Joe Hachem, The Poker King, talks exclusively to PokerPlayer about his road to glory: “I’d watched the movie Rounders, gave hold’em a shot, and I loved it straight away”

Joseph Hachem won the World Series of Poker in July, picking up the richest prize in poker history.

Poker players are supposed to be bolshy know-it-alls. In a game based on bluffing and balls, it’s not uncommon for successful players’ egos to be even larger than the colossal prize pots they take down. But Aussie Joe Hachem just doesn’t fit the stereotype. He’s the game’s newest royalty, having beaten off 5,618 rivals to win the World Series of Poker ‘Big One’ – poker’s greatest event – in Las Vegas in July.

If you’d just netted a cool $7.5 million and become the richest poker player in history, perhaps streaks of an over-inflated ego might be forgivable – even expected. Yet he’s a down-to-earth, remarkably straightforward champ, the kind of man who’s likelier to keep his feet on the ground than blow his fortunes in a matter of months. In fact, if you’re expecting the millionaire to fritter away his winnings on the cliched trappings of success, you’re reading the card king all wrong.

A closer look at his roots proves the man learnt the value of money from an early age. Emigrating to ‘The Lucky Country’ from Lebanon in 1972, Joe’s parents dreamt of a rosy future in Oz for their sons Joe, Tony and Elei. But they struggled on arrival, his father was taken ill, and Joe was just ten years-old when he had to take his first part-time job to help make ends meet. Life couldn’t have been further from the wealth and glamour that would be his after one pivotal week of poker around the other side of the world almost two decades later.

Hachem took to poker as a teenager, mostly playing the Manila variation for fun. Ten years back he was still just playing with mates for money. It wasn’t until five years ago, sick of playing with the ‘Manila boys’ (‘miserable old sods’), he raised the stakes and tried his luck at the tables of Melbourne’s Crown Casino, the biggest casino in the southern hemisphere, which draws gamblers from all around the world.

‘I’d watched the movie Rounders, gave hold’em a shot, and I loved it straight away,’ he tells us. So that’s how it started. Perhaps not quite as sudden a ride to the top as the two previous World Champs, zero-to-hero online qualifiers Raymer and Moneymaker, but still pretty sensational.

And family played a major part in it. In fact, were if not for Jeannie, his wife of 16 years, he may not have made it to Sin City at all. ‘She gave me a leave pass and I just about ran to the travel agent that day to book my ticket before she could change her mind,’ he recalls, noting that the family’s finances had been stretched at that time.

Riding the hobby-horse

Hachem was a decent player. He described poker as a ‘serious hobby’ before the WSOP win, but he wasn’t a champ. Indeed, he even endured a frustrating two-year period where he finished on the final table of every major hold’em tournament in Australia, online or land-based, but never recorded a single win. Which may explain why he was so set on taking a shot in poker’s ‘Big One’.

‘I believed that I could have a fair crack at it,’ he says. ‘Still though, when I realised that there were 5,600 runners, I don’t care who you are…there’s a little bit of doubt.’

Too right. But with true Aussie confidence and his poker mates, his brother Tony and cousin Billy in tow, Hachem flew to Vegas ‘on a mission to win it’. He got his hand in before the main event, busting out in tenth spot from 894 runners in the no-limit hold’em rebuy event beforehand. Having proved he could cut it among the big names, he felt ready to lock horns with legendary pros like Howard Lederer, David Pham and Barry Greenstein.

‘It was daunting to walk in on day one, but Jeannie (back home in Australia) was the constant voice in my head telling me: “You’re destined for this tournament; don’t give up.” She was my rock.’

Taking the competition hand by hand, hour by hour, and setting short-term goals for himself, Hachem finished day one with twice the chip average.

‘I was super confident now. So long as I didn’t do anything stupid, I felt sure I was going to make the money, and if things went my way, I thought I could go deep,’ he says.

Poker’s path to glory

‘For the whole seven days, when all the money went in, I was only ever behind once. It was on the final table with a Q-7 of diamonds. Now that’s unbelievable. My middle name is ‘Bad Beat Joe’ because I cop so many, usually in with the best hand!’

Every winner of a marathon tournament needs favourable breaks along the way, and clearly the gods of poker were smiling on Hachem. While he lost pots, he can’t recall getting a bad beat – although there was a make-or-break moment that kept his WSOP journey on course. ‘I had to make an all-in call on day three. If I was wrong, I was out of the tournament.’

It came against a tough Scottish player who raised his big blind from the button. Hachem, holding A-9, called. The flop came A, 7, 3 with two spades. His opponent bet, Hachem raised him quickly, the Scotsman thought for a moment and moved all-in. Seconds later Hachem called, turning over his A-9 to the ashen-faced Scot’s A-6.

Another memorable hand en route to victory came against Steve Dannemann, the eventual runner-up, as Hachem explains. ‘I raised with A-K diamonds under the gun, and he called. The chip stacks were pretty even. The flop came 10, 9, 3 with two diamonds. My A-K was a monster hand. I decided I was going to check-raise him and steal the pot. I wanted to bet, he called, I missed the turn and had to bet or check-turn again. So I checked and he bet 200,000. I made it a million… he went all-in.

‘It was the first time ever in the tournament – in my life – that I had time called on me. That’s how long it took. I decided the only hand I didn’t want him to have was a set, and I thought the chances were that was what he had. Eventually I folded my hand, and he turned over a pair of 9s. That was the biggest lay down.’

My mate, Mike Matusow

Hachem mixed it with the best of them and came up trumps. 2004 WSOP winner Greg Raymer was, according to Hachem, a real gentleman and a very good player, Phil Ivey was reserved, focused and ‘the real deal,’ and Hachem is now happy to call Mike Matusow a mate. Andrew Black, the Irishman who finished fifth in the main event, was, Hachem said, one of his toughest opponents. ‘He’s a madman, and completely unpredictable. I tried to trap him several times and failed. He was aggressive, and very hard to play.’

All this talk of his opponents raises the question: what enabled Hachem to keep winning hands while other contenders fell by the wayside? The poker king reveals that his biggest advantage was playing all or nothing – he was only interested in ultimate victory. ‘I knew others were playing to survive, to finish in the cash. I was playing to win. I was zoned,’ he explains. ‘The television table didn’t rattle me. I could have been playing a game in my garage, for all I knew!’

Eventually, after playing 13-14 hours a day for seven days, Hachem triumphed with what many would consider a dud hand. But his 7-3 made a straight when 4, 5, 6 came on the flop, and an Ace on the turn lured Dannenmann in. It sealed Hachem’s fortune, earning him the WSOP title and a place in poker history.

What you’d think would have followed was the mother of all parties. Only it didn’t. ‘We were all just spent. Bizarre, but after the two hours of interviews and photoshoots, we just went to sleep. I woke up a few hours later, walked into the bathroom, looked in the mirror and started bawling my eyes out. It was then I realised “Oh, my God, it’s real!” I asked myself: “What have I done?” ’

Old habits die hard, and when he returned to his modest (by millionaire standards) home in the northern Melbourne suburb of Preston after his historic victory, he flew economy class. But he knows life will never be the same again. ‘Poker in Australia is growing. These guys know that an Aussie has won the ‘Big One’ and I’m sure it has added to the hype,’ he says. ‘I’m the World Champion for 12 months, and I’d like to make the most of it, to see where it’s going to take me.’

His victory is already having an effect in Australia, where poker is still a relatively new phenomenon. A record-breaking 446 players recently competed at the Crown in Melbourne to win one of two satellite seats at next year’s WSOP – giving them a chance to catch a glimpse of their idol. Hachem launched the event at his old stomping ground, and was visibly chuffed at his reception.

Hachem would like to stay in Melbourne but understands that the real poker opportunities lie in America. He has time on his hands, too, having had to quit being a chiropractor three years ago due to a rare blood vessel disorder – another reason why he has poured so much of himself into poker. ‘I had my own practice for 13 years. I’d been having problems for a while and, eventually, the doctor was blunt. He said: “Sorry, go find another profession.” ’

Chiropractically forced to play

‘I was lost. Chiropractic was my passion. I had to pull myself out of the darkness because there were mouths to feed. The passion I had for chiropractic went into my game. I had always loved poker, and now I had a lot of time to play it. I read a lot and studied a lot,’ he said.

There have been other difficulties in his life – in 1987, his younger brother Elei was killed in a car accident. It says a lot for Hachem’s state of mind that he found the strength to handle such ordeals, and also explains why family is so important to him. ‘The glass was always half-full in our house, no matter what was going on. That’s where my strength comes from,’ he says.

As for the future, he plans to play a lot of international events – but he’ll be taking his wife and family with him. ‘I want my family by my side this time, I wouldn’t survive it alone.’ Typically, his priorities are his children’s education and helping other family members. He knows he’s a marked man at the poker table now – everybody will want to say they beat him – but it seems his balanced outlook leaves him well equipped to handle the pressure and fame.

Finishing outside the money in September’s Borgata WPT event, his first tournie since the WSOP victory, was a reminder – if he needed it – that even world champs don’t win all the time. Not that he’ll feel too down; the glass is very full in the Hachem household now.

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