Fresh-faced and angelic-looking, Dominik Panka certainly didn't look like a shark when he first hit the spotlight at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in January. Even though it became swiftly obvious that this was an experienced - and rather terrifying - player, Panka was still virtually unknown outside his native Poland. Expressionless behind a pair of dark sunglasses, he maintained extraordinary composure at the final table, even when heads-up against Mike McDonald, one of the most experienced players in the world. Panka's $1,423,096 victory at the PCA catapulted him straight to the top of Poland's all-time money list and straight on to the world poker stage.
Once back home in the tiny town of Brześć Kujawski, Panka was inundated by requests for interviews. Was this delicate-looking 22-year-old over-awed by this sudden fame? Not a bit of it. Panka may come over as the humblest guy you've ever met, but he actually loves the spotlight and is never happier than when he's in it. He said, "The two weeks after the PCA were a little bit hectic to be honest. I did a lot of media, TV interviews. It was big news in Poland. A lot of successful Polish players don't really like the spotlight but I do. I like to appear on TV, I enjoy it. And my win meant a lot of media were now paying more attention to poker."
All big events have their fair share of one-time heroes, and the story might well have ended there. Player does well, player vanishes. Many thought that's what would happen with Panka. Butm oh boy, how wrong they were. Less than a fortnight after the PCA, Panka travelled to Deauville in northern France having qualified, yet again, on PokerStars. He bust the Main on Day 1 (so far, so normal) but decided to stay on for the €10k High Roller. No one was expecting much, least of all Panka. He said, "I went to Deauville to give something back to the poker economy. You can't just take the money and run! But then I played my first high roller and won it. I was very fortunate though - good set-ups, everything worked my way. There are a lot of players who are very good and playing their tenth or 15th major event but still losing the crucial flip. I know how this life is."
Panka claims he was "fortunate" but he still bust two EPT champions, the 2014 Rookie of the Year and a former EPT Player of the Year on his way to beating Lebanese pro Albert Daher heads-up. The victory added another €272,000 to Panka's bankroll and also led to his being offered a sponsorship deal with PokerStars. He said: "My life was great even before the PCA. I'm easy-going and maybe that is why I am lucky. Maybe that's how run-good happens. I'm more financially stable now but my life is the same. Then I got sponsored ... PokerStars decided to take me under its wing. Really for me the best thing about sponsorship is that I get to know a lot of the media and the PokerStars staff. I'm also more recognisable now, so I can just chat to the Team Pros if they're on my table. "
Panka's astonishing run-good continued. At EPT Vienna, he made two more final table - the €2k Eureka High Roller and the £2k NL Deepstack, topping up the Panka coffers by another €33,000. And by now he was also a regular and highly regarded guest on EPTLive. He said, "I bricked Sanremo and Monte Carlo but then it was EPT100 in Barcelona where I had another fortunate run. I bust just short of the final table in 11th place. This was actually very disappointing. In the PCA I was nobody, but in Barcelona I was contantly on the TV table. And there were so many things happening that made me think I was going to make another final table. I cracked aces with AK suited to double up, and after the dinner break, there were 12 left and I was fourth. Really I was super fortunate - because of the AA v AK - but I still didn't make the final table. Timex said that that when he made the final table in Dortmund after wining the previous year, and then bust, it was the worst feeling in his life. That was me in Barcelona - I thought the story was going to repeat. OK, I was unhappy for ten minutes but that's a lot for me!"
Now, just two months away from PCA 2015, Panka is readying to defend his title. He said, "I know what going back to the PCA will be like. There will be a lot of media asking me how I feel - and then I'm going to bust! But it will be really good to be there."
Will his family be coming to rail this time? No - it seems wild horses wouldn't get Panka's mother out of her home town, but she is an avid viewer of EPTLive. He said, "She is my biggest fan - of course! - and she watches the live stream even when I'm on an outer table in case there is a bit of information about me. But I don't mind the spotlight. I would like to be on the TV table all the time to be honest! I like it."