He hasn’t even reached the legal drinking age in the United States, but the 20-year old Dutch online grinder is the current number one on the prestigious PokerStars Tournament Leaderboard. In an in-depth interview, DonBartos speaks about the life as an online MTT and Sit and Go grinder. After listening to DonBartos speak openly about the swings, it’s pretty clear that being number one on this leaderboard, previously won by the likes of shaundeeb, johnybax, aprilsfool, AltyAA, dhilton12, is no guarantee for a million dollar bank account.
You are number one on the PokerStars TLB right now, what does it mean to you to be at the top of that leaderboard right now?
Is it a realistic goal to set that you want to be the number one on the TLB?
It’s going to be a very hard goal for sure and I won’t be very disappointed if I finish third or fourth at the end of the year. It’s going to be a long shot, but I definitely have a chance to win it.
What makes you think you have a chance at winning the TLB? Is there a specific strategy involved?
It’s mainly just playing a very sick volume and also playing all the micro stakes tournaments as well. Not skipping those games is very important, while most of the high stakes tournament players don’t play those. I still play the $2 and $5 MTTs and you need to do that to win the TLB. There are only about 100 players that have a shot at winning the Tournament Leaderboard. Those are all very sick players that put in a ton of volume but I still think I have a very decent shot at it.
What’s the difference between you and those other 100 guys that have a chance? Are you significantly better, do you put in more volume or is it just variance?
The first two months I played more than those players but the last two months I didn’t play that much. The first two months I played between 60 and 70 hours per week and it’s not healthy to play that much. That put me in front of the other guys but I don’t think I have a skill edge against them. Most of it is just volume and the discipline to go for first.
Do you know the other players in the top of the leaderboard and do you play against them in every tournament?
The guy in second, TheLipoFund, is a pretty sick player. In the top ten there are a couple of very sick players that you see in every tournament all the time. The other guys in the top are there due to variance or because they win a lot of Sit and Gos. It’s going to be pretty hard to beat all those guys, but I’m going to try.
What does your day look like when you’re grinding online?
The first two months I had a pretty messed up schedule. I woke up at like 4:00PM and played till 4:00AM. That’s not really healthy and while you make a lot of volume you don’t really live much. Since last month I switched to waking up around 10:00 or 11:00AM. The weather here in Malta is starting to get really good and I usually spent a few hours just chilling on the balcony. After that I work on some coaching stuff and do everything for my stable. I’m staking around 30 players right now and I start grinding myself at around 4:00PM. I will keep playing till around 1:00 AM and then I’ll go to bed.
I’m guessing you’re playing the same MTT schedule every day and add Sit and Gos to that?
Yes, that’s mainly what I do. Sometimes I start or quit a little earlier but I almost always play the same MTTs, and I add 180-man Sit and Gos to that.
What’s your hourly win rate like? As you are the number one on the leaderboard I’d like to assume you are among the biggest winners?
No, it doesn’t really work that way. You get points for tournaments and it’s mainly focused on the number of entries. For instance, you get more points for a $2 MTT with 7,000 players opposed to a $100 MTT with 500 players. In the $100 tournament you can win more money but the amount of entrants is more important for the TLB. I’m on a pretty huge downswing right now on Stars, but luckily I had quite a big score on another site. So I’m still doing okay for the year, but I’m definitely not the biggest winner or anything like that.
So do you have an indication of what your hourly rate is when you’re grinding online?
I think it’s really, really hard to say. The last two months I’ve played mostly MTTs and also on other websites. With that it’s almost impossible to say what you’re making per hour. If you play Sit and Gos, like I did the first two months, and it’s what I’m going to go back to right now, you can play around 50 games per hour. You can win around $1.50 or $2 per game and you can make anywhere between $75 and $100 per hour. If you add MTTs to that you could make a little more than $100.
As an MTT and Sit and Go grinder is it possible to set goals?
I wouldn’t really set money goals. For this year I set some VPP goals but they’re not really that important to me because rakeback is only a very small percentage of my winnings. Of course I also set the Tournament Leaderboard goal, which was Top 10 but I’m shooting to get a bit higher.
So you see those goals more as just guidelines for the year?
Exactly. The Tournament Leaderboard has a $50,000 first prize but besides that you can’t really have any money-wise goals. It doesn’t really work to have money goals because I could set it at $150,000 and then win the Sunday Million the first week of the year. That would mean I’m done for the year (laughing).
On a forum you stated that you once played a 26-hour session in which you played around 800 Sit and Gos. Is it possible to maintain your A-Game for that long, or do you possess that much experience that it’s not necessary to be 100% focused?
I do have a lot of experience, so it’s hard to make a lot of mistakes. At the same time you can’t play your A-Game for that long. It was mostly fun to do and I wanted to switch my schedule. I was waking up at very weird times, and when I woke up at 11:00PM once I decided to just grind an entire day till 1:00AM the next day. I ended up having a pretty decent day and on top of that I also got my rhythm back. It’s not something I would do every day but I also don’t think I can become minus EV from playing that long.
So you’re saying that there’s still a ton of value in online poker?
It has definitely gotten a lot worse. For me it’s getting better because it’s my first year as a pro, I’ve put a lot of time into it and I’ve become a better player. Sit and Gos are pretty hard to beat right now, and I’m probably making a third of what I could be making with these skills three years ago.
You said on a forum that you started playing around four years ago while you’re only 20-years old right now. How was it to start out playing a gambling game like poker that young?
I think I started even a bit earlier. During the breaks at school we would just play with friends and use Monopoly money to grind it out (laughing)! I kind of figured out my own game because nobody knew how to play poker. My game was called Seven-Card Draw and it was pretty crazy. When poker got really popular we bought a poker chip set and started playing Texas Hold’em. I also got into playing with play money online and eventually I bought dollars from him for €10. We played €0.50 Sit and Gos, and when I was around 16-years old I started making some money with it. It was quite funny when I won my first tournament for around $2,000 and I cashed it out right away. I got it as a check, and it was really funny when I came to the bank with that check as a 16-year old.
So at first you weren’t even allowed to play but you did?
Yeah, but to be fair nobody in Holland is allowed to play. When you’re doing something wrong you might as well do it really wrong.
So you’ve been putting in a lot of volume for the last four years and this is your first year as a pro?
Yes. I started playing as a pro around eight months ago. I moved to Malta when I finished my study and I thought, why not get some sun? I’ve basically been playing full time for eight months now and it’s been going okay for me, but it’s harder than I thought. In MTTs you kind of need one big cash and I haven’t had that one yet. I’ve had a few big cashes but not that six-figure one, but it has to come at some point.
What made you decide to go pro and did your parents and friends support that decision?
The main reason was that I didn’t really have many other options. I was already playing quite a bit while I was studying, and all my money came from poker. So I had already put in quite a lot of time and I didn’t want to start another study because that would mean I would not be able to play the MTTs that I wanted. I figured it was a max EV decision to go pro for at least a year and then go from there. I didn’t have a job or anything like that, and that study that I finished was on a pretty low level. There weren’t that many great options, I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time and even though I had a lot of friends, you can always make new friends. So I just decided to go to Malta to see what would happen.
But what did your parents think?
I was basically playing for a living for two years at that time while I was going to school. So I think they kind of figured that it had to come at some point. I think they find it pretty cool that I went to Malta because it’s a nice experience. They probably would’ve been happy if I wasn’t gambling for a living but at the same time they support it.
Do you think you can switch back to the normal world after this year, because the freedom of being a poker player is very hard to find in any other profession?
It kind of depends on your job obviously. You could of course do freelance work or start up your own business. I probably could not go back to a regular 8:00 to 5:00 job. It’s not really that I want it anyway and as it is I’m doing all right as a poker player. I was planning for it to be just one year but it will probably be longer.
You’re only 20-years old but do you think there’s a really a future as a professional poker player?
It’s going to be harder every year and especially if certain countries drop out of the player pool. For instance the French, Italian and Spanish players are out of our player pool while those are pretty bad. That’s hurting the professional poker players. If the US comes back to the to the total player pool there could be a second poker boom I guess. I think there’s always going to be money in poker. People are always going to play poker. It’s just going to be a lot harder. With the same skill set I could’ve made around six times more per hour four years ago. That number is going to keep decreasing but for now I’m making a lot more per hour than the average 20-year old.
You are also very much involved in poker coaching. Is that something you do because it’s free of variance and you get a steady income?
I’m doing it for several reasons. A part of it is because of the money and the steady income since there’s no variance. It’s also just fun to discuss a bit of poker, especially when you get paid for it. It also increases my own game since I learn from coaching other players as well. It’s kind of a win-win-win for me. Also, I never coach during times that I would grind myself. So it’s not taking away from my own play. I don’t start grinding until 4:00 PM usually and I do my coaching between 12:00 and 4:00. It’s just added equity.
Are there a lot of players asking you for coaching and how many hours a week do you put into it?
I do about five hours a week of paid coaching. It’s not that much but it’s extra income and it’s good for my game.
You’re also staking about 30 players. Is it that profitable to stake other players with all the risks involved besides the variance?
Yeah but the players I stake all play micro stakes. I stake players for $2 180-man Sit and Gos. They move up as soon as possible, but the risk for me is only around $100 per player. A lot of those guys have increased that investment to a $1,000 to $2,000 bankroll. My own risk was only $100 so even if they ‘d scammed me it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Online you can make so much more volume than live and it’s pretty easy to coach someone to get them to crush the games. There is still quite some money in online staking but I wouldn’t do live staking, there’s just too much variance.
So you’re saying it’s basically impossible to be a live grinder?
Well, I’m talking just about live MTTs. You can only play around 100 games per year and you need a sample of like 20,000 to 50,000 games to have a slight idea of how good you are, or to be close to your EV. When you only grind around 100 games per year, it’s pretty hard to be grinding out the variance. You need 200 years for that, so good luck.
So how do you view the live poker circuit, since that is the part of the industry that gets the most media attention?
I think it’s pretty overrated. Especially for tournaments, I think it’s around 99% variance. I think it’s good to grind those tournaments if you’re playing online and doing that on the side. There’s quite a bit of value in the EPT and WSOP tournaments, but you can’t play them enough with regards to the variance. If you can add them to your regular grind, then it’s great. If you’re just grinding live tournaments it must be really hard to have a solid income.
Do you think online players that make the switch to live poker are making a big mistake?Yeah, I’m pretty sure about that. On the other hand, they probably don’t have the discipline to grind online anymore. I wouldn’t be able to grind live, but maybe if you have enough money to live for the next ten years without an income it would be fine. Basically, I wouldn’t want to play live tournaments to pay for my rent.
Which online MTT players do you respect the most and think you can learn from?
There are a couple of guys but most of the biggest winners in online MTTs have been lucky with variance. If you win the Sunday Million three times, you’ve got $600,000 in winnings, and from that point on it’s easy to be a winning player. The guys that I respect the most are guys like David ‘dhilton12’ Hilton, who won the TLB last year and TheLipoFund, who’s second on the leaderboard this year. All the guys high on the leaderboard I respect a lot because they put in a lot of volume and effort. I respect that a lot more than guys who play 30 games per week and bink a big one every month.
Can you explain how bad the variance can be for an online MTT grinder?
For Sit and Gos it’s not that bad. You can just play so many games that you can grind it out pretty easily. I’m currently in a $35,000 downswing and it’s not even on a high average buy in. I’m looking at my graph and over 5,000 games, and this is just MTTs, the average buy in is just $37. That’s mostly running very bad on the $200+ games and that happens when you mix so many stakes. I play a $2 Turbo right next to the Sunday Million. It’s very hard to be profitable if you run really good in the $2 Turbo and not in the Sunday Million. I’ve heard even worse stories though; some guys have been on $200,000 downswings on MTTs.
Doesn’t that scare you?
Of course it does, but what are you going to do about it? You can only hope that it doesn’t happen to you. There are also some things you can do about it like playing Sit and Gos next to it. That decreases the downswing just like skipping some of the $200 Turbo MTTs. Because it’s 99% regulars in those games you have a very low dollar per game in those.
Is there a point where you tell yourself to take some steps down in stakes?
I would never skip the Sunday Million because there’s just too much value in that one. I’m not sure if you can ever calculate it but I think you can make like $200 per game in the Sunday Million. In a daily $200 Turbo on Stars with all regulars it’s really hard to get more than $10 per game profit, so then it may not be worth it to get that $200 variance all the time.
Is it just variance or could it also be a confidence problem since it has been going bad for such a long time?
I don’t really have confidence issues that much. I still consider myself to be pretty decent, even in big downswings. It’s more about not increasing your downswing too much, especially when it’s $20,000. It may be smarter to just say, I’m going to skip a couple of games and grind it back up a bit.
You said on one of the forums that you don’t really have a poker idol but that you like Marcel Luske a lot more than the online grinders?
I think it’s better for poker marketing wise. A guy like Marcel Luske is better for poker and deserves it more to be a Team PokerStars Pro than someone who just clicks buttons online. For instance, I have a couple of guys who follow me basically every day. I’ve got maybe 1,000 players that follow me but those are already online grinders. There’s no added equity for Stars there, while someone like Marcel Luske is on TV all the time and he attracts players that don’t play online yet. In that way he’s better for poker I am, or some other online grinder.
So you have online railbird fans?
Yes, I guess quite a few because even when I’m heads up in an $8 Sit and Go there will be five guys in the rail chat. I’m just thinking, “Dude I’m just clicking some fucking buttons.” I don’t know why they do it but I also post a lot on the Dutch poker forums and people know me from that. That I’m the number one on the Tournament Leaderboard also helps. About five years ago I would also look up who was number one on the leaderboard and start railing him for no reason. It doesn’t make much sense but it’s also not hurting anyone either.
You post a lot on all the forums, doesn’t that take up a lot of your time?
Not too much and it’s also good for motivation. If I would win the Tournament Leaderboard this year I would shoot to become a PokerStars Pro. It’s going to be hard but those forums help a bit because it gives you an online name. Guys who just grind online and never post on any forum don’t have any shot to become a Team Pro. You increase your shot by quite a bit if you’re just active in the poker community. It’s also a lot of motivation that around 1,000 players are railing me at some point. It’s not that important to me or anything, but it’s very nice because the grind for the Tournament Leaderboard is kind of boring sometimes.
When you’re grinding online and you play around 40 tables, do you still have time to check all those forums?
I should be focusing on playing but I don’t always (laughing). I’m also in like 10 Skype groups and that doesn’t help either. I’m trying to switch more towards putting off Skype and the forums and focusing on the game. It’s good to have like a TV show running but other than that I should just focus on the game. When you’re playing 70 hours a week it just gets boring after awhile, especially since you play the same MTTs every day.
So what do your screens consist of and how many things are you doing at the same time?
I have two 24-inch screens and just 40 tables tiled on one screen. On the other screen I have six tables and those are usually the more important ones and higher buy ins. Usually I have a TV show running like Sopranos and look at some of the forums. I don’t follow a lot of topics but mostly my own, like the tournament leaderboard chase on 2+2. On a regular day I have about 50 guys talking to me on Skype with random questions but I guess that’s fine. I think I should pay less attention to that and focus more on my game.
A few years ago there was a video from Hevad Khan grinding 26 tables at the same time and that was revolutionary back then. Now you’re grinding 46 tables and you still have time to do other things?
You have time for it but it’s not really that smart to do it because you’re missing out on some spots. At the same time it becomes less boring because of that. You will be able to grind 12 hours instead of six. If I just grind and don’t have a TV show running it’s really hard to grind longer than six hours. It’s just easy to lose focus if you don’t have something interesting going on, like a deep MTT run. It may be okay to run Skype and a TV show if that means you miss a couple of spots, but you increase the length of your sessions.
What do you think your future will be like?
For now I will just continue to grind, I don’t think that far ahead. Every three to six months I will decide whether or not I will stay in Malta. That’s because of the rent agreements for my apartment. I will probably keep playing poker as I don’t see many other options.
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