King Pius Heinz is a WSOP main event champion but what really gets him excited? “It’s a dream come true to win the Main Event. It’s nothing I could have imagined leading up to this and it’s all still a blur”

What makes Pius Heinz, the 2011 WSOP Main Event champ, tick?

The Main Event is a marathon not a sprint. To win the colossal first prize you need to outlast thousands of  players over ten gruelling days of action. But the 2011 Main Event took this idea to a new level. Pius Heinz’s heads-up battle with Czech player Martin Staszko lasted a brutal six hours, as the chip lead was tossed back and forth in one of the most dramatic final tables in WSOP history.

As the November Nine were whittled down to a final three, Heinz’s aggro style helped him build a sizeable chip  lead. And in his heads-up war with Staszko, Heinz seemed to be the one holding all the weapons (even if they did have a habit of backfiring). Again and again he pushed Staszko towards the exit door, only to invite him back in with a poor decision or massive blow-up.

But as the magnitude of his achievement begins to sink in a few weeks later, he says he never let the pressure get to him. ‘The match was really long obviously, and in the middle stages I was getting tired and frustrated  because I couldn’t make a hand, so it was hard to stay afloat,’ says Heinz. ‘I just tried not to panic and made sure that I got value whenever I did make a hand.

‘The Main Event is so special because it brings together all the pros and the best amateurs and it’s just a great  thing to be involved with. But some people don’t realise just how much of a grind it can be. You’re there for ten straight days and it’s important to keep your stamina up and stay focused.’

Back to school

Ever since Chris Moneymaker changed the poker landscape in 2003, journalists have been waiting for another inspirational Main Event story to dine off. But Heinz’s journey to the top has been an unremarkable one. After learning the game with friends at school, he followed the same trajectory as many of today’s young stars. After school came college, at college came online poker, and from there he slowly accumulated experience and a bankroll deep enough to gain entry to poker’s biggest events.

‘Like many, I saw poker on TV with friends and we set up our own home game on kitchen tables, and it grew from there,’ he says. ‘I think maybe like two years ago I started taking poker a lot more seriously. But I’ve  really undergone a standard progression – training and improving each day, talking to others about strategy. There was nothing special in my development.’

Since his victory in Vegas, certain tabloids have run with the idea that Heinz was ready to give up on the game before this year’s World Series. But Heinz says they got their facts a bit mixed up. ‘I’ve been in and out of college the whole time, but what I was considering was if the Series did not go well, then I would concentrate more on my studies,’ Heinz says. ‘I’ve always balanced the two, but had I not won anything I would have focused on studying a little more.’

One thing Heinz isn’t so ready to clear up, though, is how much he actually won at this year’s Main Event. It’s been well publicise that he had a deal with Russian staking site Pokeroff, which pumped an astonishing $1 million worth of buy-ins into the 2011 WSOP. Yet Heinz is keeping schtum. When I ask about his percentage (thought to be 30%), he laughs, claiming he doesn’t like my line of questioning. ‘This is something I get misquoted on a lot, so for now I’m just going to leave it at that,’ he says. ‘It’s too stressful to deal with it any more.’

When I tell him this is a chance to set the record straight, he doesn’t buckle: he’s ‘given up on commenting on it for now’. Unfortunately for Heinz, though, questions about his Main Event percentage will continue. These days, poker is all about figures, and by not revealing all, some will question who the real winner at this year’s Series was: Heinz or Pokeroff.

Spotlight kid

For some past Main Event winners, the overnight change in lifestyle has proved hard to handle. 2010 champ Jonathan Duhamel admitted to being slow to come out of his shell after winning $8.9m, while Joe Cada believes he was ‘too shy’ after his 2009 victory and couldn’t take the criticism levelled at him. The immensity of what  they’d achieved didn’t have time to sink in before they were thrust in front of the cameras, and it’s no different for Heinz.

‘It’s a dream come true to win the Main Event,’ he says. ‘It’s nothing I could have imagined leading up to this and it’s all still a blur.’

‘Before I won the World Series no one had even heard of me,’ he continues. ‘It’s definitely a new experience for me, and it’s cool, but it’s completely different to what I’m used to. I’m just trying not to stress out about it, take it all step by step and make sure that I represent poker properly.’

The Main Event was Heinz’s first ever $10k tournament, and he says it’s difficult to grasp the pressure of playing one-on-one for such a huge prize. ‘This was like a $3.4m heads-up, so naturally I’d never played anything like it before. If you put the chip blinds in terms of a normal cash game, it would have been something like $50k/$100k or something absurd. It was definitely big, but again I just tried not to think about the circumstances and just play poker.’

Calm and collected

What’s been lost in all the coverage of Heinz and on those detractors who claim he’s just another internet kid  come good, is that he’s a remarkably composed 22-year-old. There are still signs of youth, though. When I ask him how he celebrated winning, he gushes about being given the biggest suite in the Rio. ‘It was super sweet,’ he says. ‘500 square metres and we had butlers serving us drinks and all my friends and family were there, so it was pretty amazing. I’ll never forget it.’

Yet when I ask how he’ll spend the money, he displays a maturity few poker players can match. Apparently he’ll look to invest his winnings when his ‘stressful life’ calms down. ‘When I get some downtime I’ll seek advice and look into it properly,’ says Heinz. ‘I’ll be pretty conservative, no stock options or things like that, and I’m not looking to buy anything special like a house or fancy car. Although I’m sure Christmas will be a lot bigger this year.’

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