As the World Series of Poker Main Event began on Saturday one player took his seat trying to achieve the impossible.
When Pius Heinz of Germany held aloft his winner’s bracelet last November, he entered poker folklore as the 42nd winner of the Main Event, which is the dream of most players from every country around the world.
Aside from the financial reward, the prestige and the associated sponsorship (Heinz is now part of Team PokerStars Pro), it also automatically labels you as one of the best in the world and, as far as your career is concerned, a marked man, with every opponent you ever take on looking for the story to tell – that they took on the best and won.
The fate of defending champions has usually been elimination in their comeback year, albeit to the applause of a knowledgeable and appreciative poker community that salutes its greats.
Back in the late 1980s, Johnny Chan was the last player to win back-to-back titles, and almost made it a third but for the youngest ever winner at the time, Phil Hellmuth, getting in his way. Before Chan came the incomparable Stu Ungar who would win back-to-back Main Events in 1980 and 81 (before adding a third title in 1997). The only other double winners are Doyle Brunson (1976 and 77) and Johnny Moss (1970 and 71).
It means the task ahead of Heinz is a difficult one, made more so by the constant scrutiny he will endure until he is eliminated.
That said it’s not impossible. In 2004 defending champion Greg Raymer made it all the way through to 25th place, which given the increased field size over the previous year, was a phenomenal achievement.
That year it was Joe Hachem who went on to win the title. A thoughtful player aware of his place in the game’s history, Hachem’s return in 2006 was documented in the French made documentary “That’s Poker” which examined the Australian’s thought process as he returned to the Rio. He wouldn’t disappoint, reaching 238th place (from a field of 8,773 players), to a standing ovation.
At the end of the first day the reigning champion had nearly 40,000. Ovation or otherwise, Heinz’s fate will be determined in the coming days.