*Please note that this interview was originally conducted by the author in Czech, then translated into English and edited.
In 2011, when Martin Staszko reached the November Nine, the hopes of Czech poker community were high. Staszko was on the cusp of becoming the first Czech WSOP Main Event champion (and first-ever bracelet winner at that time), but those dreams were dashed with his runner-up finish. Not many people could have expected a similar deep run from a Czech player on poker’s grandest stage.
Yet, here we are; the summer of 2016 has just ended with Vojtěch “Vojta_R” Růžička making it to the November Nine. I couldn’t be happier for him, and I couldn’t be more excited for Czech poker! The very first interview I did with Vojta took place here in Prague five years ago, right after his runner-up finish in the 2011 WCOOP Main Event. His was actually my second interview ever. Since then, I have met Vojta – as he likes to be called – several times on the live circuit. Whether the setting was EPT London or Vienna, the GCOP in Rozvadov, or the Czech Poker Tour in Prague, I always met the same down-to-earth guy who took the time to say hi, talk about how he was running at the felt, and anything else.
For those not yet familiar with him, Vojtěch Růžička (30) is a Czech poker professional from Liberec, a town located around 100 km north of Prague. While Czech media like to call him the “next Martin Staszko”, Vojtěch actually made a name for himself years ago. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to think of anyone more fitting for the role of Czech poker ambassador.
This is the story of the Czech 2016 November Niner. Over the course of this interview, I’d like for international poker fans to get to know Vojtěch Růžička better and to learn his fascinating back story. I sat down with him to talk to him about his poker journey, about the past five years, his family and upbringing, and much more. Enjoy the read.
We first met for a sit-down interview roughly five years ago. What has changed since then? Have you had any major epiphanies about losses, money, people, and life in general?
Five years is very long time. A lot has changed, of course. Back then, I had not yet experienced a bad run, in the true meaning of the words. I’ve definitely learned about that since and I wasn’t able to handle it as well as I had thought I could. I had always thought that people couldn’t cope with bad runs very well and that it would be easier for me to do so.
Yet, once I truly experienced what it means to run badly I understood how challenging it is – especially mentally. This summer, I found myself, for the first time ever, actually hating the game. Perhaps that´s how it works; maybe that’s fate – that only once you hit the bottom, something good happens.
I was also very gullible back then. I have gone through many bad experiences in terms of trusting people. I plan to be extremely cautious now; not only regarding money, but also in relationships. Overall, I changed my lifestyle and I live healthier now. Also, after years of not doing so, I’ve gotten back to studying the game again. I´m not sure this would be the case if I hadn’t made the November Nine.
“I’m quite a boring poker professional from the Czech Republic” – this is how you described yourself in your short video interview with PokerNews’ Sarah Herring. To the contrary, however, I know you as a popular, kind person, not only respected for your achievements, but genuinely liked by everyone.
That´s nice of you to say. It might be true. Well, I am not a controversial person. I avoid conflict, and sometimes that comes at a cost to me. This might be due to my laziness as well, since facing a dispute or an argument takes a lot of effort and energy. I avoid conflict simply for my own comfort.
In light of having made the November Nine, have you started to evaluate your public image? What are you willing to do to represent poker and to get media attention?
I have considered different options in terms of my presentation in the media. What I want to do is present our game to people as best I can. Also, I´d like to keep any sponsorship/marketing deals I do within the poker industry. This is one of the reasons I chose to close a major contract with the King´s Rozvadov poker room.
I don’t plan on pushing myself into different media outlets. I went through the “obligatory media round” just like any other November Niner, and I would say I did well, but I don´t intend to fabricate anything to attract more attention.
— Vojtěch Růžička (@Vojta_R) August 23, 2016
Tell me a bit about your family.
I grew up in an upper-middle class family, we had all we needed. I have a younger sister Eva. My mom has a regular job; she’s a nurse. My dad used to run his own company when I was younger, but right about when I started playing poker, his business suffered a lot.
I think this was actually one of the reasons I didn’t feel obliged to finish my university studies. I felt a responsibility to build up my own life and to become financially independent from my parents. Money played a huge role in this decision. Maybe, if things had gone differently for us, I would have taken a different path than that of a professional poker player. It´s hard to say, though.
What did you study?
After finishing (the Czech equivalent of) high school in Liberec, I went to university to study mathematical methods of information security, which is something like cryptography. I spent a total of five years there, but I did not even finish the bachelor´s degree program.
Can you envision going back to school to complete your studies?
It would be nice and, yes, it has crossed my mind before. I enjoyed the studies, but I wasn’t sure about its future prospects; this was a huge factor for me. There are possibilities to secure a prestigious position in this field, but only very few, and I certainly knew there were more talented people around than myself.
To start studying all over again seems too impossible to imagine right now.
When did you first come across poker?
I started playing as a freshman at university. I played in my hometown every time I came back from school for the weekend. I was out of the house already and I lived with my sister in an apartment in Liberec. Our parents had just gotten divorced.
We used to play small-stakes home games, plus there was also a casino in Liberec, so I started playing 100-200 CZK ($4-$8) buy-in tournaments as well as cash games there. I had no clue about bankroll management, so I ended up playing 25/50 CZK ($1/$2) cash games.
That’s how it all started. I banked some money up online, saved up for two months, and went back to the live cash game tables to lose it all. No bankroll management whatsoever; I was scared money… All this resulted in poor play.
What was the turning point? When did you start taking poker seriously?
When I was about 22 years old a “perfect storm” came together. It was a combination of things: I enjoyed poker, studying at the university was going downhill, and one day I deposited online, started really grinding and working on my game, and I immediately experienced a good run.
From low-stakes SNGs I grinded up fast; absurdly fast. Thereafter, everything followed naturally. As I mentioned before, for a long time I simply didn’t experience a bad run.
What would you say defines a poker professional other than the fact that he/she is able to make money by playing the game?
That is THE very definition – that poker is a person’s primary source of income.
Whether you are a live cash game pro, online SNG pro, or a rakeback professional, you’re a pro if you are capable of generating long-term profit from a particular game. Of course, there are other things that count – especially one’s mind-set preventing irresponsible gambling. For instance you don´t drink alcohol while playing…
It is work; a profession.
You don’t ever drink alcohol while playing?
I don’t. There is an exception, though: last-level beers J. That´s quite a popular thing in tournament play. Sometimes I have a beer at the end of the day.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was an ambitious child, almost to an unhealthily degree. I was too clever, an adult-like kid. If someone asked me what I wanted to be when I was eight years old, I would probably have said that I wanted to run a business and make a lot of money. Most certainly, I imagined myself as an entrepreneur.
I remember you telling me once about some unique, interesting work experiences you’ve had growing up. Would you mind sharing with our readers what you used to do for money as a teenager?
I worked in a plastics factory when I was 16. I did 12-hour night shifts – that’s probably skirting the law. Who didn’t have a part-time job at that age though, right? It was arranged by my dad at his friend´s business. It was a rough work experience. I suspect that my father meant to shape my values a bit.
Also, I competed in water skiing when I was younger. I wasn’t too good at it. I was always a bit chubby and that’s not really an advantage, haha. Nonetheless, I worked as a water ski boat driver later on. My father was an excellent driver and he taught me to drive. I worked for four years as a water ski coach with children; I enjoyed that a lot.
After you started grinding online, you also worked with PokerStrategy.com. What was that about?
It was a risk-free deal for me. I could attend – freeroll – certain tournaments, mostly on the EPT circuit, and in return I engaged in some coaching on their site. It was a valuable experience, but also a very short one. I worked with their coaching team for half a year.
I know that you enjoy a good prop bet. What do you bet on?
Mainly when I play golf with friends, but basically I’ll bet on anything; who will pick up a restaurant bill, who´s right about something… Unfortunately, however, this classic pub entertainment was ruined by smart phones because, before you negotiate the conditions, someone Googles the answer.
Over the years, your focus has shifted from the online grind to playing in live poker tournaments. Do you enjoy these more?
Yes, I play online only sporadically. I enjoy live poker way more and there is more money in it as well. Also, I am older and the routine of playing online is rather rough. Playing 10 hours a day, 12 tables simultaneously, that´s tough. I played six tables concurrently for a long time, but it wasn’t very effective.
In live tournaments I play high-level poker. Also, I honestly don’t mind being in Vegas playing 12 hours a day with no days off. The online grind is just too much. These days, I play online only to sharpen my skills once in a while, but it’s not my main source of income. Also, the game online has become a lot tougher.
You scored over $700K for your runner-up finish back in the 2011 WCOOP Main Event? Did you start a big online downswing after that?
Since then I´ve been profitable online, but nothing huge. The issue is more that I’ve had a bad run for the past two years on the live circuit. I’d bust all the live main events, one EPT after another; that was very expensive.
Also, I used to stake a bunch of people and that didn’t go too well either, so I quit being a backer. What I made online would only cover my expenses. I needed a break, a good run at a festival, and thankfully it happened.
Which deep run/win that you’ve had in a live tournament do you treasure most?
I feel that there was great value in winning the 2013 EPT High Roller Deauville. Any win in any kind of a high roller event, even if there are only 100 players participating, has enormous value. There were only good players at the final stages of tournament play. I not only won it, but I think I also played the best poker.
Specifically, I´m not sure the footage of my play in this year’s WSOP Main Event in Vegas will look good on TV, but if the Deauville HR had been broadcast, it would look damn good; I played good poker. I also ran well, which makes for better TV, too.
That said, I appreciate all my wins. I treasure the two wins from King´s Rozvadov (GCOP Main Event). It feels great to win a tournament of that size twice. Thinking about it, I´d say every win is important; when you end up the last player standing, it has a value.
At the press conference that took place at King´s Rozvadov after you got home from Vegas this summer, you said “one of the things to love about poker is the fact that in short run, anyone can win a tournament, but over the long run, to be a winning player you must have the skills”. In that regard, do you think it is right to determine a world champion of poker based on a single open event?
It is what it is. The WSOP Main Event is the tournament of the year; the biggest of all. I would say “the world champion” is an appropriate term in this case.
Yet, I think you should differentiate between the WSOP Main Event champion and the #1 poker player globally. It´s totally different thing. In the latter case, you must obviously be ranked #1 in the GPI (Global Poker Index). To be ranked #1 means you’re the best player; it’s also a more prestigious distinction, if you ask me.
Would you enjoy sitting at the top of the GPI rankings?
Yes, I would, and now I have a great chance to get there, too. I will start playing more tournaments in which I can gain a lot of points.
Throughout this year’s WSOP Main Event, you consulted with German professional Marvin Rettenmaier. How did the cooperation originate between you two and will it continue?
Marvin backed two players in the Main Event; at first I exchanged 3% with one of them. I knew him and he is a good player, but he busted shortly after we swapped. A few days later, on Day 6, I clashed with the other one, and exchanged 2% with him. So, Marvin has got 5% of me. Since then, as he has a vested interest, I consulted with him.
Marvin would give me valuable information about opponents at the table. He has got a lot of experience and knowledge about players, especially players on the US circuit, and is in general very helpful. I received a specific offer from Marvin in terms of future cooperation. I’m considering it. Obviously, I have more options now.
Of course, that leads in to my next question, which you’ve already been asked many times. That said, I don’t believe you’ve really given a comprehensive answer – maybe intentionally… Have you thought through the preparation process for the final table?
I don´t want to fully reveal my plan. I have a few ideas. I started with a theoretical training and the practical will follow. I’m aiming for an intensive preparation. I may be limited by the fact I will also play a lot of events, but I believe I can handle this.
Can you disclose how much Main Event action you’ve traded?
I´ve got less than half left now.
Who, in your opinion, is the favorite to win and who is the biggest underdog that could shock the world with a win?
I´m not sure. I haven’t studied all my opponents in detail yet. That said, I think Gordon Vayo is one of the favorites. He´s third in chips. He´s a solid cash game player. If I had to bet on someone right now, and I couldn’t bet on me, I would bet on him.
As for who could come from behind to win it all, I would hope that it’s me. It seems that I have the best position at the table, so I know I’ve got to use it to my advantage.
Earlier, you mentioned that you closed a deal with King´s Rozvadov. Tell us a bit more about it.
Yes, I did close the deal. It´s a long-term arrangement with the King´s Rozvadov poker room. I won´t disclose details, but it´s obviously an interesting deal. I did receive offers from online poker rooms, but none of them were as financially attractive as the one from King´s.
Beyond that though, I like King´s. I enjoy playing there, and I believe I’m making the right move in signing a deal with a Czech partner. Representing King´s Rozvadov, a local poker room, means a lot to me, and I hope to have a positive impact on Czech poker as well. All the other offers were from abroad.
So, no 888Poker? You wore their patch. On what terms? Did you qualify online?
No. It was a one-time thing. They offered money for the patch, so I took it. It was a simple deal for one day.
Are you enjoying the media buzz and is there truly interest in the Czech Republic, especially from international mainstream media?
It´s not as huge as I thought it would be. I expected more attention, but I think that whatever potential there was has already been used up with Martin Staszko. No one bothers me about it; everyone is kind. At the moment, I would say it is actually pleasant.
What about the other side of popularity? Martin Staszko experienced a lot of hassle, including a kidnapping attempt and people literally harassing him at his doorstep. Are you ready for this?
I don’t believe I will face that sort of thing in my district of Prague. I am positive I will deal with the fame in a better way. I´m not scared, at all.
Another thing you mentioned at the King’s press conference is that you are ready to give back to poker. Expand on that.
I want to use my platform to talk about poker for what it really is. I´d like to demonstrate to people that it’s a skill game, where luck plays a short-term role. I want to show that a professional poker player is not a gambler. To make living by playing poker is hard work, not an easy-money game.
In November, my winning could bring more attention to Czech poker again and I would definitely exploit it to “de-demonize” the game as much as I can. I think that´s pretty much all I can possibly do for poker.
Circling back to your family, who is your biggest fan back at home? I know about your grandma and you also mention your sister a lot on social media. I like the posts you address to her.
My sister doesn’t watch the game. She looks at the results, but that´s it, because she hasn’t got a grasp of it at all. My dad follows me and this summer he watched the play through the night before going to work. And grandma, surprisingly, stays up at night watching me play as well. Now she lives close to me and I visit her more often.
Who will join you in Vegas in October?
My mom, her husband, and my sister will be coming. I also expect Honza Barta to come, as he´s got a share of me. His business partners will come, along with some friends in the poker community; they’re going to party hard for sure!
I also spoke to some Czech people living in Vegas who will probably join the rail. I would say I will probably have around 50 people on the rail.
Last question before I let you go, when can fans and players meet you at the tables over the next couple of months before the November Nine takes place? Do you plan to show up at smaller local events to meet up with fans from Czech poker community?
Well, I just finished up a busy trip to Barcelona for the EPT. I’ll probably play in one more big festival as well and focus on the higher buy-in events, but mostly, of course, I will be playing at the poker room in King’s Rozvadov.
— Vojtěch Růžička (@Vojta_R) August 19, 2016