.
We walked a few blocks to a gigantic glass building across from the Central Station and the World Trade Center. The company we visited had offices the top five floors. As I stood on the 11th floor in front of the receptionist, I could see an amazing view of the city courtesy of the glass walls.
We met up with our contact Kim and was given a tour. Everyone was dressed casually. I met almost everyone in the office and did my best to memorize names. They all spoke English and of course, I spoke no Swedish aside from a few curse words.One room housed just pinball machines. Another room had a sweet poker table with classic hardwood chairs. They also had a room with a ping pong table where two guys were playing. They asked if I played, and I said, "Only for money."
That got a hearty laugh. The Swedes have a reputation for not showing too much emotion. That's why they make excellent poker players... since the are difficult to read.
Their various conference rooms and bigger offices were named after Las Vegas Casinos. Our conference was held inside the Bellagio Room.
"Almost like home?" Kim joked.
For three hours, I took part in a panel where the execs picked our brains about different things in the poker industry. Benjo and myself represented the media and RK was there to give the perspective of a poker pro (especially someone who plays a ton online). I was nervous for the first few minutes. I don't normally speak in front of people, especially for individuals where English is their second language. I started out slow and by the end of the conference, I spoke fluidly and cracked more jokes.
After the conference, we were treated to an amazing dinner down on a boat. Since the sun sets a lot later in Sweden during the summer, we were also treated to an amazing sunset. The weather was splendid... warm with an occasional breeze off the water.
We drank at the bar while our table was prepared. I asked Nils what is a good Swedish beer to drink. He said that he usually drinks Carlsberg (which is Danish). That's one of my favorite beers and I saw it on tap. I was afraid to order it without a proper recommendation. When Senor and I visited Iceland in 2001, I had been drinking a pint of Carlsberg when the bartender scolded me. He dumped it out and then poured me a fresh Icelandic beer called Viking. I didn't want to offend the locals so I decided to ask my hosts. Since they were drinking something I liked, there were no problems.
There were eight of us at dinner and I sat with Tobais, Lisa, and Nils. They translated the menu for me and ordered a variety of items from the tappas menu; such as lamb sausage, another were sauteed mushrooms in a red sauce, and then there was a traditional Swedish dish called Toast Skagen Med Lojrom... which was basically shrimp salad with lots of mayo on toast with a bit of fish eggs on top. Not only did I take a photo, I ate the entire thing.
We drank plenty of wine at dinner along with endless beers. The conversation drifted back and forth between poker and random things. Since it my first time in Sweden, they wanted to know my initial impressions. I told them that everyone was friendly and didn't hesitate to speak English. Stockholm is clean and beautiful, made of several islands (sort of like NYC) and there was plenty of water and bridges around. It's a pedestrian city. Amsterdam is ruled by bicycles, where Stockholm has waves of people walking around... and yes, many of them were drop dead gorgeous Swedish women.
For my main meal, I went with a Tuna burger served with a spicy Thai sauce. Scrumptious. After dinner, we continued to drink. Just before Midnight, Sam missed his last train home, so he partied with us until the next train... at 5:30am. We closed out a Belgium beer bar and then ended up at the Cosmopol Casino which was two blocks from our hotel. You paid 30 kroners to get in. Like most of the European Casinos I visited, they scanned your passport. These guys also took my photo. Great. So much for keeping myself off the European grid.
When we walked into the casino, Benjo bumped into another Swedish friend of his. Thomas had been drinking with friends and joined us. We headed up to the poker room, which was hidden away on the fourth floor. You walked down a long corridor and up a flight of stairs, past a gaming room before you took another side exit, then up three more flights of stairs which reminded me of being inside a fraternity house. The stairwell walls were covered with photos of various winners from previous tournaments. They also had playing cards framed according to their nickname... such as "Walking Sticks" for 7-7 and "Cowboys" for K-K.
The room had a dozen or so tables (and about five tables going) with a bar off to the side. There were a couple of fruit baskets at the end of the bar. The bananas cost 5 kroners. We drank more beer while the two Swedish guys in our group constantly made fun of the bad players that happen to frequently play at that poker room.
"They are horrible. These retards are giving their money away. Just watch for ten minutes then get in the game."
The tables in front of us spread 20/20 (kroners) NL. There was also a 50/50 NL game going. Swedish poker players also have a reputation of being competitive and playing crazy. They like to raise a lot pre-flop and play any two cards. They are tough to put a hand on.
I flipped through a copy of Bluff magazine (the European edition) while I drank more beers and listened to the Swedes tell us about the local poker scene or their hilarious Las Vegas stories. Benjo and RK eventually made their way to the blackjack tables and were playing 50 kroners a hand. I didn't gamble at all and watched. I eventually crashed while they stayed out until dawn.
I woke up early and wrote for an hour before I went for a walk. I got breakfast (OJ, a banana, and a muffin) and checked out the surrounding streets. I went back to the room and wrote a column for Poker Player Newspaper. I had a Thursday deadline and finished the first draft. I headed back out to meet up with Benjo and RK. Benjo had been to Sweden several times before and there were a few sections in Stockholm that he wanted to show us. He took us to the old part of town with cobblestone streets and stone buildings that were centuries old.
Here are some random pictures from Sweden. You can click on the photos to see an enlarged view.
The menu at Max
Sign near the subway
View from my hotel room
Outside the Royal Palace