Joe Hachem goes deep about how you can become a poker champion just like him: “I don’t care if you’re the best in the world, you constantly need to be tweaking your game”

Joe Hachem, the man from Melbourne, reveals how you can be just like him

1. Confidence

For a few seconds, Joe Hachem is mesmerised by the gale-force winds buffeting the palm trees outside the atmospheric Dragon Bar on Paradise Island, Bahamas – and he loses his train of thought. He finally turns to face me, placing a glass of single malt whiskey on the marble-topped bar with a satisfying clink. ‘Not a bad end to the year at all,’ he says. Unlike mother nature, it seems the 2005 World Champion is a master of the understatement.

At the time of our meeting in early January, Hachem’s place among poker’s elite could not be more secure. Following a stunning run at last year’s World Series, he finished 2006 by winning the prestigious WPT Five-Diamond Classic.

In the process, the Australian became only the fourth person in history (after Doyle Brunson, Carlos Mortensen and Scotty Nguyen) to win both the WSOP main event and a WPT title. The significance of this achievement is certainly not lost on him. ‘To take it down was so sweet,’ he says with a broad smile. ‘It was worth winning three bracelets. I always felt that after being on tour for a year and playing at that level constantly, I’d get to that point where I could say: “I was the best in the world”. Now I definitely feel that way.’

But Hachem’s path to the land of poker legend has by no means been as smooth as his easy-going and likeable persona. After taking down the main event, he suffered the appraisal easily handed out to modern WSOP champions: a good player, but not deserving of being spoken in the same breath as the likes of Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey or Allen Cunningham. He instinctively knew that only a victory – and a major one at that – could give him the accolade he was so desperately searching for. But with so many ambassadorial commitments taking up his time, the only chance left in 2006 was in the notoriously tough WPT Five-Diamond Classic.

Opportunity knocks

‘To me, the Five-Diamond wasn’t just a WPT [event], it had a $15,000 buy-in; it was at the Bellagio with a field of 600 – mainly pros. It was cream,’ Hachem says enthusiastically. For the first three days, he burrowed away before bursting into a charge on day four that took him from 915,000 in chips to over 2,345,000. Even a bad beat at the end of the day did not dent his confidence. ‘No one is taking this title from me,’ he said to his cousin at the time. Hachem’s victory was all the more remarkable considering the fact that two players had twice as many chips as him going into the final table. And, perhaps most dauntingly of all, one of those was Canadian hotshot Negreanu, a man who knew all about being in this situation having claimed the Five-Diamond Classic in 2004.

A further complication was the fact that this was a WPT event with a trademark crapshoot of a final table; it was a factor at the forefront of Hachem’s mind. ‘It wasn’t like the WSOP final table where you have two-hour levels and the blinds only go up by 20%. You had to change your game from what you would want to play – basically it goes from a long-winded tournament where you can be really patient to a short-handed sit&go.’

Nevertheless, despite the elements against him and Negreanu streaking away towards the $9 million-mark, Hachem never doubted that his prophecy would be fulfilled: ‘I knew I’d have to get terribly unlucky. I just wasn’t going to let anyone else win.’

2. Desire

It seems that WSOP main event and WPT wins are not enough for the man from Melbourne. In fact, Hachem is already breathlessly planning his next hit. ‘I so want to win the Aussie Millions,’ he says with a flourish. ‘Obviously, it’s my home country and home town. I would love to win the EPT final in Monte Carlo or an EPT title – then I would have won a major tournament in every continent. I would like to be playing more poker, but I’m not going to be this busy all the time. It’s part of my responsibility to make myself available for the poker community [at the present time].’

In the half-year period following his main event win, Hachem was so overwhelmed by his newly-acquired ambassadorial duties as the leading man of Team PokerStars, that he was lucky to get even one tournament under his belt. On his home turf – the Crown Casino in Melbourne – Hachem had been accustomed to playing and cashing in several tournaments a month. You would be forgiven for thinking a winning drought would be causing some stress. As a result, comparisons to how Chris Moneymaker’s career had gone were starting to rear their heads; it was only a cash in a WSOP circuit event, followed by a decent performance in the PCA 2006, that kept the wolves from the door. Even after that, did Hachem himself think he’d done enough to justify his World Champion tag? ‘No, definitely not,’ he says firmly.

‘I made the final table in that WSOP circuit event at Bally’s and had got unlucky (Kings against J-10), but it takes longer to prove yourself. At the end of the day, as long as I feel I’m happy with how I’m playing, I couldn’t give a shit what people say. But it doesn’t hurt to get acceptance.’

Of course, the real scrutiny was always going to centre on Hachem’s performance at the 2006 WSOP – 12 months after his breathtaking heads-up victory over American Steve Dannenmann. Whatever happened on his return to the Rio Casino Resort, no one could fault his ambition going into the Championships. ‘Winning the World Series will always be the highlight of my career – full stop. Nothing could beat that, but I was so desperate to get another bracelet.’

Romance in Rio

Remarkably, Hachem carved out a prime opportunity for himself as early as the fifth event: the $2,500 short-handed no-limit. From a field of 824 entries, he managed to get himself to a heads-up battle with Dutch Boyd. A large crowd gathered in the Amazon Room, convinced the World Champ could turn around his 2/1 deficit to the Californian pro. But a cruel hand in which Boyd sucked out on the river when his AÚ-5; was dominated by Hachem’s A…-Q: ended the dream with all the chips in the middle pre-flop. Despite the bittersweet ending, Hachem believes the result instantly garnered the respect he had been seeking, saying: ‘That was the critical point. I had been given the stamp [of approval]. I felt it in the room.’

After this performance, Hachem didn’t take his foot off the pedal for the rest of the Series; in fact, he went into overdrive, showing off his ‘do better’ mentality by going deep in the very next event, the $2,000 pot-limit hold’em, and finishing fourth in the $2,500 pot-limit – which was eventually won by Brit star John Gale. A cruel dose of luck followed in the main event itself, when his Aces were cracked by pocket Jacks, but Hachem’s 238th-place finish was credit to a man returning under the attention of the media microscope. He had proved his point, and he recalls fondly: ‘People were like, “look at this. He’s the reigning champion who has all the pressure on him. Everybody is watching his every move and he’s able to sift through all the bullshit and just play poker.”’

But don’t be fooled into thinking this was enough for Hachem. His desire to continue to hone his game pushed him on to WPT success. ‘I’m constantly evolving and improving,’ he adds. ‘Any player that tells you they aren’t isn’t going anywhere. I don’t care if you’re the best in the world, you constantly need to be tweaking your game.’

3. Focus

One of the highlights of Hachem’s play at the Five-Diamond Classic – and indeed most of the tournaments he participates in – was the fact that he loved to play on the flop and the later streets. In an age where getting into a coin flip is considered a favourable situation worthy of a ‘push’ and a two-outer gamble simply a by-product of aggressive play, it’s easy to forget that Hachem hails from the ‘small-ball’ school of poker; a theory of play expounded and practised by Negreanu. The Canadian is renowned for chipping away at other players’ stacks and takes a dim view of those who bring a sledgehammer to the table – rather than a chisel. But Negreanu’s praise of Hachem offers a refreshing perspective from one great pro to another. ‘He actually plays like a pro. He’s a real legit player,’ says Kid Poker with genuine warmth.

Above all, small-ball is about steering clear of scenarios that mean your tournament life hangs by a thread. Hachem first proved this ability on his way to winning the main event. For the entire week of play, he was only ever behind once – and even that wasn’t until the final table. But arguably, the more impressive demonstration of Hachem’s survival instincts was on the final table bubble of the Five-Diamond Classic.

Edging forward in his seat, the Australian moves in closer – it’s immediately obvious how eager he is to tell this story. ‘We were seven-handed and I’m in seat one,’ he says in a low hush, almost as if he’s got some secret information that no one else can hear. ‘It’s one to go till the final table. Mads Andersen had been short-stacked, $300k. He was moving all-in and then finally gets called and doubles up, gets called again and doubles up. Now he’s got $1.6 million. It’s a healthy stack compared to the blinds and he raises up to $175k.

‘It gets to me on the button. I’ve got a pair of Queens and re-raise. He’s raised under the gun every time. I re-raise to $475k. It gets back to him and he double-checks his cards, counts his chips and moves all-in. What Mads doesn’t realise is that I know him well enough to know that he had me crushed. I know that Mads is not going to make a play with A-J, pocket Jacks or a pair of Kings in that position. He knows my game and I know his game.

‘I show my Queens and fold. At the very best he had A-K – at the very, very, very best. I’m left with $2.3 million, that’s still plenty. I can’t win the tournament when it’s seven-handed. If there’s more than a 50% chance, I’m beat; I’m out of the hand, end of story. It was a tough decision, but once I was confident that I was beat, it was easy to fold.’

Stop the chat

Usually in these situations, the yarn would end here and Hachem would never really know for sure if he did make a miracle lay down; only Andersen would know the truth. But it didn’t take long for the truth to come out. ‘The Danish online forums went crazy,’ recalls Hachem. “How can Joe fold that hand? That was a very bad play.” There was a big uproar. Then a Danish reporter did an interview with Mads and he tells him that he had Aces.’

Hachem can’t resist ribbing the chat-merchants on the forums. ‘Now the whole language changes,’ he says. ‘Joe’s a genius, blah, blah blah.’ But who can blame him for sticking the proverbial finger up? How many players could make a decision like that on the final table bubble of one of the biggest tournaments in the world?

In Hachem’s view, the lay down was a combination of experience and discipline. ‘When you’re in the zone, laying down Queens isn’t that hard,’ he says with a throwaway shrug. ‘Your focus is right; you know what your priorities are. Kings would have been harder, but I’ve done [that] before. We’re not talking cash games; we’re talking tournaments. If you don’t survive, you haven’t got a shot at winning.’

4. Inner calm

What do Patrik Antonius, Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey have in common? They are all, of course, highly respected players who have proved themselves to be masters of all aspects of poker – excelling in both cash games and tournaments. But, above all, these players have earned the respect of their peers by playing and winning in the Big Game. And yet, despite the lofty reputation that sitting in Bobby’s Room undoubtedly confers on successful inductees, Hachem is adamant that pulling up a seat is not something he’s prepared to do, just to satisfy the arbitrary idea that big means best.

‘If people are going to rank people who play in that game as the best players in the world, then good luck to them,’ he says, taking off his shades for the first time. There’s a hint of flippancy in his tone, but he’s deadly serious. ‘I think the best players are the guys who play $10/$20 no-limit hold’em. They grind out their money week-in, week-out.’

The Aussie’s lack of ego is further demonstrated when you discover that he turned down the opportunity to be part of the Professional Poker League (PPL), a 64-player invitation-only competition set up by Hall of Famer Chip Reese. Many of the top pros lobbied furiously to be a part of Reese’s plan, but Hachem wasn’t one of them. ‘I turned it down because I’m still living in Australia. It would mean I would have to be in the States every other week. I couldn’t justify leaving my family. I always put family first.’

Happy home life

Hachem’s devotion to his family should not come as a surprise. He does, after all, see it as the primary reason behind everything he’s accomplished in poker. ‘Here’s the secret to my success,’ he says with another whisper. ‘I was happy in my life before I won the World Series. We [my family] were doing everything that we are doing today. We had the house, we had the cars.’

It’s hard to argue with his reasoning considering what he’s achieved. He’s only the second person in history to top the $10m-mark for tournaments (the other is Jamie Gold); he has a rock-solid sponsorship deal with PokerStars; he receives adulation from an ever-growing army of fans and has the respect of his peers. But does he think the internet whizz kids who are making millions will just drop the mouse and their nocturnal lifestyles? Is there even a good reason for them to do so?

‘I had a kid walk up to me the other day and say: “Mr Hachem, can I have a word? I’m studying to be a chiropractor and I’m in a bit of a dilemma at the moment because I play poker and do well. My buddies are all dropping [out of school] to become pros and I’m not sure what to do.” I said: “Kid, it’s a no-brainer. Poker is always going to be there so finish your education.” These kids will look back in ten years and think, “what the heck have I done with my life? All I’ve done is play poker”. ‘If you can establish a life outside of poker, not only does it give you a good balance, but also, it helps you become a better player for the longterm and with a positive expectation. I think a lot of these guys who play 12, 14 hours a day are going to be burnt out. Allow poker to be a part of your life. Don’t let poker be your life.’

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