Fedor Holz

Interview (in Rozvadov): October 27, 2018

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(Credit: Carlos Monti/Rational Intellectual Holdings Ltd.)

What would be the chapter headings in the story of your life so far?
Over the last couple of years, people have been asking me what did you take away from it. What was the main learning? And the thing that I, in retrospect, for myself took away the most was really the decision-making aspects of it. Really being able to reflect very well, analyse my decisions, how I want it to be in the future. How I feel with it, the emotional side of it as well. I would say that would be a large chapter. But also, I’d probably split into into seven chapters because I’ve thought about what are the main pillars that can go everywhere from the operational side, lots of travelling, hundreds of flights, different places deciding where to play, over the the strategical side of the game. Obviously game theory, learning, how to learn the game, to the mindset. How do I prepare? How do I always feel on top? How can I play a 12-hour day for seven weeks straight without losing my mind. To the physical side, my body, how can I stay fit, and endure all that. Over to the reputation and the brand and all that, how do you maintain relationships? The financial side is a big part as well, you have to do all the accounting, or I did, by myself. There are so many things where you can go into details. I find it very interesting that there’s 80 percent overlap with other things, whatever you do, whatever kind of business you’re running. So it’s pretty interesting.

What were you like at the start of your career?
I was like, OK, I want to be really good at this game. And step-by-step I got into the different areas. I did not have the masterplan at the beginning.

Was there a moment where you realised this was for you?
It took quite some time. Actually, for two years we played in my home game. They were playing online and I didn’t. And they were just winning. It took I think two years for me to realise, wow, I can actually…a) I really want to do this and b) I can excel in this.

Do you remember making a real commitment?
I would say 2012 was the first time I was, “OK, enough of just donking around and not really committing.” That’s when I started playing online really, really small stakes and just playing a lot of poker.

What were your alternatives?
I think that’s also one of the reasons why I stuck with it, because I didn’t really have many alternatives. I had alternatives, but nothing that really was appealing to me. It was basically the same time that I quit studies, 2012. So I felt, OK, now is the time.

Was it a controversial decision?
Oh yeah. I was living alone. I moved out at the age of 17. I think people around me were worried, but then it wasn’t…there were no strong dependencies anymore, I wasn’t living in the house or anything. I think they were worried, but they also couldn’t do much.

What were you in it for back then?
It’s really the solving the puzzles. It’s basically every single situation, it’s a new puzzle and I just love solving puzzles. I always liked this instant feedback situation. You do something and you get some kind of result, and then you can iterate. There’s lots of other environments where the cycle is really slow and you can’t really progress and improve. That’s what I really liked about poker, you immediately get feedback and then you have to do something with it. It’s not always good feedback, but there I have quite a different mindset. I really enjoy…or I relatively enjoy that way more. I don’t mind losing as long as I feel OK it’s progressing. So I always enjoyed losing and playing against someone better than winning and playing against someone worse.

Is that common among people who go on to be good?
It’s pretty common.

Did you find like minds early?
Yeah. I think that is mainly the driver of the professional scene in poker. It’s really people who have an alternative way, who have a different approach to see themselves learn and progress and grow. Most of the time pretty alternative to the normal way of learning. The biggest difference is learning something without purpose is something I never understood. I think there should always be some reason why you do something. For me it was always very hard to do something when I don’t have the “why”. And that’s why I also didn’t really enjoy my educational journey. But in poker there’s this rule set and then you can basically choose. You can set your path. And I think that’s where I connected with people around me, because we just wanted to improve and get better and that’s our common ground, and helped each other as much as we could to progress.

That’s a mature way of thinking
I really don’t think it was necessarily mature, I just think it was natural for us. I don’t think we though, “OK, we’ve thought it through and that’s the best way to do it.” It was more like, OK, this is the way we naturally think. We want to get better and working in a team is just smarter than working alone. We had lots of Skype calls and talked about hands and analysed opponents, just because it was a) obviously more fun to have some type of different feedback, different people, different perspectives, but also it’s just way more fun to not be alone, to share this with something. Both the downsides, the downswings, the pain, as well as the fun, it’s just better with others around you.

What do you mean when you say “we”?
I think there were different phases and different groups, and I’m grateful for all of these experiences because they got me in a different stage or a different mindset. First I started with two close friends in this home game, we started playing and they taught me a lot. They were playing way higher, and we always played together, being really good friends, and they helped me a lot. And then later on they started studying and faded out, so I started a lot more and they started playing less. So I was looking online for other people, and I was very active in forums, talking, discussing hands, talking to other people. And out of a huge German community, a core came out. That was maybe six to eight players, we just exchanged every single day. Literally on Skype every time we played, chatting around, posting hands, giving feedback. And out of these six all of them play on the highest level right now. I would say all six of them are in the top 50 in the world right now. I would say we had a good success formula.

Did you ever look at the other crews [Reinkemeier, Heineker, etc.] and think you were like them?
I think we were totally different. Really, really different. I think convenience is a big thing. Once convenience kicks in you have a different mindset. You work in a different way. You have a very different perspective on how you spend your time, priorities and so on. That was the huge difference between their group and our group. We started in an era where it was way harder to make money. Full Tilt got shut down, it wasn’t so easy to select games. We had to really focus way more on just becoming really good. You had to relatively be good and it wasn’t just enough to think, then by fun you move up the stakes. That wasn’t possible any more. I’m not saying that’s how it was before, but it was way easier to be alone, or with less hard work to move up in stakes, just because the stakes were softer and the games were softer. I think that got us in this mindset. OK we really have to spend a lot of time on theory, really become very, very good at the game, know everything about our opponents, have very sound game theory. That was, I think, a different era. Just a different era of players. And when we started coming on to the scene, in the beginning, I think they thought: “Oh yeah, young kids. They don’t know anything about the high stakes.” Then after a year or two they realised, “They’ve been putting in work.”

What about even earlier eras?
It just shows that if you put in the work and really think about how to improve and not just play. It was, I suppose, quite easy to become a good player. The biggest difference between us and the era before was not necessarily that we are smarter. It was just that put way more time into learning. So I would say, when I talk to them, they were learning, they were thinking about the game, but they were mostly playing. But for us, it was maybe a third just thinking, talking, looking at opponents, looking at hands. I think that is the biggest difference. It was more off the table than on the table.

What did study look like?
A lot of it was really as simple as it sounds. It was just your opinion. A lot of these conversations in retrospect now, that we are way more distinct and elaborate, they seem simple. But still if you have ten different opinions of very good players, “Oh, I would have done it like this…, I would have done that” and you get different input, that still was way better than just sitting there not thinking about it. So that was our approach in the beginning. And then, out of that, with our close team we really put a lot of work into analysis of a bunch of hands. If I play online, especially against a certain opponent, after a couple of months I have thousands of hands against this specific opponent, and really going into depth about what are his tendencies, how does he tend to play. That’s basically a very simple form of data analysis, and I think we were one of the first to do that and implement that into online. And that really gave us an edge. Where we could basically not really look at our hand, and had so specific details on the opponent, that we could just play in a certain way without knowing my hand and it would be a profitable play.

Does that help remove emotion?
There’s different emotional aspects to it. The one I was referring to as just the emotional exposure to variance, however good you are there’s a big difference. The better you are, the less variance you will see, or downsides you will see. Especially in tournaments, it’s just crucial. You will have months of running bad. That’s what I refer to when I talk about emotional. There’s this downward spiral that once you run bad and it affects your mindset then you play worse and you’re more likely to run bad, and you might hit that point where you actually lose money. And how do you break through that? So that was a big part. OK, after three months of just constantly playing and losing money, how do you get out of this and say “OK, I know that I’m a good player, I’m a winning player, I just have to play smart.” It’s really, really hard because at one point this voice in your head is telling you, “Maybe you’re not that good. It’s going to go wrong again” and so on. And, yeah, that has a big effect on you.

How does variance affect a poker pro?
It’s easiest to explain in a real example. If you play a tournament — and this is a simplification — you cash 10 percent of the time. So 90 percent of the time, you don’t. So it could happen that you win the tournament three times in a row, but it could also happen that you lose the tournament, that you don’t cash for 500 tournaments in a row. The thing is, because you don’t cash 90 percent of the time, it’s really likely that you go on streaks where you actually don’t cash so much, and you lose money until you hit that first place where you catch everything up. So it’s basically, in the long run, if you play a million tournaments and you’re a good player, you would win money, but you always have these little down…it goes down until you win. And that’s really hard on the mindset.

The modern pro figures out strategies to beat the necessary evil that is variance?
I don’t think it’s evil. That, I think, is one of the biggest learnings from myself, but also mistakes other players make I think. Every one of these concepts, there’s logic in, I think. If you ask yourself — and a lot of players don’t ask themselves this question — why is it OK, or why is actually good that there’s variance. So why is it good that the game of poker involves a lot of luck? And it’s good, because otherwise there would be no money to play for. It would be about cents, not hundreds of thousands of euros. Because you can look at chess, the most competitive chess tournaments pays maybe a couple or ten thousand. And really good players play for a couple of hundred euros in big tournament. Because the problem is there’s just no variance, so why would ever anyone compete if you know I’m zero percent to win. In poker, it plays into this human bias of people thinking that they’re better than they are. And that’s why it’s such a great game. It’s not necessarily just a card game, it’s also about you having to evaluate yourself and how good you are and how good the opponents are. And that brings this meta level to the game that makes it, or shapes the environment so that you play for large amounts of money. And that’s why I love that there is variance in there, even though I’ve hated it a couple of times. And I think that’s why you have to have this routine that every time you lose a big hand or you lose a lot of money when you were the favourite to win, you just have to tell yourself it’s good that it is that way, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to make hundreds of thousands of dollars with this game.

If you lose to a suckout, is that good for the game in the long term?
As humans in general, we just don’t have that in our DNA. Losing hurts. That’s the main thing in our DNA and not like “Oh losing is great”. I think it’s just a long, long learning process to switch your mindset and that would be the most important chapter in my book. To switch your mindset from being results oriented to process-oriented. Really just thinking about “Did I make a good decision? Did I play my best?” And then whatever happens afterwards doesn’t matter.

How do you account for your streak?
People ask me this a lot and it’s really, really simple. I was one of the best players and I ran very good. That’s the whole story.

Could it happen to anybody in the top 10?
Some are more likely than others. But, yeah. I haven’t done the statistics on the probabilities, but it’s more likely that something like this happens than it doesn’t. Probabalistically, it’s not that unlikely. The numbers sound big, but someone won three tournaments in a row, or a 50 player tournament. People won the Main Event! Someone has to win it! There’s a certain craziness to it when you hear about it. Wow, he ran that good. But I think if you look at it, it’s less likely that just everyone runs average. There’s a different person winning a tournament and everyone just wins what he’s supposed to win. I think we over-exaggerate how crazy the run is. But if you individually pick it out. Obviously it was an insane summer for me. It was probably an even more insane summer for Justin [Bonomo]. And Dan [Smith]. But I think also that it has become very unlikely that a bad player, or a worse player, goes on such a run. So you need that mix of being very skilled and running well in the right situations.

Do you remember your first tournament score here, in Rozvadov?
I remember very well. I came second. I don’t even know what the word is for 8x, but I 8x-ed my bankroll. I was very happy about that second place. It felt like this road-trip with your friends where you’re just so excited to go on holiday. You have music on, five hours drive and so hyped to go there for five days. I don’t remember being that hyped for something. We’ve been to Czech Republic, Slovakia and played smaller tournaments and yeah, I got lucky enough to come second. But I also didn’t cash some tournaments before, so it’s not that I came in, won the first one and that’s it.

Did it snowball from there?
It was very very different at that time. I was playing a lot online, I didn’t really run well online. I owed a good friend maybe a thousand, two thousand euros. I had no income. It was just, like, OK what do I do now? I was staked online. I was playing and being coached. I had these people around me. I felt that I was playing good, but I didn’t get the confirmation, so it was this weird situation. And then three friends of mine and me we drove here and we played here and we chopped this €500 tournament, and I also won a €1K right after in Slovakia, so that was fantastic.

Did the feelings of excitement eventually plateau?
It for sure plateaued after that. There’s good reason why I’m not playing anymore. It’s exactly this. I don’t think it’s just linear, exponential growth in terms of excitement for something like that. There’s a certain ceiling for things like that and I feel like I’ve reached mine in poker. I maybe should have stopped a year earlier than I did, and I’m glad I didn’t. But I really had excitement for the growth. Had excitement for becoming a better player in this specific environment every day, and I felt I could do that, and I was very excited by that. And I was also excited to share that with others, to go in the arena and play. But at some point, after four or five years of excessive, really intensively playing, way more than a normal full-time job, and just breathing it every single day, thinking about it, talking to people, my whole environment was set up for poker. At some point I just realised that everything I got out of it incrementally meant less to me. The learning, the financial element. In a good way, that was my sign, or a sign for me, where I said, “OK, time for me to move on.”

You seemed more into it at the One Drop, and you’ve also signed with Party Poker. How does that fit?
I’ve been talking about retirement because for me it felt like it, and I think it is but we can discuss this term however you want. But it’s really switching my focus to something completely different. I still enjoy playing poker, I still like the competition, and I still like the people in there. I think the community, especially the German one — others as well, but this is the one I know the best — it’s really nice and it’s a great community. I don’t want to cut it loose, but I wouldn’t want to do more either. So I’m supporting Party because I think they’re doing a great job. I play the highest buy-ins because it’s exciting and thrilling and it’s nice to go back and compete. But that’s about it for me.

Yesterday you lost €100K and maybe the same will happen today.
Still smiling!

To a lot of people who don’t know poker, that’s insane. Explain that.
It’s a matter of perspective. I think a big reason is that a lot of us, a lot of people, are very risk averse. In general, the way they grew up, the way they’re taught to make decisions, the way our education system works, is if you fail you get punished. And so that leads to us looking for solutions where we don’t fail. Security is valued very much. What I’m trying to get at is just because I lose quite often, doesn’t make it a bad decision, because some of the time I win a significant multiplicator of what I lose now. I’m very certain I’m a winning player in this tournament and I just have to accept that I will lose €100,000. Otherwise, if I don’t accept that, then I wouldn’t be able to play and compete and I wouldn’t be able to play and to win. There’s comparable situations: every type of investment is structured in that way. If you trade, or if you’re investing in real estate or any type of other investment, the risk structure is different — you will have less downside or more downside — but the plan is always to have positive long-term return, and that’s my focus here. I’m trying to play as good as I can and from time to time, more often than not, I will lose €100,000. But hopefully I will win €1.5 million tomorrow.

Would the 15-year-old Fedor believe this? You have been open about your upbringing, where your family struggled financially.
There’s a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have understood or I wouldn’t believe. But I think a lot of it is the amount of experience. What I’m very grateful for is that in my lifetime, I think relatively, I’ve made very valuable experiences for me. Very intensively, and a lot of them in a short time span. And I think that’s what I’m really benefiting from right now. Even though it was hard at times, I’m still grateful for the people around me that I shared them with, and my family. The thing that is important is that there was always this basis, even though some situations were difficult, there was always this basis of love and support. I think now I’m really benefitting from these past experiences.

Are there people who try to follow the model, but find out it’s not for them?
Almost everyone. It’s the reason why you do it. If I would have seen myself, there’s always this fine line between why you do something. Why I succeeded, the bigger why was because I really enjoy learning and progressing. But there was also a big reason why I did it was I wanted to prove myself. I failed in a lot of things and I wanted to show that I can be good at something. And I think if this is a big part of why you do something, the extrinsic motivation of proving your family or your surrounding, then I don’t think it’s a great environment for you and I also don’t think you will succeed. I don’t think it’s a consistent driver, and I also don’t think it will make you happy to follow that. I feel a lot of people in poker have that. It’s kind of an out. I think it’s very, very hard to find that in poker, to just enjoy the process and be there with the great minds. I also didn’t have that when I came in. I think it’s always about the reason why you do something. Not many people in poker do it for reasons that I would say, “OK, they’re going to be successful with it.”

Are there parallels between a sportsman’s greatness and a poker player’s greatness?
There’s lot of parallels. I think there’s huge overlap with soccer players. Some of my friends are professional ones. And I think there’s crazy potential being…I don’t want to say wasted, but not being used. They’re not reaching it because they also don’t really know why they’re doing it. They’re in this thing because they’ve got the talent and they just went through the different stages because at every single point they were like, OK I’m relatively so good I just have to continue. And then they’re 25, pros in the first league, and they ask themselves OK, but why am I actually doing this? This is a very common thing, why they actually distract themselves with other things because they don’t really know the reason why they’re doing it. I found that extremely interesting, because what a lot of poker players, it’s less of a thing where you’re just OK, you’re going to be a great poker player, where your surroundings are telling you you have to do this. It’s actually the opposite, where you for yourself have to fight to continue doing it, your family telling you and your friends telling you this is a bad idea. It creates a totally different dynamic between your surrounding and you as a player. That’s a big difference. But in terms of struggling with the motivation and so on, there’s a lot of common ground.

What’s happening with the super high roller scene in poker? It’s getting so huge now.
I don’t feel like it has been growing that much. There’s just a couple of new players. The $1m has been around for quite some time. There’s been 100Ks. This new 100–500K range, there’s been a couple of new tournaments. It’s just the demand really. There’s a couple of players who just want to play and there’s nice locations all over the world and there’s two or three groups organising these tournaments, and the pros just go wherever the tournaments are being organised. So long as there’s businessmen that want to play this type of stakes, and I think with Stars, Party and Triton, and Aria, they came and Triton came and these were a big addition to the scene, just organises lots of 100K plus tournaments.

Was it great for the pros when these tournaments started coming up?
Oh yeah. For us, it doesn’t really matter how big. It matters in a certain way, but I prefer to play as big as I can, so the bigger the better.

How are you able to play so much. Do you buy/sell?
It’s a common thing to buy action in poker.

And you buy action?
Yes.

And that’s common too?
Yeah. If you sell then someone has to buy. Both is equally common.

If someone has $10m winnings on their Hendon Mob, what have they actually won?
There’s not a possible answer to that question. It could go anywhere from 10 to 100%. It depends where he won them. If he cashed the main, then he’s more likely to have more of himself. If he cashed the million dollar, you can’t answer. It’s based on buy-ins most of the time, not so much based on…depends on the size of the buy-ins basically.

How would a new player go about proving themselves to potential investors?
It’s not really that there’s a market or there’s investors. It’s mostly that investors are poker players, they know the scene, they know which players are good, they know the environment. When I came on, for example, it was that one of the really successful players came and asked me: “Hey, do you want to play a super high roller?” It was kind of common. I wanted to play them, and he asked me: “Hey, do you want to play them?” And so he bought a big piece of my action, and I started playing them, and then I kept increasing my stake in the tournaments.

That’s a win/win for both?
I’m actually not sure how well they did with me, but I made them a decent amount of money.

Rory McIllroy won £17m and Bonomo won £25m in six months. Why are these things not comparable?
But he’s [McIlroy] also not paying buy-ins. If he would pay buy-ins, he would definitely have won less. That’s the big difference. It’s not the sponsorship where you just play because they want you to play, and they pay money for you to come. I see it in tennis, golf, it’s just a very different environment. Whereas poker is not great to watch. And also still it’s way too much in this negative niche of people playing in the back of a…smoking. I think that’s a big reason why it’s still the way it is. And if you pay buy-ins that are that large, then it just makes sense to share the risk. It would be the same in other sports if it would be that way.

How is that image still durable? Do you want to change that?
There’s definitely certain parts of it that are like that, and that makes it harder to tell that story. But this scene, the tournaments we play, is nothing like it. It’s super competitive, very professional, extremely well organised with great surroundings, sponsors, TVs, streams. I think this is done extremely well and it’s very professional. I think it would be great if people would see that more. But I don’t really see a way to promote that, and to show that.

Why do people pull away from poker?
After Vegas, I was burned out. It was just too much playing, especially when you run well you play more. I don’t know how many tournaments I won, maybe five/six that summer, and final tables, and it was just 4am, 5am, 6am, and then started at 1 again every single day. So that is just very exhausting. That summer I was very exhausted, and I won a lot of money. Winning all that money and not feeling…so there’s this big gap between how you expect the moment to feel and then how the reality feels and it was just too far for me to continue playing. It was, OK, it’s going to feel great after I’ve been that successful, and it didn’t feel that great, so I was, OK, I shouldn’t continue. That was basically the whole thought process. Then I didn’t play a hand for a month, I went to Chicago and did an internship in a trading company there. That was a lot of fun. They wanted to keep me and I realised that I don’t want to do it, but that I want to start something myself.

It was options trading. There is a significant overlap of skill sets. I think I would have been well welcomed in the trading world.

What did you opt to do instead?
Through all these experiences, what came out to me was OK, it doesn’t really matter what type of thing you work on, what kind of content you deal with, but it matters in what environment you do it. So for me what I realised the environment of the people I had around me, where we worked in this team, where we went to places, we talked to each other and exchanged, and just wanted to get the best of this, that was really crucial. The other way around, when I was in an environment where I didn’t really feel like I can do anything, I can’t grow, I can’t excel, my productivity immediately went below zero. So the idea of our company, Primed, is to build environments that enable that growth and unlock that potential.

What we did in the beginning was to launch an incubator where we give people that environment, so we have an office, we have a space, we have a team, we have funding to just let them focus on whatever they want to work on, and help them as good as we can, and create that environment for them. So we have four companies there, four start-ups, that we helped them build, we funded, we bought shares of, and they have their own CEOs and they built these companies. And one of them is Primed Mind. And we’re expanding that now. Larger space, different areas. Into health, education, food and farming. Obviously entrepreneurship is a big topic, technology, so really bringing all these different communities together in one space. Because that platform, where people really can exist and grow, really doesn’t exist in Vienna and so we want to build this and bring these people together.

Are there skills you learnt in poker that work in this world?
There’s so many I couldn’t even single one out. The behavioural side is very similar. You have to continually iterate, get better, gather feedback, work with a team, strategically make smart decisions. All of it. It’s just a different thing. That’s also why we said…my co-founders come from education, physics, I play poker. It doesn’t matter what your background is, what content you dealt with, it’s way more important the way, how, you do things. Why you do it and how you do it. And that’s our focus. We shape this environment so that people, whatever they do, whether they craft or they cook or they paint or they make music or they work in a start up or develop something, that they have the best possible environment for them to excel and really be productive with what they want to do. That is a big difference in what we do.

Poker is a business too?
Yeah, kind of. It’s a very limited business. There’s very limited upside and growth, but it’s similar.

Is it a fair characterisation that wealthy recs are funding the pros?
There are people losing money and people winning. Obviously the people who play less, who are not pros, they are more likely to lose. So it’s basically how it is.

Do the pros provide a service?
Yeah, it’s similar to anything else. People pay money for a show. You pay for an experience. And this experience you can’t get anywhere else because none of us would play against you against it’s competitive and for the highest stakes. That’s what they enjoy and they’re definitely putting up a fight, so it’s not that easy to take their money.

Do you have a five-year plan?
I think five-year plans are stupid and I think so because it’s just changing way too fast. Five-year plans, in a lot of companies, I’ve seen what it does. I think it incentivises things that should be not incentivised at all. You don’t fail anymore, because you’ve planned it for five years! When you launch a new product, they plan for five years, they budget, like OK, these are the steps, and then they don’t iterate anymore. So then six months in, everyone in that department knows you should stop this right now, and they still continue doing it. Because if you stop it now, they wouldn’t have a job. So they just continue for another one and a half years until it’s so obvious that it doesn’t work that they shut it down. After one year, two years, setting a five-year plan I think it just doesn’t really make sense unless you constantly iterate on it. And then I think you spend too much time thinking what you could potentially do instead of actually doing something. What we do is we have a certain vision, like a rough feeling of where we want to be and how it should feel, how it could feel in five years, but we’re really just planning for the next three to 12 months and then constantly iterate every month. We sit down again and then plan again the next three to 12 months and see, OK, what did we think before, what can we do better.

That sounds like a tournament poker strategy. Or is it too much of a stretch?
Yeah, I think it is. I think you’re trying to put a label on it, but it’s just a smart iteration, decision-making process. A lot of the smartest people I’ve met in recently in business, they’re just good at iterating, making good decisions. That, I think, is the biggest overlap between business and poker.

For a mainstream audience, can you explain the terms “GTO” and “EV”
Expected value is the outcome you expect, simply said, if you flip a coin then you expect to see 50 percent head and 50 percent tails. That is the expected outcome, so when I play a poker tournament, there is a certain expected value, or expected outcome, that I expect when I play this tournament. Before, when we talked about 90 percent of the time losing and 10 percent winning, I think 90 percent of the time I lose 1 buy-in, 0.9 that I lose, I think that I win more than that in the 10 percent that I cash. So basically my expected outcome, my expected value, I think it is positive. So I think that if I play 1 million of these tournaments that I get a positive return over that long time span. Now you can put a number to that and say, OK, I think I win 10 percent of what I put in. So that’s roughly what I think I win in this tournament, I put down €100,000 and I think 15 percent is my EV. ROI is also another word. So I think, yes, I might lose 100,000 now, but if I play this tournament a million times, then I would win €15,000 for every single time I play it.

And GTO, game-theory optimum, basically means to find the optimal strategy. Simplified, tic-tac-toe, I think is the game they always start with in classes about GTO in university. You have multiple options where to place the first one, and some options are better than others. The optimal strategy is the best performing one. So GTO would be to place the first one in the middle…

In a card game, where you have hundreds of thousands of options, there again is an optimal strategy. So in every single game, and every framework, there is an optimal strategy. That’s GTO. In poker, it’s the same but just billions of times more complex. Chess is probably the best example. There are just moves that are better than other moves, and the optimal game…there would probably be one game that is just the best, the optimal. Everyone is chasing this optimal strategy to beat your opponent, because if you play this GTO strategy then you will beat anyone. So that’s the idea behind GTO. So in poker it’s really hard, so many factors. So much variance. In chess the feedback is direct, it’s 100% clear. If you make a bad move, it makes you lose, it’s bad. But in poker not that easy because if you make a great move it could also make you lose. So you don’t necessarily always know if it’s a good move or not.

Did GTO really make poker a much more skilful game?
It’s really because a lot of poker players didn’t intuitively have that kind of thinking. They were more focused on externalities or other players instead of really thinking, “OK, how can I play a strategically, smart, sound game.” Once they switched their mindset, they improved more and were smarter because they were learning in a better way.” Instead of trying to outplay your opponent, now you’re actually just trying to play well. That makes you a better player than the other way round.

Were you a GTO guy?
So and so. I never used that term before, but I think our iteration process…I was more actually the guy that tried to outplay, kind of. And through my team, they were more sound, especially Steffan [Sontheimer]. He was always, OK, let’s make smart decisions, or smart moves, mathematically, and so on. This mix of his, or our, really good basic strategy, and all these inputs from all the different sides, mixed with me having a really good intuition for what players are up to, then I could adjust. If you adjust a bad strategy, then it just turns worse. If you adjust a really good strategy, you can have a significant edge on other players. That was the golden match.

Is intuition still a big deal?
I see it as subconsciously using the frameworks and knowledge and data points you acquired without actively thinking about it. Yesterday I played a hand and I feel, I see something and I think, “OK, this means weakness”. I didn’t think “OK, I saw him twitching”. It’s still the same process it just doesn’t happen consciously.

Sometimes it’s not right?
Of course not. But I think, again, it’s positive EV. Let’s say I have a guess. I think it’s better to guess whether you’re lying or not. I think so, I’m better at guessing than just ignoring it. That’s my strategy. And yes, if you would try to tell me lies…you tell me a true and a wrong statement I think I will perform better than guessing, but also I will not be 100 / zero. So that, I think, is the gist of why I think this part is important.

Is poker still fun?
Hmmm, yeah? I was thinking, how do I quantify it. I can think of more fun things, but also it’s fun. It’s one of those things, I go play soccer with friends on Tuesday and I like it. But it’s also not “Wow, oh my god I can’t think of anything right now I’ve got to play this tournament.” It’s good. I enjoy it.

RETURN TO MAIN STORY

SELECTED OTHER INTERVIEWS: Adrian Mateos, Charlie Carrel, Daniel Negreanu, Dominik Nitsche, Erik Seidel, Jason Koon, Justin Bonomo, Stephen Chidwick and Winfred Yu.

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