He won entry to the most special poker event of the year for free. Now he’s a Platinum Pass millionaire, but has life changed for Max Menzel?
Ten thousand, six hundred and five miles away from the Bahamas, two young children–aged five and three–started crying while watching television with their mother at home in Singapore.
They weren’t watching an unwonted episode of Paw Patrol or a particularly poignant edition of Bluey. They were watching their father, Max Menzel, lean back in his chair and shake his head with a look of disbelief, before standing to hug a man who had just beaten him heads up in dad’s favourite game.
“Obviously, they didn’t know what was going on,” Menzel says. “But they understood enough that they were actually crying when I lost the final hand. It was a bittersweet moment when my wife told me that. They realised I’d lost something, whereas leading up to that moment, I was always winning.”
Until then, Menzel, originally from Berlin, Germany, had successfully battled his way through a 1,014-player field to reach heads-up play versus Belarus’ Aliaksandr Shylko in the most special poker tournament of the year: the PokerStars Players Championship (PSPC).
Played in the Bahamas in early February 2023, the $25,000 buy-in tournament featured a smorgasbord of poker players ranging from the very best in the world to complete amateurs who’d never played a live poker tournament before, let alone one with such a steep entry fee.
Menzel, like 417 others, won his seat in the PSPC via a Platinum Pass: a free package from PokerStars that included the tournament buy-in plus hotel and expenses. But Menzel is no first-timer. He won his Pass by winning another poker tournament–the Road to PSPC Manila in September 2022.
And after five days of play, much of which was on the PokerStars live stream table, there he was, on screen, finishing in second place.
His kids knew enough to know he hadn’t won the tournament. But what they didn’t know is that despite finishing second, dad had just turned his free Platinum Pass into $2,859,990.
A PRETTY GOOD DEAL
It’s almost two weeks after the epic PSPC 2023 reached its dramatic conclusion (Menzel losing with the nut straight against Shylko’s full house in the first hand of heads-up play), and the 37-year-old admits he’s still digesting everything that happened in the Bahamas.
“I think I got back to normal life rather quickly,” he says on a Skype call from a hotel room in Bangkok, where he’s currently stationed for a work trip. “Life is normal with my wife and kids and I’ve kept the result quiet.”
Some people might consider leaving their jobs after such a monstrous score, but not Menzel. He loves his job as a manager for a German logistics company and has no plans to give it up despite his sudden windfall. “I told my boss right away that I’m very happy in what I’m doing,” he says. “I get a lot of flexibility and can combine a lot of my travels with poker.”
Had he chosen a different path in his early 20s, though, Menzel could very well have been a poker professional. He began playing while at university and made enough at the tables to fund his studies. But when he and his wife decided they wanted to start a family one day, he moved his focus towards a corporate career and for more than nine years the couple lived in China.
It was there that Menzel really began to excel, both at his day job and in the big live cash games hosted in Macau. “I was crushing the games rather consistently,” he says. “The games were soft there when I started ten years ago, it was new for them and there was a lot of money in the games.”
Sometimes the games were so good that Menzel found it increasingly difficult to tear himself away. With games running around the clock, it was harder for him to develop the discipline to only play one or two sessions a week, and he found himself drained.
So after the birth of his first child, he decided to switch to tournaments instead. Doing so meant he could play a series while away for work, and then spend all of his time with family when at home. “It’s a different vibe that I like a lot more these days,” he says.
A year ago, Menzel and his family moved from China to Singapore. Without the distraction of the Macau games, he was able to increase his tournament study (“I’ve always studied more than I play,” he says) and put his skills to use when on the road…to the PSPC.
Joined by a friend from Taiwan, he played the Road to PSPC Manila event in September 2022 and won it for $44,983 and a coveted Platinum Pass. “My friend and I swapped action in that tournament, which also included the Pass should one of us win,” he says. “He made a pretty good deal there, I think.”
That same friend was texting with Menzel during Day 1 and Day 2 of the PSPC. On the first day, Menzel finished 83rd in the chip counts with 680 players remaining. By the end of Day 2, he was second in chips with 255 remaining.
On Day 3, he messaged Menzel instructing him to text as soon as he bagged. His finger was hovering over a button that would book him a flight to the Bahamas.
Menzel bagged a middling stack, but that was enough for his friend to book the 32-hour journey from Taiwan to Nassau. “He arrived literally half an hour before the final table,” says Menzel. “He was confident enough to say that if you make Day 3, you’ll make Day 4 as well. Then he was there. It was quite cool.”
WHEN THE CAMERAS COME OUT
Menzel’s own journey from Singapore to Nassau a week earlier was anything but easy. His flights and transfers and baggage and hotel check-ins all went smoothly enough. But however uneventful the trip was, there was always going to be an inescapable haze of jetlag waiting for him when stepped foot in the Caribbean.
So that’s why Menzel began preparing for the trip, and the PSPC tournament, as soon as he won his Platinum Pass. “I mainly focused on getting physically fit.,” he says. “Not that I wasn’t before, but I specifically put a lot of effort into swimming every day, jogging, gym, and stuff like that. That was a great, great decision because I was able to compensate for the 13-hour time difference that I was facing throughout the entire week. If I hadn’t had the physical condition I was in, I would have been super tired.”
Unfortunately, his need for sleep upon arrival meant he was unable to attend the activities and meet-ups PokerStars had arranged for Platinum Pass winners. “It’s a shame because I know there were a lot of great guys and I would have liked to meet them,” he says. “But it was just more important for me to sleep in order to be prepared.”
It’s a good thing he did because Menzel faced the likes of Justin Bonomo, poker’s leading all-time money winner on Day 1. He wasn’t phased. On top of his fitness regime, Menzel had continued to study poker vigorously. He’d also been coaching several poker players for years, learning as he taught. “I got to play against the best in the world at the PSPC,” he says. “But the start was more or like any other tournament.”
For Menzel, the singular nature of the PSPC didn’t really hit home until the bubble rolled around. “All the cameras came out and I saw that people were really stalling,” he remembers. “It was big for them and then I realised, hey, it’s also big for me. It was really intense.”
Adding to the bubble intensity was the fact that Menzel was short-stacked with just 12 big blinds. He relied on his preparation to see him through. “It never really got to me that there were cameras around or big money at stake,” he says. “I didn’t do anything differently from how I would have three or four weeks before.”
He did enough to make the money. All the while, he had two friends cheering him on from the rail (“They saw nothing of the Bahamas,” he says, chuckling. “They’re the most loyal guys, it was amazing”) and countless friends, colleagues and family members sending him messages of support throughout.
On Days 2 and 4, Menzel played on the bright lights of the feature table. Each evening he’d return to his hotel room, run a bath, and watch the stream back to gain insights into how others were playing, and how he was playing too.
Each day, he received more and more messages of support. “I think that was the greatest part of this experience for me,” he says. “Seeing photos of people watching the stream on the TV with their entire families, that was amazing to see.”
He made the final table. The next day, he officially became a millionaire.
Ten days after winning $2.85 million
Ten days after winning $2.85 million, Menzel found the time to sit down and watch footage from the PSPC final table stream back. “It was a pretty wild final table and I think I partly contributed to that,” he says. “But it was certainly not my finest final table.”
There are a couple of moments that Menzel recalls where he had to bring himself back to earth. “I was enjoying myself on the feature table, it was super fun,” he says. “But in one hand I misclicked a raise from the small blind as I’d calculated the wrong big blind. That usually doesn’t happen to me.
“I had to catch myself and say, hey, concentrate more. Don’t take it too lightly. There might have been some excitement and nervousness too, but I was too relaxed at that moment.”
Overall, though, Menzel is pleased with how he played. He knows that playing on one of the biggest stages in poker will expose him to judgement and criticism, but that’s a burden he’s happy to take as it will help him in the next stage of his poker journey.
On the penultimate day of the tournament, Menzel spoke to us during a break. He told us that despite being one of the lesser-known Platinum Pass winners remaining in the field at the time, he considered himself to be one of the best unknown players on the circuit.
But any anonymity he once had among his fellow poker players is now surely shattered after such a significant score. The next time he sits down to play a tournament series while on a work trip, he might notice opponents play differently against him; some amping up their aggression, others shying away. “It’s on me to figure out who’s who,” he says. “The rest is just the cards and GTO study, that won’t change.
“My face is out there now, but I’m not necessarily different to how I was a month ago,” he continues. “I know what I know. I had the internal belief, before and always, that it will pay off one day. It has paid off for me rather quickly. I want to take every opportunity that comes with that. But it doesn’t make me a better player.”
THEY COULD FEEL IT
Menzel recently made a statement to his friends and family, when asked if he’s going to increase his poker play moving forward: I’ll neither play more nor less than I did before. That means seven or eight tournament series a year, continuing to combine poker with his work trips across Asia. “I think I’ve found my sweet spot,” he says.
But what will change is his coaching regime. He’s had a small roster of students for a few years now, but since the PSPC, he’s been inundated with requests. “It gets way beyond game mechanics and GTO in poker,” he says. “It’s more about how to have a healthy lifestyle.
“One of the reasons I love poker is that it helps you so much to reflect on yourself, your decision-making process, your discipline, your lifestyle, stuff like that. It all comes out in this game.”
In some ways, Menzel’s life post-PSPC is drastically different. For the most part, it’s exactly the same.
There are things he’ll always remember from his time in the Bahamas. The spirited resolve of his fellow Platinum Pass winners. The communities that formed and the friendships that were made. The sheer spectacle of the PSPC when he first entered the grand tournament room.
But most of all, what sticks with him is the way it brought the people in his life–his friends, his colleagues, his wife and two young children–together, despite being thousands of miles away from where he was playing a game with cards and chips.
“Even people who know nothing about poker were following me and getting super excited. They could feel it, they knew there was something very special and unique happening,” he says. “That’s what makes this Platinum Pass experience so unique.”