POKER LIFESTYLE

Interview with The Festival Founder Martin “Franke” von Zweigbergk

Martin “Franke” von Zweigbergk is a prominent figure in the European poker scene and the mastermind behind several innovative and popular poker initiatives. With a poker journey that began during his school days in Sweden, Franke quickly transitioned from friendly home games to organizing larger, competitive live poker events. His passion for the game led him on an incredible years’ long journey to Estonia, via Finland, to the point where he is now best known for founding The Festival Series.

Franke’s dedication to creating a fun and inclusive environment for recreational players is evident in every event he organizes. As he continues to expand his horizons, Cardplayer Lifestyle is excited to feature him in an interview for the first time and delve into his extensive poker history, innovative ideas, and future plans for the poker industry.

Martin "Franke" von Zweigbergk

You’re quite well known in the poker industry and have been active for many years, primarily in Europe. This is the first time we’ve featured you on Cardplayer Lifestyle though. As such, please give us the lowdown on your poker history and how you first got involved in the industry.

When it comes to playing card games, my history began early, with friends at school. We played a popular Swedish variant of poker called Chicago. At first, it was mainly for points and fun, but with time money got involved and we started to play draw poker. I recall organizing some of the games in schools break area and got caught red handed with the “black book of debts.” 😊

Fast forward to 2003, and after playing few games of online poker on the early sites I decided to visit the casino in Helsinki (I am a Swede but lived in Finland 2000-2010 and now in Estonia since 2010) for the first time and signed up to a No Limit Texas Hold’em tournament. At that time, frequent visitors and players in the tournaments included Ilari Sahamies, Juha Helppi, Jani Sointula, Sami Kelopuro etc. Somehow, I actually won my first ever live tournament against opponents that included some of the greatest in the games. It’s insane when you think about it, and then of course I was hooked (and naturally I didn’t cash again for several months 😊).

Anyway, at this time I was also quite involved in Helsinki nightlife and together with Martin Trang ran first After Work club in the city – Helsinki Social Club. We were quite active on SoMe already then so this grew quite fast in popularity. So, when online poker operators wanted to reach new players, we were a great market space for them. We did poker tournaments at nightclubs in collaboration with many different operators and awarded prizes like trips to F1 races, weekend trips to Iceland, and seats in live tournaments around Europe.

A cool campaign we did was to invite friends to play with Scotty Nguyen at our Helsinki Social Club after work (his first visit to Helsinki). So, by late 2005 I really was hooked and together with Finnish friends we challenged the Swedish poker community via the underground club Sviten (yes, same club where the game Sviten Special was invented by Anders Bengtsson). We organized the first ever battle of nations – Sweden vs. Finland – and each side had 50 players and FINLAND won by a great margin.

After that, I got more organised and together with the Sviten crew me and my Finnish friends entered the industry and started to organize live events in Estonia called Pokerfinnkampen (Sweden vs. Finland) which grew quite fast with operators’ help. Many of the people I still work with in this industry were already involved back then.

Martin "Franke" von Zweigbergk

How did you first come up with the idea for The Festival, and what are your overarching goals as an industry person?

After that aforementioned first live event experience, we went on to produce more concepts like the first poker cruises in the Baltics by Paf, or online leagues on national level in Sweden and Finland. At some point we diverted and also created a talent agency for poker players and started reaching out also on the international scene.

Prior to The Festival Series, the largest poker project for me was mine and Enri Orav’s creation Cash Game Festival, that we ran together with Andreas Roseborg, Andro Loos and Mauritz Altikardes. This took our mixed game fever and the cash game-only concept to a whole new level.

cash game festival

Who would have imagined that a bunch of Nordic entrepreneurs could fill Aspers casino in the UK, Platinum Casino in Bulgaria, Banco Casino in Slovakia and many more casinos around Europe with 20+ active tables daily over a long weekend, Wednesday to Sunday, with ZERO(!) supporting tournaments? Just cash game players. It was an amazing event series, in which I met for the first time many of my current friends and where Sviten Special really met Europe.

During the pandemic, when we all sat at home during lockdown, I realized that I do really like cash games, but I did miss tournament play, and the majority of players and operators out there are really into poker tournaments as a pastime activity. So, I needed to add it somehow and still I want to do things my way. Enter the casino games: tournaments in blackjack, roulette, slots, sportsbook. Who knows, maybe at later stages we will also stage chess and backgammon tournaments. All of that combined is exactly what The Festival is and has become, an extension of many old ideas, a growing concept that is still very young in industry terms, (we have only been active three years as an event series this far).

cash game festival

It’s a concept that aims to create a fun-filled atmosphere for recreational players at not too high buy-in levels and with a focus of experiencing the destinations we visit. My personal goals in this industry are to continue to learn, develop and grow gaming in all its forms and maybe one day also learn how to save a Euro or two for retirement (or maybe not, you only live once!). As the saying goes, “Better to burn out than to fade away”. 😊

As a serial entrepreneur, you seem to have your “finger in a lot of pies”; in other words, over the years having founded or are involved in multiple organizations that feed the goal of growing poker in various ways. These include a talent agency (Poker Icons), a video production company (24h Productions), a marketing and sales company (Wunderland Social), the Cash Game Festival, and of course The Festival. How do manage to be active in so many ventures simultaneously, and in what ways do they comingle to advance your various poker industry initiatives?

I also am a father and bonus father for a fair bit of kids, so yes, there are sometimes quite a lot of things on my plate. I do believe I must have the whole alphabet in some letter combinations, whether that is ADHD or just love for AIK that gives this energy I don’t know, but I am a true workaholic. Then again, I only work with things I love, so is it then really work? Or have I just been able to monetize on my hobbies?

Indeed, all the activities and companies you mentioned are supportive of each other; my film production company enables The Festival 100% in its success story as well as of course working with external companies in different business fields (over the years our largest client have been from agricultural industry) to generate some incomes to handle the overhead costs like salaries for the crew or updating the filming equipment.

I mean I have no clue how many streaming or editing computers I have bought over the years, but they are plentiful. Add to that 20+ cameras, so yes, it all racks up when technology moves forward. Bottom line is I believe at any given time I have 5-10 projects that crave attention.

Luckily I am very happy to have amazing colleagues and consultants who are very good at what they do; they trust me 100% and I trust them 100%, so we are quite a large team in the end and we all enjoy working together. Of course, when the work hours are long and problems inevitably arise there might be friction here and there but at the end of the day and once we call it a “wrap” of a project, we have grown stronger together and more experienced.

Let’s talk “Franke the player” for a moment. You’ve currently got 60 tournament results according to the HendonMob. While you play in the occasional No Limit Hold’em tournament, the majority of your cashes are in mixed game variants. It sure seems like that’s where your passion lies. What do you love so much about mixed game poker?

Baseline I am a fish. As a fish you like more cards = more variance = you win every now and then. 😊 But of course I know the games, of course I play on the perception that I am a fish, so maybe I am ok-ish at poker at the end of the day.

When it comes to mixed game variants, I have played them for so long, so maybe I have more experience and thus have a little edge here and there. I mean not many poker players have ever played a tournament in Open Face Chinese… I have played 30+ of them live already.

Martin "Franke" von Zweigbergk

Speaking of mixed games, you’ve innovated a new version of a “Mixed Game Main Event” for your The Festival series alongside the traditional NLHE Main Event. It takes the H.O.R.S.E.S. format, adding the variant of Sviten Special to the traditional H.O.R.S.E. mix. You ran this successfully for the first time last autumn in Bratislava, and will be employing it again at your upcoming stops in Rozvadov and Malta. How did this idea come about and by what metrics do you measure the initiative’s success?

Well, being a mixed game festival extravaganza as The Festival is, it dawned on me “why do we only have a main event like all other festivals in No Limit Texas Hold’em?” So, yes, time to innovate with a Mixed Game Main Event at same price point, €550 buy-in. When it comes to game choice I thought about H.O.R.S.E. or 8-game, but being a fan of Sviten Special since it’s inception it was quite logical to add that game (in fixed limit format). Thus, H.O.R.S.E.S.

Mixed games represent a small, but growing, niche within the poker world. What’s your assessment of the mixed game scene in Europe? What’s successfully attracting players to your events? What poker locales in Europe are most welcoming to mixed game players? What can poker rooms do to promote mixed games better in Europe?

Since the creation of Cash Game Festival in 2014 (or actually probably 5-6 years earlier if I’m being honest), in Estonia the most popular form of cash game has been Super Dealers Choice = if you can explain the rules of a game in such a way that dealers and other players understand it, we play it!

This has always manifested in very strange way, including trading cards with other players after turn, the invention of Thriller or the pyramid, the comeback of one card Indian poker on your forehead, Stand Up Games and super bombed pots, and of course jokers that are only activated IF the last card on the board is a diamond… The permutations are endless!

With the Cash Game Festival traveling around Europe, some of these games took hold. For instance, Sviten Special is spread nowadays in quite a few card rooms along with variants of it. So, answer is poker rooms should do more international events where players can share their local poker variants and have more Super Dealer’s Choice available. 🙂 When it comes to European locations that stand out, any place with a lot of Finnish players and also Bratislava, Malta, and certain areas of the UK.

A key component to successful attendance at The Festival series is the presence of numerous qualifiers and you had well over 200 players who qualified for packages to the Rozvadov stop, taking place from now until June 9. At last count, you’ve got 20(!) online poker and casino partners via whom players can win such packages. These packages take the form of “seat only” as well as “seat + accommodation” and even “seat + accommodation + travel stipend and merch”. In a very competitive poker industry landscape, how do you manage to convince so many (ostensibly) competing sites to all work with you simultaneously for your collective benefit?

I think it is based on players’ feedback. We have been lucky to create a series that has been well received by the poker community. A bit of a louder environment, a bit lower buy-ins, quite a bit of an experience off the felt, and the feeling of belonging. So from an operator perspective, when your own players asks for qualifiers to The Festival Series, I believe you listen.

Also, the threshold for becoming a partner operator is low and we do produce a fair bit of content; most of all we have great fun. Not only at the live event but already leading up to them with streaming the qualifiers and collaboration with different poker media across Europe and several streamers of different games choices.

Martin "Franke" von Zweigbergk The Festival Tallinn

For example on top of all poker streamers we collaborate with, we work together with 15+ slots streamers who all love casino games and poker. But maybe most importantly is that there is no competition at the live casinos among the online brands at all. There is not one operator having larger banners or sending “their own” VIP hosts. We have all agreed to the simple rule of zero tolerance of poaching players at the live event. Yes, the operators might be fierce competitors online but during The Festival players from all operators are treated equally. Moreover, representatives from participating operators that visit The Festival at our stops are open minded and treat all players the same regardless if they have a patch of company X or Y.

It is hard to comprehend, and my belief is that people need to experience this themselves in person, but somehow we are all part of a large family that loves poker and gaming in general, and yes we can all work towards common good and not just think short sighted like “I need to recruit new players today.”

We mentioned the HendonMob earlier. They’ve also partnered with you to run one of their branded Championship events during The Festival. How did that partnership come about and in what ways would you say that each side of the collaboration benefits?

The HendonMob is a powerhouse within the poker scene! When I discussed with their Head of Partnerships Roland Boothby if they would be interested to host THMC at my stops, we both agreed there and then that this is a perfect match; it has been a great collaboration and we both expect it to last forever.

And yes, he is a fish like his colleague Hans Kleinsman, so clearly each time we host an event and THMC is around, the best part is that I give to our guests some extra dead chips in play once those two farmers decides to enter any of The Festival Series tournaments 😂 And yes, I do lose a fair bit in cash games to them both, so it is a mutually beneficial collaboration. 😉

You’re obviously the “main man” when it comes to all things The Festival-related, but of course it takes a village to pull off as much as your organization does and run successful poker tournament series. Who would you like to give a shout out to, and what roles do these individuals have on your team?

This will be a long list, and regardless of how long I make it I will always fail and leave out several names. So, instead of listing them by name, I’ll mention categorically all colleagues, co-founders of companies involved, photographers or videographers, content writers, all partner companies representatives, all dealers and TDs or heads of casinos and poker rooms, friends in poker media, ex-colleagues that were around when it all started, and people that has given me so many great ideas that I have blatantly copied.

Of course, I will specifically mention my girlfriend, who has always been there for me, and most importantly all players I have played with and given so much fun and resourcefulness in things to implement.

In short, The Festival Series is not a one-man-show; it is dedicated teamwork by many, many people.

As you mentioned, The Festival incorporates not just poker tournaments but also casino game events. Looking at the schedule for Rozvadov, I see a blackjack, slots, and roulette tournaments. That’s pretty unconventional. Besides helping The Festival stand out as a unique series, what sort of vibe is there among the players in these non-poker events? Do these events ever manage to “convert” casino players into poker players?

This is one of the coolest facts of our event series! We do get a fair bit of casino players attending our events, and of course they try poker while at the casino. Some of them have never played poker before and that for sure is a colourful addition to any tournament they attend, but bottom line they learn fast and have the love for gaming in them, so it is a fast learning curve. Also the opposite applies: several poker players are now trying casino games for the first time. Yes, they are the true fish in games like blackjack, slots and roulette, but also here a fast learning curve applies.

Key to remember is that most of our events have a low buy-in, so it is not the end of the world if you don’t cash in a casino or poker tournament, and we always have a great hospitality program “off the felt”, so let’s all have fun in a responsible and safe environment as my casino partners provide.

Let’s end off with the “elevator pitch”. For a poker player who has never attended The Festival before, tell them 1) What they’ve been missing out on until now, 2) An important piece of advice about attending, and 3) What sort of experience they can expect as a first-timer.

  1. A lot of fun and new game formats, but you haven’t missed it, just join us at our next stop!
  2. Try to qualify via our online partners to get your hand on our hospitality package. I believe many of the players come for the activities off the felt.
  3. You WON’T find any sunglasses, hoodies, or earplugs. You WILL find laughter, new friends, and a lot of tea at the tables.

The Festival Series Malta

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Written By.

Robbie Strazynski

Robbie founded Cardplayerlifestyle.com in 2009. A veteran member of the poker media corps, in addition to writing and video presenting, Robbie has hosted multiple poker podcasts over the years, including Top Pair, the Red Chip Poker Podcast, The Orbit, and the CardsChat Podcast. In 2019, Robbie translated the autobiography of Poker Hall of Famer Eli […]

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