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New Poker Documentary “Smile” Honors the Life of the Late Thor Hansen

Thor Hansen Documentary

When you think of the “Godfather of Poker,” you probably think of Doyle Brunson. However, when it comes to being the “Godfather of Norwegian Poker,” that honor goes to the late Thor Hansen, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 71 after a prolonged battle with cancer.

Hansen, who many believe is worthy of the Poker Hall of Fame, was active in poker while he fought the cancer, and while those in the know were aware of his health issues, the larger poker community wasn’t. Now, more than two years after his death, Hansen’s story is being told in the new poker documentary “Smile” by filmmakers Kari Wåle and Linn Amundsen.

The 75-minute film is available now on Vimeo and offers an intimate look at Hansen’s life, particularly his later years while he dealt with his terminal cancer diagnosis.

Here’s a look at the film’s description:

An extraordinary poker talent sends the young Norwegian Thor Hansen on a life journey as an international poker star in Las Vegas. For 23 years he lives a jet-set life, with hundreds of thousands of dollars to play for daily. He becomes a two-time world champion, and is given the nickname "The Godfather". But in 2012, his life changes dramatically as Thor is diagnosed with incurable cancer. He returns to Norway with his American wife Marcella, and is predicted six months left to live. But a death sentence is just a new challenge for a man who is used to winning, even with lousy cards on his hands.

Hansen, born June 23, 1947, was a two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner with just shy of $3 million in lifetime earnings dating back to 1987. Not only that, he played in high-stakes cash games, including as a personal recruit of Larry Flynt in the mid-1990s. In 1999, he married Marcella Braswell, who is featured prominently in the documentary. They were together until his passing on December 5, 2018.

Q&A w/ the Director

The filmmakers with Thor Hansen
The filmmakers with Thor Hansen

PokerNews had the opportunity to chat with Linn Amundsen, one of the directors of the documentary, who opened up about the experience, challenges, and of course the subject himself, Thor Hansen.

When and how did you meet Thor Hansen? What was your relationship?

In Norway poker has actually been forbidden to play, and in a way still is. You can play at home with maximum 10 people and about 100 dollars each, but playing bigger tournaments are not allowed. Except once a year since 2015 there has been the Norwegian championship – in Norway. Every year there is also the Norwegian championship in Dublin, because of these restrictions.

In the championship arranged in Oslo in 2015, we were doing a job for the Norwegian blood cancer society. They were selected to get the profit from this arrangement, and we were doing the ideal advertising for them. Since these small films were screened among people interested in poker, we wished to do a poker-related film, and we then needed two actors. One we had already found, but when we searched in the poker society Thor Hansen`s name came up. We were told that he was the “Godfather” in Norwegian poker and that he also had cancer.

We set up a meeting to discuss his little actor role, and fell in love with him in the first meeting. We then asked if we could make a documentary film about his life, and he responded: “Why not?”

This is the film we made with Thor for the blood cancer association:

How would you describe Thor Hansen as a person? Likewise, how would you describe his battle with cancer?

Thor was a very charismatic person. He was very friendly and interested in people. He had an adventurous life and had almost never had a normal job. He has won so much money, but also wasted all of it since he was a notorious gambler. We met some dealers when we were filming in Dublin, and asked them some questions about Thor. One person started crying when she started talking about him. So many people loved him because he showed real interest in other people.

He knew their names and knew where they came from. When he sat by the poker table, he talked with people, sang stanzas from old songs, and was always in a good mood. Maybe this was also one of his great skills at the poker table, he got to know people and could easier read them.

I think he was a curious and easy-going soul, who lived one day at a time, and this was maybe an advantage when he got his cancer illness. The doctors in the US gave him sixth months to live. When he got back to Norway, he received more than 300 chemotherapy treatments and lived for six years, playing poker to the end.

What inspired you to make this film?

We got inspired by Thor and the way he lived his life. Not his notorious gambling, but to live life to the fullest and enjoy life as much as possible in any situation. While shooting this film we had other projects going on at the same time, so we didn´t have much time to apply for financial support.

"We thought Thor deserved this film, and we also got the impression that he was a bit proud that we were making a film about his life."

Kari, my business partner, co-director, and best friend had also had cancer some years earlier, so we knew a lot about this disease. While filming Thor, she unfortunately got a recurrence of cancer and was actually in the same situation as Thor, since there was no cure for her cancer either. When we had been filming Thor for a year or so, and Kari became sick again, it became more important to complete the film, even though we had to pay the expenses ourselves. We thought Thor deserved this film, and we also got the impression that he was a bit proud that we were making a film about his life.

What has been the reception of the film thus far?

We showed it for the first time in Dublin in 2019, under the Norwegian Poker Championship. About 150 people watched it there, mainly men. Most of them were crying after watching the film, and of course, many people knew Thor. We were there with his wife Marcella, and it was very touching to see all the guys after the screening. If Thor was there in his spirit, he would have been very proud, I think.

What were some of the challenges associated with making this documentary?

The main challenges were that we had other big projects during the three years of filming, so we had to try to plan recordings with him in between those. And we had to do the filming when Thor had the energy. Sometimes we had planned to do some filming, but Thor didn´t feel well so we had to postpone our plans. We really wanted to go to Las Vegas with him, but this was not possible because of the other projects we had. Besides that, we also had very little money for the project.

Kari Wåle and Linn Amundsen
Filmmakers Kari Wåle and Linn Amundsen watch Thor Hansen in action.

What were some of the highlights for you while making the documentary?

The highlight for us making the film was to get to know Thor and his lovely wife Marcella. She was not into poker at all, but gave him so much love and caring during his disease. Every time he had been to a tournament he was so exhausted, but after being in her care for a few days he had renewed his energy.

It was also very interesting to get an insight in the world of poker. We tried to play a few times, but that was really scary.

Can you give us an update on Marcella? How about Thor´s friend Steinar?

Steinar, who you see a lot in this film, also died just before Christmas. So that was really sad.

Marcella stayed in Norway after Thor died. She went to some Norwegian classes and her goal is to find a job here. Last summer she went back to the US to catch up with her family, but she had a really tough time, because she lost a young family member to the Covid-19 while she was there. She came back to Oslo a few months ago and is still in great grief because of all her losses the last couple of years.

How did you get noted musician Angelina Jordan to do music?

Kari, my co-owner of Zacapa Film, edited a music video with Angelina Jordan about five years ago. Then we got to know her family. Some years ago, we applied for funding on an idealistic project about bullying together with Angelina and her grandmother, who is also a great artist. Unfortunately, we did not manage to get the financial support and a bit later they moved to the States. I think Angelina liked the song “Smile”, which was important for her. Her uncle is her manager, and he is interested in poker and also liked our film about Thor.

How can poker fans watch the film?

Poker fans can watch the film on Vimeo here.

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