A field of 6,865 players began an epic World Series of Poker main event journey in July. Out of the masses, three finalists have emerged. Pius Heinz will have the chip lead over Ben Lamb and Martin Staszko when action resumes Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET. The final trio will step on stage in the Penn and Teller Theater at the Rio in Las Vegas in front of thousands of screaming fans and friends; they'll also be on your television, with ESPN's historic broadcast changing the game forever.
Emotions were high Sunday when the November Nine were reunited, but Tuesday is when the real money will be made. All three have already locked up $4,021,138, the prize money awarded to the third-place finisher, but they don't want that check or the $5,433,086 for second place. Though those sums are indeed life-changing, Tuesday night is all about the $8,715,638, the WSOP main event bracelet and the title of world champion. Tuesday is a night for history to be made, and one of the three competitors will stand atop the poker world the envy of all his peers.
Heinz takes in a massive chip lead over his two opponents, but don't count out Lamb and Staszko just quite yet. There's a long way to go before someone is holding the bricks of cash, and given the rising blinds and antes, any hand may set off a chain of events that can quickly adjust who controls the final table.
So whom should you choose to support Tuesday night? Gary Wise, Bernard Lee and Andrew Feldman each took a side and argued why each of these players has a fighting chance to capture the gold.
Pius will learn from history to win the main event
Bernard Lee, ESPN.com: The WSOP main event final table is down to its last three players. The chip leader has played extremely well so far winning over 63 percent of his hands. He has utilized an aggressive style to win critical hands, propelling him into the chip lead. With over 105 million chips, about half the chips in play, the chip leader should continue to utilize this very aggressive style to run over the final two competitors and win the WSOP main event …
Sound like a solid plan, right?
I'm not so sure. Just ask Joseph Cheong as he sat in this exact same position last year and finished in third place.
Pius Heinz started the final table seventh in chips with 16.4 million. On hand No. 43, the young German professional online poker player catapulted into the chip lead and has never looked back. At the end of the night, he finished with 107.8 million, over half of the 205.9 million chips in play.
When they reconvene Tuesday night, the blinds will be 600,000/1.2 million with a 200,000 ante for another 51 minutes, 45 seconds. Heinz will begin with almost 90 times the big blind.
Heinz should utilize the aggressive style that got him the chip lead. He should continue raising his opponents, since each pot is worth over two million chips before the cards are even dealt. His opponents realize that if they outlast the other player, there is a massive difference in prize money. Given the choice between his two solid opponents, Heinz should try to play postflop with the lesser of the two evils, the less-experienced Staszko. During three-handed play, Heinz will have position on Staszko on two of every three hands.
However, Heinz must learn from Cheong's play last year. Be aggressive and pick your spots, but don't be afraid to change gears and pull back the reins if necessary. Don't put your chip stack and your chip leadership position at risk unnecessarily. Remember, one double up by Staszko or Lamb through Heinz's stack and he would suddenly become the short stack.
If Heinz is able to continue his momentum from Day 1 of the final table and capture the 2011 WSOP main event bracelet, it would be the fulfillment of every poker player's dream, including his own. He personally would be set financially for the rest of his life, but he may also have more of an impact on the entire country of Germany. He could set off a poker explosion similar to the ones former WSOP champions inspired in their home countries: Joseph Hachem in Australia, Peter Eastgate in Denmark and Jonathan Duhamel in Canada.
It's Ben's year and his time
Andrew Feldman, ESPN.com: People dream of careers that include a WSOP bracelet, the honor of being WSOP Player of the Year, a final table in the most prestigious event in the world (The Players' Championship) and an appearance in the November Nine. For most professional poker players, these accomplishments would highlight years of work and effort, but for Ben Lamb, this was merely the story of the last six months of his life. When the final three sit down at the table Tuesday, fans around the world won't be watching Pius and his monstrous chip lead. They won't be watching Martin and his cordial, quiet nature. They'll be watching Ben Lamb because, after all, this has been his year. With everyone watching, Lamb will put on a show.
The modest 26-year-old admittedly didn't play his best game Sunday, which makes the fact that he's entering the action second in chips even more impressive. He said he made some mistakes, and, as the poker world watched the action on ESPN2, they tended to agree. Lamb needed to catch some key cards in order to remain in contention and as they hit, his emotions ran wild. With 55.4 million in chips, Lamb can be patient and has all he needs to work with.
Lamb's key to success Tuesday night will rely on his ability to pick his spots against Heinz. After seeing that he's willing to put in a four-bet with four-high against Staszko, it appears that Lamb may have a soild feel for the play of the Trinec native. While Staszko played significantly more conservatively throughout the final table, we can expect Heinz to throw around chips, especially in Lamb's direction. On Sunday during four-handed action, the duo mixed it up often, with Lamb really never getting the best of his opponent. Both can be extremely aggressive players, and Lamb needs to make some adjustments if he hopes that Tuesday will play out differently.
Unlike Staszko, Lamb has prepared himself by watching all the coverage on television. He validated his reads during play on Sunday, and with friends like Jason Mercier, Shaun Deeb and Sam Stein in his corner, Lamb has the best minds ensuring that he's executing in the right situations. He will also have the loudest and largest cheering section in Las Vegas.
If he's able to overcome these two challengers and win the $8.7 million for first, Lamb would become the first player since Chris Ferguson in 2000 to win the main event after having won a previous WSOP bracelet in the same Series. If the bracelet is placed on his wrist, expect Lamb to embrace his new role and become the ambassador the U.S. poker industry desperately needs after a tough 2011. Lamb's year has been incredible thus far, and there's only one more thing left to do …
Stop underestimating Martin Staszko
Gary Wise, ESPN.com: Sunday may have been a big day for most of the players in the November Nine, but for Martin Staszko, not much happened. The 35-year-old Czech started the day with 40,175,000 in chips and finished with 42,700,000 -- a picture of calm in a sea of chaos all around him, as little changed in his portion of baize.
Much like he did in July, Staszko kept his composure as those around him went to pieces. He was unaffected by the majesty of the moment, keeping his head on his shoulders when things went against him (as they did more often than not) and playing a superb, measured, nearly flawless game. The cards will eventually even out. It's that composure that will win Staszko the championship Tuesday night.
The reality is this: Pius Heinz is young, impetuous and seems capable of implosion. Staszko's the guy whom everyone has felt like they could push short-handed (much good that's done them), and Pius is going to do that until Martin finds his double up. Pius is Joe Cheong to Martin's Jonathan Duahamel. Remember, Duhamel lost his chip lead too. Look for Martin to follow the trend.
Nothing stops Staszko. He started by playing freerolls and won those. He took the few cents he made there, played in online real-money tournaments and won those. He tried his hand at live tournament play with remarkable success. He threw his hat into the main event ring, and look at him now.
Want proof of his resilience? He was down to 17,000 chips at the money bubble and they couldn't finish the job. On Sunday night, he was down to half his starting stack and the same story applied. Ben Lamb is one heck of a good poker player and Pius Heinz has been a revelation, but if the forces of luck and chaos can't finish the machine Staszko off, they won't be able to, either.
Assuming Staszko wins this thing -- as he's destined to -- you can't help but prognosticate about his reign. The archetypical world champion/poker ambassador has generally had all of the typical spokesperson qualities: strikingly attractive, charming, well-spoken, thoughtful, maybe with a phenomenal "phoenix rising from the ashes" story and a strong command of the English language.
Staszko … doesn't have a lot of that.
He's likable in conversation, yes, but he's a quiet, private, frumpy little man who obviously never went out looking for stardom. He's just a game player playing a game and enjoying doing something he's obviously phenomenal at. That's not necessarily going to have the networks clamoring for interviews. The question, though, is whether that matters.
The U.S. is a dead market for online poker right now, and until the much-prayed-for legalization/regulation fantasy becomes reality, exposure on American networks isn't worth a whole lot. Yes, it would be wonderful for U.S. players to have an eloquent politician/lawyer/supermodel win this tournament and speak to the masses and government on the importance of freedom of choice and how it reflects on the American way, but really, there is no poker messiah. The immediate future for much of the poker industry lies where so many American pros have gone in the last half-year, outside America's borders. As with Joe Hachem and Peter Eastgate after their wins, a win will make poker in Staszko's native Czech Republic and surrounding areas explode. It's not a huge consolation prize for Americans waiting to get their game on, but the industry far surpasses those poor souls.
Staszko won't be the perfect champion, but he'll be a deserving one. He's played superb poker throughout. He was the one player who stood up to the pressures of the final table bubble and played the game as it was meant to be. With his messy hair, his work shirts, his fade-into-the-shadows personality and his broken English, people will see flaws when they look to find them, but in a game where we constantly remember anyone can win, it'll be nice to see someone sitting on top who is imperfect like you are. The difference between you and him is that he's the much better poker player.