Meet the WSOP Champ: Pius Heinz

cover december 11

01 December 2011

"Once I knew I had it, I remember going back to the rail and disappearing into this swarm of arms. I don’t think you could see me, there were so many people hugging me. That was a pretty sick moment."

Not only did Pius Heinz charge through 6,865 players from 85 different nations on his way to fame and glory, he did as one of the shortstacks on the toughest Main Event final table in recent years. On November 8th, in a packed Pen and Teller Theatre in the Rio, Pius won the third biggest live poker tournament in history, the World Championship and $8,715,638. The event was watched by more people in more countries in the world than ever before, via a live stream as well as on the ESPN network, with a 15-minute delay showing the players’ hole cards. On this evidence, the death of poker appears to have been somewhat exaggerated. Fearless, aggressive, calculating, unreadable, give it up for the new World Champion Pius Heinz.

Who is Pius Heinz, other than the new world champion?

Before poker I was fairly normal. I was a normal guy, I pretty much still am. Did the usual stuff kids do, you know? Didn’t do anything particularly interesting in all that time. At high school I got into poker and started taking it seriously and… now I’m here. I went to college in Köln [Cologne] and I studied Business Psychology.

It must be weird being famous now and signing autographs…

Yeah, yeah. It’s just something I’m going to have to get used to. Of course it’s a bit weird but at the same time it’s kind of cool as well. I don’t consider myself a star or anything right now. I’m the same person I was before – the only difference is that I’m world champion now. I haven’t changed and I don’t think I will change; I’m just trying to stay the same person.

My Facebook is exploding with messages. I try to keep it pretty private and don’t accept friend requests from unknowns but it’s still exploding. I had like 400 notifications this morning. At this point it’s impossible to talk to everyone but it’s great, it’s awesome and it feels nice that people think highly of me and are happy for me.

So what did you do last night after the win?

I think we finished at like 2am or something, then I had all kinds of media stuff to do; autographs and what seemed like millions of people taking a picture with me. I tried to make everyone happy but by the time I got out it was like 3.15, it was really late already. So I went to the suite where all my friends were and we just stayed here and had a couple of drinks and celebrated some. I think I got to bed at about 7am.

You must have been pumped!

Honestly, the last couple of weeks have been so exhausting and I was really tired. I fell right into bed, I couldn’t even think anymore.

What does winning the World Series feel like? What does it feel like?

Once I knew I had it, I remember going back to the rail and disappearing into this swarm of arms. I don’t think you could see me, there were so many people hugging me. That was a pretty sick moment. They were hugging me so hard I almost couldn’t breathe. I kind of dreamed of winning but I never honestly thought about it. I just wanted to play my best at the table and go from there.

It must have been great to have such a big crowd behind you.

Yeah, for sure. I appreciate it a ton – my family and friends being here. I don’t think I could have done it without them. I’m so happy they’re here to share this with me. This event was so big and so tough. There are so many thoughts going through your head, so many people wanting things because you’re a November Niner. Having your family around and treating you as the same person you were before helps a lot to regain focus and stuff. It’s good to have support.

What did Mummy Heinz say?

(Laughs) “I’m super-proud… you’re the best… I knew you could do it…” – that sort of

Once you got heads-up, were you trying to divorce yourself from the reality of how much you were playing for?

Basically, that’s exactly what I was trying to do. This heads-up match was particularly tough, though. I think his [Martin Staszko’s] strategy of limping buttons counter-attacked my usual style really well and I definitely had trouble with that. I never made a hand, basically. He played really well, though, and we were playing for six hours. It was a really tough heads-up and he’s a great player. I just got lucky.

If he hadn’t limped so often you would have 3-bet like crazy, right?

Yeah, and I think he knew what he was doing there.

You were getting information from the rail, right? Did that help?

It was just good to know that he had a hand every time he won a big pot. It was a good boost for my confidence because if he doesn’t have a hand and he wins every pot he’s clearly outplaying you, but if he has a hand then you’re just handcuffed and there’s nothing you can do. That helped me not to lose my confidence; it was just good to know that he had made a lot of hands. I knew that he didn’t have an edge or was outplaying me, he was getting lucky.

You had a rough run before the WSOP. You were going to re-evaluate and consider going back to school. Do you still have those same considerations?

[Instantly] No. [laughs] No, I mean, it’s been rough before the WSOP. Right now I’m going to focus on poker and play as much as I can. I just signed with Team PokerStars and I’m really proud to be a part of the team. I’m going to play a lot of EPTs and look forward to playing as much as possible – hopefully win one of those as well.

What was going on in the six months prior to the WSOP?

I had a big downswing online and just got sick of it. I was thinking, “Why am I wasting my time with this? I will never run good again,” blah, blah, blah; the kind of things that go through your head. Obviously, things turned around and turned around better than I ever could have imagined they would.

How happy were you when Ben Lamb busted?

Reasonably happy, of course. Ben is a great guy and I have a ton of respect for him. I felt bad for him because I knew how much he wanted to win, but from my perspective and for what it meant for my chances of winning, I was really happy.

Are you a better player than you were before the WSOP?

Yes, for sure. Definitely. I don’t even know what happened to my game. I think it was just getting my confidence back from my rough stretch online. I think I’m playing really well in tournaments now, especially in big tournaments. I think I’m really tough to play against at the moment. I feel as confident as I can about my game right now and I’m not afraid of anybody.

Before the Series playing online was rough and I felt like, if the WSOP didn’t go well, I would start doing something… well, real, basically. I was thinking of going back to school and playing maybe one or two Sundays a month and the occasional weekday. I wanted to progress in life and not waste the next five years, which are arguably the best of your life, by grinding out online.

Now you have the best of both worlds because you don’t have to grind but you can still play…

Yes, this is definitely the spot you want to be in. You can just play when you feel like it. As a pro without a huge score, it doesn’t work that way. You have to play when you don’t want to because you have to pay the bills.

Do you think your $1,500 NL final table helped going into the Main Event?

Yeah, I think that was a major boost. I know I say this about every tournament but it was really, really tough. The two big deep runs were particularly tough. I don’t think anyone would argue that this Main Event final table was the toughest in recent memory and the $1,500 was the same. I think we had, like, seven online grinders. It was a super-tough final table and the field from 27 to the final was super hard as well. Playing against these players and realising that I wasn’t getting outplayed and that it was me putting them to tough decisions really helped get my confidence back.

We saw Jungleman and Timex rooting for you. Did they give you advice?

They came to the party afterwards. We talked some hands but it was just great that they were there because we’ve known each other so long. So, in breaks, between hands, I would just talk to them really briefly about hands, and I was getting, “Dude, you’re crushing it. Keep going.” That kind of reinforcement helps you to stay confident.

Do you have any thoughts on the live coverage and the 15 minute delay?

I think it was great for poker, for sure. I didn’t mind it so much because it was the same disadvantage or advantage for everybody. I think it’s great for the game and I was happy they did it. It doesn’t hurt the players.

Makes it a different game, though…

It kind of does. I don’t think you should overrate this, though, because you kind of know anyway what the range of your opponent consists of. Knowing what part of that range he held at any given time is not that interesting because it’s just picking out a random hand. It’s not important.

Somebody could exploit that though, right?

Some mind games were going on, yeah. I was surprised at the heads-up because, the first hand back from break, Martin 3-bet me and I 4-bet, he shoved A-2 and I folded nine-high. I was really surprised that he did that. I had 4-bet him before and never had a hand. I knew that he knew that and his rail had told him, so why would he 5-bet light the first hand back? I guess he went the next step and thought a level ahead. It’s just thinking, thinking, thinking, and whoever does it the best comes out on top.

Speaking of that hand, Martin seemed to be fairly uncomfortable when he bet into you.

I thought he was weak because of a small tell. I think when he didn’t look at me he was weaker than when he did, but I had a pair heads-up with 40 big blinds so I was getting it in regardless.

Tell us about the full house versus seven-high-bluff hand.

Pre-flop was standard, flop was standard. The turn is a little bit nuts. At the time I thought I had a read on him but in this instance it was wrong. I thought he was weak on the turn so I decided to bet, though it was one of the worst cards because I had this read. He thinks and check-raises small which he can do with a lot of hands, even when turning a hand into bluff. When I bet the turn I’m extremely polarised. He can expects me to have air, flush draws or trips, the biggest part of my range being air. I thought he could be bluffing and he was laying himself a sick price if he thinks I fold my air every time. I didn’t believe him and thought I had this read so I floated because it looks really strong and there’s nothing he can do if he doesn’t have it; he can’t bluff any river. So I was hoping he would check and I was surprised when he did not. Once he bets again he obviously has the nuts and I had to make a frustrated fold.

If he checks the river the tournament is over, right?

If he checks I’m betting, like, 25m. Actually I paired my six so I may have checked back because I can beat his stone bluffs. I might have bet, though.

Let’s backtrack. How did you first get into poker?

I think it was the Main Event I saw on TV first. I thought it would be fun and some friends started at the same time as well. It was the time people in Germany started realising that poker exists so people were curious about it. So we met up with friends and we were chilling, having some beers and playing poker and having a great time playing 0.05/0.1 or something.

How did it go from fun to a job?

At some point I realised that the skill element plays a big role and this was something I really enjoyed. It’s hard for me to put a lot of time and effort into things that I don’t enjoy, and poker I enjoyed, so I thought, “Let’s try to get better at this game” and played more because when you are good at poker you can make money. I also didn’t have any real hobbies at this point so poker was a pretty good gap-filler on my downtime. So I just played and played and played and got better.

What do you think about the situation in the US at the moment?

Honestly, I don’t know how to comment on that because I haven’t really looked into the situation much, but obviously it’s really sad for poker. I have a lot of great friends who can no longer do their job because someone decided they couldn’t play. Other than that I don’t really want to comment because I’m not that sure about the situations and the reasons.

What are you going to do with all that money?

I really don’t know what I’m going to do with all this money. I’m definitely going to fulfil a couple of my family’s wishes, doing something great for them because they definitely deserve it. For myself, I’m just happy as I am. I’m just happy right now. I’m going to try to be smart with the money; I’ve heard of people having lots of money and blowing it in, like, a year and this is definitely not something I want to do. I’m going to invest it and try to let the money do the work for me.

What next, Pius?

I’ll actually be really, really busy with media stuff when I get back. I’m in Vegas until next week and today is the day I’m trying to sort out all the media. The next couple of days I’d like to spend just with my family and stuff. I think my next poker stop will be EPT Prague in December and I’m looking forward to that. I would love to play but I just don’t have the time. The occasional cash game here or there is fine but I love tournaments.

To be honest, I’m drained. The tough thing about the November Nine delay is that for three or four months you have the thought in the back of your mind. I tried not to actively think about it but always in the back of your head you have the biggest, most important day of your life coming up – you’re going to play for $9m and you know it will come in three weeks, two weeks, one week, three days. Your whole existence revolves around November 6th and just not having that on my mind is good. Now I’m a lot freer and it’s out of my head and it’s done. And it was awesome.