Davidi Kitai: "I’m a Perfectionist in Poker but Not at All in Life"
The first European to win three WSOP bracelets. Poker Triple Crown winner. #1 on his country's all-time money list.
The first European to win three WSOP bracelets. Poker Triple Crown winner. #1 on his country's all-time money list.
Universally considered one of the most creative and talented poker pros in the world.
Also, to most: a bit of a mystery.
We've long considered Belgium's Davidi Kitai one of poker’s most fascinating characters. And his trademark hero calls have become the stuff of legend.
Kitai: I've Always Been a Hero Caller
After quite a few years of admiring from afar PokerListings finally got to sit down at length with the Team Winamax pro in Malta this year to find out - or try to find out - just what makes this brilliant poker mind tick.
Along the way we discovered much more and an endearing, warm guy committed to his beliefs, his game and his family.
PokerListings: Belgium may be a small country but it seems to have an endless flow of young talent. What’s your secret?
Davidi Kitai: I don’t really know how to explain it, but the first thing is that there are casinos in Belgium. It means that young players can discover poker and start playing.
There is a great community of Dutch-speaking online players who work together a lot. I don’t know them too well, but they’re very impressive.
French-speaking Belgians spend a lot of time on French websites, like forums or coaching websites. They have better results in tournaments like Pierre Neuville or Michael Gathy, while Dutch-speaking Belgian players are more specialized in cash games.
Whatever the country I think we can see a new generation emerging: Germany, Poland, Spain, Portugal, etc. Even in high-stakes MTTs, we’re starting to see some new players. I’d almost get worried... (smiling)
Live, we often see the same players, so there’s a kind of feeling of respect that standardizes the game a lot. But these new players, they barge in and they’re unpredictable and very hard to read.
Especially players from Slavic countries or the South of Europe. I mean, they also have a lot of amateur players that do international tours, but they have these elite young players who are not only good but also have a lot of potential.
PL: You travel a lot for poker. Is there a country where you can see yourself living?
DK: There are few countries where I’d want to live. I live in Malta for now. Life is nice there, but I don’t see myself settling there permanently.
I’m strongly attached to Belgium, since all my friends and family are there, but I don’t see my future there either. I’m a bit of a nomad, a citizen of the world.
I lived in Los Angeles for a few years when I was little because my dad wanted to try the American Dream. He played poker in the 80s, it was very different. It was still very clandestine.
That’s why he decided to leave for Los Angeles when I was 1. He used to drive to Vegas every weekend to play. But the American Dream didn’t work out.
The dollar was too high and some investments didn’t pay back. We went back to Belgium and my parents got a divorce, mostly because of the gambling.
My proudest achievement is to have managed to reconcile her with poker. She’s very proud of me, she’s even my biggest fan, even though she was very wary at first.
My father warned me extensively about the dangers of gambling - especially about other casino games - and about addiction and all that. His experience helped me to avoid making the same mistakes as him.
He still goes to Vegas every summer. It’s been 30 years now, so he’s always with me when I go to the WSOP and he was there when I won my three bracelets.
PL: You’re a real performer, a competitor. It really feels like that’s what motivates you. Do you think it stemmed from the fact that you had to convince your mom that you could succeed playing poker?
DK: I didn’t really think about it but maybe if I went to see a shrink he’d make the same association. What I do know is that my mum’s education, the typical Jewish mother, played a big part in my ambitions.
I’ve always been a competitor. I played football at a good level for a while, at the RWDM, the second club in Brussels once upon a time. It used to be a great club in the 70s.
I played there until I was 16, so it was all quite serious and very, very competitive. I’ve always wanted to win, no matter the game. I’m really a competitor at heart.
Besides, I’ve always had a very peculiar relationship with money. I’m quite detached from it, which has helped me playing at higher limits or buy-ins, but also means that money isn’t really a motivation for me.
That can make me make mistakes at important moments. To make up for that, I decided to set myself goals in terms of results. Ever since, I’ve been much more consistent.
That challenge to become #1 in the world, even if only for one week, it’s really a bet against myself.
PL: How did you go from football to poker?
DK: When I was 16 I grew a lot. Until then I was a short player, very technical. But as I grew I lost these skills and understood that I would never become a professional player.
I kept playing until I was 20 but in a smaller club. I started playing poker when I was 22, after I finished my studies. I went to Los Angeles to improve my English and that’s where I discovered poker.
PL: If you hadn’t become a poker player, what would you be doing now?
DK: I was asking myself a lot of questions about my future when I was at university. I didn’t know what I was going to do, especially considering that I’m quite lazy...
I need a lot of freedom, ever since I was a teenager. It’s something very important for me so I have a hard time dealing with authority in general. That’s why there isn’t really any job where I could have as much freedom as I do in poker.
I can play anywhere, choose what tournament I want to play...
Finance really interested me but the idea of working in that world was depressing: the office hours, the monotony, the idea of being an employee.
That’s why I went to Los Angeles with my three best friends and when we came back we decided to set up an online shop and an actual shop in Brussels.
It was quite an innovative concept, we were selling products and promotions for multiple brands, so there was a bit of everything.
It didn’t really work because we were targeting young people but back then they didn’t have credit cards to pay on the Internet.
It was a great experience but we all lost €40,000. I managed to pay it all back thanks to poker, even though I really wasn’t playing well. It was really easy back then.
After that I started playing poker seriously. I played Limit Hold’em for six more months and then I went on to No-Limit. The transition was tough because I was very inconsistent.
I had some really good months then some horrible ones. At the end of the year I had made more money than with Limit but mentally it was exhausting.
The next year, in 2006, I discovered MTTs. It was an epiphany. I immediately felt that it was made for me, especially since cash games were more and more based on mathematics.
I really needed that creative side. At first, it was mostly to win money, but when I discovered tournaments it became my passion. I started to aim high - I wanted to get better, to master the game, even though I soon realized that it was impossible.
PL: You do seem like a perfectionist.
DK: That’s funny because I’m a perfectionist in poker but not at all in life. (laughs)
Or let’s say that I am when it’s something that I really care about. Otherwise I tend to be a bit nonchalant; I don’t really care much.
In poker I’m not afraid to make mistakes. I follow my instincts a lot. But eventually it’s the trauma that pushes me to get better.
I mull over the tiniest mistake as long as I don’t find the solution. It’s very important to me, even though it can be hard sometimes.
At the same time it shows me that I can still get better and it helps motivate me.
PL: A lot of poker players come from video games. Is that also your case?
I’ve always liked board games and video games. My dad was a very good backgammon player, and I think I could have been good at it too, but I never really wanted to delve into it.
Maybe I’m just too impatient. And I don’t like to focus on several things at once. Even in poker I only play No-Limit Hold’em and Pot-Limit Omaha.
PL: Let’s go back to poker. You’re well-known for your incredible reads. There are a lot of videos and some of them buzz for 6 months or even a year. What’s your secret?
DK: I’ve always been a bit of a "hero caller" but no one really noticed for a long time. I first got noticed during EPT Berlin because I was at a TV table.
I was really proud that I wasn’t afraid to look stupid in front of the cameras and that I had the guts to follow my reads.
It’s something I had already done in tournaments but it was harder in front of the cameras because if I was wrong no one would have understood what I was doing and they would probably have laughed.
Most of the time it’s the way the hand goes that helps me assess the situation. I can recognize polarized situations: either the player has nothing or he has the nuts.
Tells have helped me in close situations like my second call in Berlin against Andrew Chen. It wasn’t poker at all it was 100% tell.
I still have a hard time explaining it today, and it’s better this way as it’s something I’d rather keep for myself anyway. But it’s something I’ve never done since and that I’ll probably never do again.
I’m not a tell specialist; I just think that I have a good sense of observation and deduction. Everybody has tells. A player that tries to pull off a huge bluff will never be able to be 100% calm.
That’s why I always try to be well-equipped with a scarf to hide my mouth and my throat - the areas that give off the most tells. And I avoid playing with my chips.
There’s also the way you bet, the way you talk... They’re global tells, for everyone. I mean, I’ve observed most of these tells in myself first, that’s how I can look for them in other players later.
You need some information and you need to observe consistently -- not just when you’re bluffing.
And most importantly you can never base yourself on tells only. It’s not science. Often, I’m in situations when I don’t know if my opponent is bluffing or not.
My instinct tells me to pay but my brain tells me to back down. That’s when tells can help me decide one way or another.
PL: I’ve also read that you have a lot of empathy, which helps you get into your opponents’ heads. Can you explain that a bit more?
DK: It’s hard to put it in words, especially since I’m really not a psychology specialist.
It was actually Manuel Bevand who pointed it out to me and it’s true that I’m generally very interested in human behaviour. I’m a very curious person and I always try to understand other people.
That’s why I try to put myself in their shoes and understand how they’re thinking. Once you understand someone’s thinking process it’s really useful for the meta-game.
For example I can feel when a player is fed up with me raising all their hands and when they’re near to 3-betting me. That’s why I can anticipate.
I can find out which players will try to avoid me, or which one will confront me. It’s very important, especially when you’re known in tournaments.
PL: We’ve also heard that you believe in karma, at least in poker ...
DK: I’m very, very rational; a bit too much even. As a poker player you need to be very pragmatic, very logical.
Karma doesn’t seem to be very rational but I see it more as a way of life. I want to live in line with my values. That’s why I behave very ethically and I don’t slip.
So yes, I do believe in karma and sometimes it gets a bit out of hand, especially in tournaments. I always try to do things right because I believe it will make good things happen at the table.
But in the end, what’s important is that it helps me to feel well, it keeps my mind clear and healthy, far from negative vibes.
I see a lot of players complaining about being unlucky but that’s pointless since it’s something you can’t control. And often, when they do that, they have bad runs.
It’s a little bit weird because my personal experience is starting to make me really believe in this and I do think it’s a very positive philosophy. But on the other hand I feel like I’m not being the purely logical, absolutely rational poker player.
It’s quite abstract but karma can also be linked to existential questions. I don’t believe in God, I’m an agnostic, but I do believe in something.
PL: Are there any books that had an impact on you or made you grow as an individual and as a poker player?
DK: Personally, the book that has meant the most to me is Albert Camus’s The Rebel, which talks about the right to revolt and its limits as well as the absurdity of our existence.
I also had a lot of existential discussions with Manu B., who really has a gift for sciences and philosophy. He taught me a lot and suggested a lot of books to read.
Some time ago I was reading a book about all that, Buddhism, meditation and so on. It’s a book Johannes Strassmann suggested I read, one he really cared about.
He seemed so happy and radiant as if he’d found inner peace. He told me it was partly thanks to this book, The Power of Now. When I heard about his death I decided to finally read it, out of respect for him.
And it’s true that I do identify with the philosophy in it. The idea is to live in the present as much as possible, without letting your mind wander into the past or the future and without thinking too much.
My mental coach, Pier Gauthier, had already worked with me on this a lot because it’s super important for poker players to be in the present moment. That’s how you manage to be focused.
I already have a few techniques to help me realize when I lose focus and try to regain focus. It’s very useful for poker. Meditation is also a great tool.
A lot of players lose focus and don’t even realize it. Their mind is polluted by things outside of poker: the post-game interview, their friends’ reactions, etc.
But you can manage to be detached from the final table while being fully focused. It’s a state of mind.
PL: It’s a bit different to the idea of visualizing victory to get it.
DK: Yes. I don’t believe in that. I think you have to do things step by step. Maybe if you have one goal a day, but even that seems very hard.
PL: Do you see yourself writing a poker book in the future?
DK: Yes, why not! I don’t know in what form yet though: book, video ...
But it’s definitely something that could interest me. I think that most books published until now are too focused on theory and weren’t written by the best players.
What I like are practical books with concrete examples. For example, I liked Gus Hansen’s book.
Writing a book is definitely not one of my projects for now, but it’s an idea.
PL: Outside of poker, what are your other passions?
DK: Poker takes up a lot of my life. I have no other passion as intense as poker.
But there are things I like. Small things, maybe even boring things. I like going out with my friends, enjoying some tapas, drinking some beers, or playing FIFA.
Essentially I’m also a bit of a loner, so I like doing things alone. For example, I love walking alone on the beach when I play a tournament abroad, or watching the sunrise or the sunset.
These moments bring me very strong feelings and that’s really enjoyable. During these moments I’m really in the now, to go back to what we were saying.
But now I can share these moments with someone else since I met the love of my life seven months ago! Her name is Caroline and she’s wonderful.
There’s also my grandma, “mémé," to whom I owe my life, thanks to her courage and the sense of family she taught me.
And my big brother Michael who is my advisor, my lawyer, my friend, my role model. And then there are also my 14 cousins, who I see very often and I’m very close to.
They help me keep my feet on the ground when it’s easy to lose sight of reality in the illusion, the bling and the superficiality of poker.
It’s so important to have a close-knit family and to always feel their love.
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12 March 2018 70