Life-changing money was awarded at this year’s Aussie Millions. The annual poker series Down Under ended with 732 entrants showing up for the Main Event. In the end, a former #1 ranked player on PocketFives, Ari Engel, took it down for USD $1.1 million. He joins the ranks of former Aussie Millions Main Event winners like Tyron Krost, Alexander Kostritsyn, Gus Hansen, Tony Bloom, and Ami Barer.
Engel beat World Poker Tour host Tony ‘Bond18’ Dunst heads-up in a battle of longtime, accomplished online poker players. Dunst took $700,000 back to the US for his runner-up performance.
“I’m not a partier,” Engel said a few hours after his groundbreaking win. “I went out to dinner with friends and had a couple of drinks. I had to rearrange my flight schedule too, but luckily because of my status, I could change my ticket without a penalty.”
Engel headed back to the US two days later than he had planned, but $1.1 million probably made any travel headaches well worth it.
Engel is no slouch in the live and online poker world, and success has been a staple of his career. However, playing in the Aussie Millions Main Event was a whole new animal. “The amount of money on the line made this experience totally different,” Engel explained. “My biggest score before this was $190,000, so these were much bigger stakes and it was intimidating playing for that much money. I’ve never played for that much before.”
Despite jockeying for a seven-figure first place prize, Engel stayed composed, treating the tournament like any other, for the most part. “I’ve played millions of hands and tons of final tables, so you try to approach it like poker. But, there’s no getting around that the stakes are too big for my bankroll. I wasn’t at all comfortable with the stakes, but that’s what happens.”
Engel approached the tournament one step at a time, eventually treating the final table like a seven-handed sit and go, albeit with a monstrous first place prize.
No deal was made in the 2016 Aussie Millions Main Event. Instead, according to Engel, Dunst’s “investor wasn’t interested in a chop.” The former explained that he was practically begging to chop because the end game of the Main Event was “out of my comfort zone. Results-wise, it worked out, but I certainly would have wanted to split it.”
Heads-up play lasted almost four hours and both players held the chip lead on several occasions. Engel entered the final table with over one-third of the chips in play. Engel eliminated four players at the final table, ending with Dunst.
Engel first recorded a live tournament score ten years ago in 2006, according to the Hendon Mob, and Dunst recorded his first one year before that. Both are longstanding members of both the live and online poker communities, making their encounter heads-up in Melbourne event entertaining for the entire industry.
“Playing against Tony heads-up was pretty amazing,” Engel admitted. “We have both been playing poker for years and years. We’re friendly whenever we see each other. It was very interesting playing against a longtime poker pro and someone who had some of the best poker minds in the world on his rail and watching the stream. I also had a team working with me, but he had the best players in the world on his side. He is a very accomplished player himself and hangs out with these great players all the time.”
Engel lived in Melbourne from age three to age 11 and still has plenty of friends in the Australian city, many of whom came out to see him battle against Dunst and company in the final stages of the Aussie Millions Main Event.
“There’s no place in the world I would have had a bigger rail,” Engel admitted. “I had tons of friends there. A lot of them were into poker and a lot of them, not-so-much, but they came out anyway. I had family come see me. It was a really cool experience to have all of that support, especially given that the stakes were intimidating and my opponent was intimidating.”
Engel said that Melbourne was the first place he can remember living, way back at age three. “I grew up liking Australian sports and had an Australian accent and went to school here,” he recalled. “It was a great place to be and I’d strongly consider living here. When I first got into poker, my parents moved to New Zealand, so there was a time when I was going to New Zealand a couple of times a year and visited Australia too. I went to the Aussie Millions in 2008 and 2009.”
Engel is well-known for his seven World Series of Poker Circuit rings, tied for second most all-time behind Alex Masek’s nine. In 2014, the Aussie Millions champ won the Punta Cana Poker Classic Main Event for $177,000 and, one month later, took fifth in the Eureka High Roller for another $119,000. His first six-figure live cash was in 2008 in a $2,150 Borgata Deep Stack event in Atlantic City.
Online, Engel was the third #1 player ever in the PocketFives Rankings, ascending the throne in September 2006 and holding it for five weeks. Two years ago, he won a PokerStars Spring Championship of Online Poker $109 No Limit Hold’em event for $187,000 after a four-way deal.
Engel has had plenty of wins and top-tier scores, yet is still trying to convince himself to move up in stakes and play higher. After he pays his backers, Engel said he’ll “potentially continue to move up in stakes, although I’ve basically been playing some of the highest stakes already. I’m not sure how many more high roller events I’d want to enter. As I get more confident and get a bigger bankroll, what’s considered good value and not-so-good value changes. There are some people in the world who have an edge in every tournament they play, but I’m not quite there yet.”
The Aussie Millions emanated from the Crown Casino in Melbourne, where it has resided since 1998, and consistently delivers a world-class experience to players.
“Crown is one of the nicest casinos I’ve been to,” Engel lauded. “I’ve spent a lot of time grinding in some places that aren’t very nice. Crown is in a nice part of the city and there are restaurants and things to do around it. The poker room is great. They have professional staff, which is what you’d expect from a major tournament. The casino and atmosphere are really nice.”
It also doesn’t hurt to get out of the path of a major winter storm. “The fact that it’s summer here and winter in the Northern Hemisphere means the traveling pros aren’t as bitter as they normally are, so there’s a good vibe,” Engel observed. “Australians are also really nice and have treated me well.”