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Rob Hollink: First-Ever European Poker Champion Looks Back

by Rolf Slotboom |  Published: Jul 01, 2007

I'm in Monte Carlo when I approach Rob Hollink to do a cover story about him. He laughs at me and says: "Well, why on earth would you want to do that? I am playing bad, my business has turned sour, and in the past few months, I have lost $400,000. You want to write a story about the fall of a poker champ, or what?"

At first, I think Rob is joking, but I know he is serious when he sends an e-mail the next day: "Rolf, I appreciate what you are doing. But, I just don't think that I am a very interesting person to write about." That's a remarkable thing to say for someone who - at least in my view - is one of the brightest minds in poker, one of the most interesting persons I know, and simply one of the absolute top players in Europe.

Of course, the last thing I mentioned above is not just a personal opinion; it is a simple fact. Even before becoming the first-ever European champion, Rob already had won a few important tournaments in Amsterdam, Vienna, Paris, and Barcelona. In addition, he had booked some excellent results in the very few tournaments he played in the U.S. And more than that, at the time that he won the 2005 EPT Grand Final, he already had established himself as one of the biggest winners in the cash games around Europe.

Despite all of this, very few people at the time acknowledged him as an absolute top player - and the strange thing is that even after winning the EPT, this perception doesn't seem to have changed all that much. Rob is never judged by the bookies as a top favorite in tournaments, this despite the fact that he is a real killer when it comes to final tables. Just look at his post-EPT statistics, which include winning a side event at the 2006 EPT Barcelona, a Master Classics tournament, the main event of the Austrian Classics, and last but not least, a $2,000 no-limit hold'em event at the Five-Star World Poker Classic in Vegas.

So, while some people are recognized as true stars despite relatively poor track records, Rob rarely if ever gets mentioned as being one of the very best - even when his results suggest that he should. Why is that? Well, I guess the reason is probably just Rob's character. I have played with him hundreds of times, and I don't think I have ever heard him say things like, "Gee, I played that well," or, "I am the best." If anything, he would go out of his way to point out how terribly he played a hand, how much he still has to learn, and so on.

One would expect that the media would appreciate this kind of self-critical analysis, and recognize it as a sign of strength rather than weakness. But the facts are that TV shows have picked other people as their stars, that sites would rather sponsor a beautiful girl or a brash young man, and that even among his fellow players, Rob doesn't automatically get the recognition that one would expect. With this as the starting point of our conversation, Rob goes through the many changes that followed his win, all of his crucial hands at the EPT Grand Final, and some strategic analysis of his current main game, no-limit hold'em ring games. Here's his story, as told in his own words:

Rob Hollink and the changes
Many people expected me to sign a very lucrative deal after my EPT title. But the truth is that I've been approached by just one site - and their offer wasn't exactly in line with what I had in mind. In fact, apart from the prize money, I have not gotten all that much out of this title at all. I got a lot of exposure, yes, but that only resulted in the tax man in Holland coming to pay me a visit. Also, I started doing some business on the side - for instance, my involvement in Rob's Poker Room. Yet, in the end, these activities only gave me a lot of headaches, and all in all, I lost quite a bit of money on them. Plus, they took the focus off my game somewhat, meaning that both my play and my results suffered - simply because my head wasn't free.

So, I now have decided to let go of all of these outside activities, and simply focus on what I like best: playing poker. Now, whenever the TV cameras walk up to me, I tell them to go somewhere else, maybe to one of the many guys who are eager to get their face on television. There are already so many people who like to be hyped up by the TV stations and all, that I guess they won't need me for that. Don't get me wrong, it is good that we have so much poker on TV nowadays, but people make it seem as if without TV or Internet poker, our game would be dead. The truth is that, indeed, television and the Internet have helped poker tremendously, but this growth also has been caused simply because of the characteristics of the game itself. And these characteristics are: It's a combination of mathematics, psychology, and balls, and on top of that, it's played for money; all of this combined into one make it an exciting game. So, in my view, poker is not a hype at all. It is simply a beautiful game that will still be here in about 100 years from now, albeit in a slightly different form, of course. But poker is a young sport, meaning that from the standpoint of strategy, we have touched not more than just the surface. And as long as that's the case, poker will continue to flourish, and thus will be interesting enough for lots of people to focus on it.

Recent results
The fact is that in recent months, I've had some rather bad results. The reasons? Well, I guess it's a combination of getting a bit unlucky, not always playing at 100 percent of my abilities because of the things I just mentioned, and also because, quite simply, the games have become significantly tougher. Just six or seven months ago, I would sometimes face players in heads-up games who I knew were 70 percent to 80 percent certain to give their money to me - but now, it seems they have disappeared. I guess it is the same as our former pot-limit Omaha game in Amsterdam, Rolf. After a while, the soft spots get cleaned out by the good players, and the easy money has dried up.

Because so many people have flocked to the no-limit hold'em games recently, I have decided to follow suit. So, in relatively little time, I have gone from full-ring pot-limit Omaha, to heads-up pot-limit Omaha, to no-limit hold'em. I have to say that I find it very interesting studying no-limit hold'em, as it has so many subtleties. Fortunately, my results seem to be quite decent, especially when taking into account my relative inexperience. It will take a while for me to get really good in no-limit hold'em, but I will try to study as hard as I can to become better and better.

Strategic aspects in no-limit hold'em
Sometimes I need to think on a deeper level than I seem to be doing now. For instance, every now and then I choose to deliberately play my hands in a weaker manner than they really are - say, in a "safety play" type of way. This may include checking hands like A-K on an A-X-X flop. But what sometimes happens then is that, possibly because of my flop check, there is suddenly so much action on the turn that I don't know where I stand, and therefore my own deceptive way of playing has gotten me into trouble. Often, in this situation, I believe that I need to make the big call, simply because I could have induced all of the action by the weakness I have shown.

One of the hardest things to do in no-limit hold'em is always play your hand in an optimal manner. No-limit hold'em looks deceptively simple, but in reality it is very difficult, because there are so many ways you could play a hand. The hard thing is not to sometimes find the best play, but to consistently come up with the best possible solution. That's where the real money is in no-limit hold'em: consistently making better decisions than the opposition.

Suppose that you have raised with Q-J, someone behind you calls, and then the flop comes K-10-X. It is a deep-money situation, you decide to check, and your opponent checks it back. The turn is a blank and you check again, knowing that if you decide to bet here as a semibluff, it is extremely likely that you are going to get called. After all, there is a good chance that your opponent would have bet on the flop if he had nothing. So, now that he has chosen to check it back, it is actually quite likely that he has some kind of made hand with which he is inducing you to bet on the turn with a weaker holding, or even a total bluff that he can then snap off. Now, let's say that after your turn check, he makes a standard bet. This doesn't necessarily mean a strong holding, but it is almost certainly a hand of at least some value. If you decide to check-raise here, your opponent will probably call you very loosely, because after your flop and turn checks, he will not automatically give you credit for having a good hand. In other words, he will often call you here with a medium-strength hand, and may call you down on the river, as well. So, a better - though somewhat unusual - play that I recently figured out may be to just check-call him on the turn, and then if you don't improve, go for a check-raise on the river. This will obviously fail if your opponent simply chooses to check back a medium-strength holding. But if he does bet on the river, it will take all of these marginal hands out of the equation: It signifies either a very strong holding or a bluff. Now, against this range of betting hands, check-raising could very well be positive expected value here, and I am now figuring out against which types of opponents this play could be worth it, and against which types of opponents I should refrain from it. How you should play the same hand in different ways based upon the psychology of the situation and whether you are up against a good or a bad player is what I find very interesting. I see this as the key to successful no-limit hold'em play.

Rob's crucial hands at the 2005 EPT Grand Final
Coming to this Grand Final in Monte Carlo, I had been going through a rather bad run, and didn't feel all that confident, really. And I started out rather badly, as well. On just the third hand of play, I decided to muck K-K preflop. A Hungarian player with whom I had played in Vienna on quite a few occasions had made it 150 to go, and out of the big blind I had made a large reraise to 750. The Hungarian then reraised to 2,700, and I decided to give him credit for a big hand. Later, he told me that he had the exact same hand that I had, pocket kings.

A crucial hand for me was when I had the 10 8 in the big blind, and had called a raise from David Benyamine. The flop came Q 9 X, giving me a straight-flush draw, and I check-called David's 3,000 bet. After another queen on the turn, David bet 4,000, and I check-raised him to 14,000. Having just about 18,000 behind, I don't know what I would have done if he had moved in on me, as I was pretty much committed at this stage with my draw. After about five minutes of thinking, he folded what he claimed to be K-K - and I won a crucial pot with basically not much more than an unimproved 10 high.

And then, of course, there were the two hands that everyone will remember, at the final table against Brandon Schaeffer. The most beautiful hand, naturally, was the one in which I had 10-8 on a 10-10-3 flop. I had checked to Brandon, and he had bet 80,000, I think. I gave him a false tell at this stage, one that wasn't shown on TV. Basically, what I tried to do was mimic the exact same things that players do, say, one or two seconds before they are about to fold - the same disappointment, if you will. And right after that - say, within one second - I quickly check-raised him the minimum, as if to say: Well, yeah, quite frankly I was about to give up - but I have decided to give it one more final shot. Brandon responded by quickly going all in with just tens and threes, meaning he was basically drawing dead to my hand. And from what he had said later in some of his interviews, it seemed that he had indeed read the situation exactly as I wanted him to read it. [Brandon had said that he sensed some nervousness, even weakness, in Rob - which is exactly what Rob wanted to portray.] Either way, it was not the best of moves on his part. I already didn't like his initial 80,000 bet, because in my view, with just about 100,000 in the middle, he should not risk his entire stack in this either-or situation, and he was playing the hand committed when he could have kept the pot small. And, of course, his reraise may have been a bit of a blunder. It's a pity for him, because he played very strongly, and I also like him a lot - but I guess that he simply butchered this hand. By the way, we have seen each other a couple of times since that final, and we have talked a bit about different things. But strange as it may seem, we have never discussed this crucial hand. Ah well, I guess maybe the next time that I see him, I will ask him about it.

And the deciding pot was when I had just an unimproved J-8 on a king-high flop, and stumbled into runner-runner two pair. Brandon had played his top pair deceptively, hoping I would bluff the pot. Indeed, on the flop I took a little stab at it, hoping to pick up the pot with nothing. When he called and I then made second pair on the turn, he again checked and I made another little stab - this time basically to see where I was at, knowing that by now I could very well have the best hand. Then, when I made two pair on the river and he checked again, I decided not to sell my hand, but instead chose to make a massive overbet. Despite the fact that with a three-flush on the board and also a straight possibility, two pair was not automatically a monster, I knew I had the best hand. And, just as importantly, I knew from the way he had played so far that he was willing to pay off very large bets if he suspected a bluff. So, he called with his top pair of kings, and my runner-runner two pair earned me the title.

Five Short Questions for the First-Ever European Poker Champ
Rolf Slotboom: Are you surprised by the recent poker explosion in Europe?

Rob Hollink: No. I am surprised that it has taken so long. All of the key ingredients for success had already been there for a very long time. It surprised me that we needed TV and the Internet for the boom to start, and that apparently this could not happen by itself.

The number-one and number-two players at the 2007 EPT Grand Final were Gavin Griffin and Marc Karam. Do you know them?

RH: I don't know Gavin, but I do know Marc. I had dinner with him and David Daneshgar at that tournament in the U.S. that I won. Marc is a seemingly calm and timid player, but he has a very good feel for the game, and knows exactly what he's doing.

RS: The Americans seem to perform excellently at the EPT. For instance, this year it was Gavin Griffin who won; last year it was Jeff Williams, and in 2005, Brandon Schaefer finished second. Also that year, I think the final four players in Deauville were Americans. Based on this, do you think the Americans are simply better at big no-limit hold'em tournaments than the Europeans are?

RH: No, it is simply a coincidence. Besides, you shouldn't forget that in addition to the online qualifiers from the U.S., a large percentage of them are simply much better than average, or else they would have stayed at home. So, these results don't say anything about the general level of play of the Americans.

RS: Will you play in this year's World Series of Poker?

RH: Yes, I will be there right from the beginning. However, I will not play the main event, as my ex-wife can't have the kids during that time. Also, reserving two weeks for an event in which I could very well bust out on day one seems like a bit too much for me. I prefer the beginning of the Series, when there are two events on one day. I can then play hyperaggressively in event number one, and if I happen to bust out early, I will simply play number two.

RS: So, no two tournaments at the same time anymore?

RH: Not like the Master Classics, you mean - right? (During the 2006 Master Classics in Amsterdam, Rob played a final table, yet still deliberately entered a second event, as well, which started at the same time. So, he kept running back and forth between the two tables - and in fact wound up winning the €320 limit hold'em event, while finishing sixth in the €520 pot-limit Omaha tournament.) No, not this time. But it is still two chances for a good payday, rather than one - and that is something I like.