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The Masters of the Playing Cards

by Rebecca McAdam |  Published: Sep 01, 2009


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Germany in Mid-Bloom
Gambling and poker have deep roots in Germany, but the product of these roots, a wave of green shoots reaching for the sky, are only now truly starting to bloom. Recent results by German poker players are difficult to ignore, and the potential for more is abundant, and indeed, exciting. The recent European Poker Tour highlighted a growing number of young and highly skilled German newcomers, as well as, consistently good, familiar players, which in the past perhaps blended into the poker community as a minority.

People like Katja Thater, Jan Heitmann, and Michael Keiner have been around the green felted block a few times over, and somewhere along the way were met by a younger generation of now recognisable faces such as Benjamin Kang and Florian Langmann. Nowadays, they’ve formed an even bigger gang with the likes of the baby-faced assassin Johannes Strassmann, and worldwide champion Sebastian Ruthenberg.

Some countries which spring to mind with the mention of the word “poker” are America, France, England, and even China. Not many people directly associate Germany with card games or anything of the sort. The fact is the first significant engraver or printmaker to produce cards with four suits (although not as we know them today) was a German known as The Master of the Playing Cards, with the first full set of playing cards printed by Johann Gutenberg himself.

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Germany has had its ups and downs with the legal ins and outs of online poker, but nothing has stopped its poker playing community from growing, thriving, and indeed, prospering. Last year’s World Series of Poker saw three Germans walk away with bracelets (Jens Voertmann, Sebastian Ruthenberg, and Martin Klaeser) amid many cashes, which then led into the fifth season of the EPT. The Germans took to the European felt in stereotypical efficiency, dominating, and scaring opponents away with their typically aggressive style. The Tour kicked off with the young, freshly-braceleted Ruthenberg taking down its very first stop in Barcelona. He was accompanied at that final table by another German who finished in fifth, Dren Ukella. Ruthenberg then went on to final table in Prague also. 

The Young ’Uns
After a couple of fourth season final tables under his belt, the excruciatingly calm and collected Johannes Strassmann took down seventh place of the EPT London, and narrowly missed the business end of the money in the Tour’s grand final in Monte Carlo. Another German turning heads this season was Nico Behling. The ever-smiling, blonde-haired, blue-eyed wonder boy finished eighth in the main event of the 2008 Aussie Millions and then came to Poland to finish as runner-up to Joao Barbosa in the EPT Polish Open for a payday of €205,270.

The season continued with Nasr el Nasr finishing seventh in Prague; Benny Spindler taking home a whopping cheque of $1.1 million for third in the Caribbean Adventure; not to forget Jan Collado also making ninth in the sunny (not quite European) stop of the Tour. A true breakthrough then came in the form of an unassuming character called Moritz Kranich who, at a roller coaster final table in Deauville, took down the top prize and became the second German champ of the season. Jan Meinberg didn’t place as high but still scraped the final of the same event.

Germans Taking Over
The next destination was Germany, and not to be outdone on home turf, not one but four Germans took over the final table including Holger Kanisch, Marc Gork, and Florian Langmann. It was Sandra Naujoks who took home gold and was the season’s third and final German winner. A highly successful season finished off with a sixth and seventh place for Germany in Monte Carlo’s Grand Final in the form of Alem Shah and Daniel Zink.

The World Cup of Poker held at this year’s PCA in the Bahamas also reaffirmed Germany’s poker status when PokerStars Shooting Star Jan Heitmann led his team to victory, with the Luca Pagano-led Italian team finishing second.

More to Come?
After Sandra Naujok’s beat the likes of Luca Pagano and William Thorson at the EPT in Germany, she told Card Player, “There are some fantastic German tournament players. We have Sebastian Ruthenberg who won a bracelet and the EPT Barcelona, and other really good guys who have such a strong game. I think we have a good chance at the WSOP, my bet is we will have, all together, two bracelets, and I hope I win, and get another million.”

Well, Naujoks didn’t win another million in this year’s Series, but she did cash in one event, and most importantly, her prediction of two bracelets was 100 percent correct. The Germans won two events and cashed a whopping 83 times.

There was no sign of a bracelet until very late in the Series, but attempts were made, such as Ruthenberg nearly making the final table of the $1,500 Omaha high-low event. He finished 10th for a not so hefty sum of $16,828 — another amazing result however for the constant achiever. The first bracelet for the German contingent came in event 51, the $1,500 no-limit hold’em, when Joh Carsten took home $664,426, his first WSOP bracelet, and indeed his first major tournament win. Then, in the very next event, the $3,000 triple chance no-limit hold’em, Jörg Peisert took home $506,800 and his first bracelet and major win also. These consecutive bracelet-wins, and total winnings of $2,587,135 represent a beacon for what is surely to come for the rest of the year in German poker.

Swimming with the Sharks
To get an inside point of view on the subject, Card Player caught up with Florian Langmann as he prepared for the final table of the High Roller event in Monte Carlo. “I think the biggest event I’ve played so far was a $25,000 tournament in the Bellagio, but I didn’t play any of the High Roller events at the EPTs so far. I really wanted to play it because it’s a nice structure and I’d rather play against good players than against bad players. I saw some value there because I think I can play well against good players as well,” the fresh-faced German excitedly explained.

He continued, “I think if you compare it to the field from the players that started I would say it is a pretty weak or easy final table because most of the really best players that were in the field just busted already, and there are certainly no really bad players there. Like there were some satellite qualifiers and rich guys — there was one Hungarian who was playing totally crazy — but some of the best players are already out. I would love to have a million chips. I could just run over the table, but with a short stack I couldn’t. People were playing so calm, you could make so many aggressive moves but they just didn’t.”

With more than $1.6 million to his name in live tournament winnings, Langmann only began playing poker in 2005, and now after sticking his toes in to sample the deep waters of the High Roller pond, is sure to add another string of exciting finishes to his name in the future. In the side event of the PCA, Langmann came second for $184,300. His ever hopeful and determined reaction to this is, “Yeah, and I got 18th in the WPT at Biloxi which was like — ok it’s nice to be in the money but first prize is $1 million and I get $15,000. It’s kind of disappointing, but it’s nice because I was like 30 or 40 percent of all the tournaments I played this year in the money. Just running good. I’m still waiting for my really big cash.”

When asked about his style, Langmann says, “I would say I play tight-aggressive, and when I get chips I play a lot aggressive but still play tight, and I like to do some preflop moves. I was chip leader a lot in this tournament and I had “Ziigmund”, who is a really crazy player on my left, he’s certainly not a very, very good tournament player because he gambles too much, but it’s really annoying to have him on your left side because he can just make so many moves and he likes to three-bet. So, I kind of induced a five-bet bluff from him to move all in and he was bluffing obviously and shipped me about 120,000 in chips, and that gave me a big chip lead but I gave it away when I lost like three all-ins.”

Lucky Langmann
Langmann is also in agreement that Germans are coming into their own of late. “The Germans are just running awesome this year. I think the Germans are certainly pretty good now and much better than they were like three years ago because there are so many good new young German players that are also running pretty good like Benjamin Spindler, Sebastian Ruthenberg, and Sandra Naujoks. They’ve won so many big tournaments so far this year, it’s crazy.” He is quick to add with a smile, “But I run very good aswell.”

Asked if he thinks there is a reason for this German poker explosion, he says, “I don’t know. I mean running good just means being lucky but I’m not sure, I think Germans probably don’t play that crazy but aggressive enough. One guy, I think it was John Kabbaj or something, said, “How many people live in Germany? Is it like 60 million or something?” and I said, “No, it’s like 80!” And then he said, “Yeah, of course, so there had to be one crazy aggressive German here.” I found it funny because I didn’t think I was playing very aggressive.”

Talking about poker and nations in general terms, Langmann believes that those nationalities in need of some improvement include Italy and France. However, he strikes on a point that could make for a range of different results in the upcoming season. “I mean the locals just play crazy. In San Remo it was really really crazy, if they already had the better structure from Monte Carlo, which will be next year, (I mean this year there was one Italian guy at the final table), it’s unlikely that there will be a lot in the future because they will just give it away at some point.”

Langmann went on to take down the Poker Olymp V €2,000 buy-in main event in Hamburg, a tournament he was intending to play after leaving Monte Carlo. He also cashed twice at this year’s WSOP, so far. Despite this, he makes time for other things. “I have quite some time for other stuff as well. I don’t know, I probably play 100-130 hours in a month, it’s just another job.”

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What a Way to Make a Living
But after achieving so much and hoping for so much more, how long does Langmann see himself in ‘the game’, “I can’t really say what I will be doing in five years. I don’t want to imagine where I will be in five years. I think I will probably still have something to do with poker, I’m not sure if I will play full-time or have some job which is somehow involved in poker, but I don’t see myself working in a job that I was studying for or something like that. I have a Bachelors in Media Infomatics. But I don’t see myself working in that field.”

Poker may be indeed “just another job” for the ambitious German, but where for some, employment goals mean a 10 percent wage increase or an extended lunch break, his goal shows where the similarites end, “I’m still missing a big major event win, so winning an EPT, WPT,  or World Series, something like that is what I want.” Spade Suit