There's nothing about Martin Staszko that screams at you. The 35-year-old is a quiet man who lives in a modest home in Trinec, Czech Republic, a town of some 37,000. He's played chess for 20 years. He's single. He has a sense of humor, but he's not the one to fill the room with laugher. Nothing about any of that screams, which is why, when looking at Staszko, you may not see the beast that exists.
Ladies and gentlemen, your main event final-table chip leader.
In the biggest tournament in the world, heading into the November Nine (Nov. 6, ESPN2 at 3:30 p.m. ET), it's the stack and the play that accumulated it and the path that got him there that make Staszko exceptional. His broken English isn't much for sound bites, but he's going to softly, without malice, make you watch his game, because he's freerolling from his poker birth. He's come back from virtual nothingness and he absolutely destroyed the final table in the hours leading to November.
Afraid of the beast now?
It was 4½ years ago that Staszko simultaneously got his former job as an automotive manager and discovered poker. He saw the latter on Czech TV and when he got home from work, he'd play online freerolls inspired by the Phil Hellmuths of the world. Slowly, he started winning cents and then dollars. He built his roll over a three-year period, sticking to tournaments, but playing all games. By May 2010, his online bankroll was big enough that he was faced with a career decision. "It was difficult for time," Staszko recalled of his early poker experiences. "I had to work long days and sometimes weekends. Very [many] hours, so it was difficult. I decided I would play poker or this job. I played poker pretty good, I liked poker more than my job, so I decided to play."
Poker indeed won out. Staszko hadn't invested a cent and had rarely played live when he went professional, but the online game was providing. As his roll continued to build, his horizons broadened. Twice in 2010, he journeyed to major European tournaments -- EPT Deauville and the Unibet Open in Prague -- cashing once in each while playing a total of eight tournaments. Those eight were the only live tournaments he'd ever played before he made his way to the 2011 World Series of Poker. There, he almost tripled his live experience.
Emboldened by a SCOOP victory and a 110 percent ROI under the name "filfedra," Staszko journeyed to Vegas, where he played in 14 preliminary WSOP tournaments, cashing in four of them. "Each tournament was helpful," he said of his learning process. "In Las Vegas, it was good to be able to play 2-7 single draw. I played against Phil Hellmuth. When I bluffed he always folded. When I have it, he always called. It was good that live players couldn't read my play. It was very exciting."
As Staszko played, the stars faded from his eyes. Emboldened by his success and the newfound knowledge his experience had imparted, he entered the main event. His stack didn't thrive in the early days of the event, but he managed to survive. As the money bubble drew close, though, Staszko was hanging on to his tournament life by a thread.
"I was very short stacked," said Staszko, who said he had 17,000 in chips at the bubble while the average was nearly 300,000. "I was moved to a table with Erick Lindgren. I was really short there. Every hand, somebody raised before me. I couldn't play. I was thinking that when I found a hand I would push, but I didn't find it. They were very aggressive, so there was no reason to play."
With the bigger stacks dominating the action, Staszko had no choice but to sit on his hands. He survived the bubble, then ended a four-hour card drought, doubling up on pocket jacks, then on pocket aces. It was the beginning of an amazing ascendance that would land him on top of the leaderboard by the end of Day 8.
"I had a very good Day 8 from the start," Staszko said with a smile on his face. "Two times [I had] pocket kings. I made chips and, when I have chips, I play much easier. My opponents were worried playing about me."
You can watch Staszko's prosperous Day 8 play out on Tuesday, Oct. 25, on ESPN from 9 to 11 p.m. ET.
That worry was most evident when the final 10 came together to play for one last elimination. While most of the table tightened up, Staszko started putting on the pressure. "I wanted to be aggressive, but not too aggressive," said Staszko. "Many people were passive because it was the bubble of the November Nine. I didn't want to be too aggressive."
When 14 players remained, Staszko had 13,000,000 in chips, good for seventh in the standings. After he took Khoa Nguyen's last 7,000,000 to reduce the tournament to one 10-player table, Staszko's stack was at 27,575,000. When the dust settled after one more elimination, he had 41,175,000 million and was in first place.
There was no single major hand that led to the change in fortune. While the rest of the field tightened up and protected itself from the perils of bubbledom, Staszko poured it on without fear. It's that inclination that makes him so dangerous for the rest come November.
In the meantime, Staszko waits while experiencing his first wisps of fame. He's been playing both live and online (he made the final table of a WCOOP event for $73,338) while still deciding what to think about his newfound celebrity. He's a hero in Trinec, where everyone knows him. Same goes amongst the denizens of the Czech Republic's playing community. He's starting to get his TV time now, so he expects the attention will only increase. Is that a good thing?
"Yes and no," Staszko mused. "It's good, but when too many people know me it's good but I enjoy my privacy too. It feels good now. When we start playing it can be some pressure."
If Staszko's 10-handed performance is any indication, the pressure won't be much of a factor. While the world focuses on Player of the Year Ben Lamb and the legacy Eoghan O'Dea represents and the many other stories at the table, none of those competitors enters play with the advantage of holding the chip lead, nor having given the field a reason to fear them the way Staszko has. They can have their name recognition, but this right here is the favorite to be the world champion. If it plays out that way, there will be plenty of Martin Staszko hype to scream about.