You’ve just won the World Series of Poker Main Event in 2011 and are on top of the poker world. You’ve earned $8.4 million and are the envy of every player. You’re Pius Heinz and it’s at that point, you decide to drop out of the spotlight. Over the next seven years, you’ll not even rack up a dozen tournament cashes. But what if the German had stayed as busy in the game as other champions? What if Pius Heinz hadn’t retired?
In the summer of 2017, I was tasked with interviewing as many former Main Event winners as I could at the World Series of Poker. I spoke to classic winners like Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. I caught up with more recent winners like Martin Jacobsen and Ryan Riess. But I didn’t find Pius Heinz at the Rio because, as a handful of former Main Event winners, Heinz took his winnings and almost disappeared from the game of poker.
If Pius Heinz hadn’t retired, I doubt I would have got a word out of him. Legendarily shy and retiring around the poker media, the German never embraced the spotlight like the previous year’s winner, Jonathan Duhamel. In fact, in many ways, Heinz was the polar opposite to the Canadian. Both toppled older men to win the crown, but they took very different paths thereafter. While Duhamel became the poster boy for PokerStars, Heinz left the brand inside a year. Duhamel was a feature on most of the major circuits. Heinz wished to stay in Vienna for the most part, admitting to playing professionally for only a small window of his life.
Poker players are so used to putting on various faces at the felt that we expect them to fit their real life into the same pattern. Is it fair to do so, when they suffer the frailties of ego, emotional peaks and troughs and personal traumas such as grief that we all do at times during our lives? Had Heinz stayed in poker, his loathing of travel and reluctance to embrace the aspirational side of the game popular to so many recreational fans could have alienated him from his natural fanbase of aspirational players?
But what are aspirational fans hoping to be – a poker player who never retires? There are so few perpetual poker players. Daniel Negreanu, Doyle ‘Texas Dolly’ Brunson, Phil Hellmuth. For every player who has stuck through the dozens of changes the game has evolved through, there must be a hundred players who’ve decided to make their careers brief and finite. Vanessa Rousso and Selbst called it quits after highly successful stints in the game, players such as Phil Gordon moved on from poker after hitting notoriety in TV poker format Poker After Dark.
Heinz was a humble and happy champion. He was friendly, overjoyed and behaved how many of us would at 22- with something bordering shock at winning so much money at such a young age. Shaking hands with strangers was for other champions. If he had been forced to commit to a large proportion of his time to the media requests he received in the aftermath of the biggest win of his poker life, would we have seen the real him?
Pius Heinz, in every sense, didn’t owe anybody a thing when he won the World Series of Poker Main Event. Yet fans felt denied something all the same. What was missing? Was it an examination of Heinz’s journey to the ultimate goal, his methods, his path, or something else? Do fans feel a need to be a part of that success?
In every sport we watch as fans, there are heroes who come and go. Soccer superstars are only ever in the limelight for a maximum of 15 years, and that’s if they’re at the absolute top. When Lionel Messi retires, will we feel cheated? No, because there will always be another footballer to watch. So why do we feel like poker players owe us, as poker fans, their time? Some will embrace the glare of the camera-light and live part of their poker life through a lens. Others won’t. We should enjoy them while we can, but not judge them if they have an exit plan. Everyone retires. Pius Heinz was skilful enough to be able to do so before he turned 23. Heinz’s place in history should be no less assured than the players who follow him, or who travelled their own path many years before, whether they choose to share their journey with fans and media or not.
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