If you think you’ve cracked poker it might be time to reconsider. Dave Woods catches up with one of the game’s deepest thinkers as he prepares to take on the best in the world’s biggest games
PokerPlayer: So Dominik, your first live cash was for $381,030 when you won the LAPT in Argentina. Welcome to poker!
Dominic Nitsche: Ha! I played a lot of poker before that. No one just goes to Argentina and plays a big tournament. I’d played hundreds of thousands of hands online and I’d been playing tournaments online since 2006 and doing really well at them, so this was just another tournament in a way. I’d played other big live tourneys as well. I qualified for the Aussie Millions just after I turned 18 and then played EPT Dortmund, but I didn’t cash in either of them. The one tournament I missed was EPT Budapest because I had my driving test that day which was a bit annoying.
Did you pass?
Of course. And then I bought a car the same day.
How did you learn when you started? Study/play or a bit of both?
It was a lot easier back when I started. Starting from zero you didn’t need to learn a lot, you just needed to learn the basic framework – which hands were good, basic position, the importance of pot odds and all that basic stuff.
Becoming a good player really wasn’t that tough. Nowadays it’s a lot of hard work. Back then all we used were basic videos, now we do really advanced calculations for all sorts of stuff and think about so many crazy things every hand we play. The game has changed dramatically.
So would you say the real challenge in poker is keeping your game up at the top level?
Of course. You can look back at a hand from 2010 and now, six years later, you’d go back and analyse it and think what the hell were people doing. I look back at a hand I played two years ago and think what the hell was I doing? Poker continues to evolve.
At the very highest level you’ve got the uber high-rollers at the moment. You’ve played some $25ks, have you or do you want to play higher?
I’ve played a few, yeah. I’ve only recently started playing them last year, so I played the Barcelona $50k, the $50k in Prague and a $100k in Vegas. I also played the $200k in Manila this year – twice actually, so that was a bit more expensive than I would have liked. They’re really good tournaments though.
Would you agree that that’s where the top level poker is being played?
Of course, the level of play is very, very high. You’re dealing with a lot of very good players so you have to play your A-game. You can’t let your strategy shift too far one way – you can’t be consistently bluffing. If you do one thing that’s exploitable you’ll be exploited and that to me is really challenging – to continue to learn more and more about the game so I become less exploitable. If I’m unexploitable than no one can beat me, which is good. On the other hand there are a lot of weaker players in there too, which is where the money comes from. Against the pros you only have really small edges. I’m looking forward to playing all of them this year.
So you see them as a challenge but they’ll also improve your game going forward?
I don’t think playing poker improves your game that much. My progress comes from studying. Poker’s such a complex game, things just happen so quickly, you can’t be fooled by results. The results of any hand are random. Just because the guy had that particular hand in this pot doesn’t make it a good play. Your bluff is not good because he folded. Unless we’re talking about live tells of course. But otherwise you can’t learn the game by playing. You’re not going to be very good. You’ll be fooled by randomness. Your brain doesn’t work that way.
So it’s study, study, study and your play is a result of that?
Correct 100%. I play against a lot of people who aren’t very good, you know, they’ve beaten their home games and they think they’re great, but they do so many things that, when you’ve done your research, are just completely crazy. In that way poker is a lot more complicated than people think. It’s not just staring at your opponent. A lot of the poker I see is just completely misunderstood. I see a lot of the experts on TV and they just don’t understand the game. They just talk about a very different game to the one that I understand.
I’d imagine it’s almost impossible to explain though at the sort of level that you’re talking about?
For sure. I just think, and no disrespect to anyone who’s been playing poker for 30 years or so, back then they had no way of doing the research that we do now, so they had no way of learning apart from experience. Even five years back that’s how I learned. Now, with all the new programs coming out, it’s about doing the research and getting better that way. If you look at the TV coverage though, it’s funny, the commentators just don’t really know what’s going on in the game. They’re commentating on a different game completely.
Because of the way the game evolves, would you say there’s no such thing as perfect poker?
The goal of getting to a point where you can no longer improve is… that’s really interesting. It should be your goal, you want to be the perfect player, you want to be unbeatable, you want to know how to play every situation that comes up. But let’s say you get to that point, the next step for that person would be to say, how do I take maximum profit from people who make this mistake or that mistake? Once you get to that point, you start to find weaknesses in other players and learn how to exploit them to the maximum. So, in my opinion, the perfect poker player knows all the strategy on a really high level, but he also knows his opponent well enough to know where to differentiate with his strategy. No one is at that level, it’s impossible. No one’s even at the level of knowing how to play all the hands, because that’s so tough. There are so many situations that come up in poker. Then you add different elements in tournaments – the changing stack sizes, antes – you have all these weird dynamics going off in tournaments that make it even harder. You have nine different positions on the table and you have to play them all well. It’s like, we’re only human, how can we remember a strategy that’s so complex? I can’t even remember strategy for perfect heads-up play, now you expect me to do this for every position at the table, with every different stack size. I’m not that smart! The good players now are the ones who have a wide understanding of everything.
Which players would you put at the very top level?
We don’t want to put you on the spot…
I like Steve O’Dwyer and I think he’s a great player. Do I think he’s at the very top? I think there are a few players above him. Isaac Haxton is a very strong player, there’s absolutely nothing you can exploit in him. When you play Ike you think, how can I beat him? All of his ranges are perfect and when you try to exploit him, he exploits you faster and then you’re done. Ike is a really, really tough player. He’s my number one. There are a few more… The Russian players right now are very strong. The players who play the highest stakes online. Don’t get me wrong I’m a huge Steve O’Dwyer fan but for me the ultimate respect goes to the highest stakes cash players. I’m fortunate enough to be friends with a lot of the higher stakes heads-up guys and they’ve taught me how to think that way.
The $1m Big One is back this year… Is it?
I’m not sure…
It’s back but it’s not going to be in Vegas…
I’ll just say this, wherever it is, I’ll be there. I have people who have a lot of faith in me. It could be in Manila or somewhere like that. I can see it taking off there.
You’ve played the Main Event a lot but you haven’t cashed there yet?
[Laughs] I’ve only played it three times as I’m only 25. Last year I had so many chips, I was doing really well, but I didn’t win a hand in the whole of Day 2 and that’s really hard to do. I didn’t win a single hand! It happens though unfortunately, but it’s really frustrating in the Main when you run in like the bottom one or two percent. Please give me that run in the $1k side event instead. You put yourself up for draft in the Global Poker League and Philip Gruissem picked you for the Berlin Bears.
Was that a surprise or were you expecting it?
The only surprise was that I wasn’t drafted earlier! I was picked in the third round. I obviously wanted to play for team Berlin as Philipp’s a good friend of mine, but I hadn’t talked to him, so I didn’t know I was going to be picked.
What do you think about it as a concept?
As a concept it’s interesting. I’m not too optimistic but I want to support it. Alex [Dreyfus] has a great vision and we should at least try to make it big. If I can contribute to it I’ll be happy. The commitment is quite small but it’ll get bigger once it takes off. It’s hard to say where it’s going to go. I think it’s important that players try to help it as it could change the poker landscape. The poker community’s quite small – we travel the world together, we have dinner together, we’re all friends, so it’ll be fun.
And this is a different format – shorter stacks and faster, so a different game?
Yeah, but it will still be highly skilled. It’s interesting. I don’t know how well these people will play when the stacks are shorter. Igor Kurganov is good, Olivier Busquet is probably the best heads-up player ever. There are some strong players in there. I’ll tell you one thing, even if you think this is short-stack poker and there’s not a lot of skill in there, wait until you see Olivier or some of the top, top players play. I personally think I’m very good at the moment, I’ve been putting in a lot of work in the past few months. Short-stacked poker has become my main game, and it’s incredibly complex. Even 25BB heads-up is so complex and tough. It’s a great game and I think it’s perfect for TV.
We’re looking forward to it. So you’re playing for the Berlin Bears, you were born in Germany, but now you’re living in Scotland. How did that come about?
Well, as a German player there came a time when the government decided it was going to start taking taxes off German poker players. And, the way they were going about it wasn’t fair. They’d just look at your Hendon Mob page and say, right, you owe us this much! It didn’t actually happen to me but it happened to a few people I knew. So they’d say, you won a million, you owe us half of that, and you’d say, well actually I won about 30% of that. And then you haven’t paid your travel expenses or any other tournaments. You can’t tax poker like that, it doesn’t work. So I moved to Brighton in 2009, then I moved to London and then I got bored of the lifestyle. In London we just had the lifestyle of poker, poker, poker, and while I wasn’t against dedicating myself to making money at that point, I wanted something else. I wanted to try something new so I moved to Edinburgh with Andrew Teng, and there’s a few of us up here like Rupert Elder and David Lister, it’s a great community. It’s quite a bit cheaper than London too.
If someone’s going to Edinburgh for the first time, what’s the one thing they shouldn’t miss?
Honestly, my house, where I play poker all day – it’s really nice! I really like The Honours, it does great food. They have really good steaks. I’d recommend the rib eye or a Chateaubriand for two. Another great restaurant is L’escargot Bleu, it’s French with Scottish ingredients and it’s amazing. They’re my two favourites. What I personally like to do is go to the places that do street food. If you’re into that sort of stuff the Stockbridge Market is on every Sunday. My favourite is a little stall called Barnacles and Bones, they sell beef and crab, and you can have it three different ways. It does delivery too!
Okay, we said earlier we wouldn’t put you on the spot but we’ve got some questions to see how well you’ve integrated into Scottish culture. Ready?
I’m going to wear a kilt at a friend’s wedding if that helps?
That gets you a bonus point. What would a Scottish person say is the best cure for a hangover?
It’s actually Iron Bru, you know what that is?
I know what Iron Bru is, it’s disgusting.
What’s the only film with Scotland in the title that’s won an Oscar?
[Laughs] I don’t know!
The Last King of Scotland. Do you know the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly? He said that there are two seasons in Scotland, what are they?
I know this. August and winter.
Close enough. And what’s the capital of Scotland?
Correct. With the bonus point that’s a respectable score, congrats!
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