Poker players usually travel in packs. It usually cuts costs, adds a dash of camaraderie and keeps things interesting during long trips on the road. The World Series of Poker is done in the same way, but the system breaks down for example when you’re the last Team Pro in the tournament, you’re buddies are already re-adjusting to jetlag back home and you still have a tournament to win. Right now this applies to Jan Heitmann.
Each morning Heitmann wakes up in his hotel room, takes a shower, orders spaghetti Bolognese from room service, Skype calls his family back home in Munich, spends a little time researching his opponents (“Don’t tell them that”), then heads for the Rio.
It’s a routine he’s used every day this week, the untraditional spaghetti breakfast providing the sustenance for a full day at the table, the Skype call home reminding him that should things go wrong his wife and two young children can’t wait for him to come home.
Then, after the chips are bagged up at the close it’s back to the hotel for sleep until the routine starts again in the morning.
“There are a couple of Germans left in the tournament who I didn’t know before the World Series but who I got to know in the last week or so,” said Heitmann. “Everyone else I think has gone home. I’m not sure, I haven’t had time to do anything social, all I do is sleep and play poker.”
Heitmann’s introduction to poker happened in unusual circumstances, while he was working as a semi-professional card magician as a student in Koblenz, in the late 1990s.
“I was performing a lot and there are lots of themes around poker in card magic, dealing hands and something happens, that sort of thing,” he said. “The other thing was I heard the phrase ‘Whoa, I don’t want to play poker with you!’ a little bit too often, so I figured I have to check out this game. I didn’t even know the rules. So I checked it out and figured that you could earn a little bit of money on the side with that hobby, so I did that.”
Heitmann, who can still dumbfound well-educated people with card tricks and sleight of hand turned his attention more to poker, learning the game in the old school way of jumping straight in at the deep end, in Wiesbaden actually, the town featured in Dostoyevsky’s “The Gambler”.
“Playing in that casino for first time; I knew the rules of hold’em but they were playing Seven Card Stud, Omaha and hold’em one round each, spread limit 20-50 Deutschmarks, which is what the money was called way back. I started in that game. I didn’t know the rules to the other two games but I learned really quickly.”
Unlike Dostoyevsky’s hero Alexei, Heitmann was not looking for immediate riches, or trying to meet the demands of a doomed infatuation, and instead he was doing what all good players do – putting in the time, the hard work and the dedication to learn the game and become successful. It was a path that led to a first World Series cash in 2004, then to London where he finished second in the European Poker Classics in London two years later, a score worth $127,271 to Heitmann.
It was around this time that a new generation of German players was gaining momentum on the European poker circuit, sweeping up titles and securing big results as back home millions began to play poker online. For Heitmann this meant his first results on the European Poker Tour; first in Dortmund, then San Remo and the Grand Final in Monaco. He was also becoming one of the most respected players in Germany, even using his natural flair as a showman to captain the German team at the World Cup of Poker, during which he had to explain the unfortunate “slowroll with aces”.
That’s a long way from the Amazon Room right now, where Heitmann is chatty, smiles a lot and jokes with his opponents, remaining unmoved in deafeat and good natured in victory.
“It was alright,” said Heitmann at the first break, looking back over the first two hours of the day. “I had one set-up that I won luckily; I had ace queen on the button and the guy with 18 big blinds pushed, so it’s a snap call. He has queens, which is unfortunate for my hand, but an ace came. I’m sitting patiently.”
Back then he had 4 million, but the second level would prove more dramatic.
Twice he found himself the victim of simple bad luck. After calling an all-in with queens (his opponent showed ace-king), the board flushed to split the pot. Then, as part of a three-way all-in, he could easily have taken the chip lead with pocket jacks against ace-king and sixes, had a third six not hit the river.
But instead of letting it affect his judgement Heitmann sucked it up and ignored the cheering of the victorious player next to him. Some players celebrate their good luck, knowing that if they keep being lucky they could go a long way. Heitmann needs no such personal reassurance. His focus as strong as it ever was.
Given that he’s the only Team Pro left in the field, he’s getting the Blog team’s attention, and it’s difficult not to see good things ahead.
“He’s active,” said Brad Willis as we watched him rake in another pot from the rail.
“And he’s good,” I added. It seemed like an empty term, but Heitmann looks, well, unstoppable. Being active and good could prove to be the perfect combination.