27-year-old Rainer Kempe has racked up over $10 million playing live poker tournaments ... and even he's mystified by what his friend Fedor Holz has been able to pull off.
Kempe has solid tournament results dating back to 2011 but he caught everyone's attention last summer when he won the $300,000 buy-in Aria Super High Roller Bowl.
He beat Holz heads-up to win that event, earning himself $5 million. At that point Holz had been on the biggest heater perhaps in poker history, having earned roughly $10.5 million in the six months previous.
Holz continued the run with a win in the $111k One Drop High Roller for just under $5 million a couple weeks later.
“It's so tough to say,” said Kempe when asked about how much of Holz's success is skill and how much is luck.
“I would always say it's not possible to have that kind of edge but Fedor leaves me guessing. Maybe he does. He's clearly been crushing it forever and ever.
“I think we don't really understand variance too well even though a lot of people have thought about it in poker for a long time.”
Most recently Holz won two $50k High Roller events at the Aria on two consecutive days for a combined $750,000. His live earnings now total $22.9 million.
“Fedor really pushes the limits of what I thought was possible,” Kempe said, shaking his head.
Kempe's Gradual Grind to the Top
Kempe started playing poker casually while he was attending college in Potsdam. He was studying business administration but he says now that his heart wasn't 100% in it.
"Back then I was happy to finish the night with five or ten euros."
Looking back, Kempe says at the time he had no idea there would ever even be such a thing as Super High Roller poker tournaments, let alone that he'd be playing in them and winning millions.
“Back then I was happy to finish the night with five or ten euros,” he said.
Kempe eventually moved to the UK and started taking live poker more seriously. He says he had success right away at low stakes and gradually moved his way up.
Now he says he's able to play the highest-stakes tournaments offered anywhere in the world.
"I grinded up gradually so it doesn't strike me as that surprising in a way,” Kempe said of his success and the fact that he's playing such astronomical stakes.
“I don't want to say I expected it and I definitely don't want to say I automatically deserve it because you have to get so lucky. But at the same time, I don't feel like it came overnight.”
German Staking Economy Better Than Other Countries
Kempe is part of a group of German players that have stormed the high roller tournament scene and, according to him, it has to do more with the staking economy in Germany than the sheer skill of the country's players.
“There are so many talented German players but one thing is that it's much easier to sell action for high buy-in tournaments in Germany compared to Spain or Russia for example,” explained Kempe.
“I feel like other countries have an equal number of talented players but they aren't able to take the same shots.”
“I've really been breathing it in, all of it.”
Kempe points at the long history of high-stakes backers in Germany as one reason Germans have been so dominant.
“There's been a market pretty much from the very beginning when the high rollers were super soft,” he said.
“There were investors who bought action and were able to build their roll the same way players did. And then when the edges got thinner, they were able to gamble on smaller edges.”
Super High Roller Economy “Very Solid”
Kempe also says the Super High Roller economy is very healthy and that he doesn't expect things to change anytime soon.
"I think the super high roller economy is very solid,” he said. “Those events are definitely getting harder but I don't think that will change things.
“If the businessmen in the $100ks go on a downswing in poker it's not going to affect their life. They're going to keep playing as long as they enjoy it.
“And the regs, even though they might not make a lot of money, they're still profitable.”
Kempe is referring to the fact that most of the poker pros playing Super High Rollers sell a large part of their action. Individual players selling a lot of action is another way the super high roller scene is protected.
“I've really been breathing it in, all of it,” Kempe said of his experience in the poker world. “There are Super High Rollers all over the world and I expect it to stay that way for now.”