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Best of Dan Igo
The 2011 November Nine featured five Europeans, including three from mainland Europe. The United States saw its smallest presence at the final table, with only three representatives.
After Ben Lamb's shocking elimination only 20 minutes into play on Tuesday, it was guaranteed that for the second time in four years the WSOP Main Event champion would be from mainland Europe. And for the second time in four years, the runner-up would be from mainland Europe as well. Germany's Pius Heinz was aiming to be the first WSOP Main Event champion from his country, while Martin Staszko of the Czech Republic was trying to do the same.
In the end, it was Heinz who emerged victorious after an epic six-hour heads-up duel against Staszko. Shortly after his historic win, he said he wasn’t sure what to expect back home in Germany.
“I can only imagine,” he said. “I don't know. I'm going to get a lot of attention. I'm just going to wait and see what happens there. It's going to be crazy for sure I think."
Heinz also said he was honored in being the first Main Event champion from Germany.
“I'm definitely proud about being the first German to win,” he said. “It's just an amazing feeling and the support from back home has been great with people following me and supporting me and wishing me the best of luck.”
Staszko said after busting out on Wednesday morning that while he thinks poker will become more popular in the Czech Republic after his runner-up finish, some hurdles still need to be cleared.
"It will mean more poker playing in the Czech Republic,” he said. “We do have some problems though. The government isn't clear on how it will be next year, whether we can play online or not. So we'll see."
Shortly after the November Nine was reached, Heinz and Staszko both talked to the WSOP's Nolan Dalla about the potential impact their Main Event performances would have in their respective countries.
"I think it might be really big," Heinz said. "But I’m not sure. Poker is big back home. When you look at the players who play online, Germany is always fourth or fifth in numbers. We always have commercials for online poker sites running at home. So, a lot of people back home definitely know about poker and like to play the game."
Heinz said on Monday that the German poker market is one that is ready to boom.
"It's obviously not as big as it is in the U.S and Canada," he said. "It's definitely a growing market. People are interested in poker in Germany and love poker in Germany but it's still a growing market. We still have a little bit of a road to go."
Staszko, the first player from the Czech Republic to make the Main Event final table, told Dalla that he is proud that he made history by making it to the November Nine.
"I am the first player to do this," he said. "I have many supporters back in my country. Many of them were watching the last few days on TV and following online. So, it's very good for our country and it's very good for poker where I am from."
He also said his run to the November Nine has already made headlines in his homeland.
"I read something on the Internet that said it was the country's biggest [poker] success and many people know about it," he said on Monday. "Poker players obviously but also many normal people know about my poker and know about my success.”
With the U.S. online poker market still feeling the effects of Black Friday, expect to see more Europeans like Heinz and Staszko make deep runs in the World Series in the coming years. The 2011 WSOP saw bracelet winners from eight countries outside the U.S., including multiple bracelet winners from Canada, Ukraine, France, Great Britain and Russia. Many players from France and Italy sported patches of regulated online poker sites during the Main Event.
The World Series of Poker has been at the forefront of this European poker expansion. They launched the WSOP Europe in 2007 in London, and just this year held the event in France for the first time. This year players from 105 countries competed in the World Series, including 85 in just the Main Event. One-third of those Main Event players were from outside the United States.
The first signs of the European invasion occurred in 2008 after Denmark's Peter Eastgate defeated Russia's Ivan Demidov heads-up to win the Main Event. He became only the second Main Event winner from mainland Europe (Spain's Carlos Mortensen was the first in 2001). That helped usher in a new wave of young and talented European players that made their living online before making the transition to live poker.
Once such player is Heinz. He was strictly an online player before this year, amassing over $700,000 in winnings. His first-place finish in the Main Event was only his second cash in a live event. The newly-minted PokerStars pro is set to wear the PokerStars patch for the first time at EPT Prague next month.
Staszko is also a relative newbie to professional poker. The expert chess player has been playing the game for less than five years, and only three years full-time. Unlike the young guns that are taking the poker world by storm, he is a relatively ancient 35 years old, proving that you can learn the game at any age. And he got his start by watching a televised poker event in his home country.
“I was watching television,” he said. “I saw a European Poker Tour event on television. After that, I started to play poker online.”
He had only played in eight live events before this year’s World Series. And this year’s World Series was a success even before his November Nine appearance, as he cashed in five events.
There are enough live events and juicy cash games outside the U.S. now that blossoming players don’t need to go to Las Vegas to ply their trade. If they’re lucky enough to play in Europe, they can learn the game online before making the transition to live poker. Heinz and Stasko are perfect examples of that.
As long as Americans are shut out of online poker sites, you might as well get used to European flags and non-English chants at the Main Event final table. They aren’t going away anytime soon.