WSOP champion Joe Hachem explains how he became the biggest name in poker: “I was playing hundreds of thousands of hands, but I sucked so bad”

We find out how Australian Joe Hachem shot straight to the top of the WSOP money-list by winning the 2005 Main Event

In 2003 Chris Moneymaker changed the face of poker. By beating a field of thousands, with only a $30 online satellite buy-in, he made it clear that the game could be as profitable for total unknowns as it is for hardened pros. The next year, Greg Raymer continued the trend, and when Australian Joe Hachem won in 2005, raking in $7.5m, it seemed to complete a hat-trick. But to call Hachem an unknown would be doing him a disservice. He might not have been a big name outside Australia, but back at the Crown Casino in Melbourne he was well respected as a solid poker player. His big win didn’t come as a surprise to the locals, although he nearly didn’t make it to the WSOP in the first place…

‘One day,’ recounts the incredibly softly-spoken Joe Hachem, ‘I just said to my wife, “I really want to go to Vegas for the WSOP. I know I promised to take the whole family, but I’m not going to be able to do that. But I’d still really like to go – what do you think?”’ The look of resignation on Hachem’s face kind of gives away the end of this particular story. ‘She said, “I’m really happy for you, but you can’t go,” and I respected that.’ Thankfully for the Hachem family, that wasn’t the end of the story.

Born to do it

Hachem’s interest in poker was sparked as a small boy, watching his parents play at Christmas and New Year, but when he grew up he started playing more and more, and then started playing for what he calls ‘serious amounts’ about 10 years ago. And it was back in the early 90s that Joe discovered the game of Texas Hold’em.

‘I fell in love with it – it was definitely the game for me. I loved the fact that you could put pressure on your opponents, and I became a student of the game. I played whenever and wherever I could, but it was tough to find games in Australia.’

Only being able to find low-limit and limit games, and occasionally pot-limit tournaments, Joe picked up a copy of T.J. Cloutier’s book – Championship No-Limit and Pot- Limit Hold’em –and read it over and over. What he learnt from that book would form the basis of everything that was to follow.

Like a lot of players Hachem turned to the internet to find Hold’em action. ‘I played a huge amount online – I was playing hundreds of thousands of hands, but I sucked so bad! I remember getting very frustrated with myself.’ However, with practise and study Hachem developed his skills, eventually cashing in a couple of big tournaments, which started to build up his bankroll.

‘Primarily I was a cash game player, just because there wasn’t so much money in tournaments back then. Then, about four years ago, tournaments jumped up a notch so I started developing my tournament skills.’

Hachem had spent 13 years working as a chiropractor, but a condition developed in his hands four years ago forcing him to leave that behind. ‘My next career was clear to me – a professional poker player!’ exclaims Hachem, but his wife had other ideas.

‘She still wanted me to have a “day job”, so I got a job as a mortgage broker to keep her happy – but it was a facade. At that point I was playing socially but seriously. I kept records, logging profits and expenses.’

As the 2005 WSOP approached, a poker protege of Hachem’s won entry to the Main Event via an online satellite. A few of Joe’s friends decided to go along and support him, and the pressure was on Joe to get involved.

‘So this kid is the catalyst, and now I’m thinking, how am I gonna get my wife to agree to send me? She’s already said no; but two weeks after that we happened to be holidaying at the beach, and out of nowhere my wife just turns around and says to me, “Why don’t you go to Vegas with your friends?”’

Once Joe had picked himself up off the floor, he quickly went back to the hotel room and called his friends – telling them to start looking for hotels and flights. ‘I had to leave the holiday early before the rest of the family, and as soon as I got off the plane, I booked and paid for everything. I know what women are like – they don’t need an excuse to change their minds!’ And sure enough two days later Joe went to collect his wife… ‘Before she even said hello, she said, “We need to talk about Vegas.”’ A wide grin spreads over Joe’s face as he tells this story – clearly not for the first time, but still enjoying it. ‘I said, “Forget it! I’ve already booked!”’


Joe arrived in Las Vegas just in time to enter the $1,000 rebuy tournament and managed a final table finish against 900 runners, which boosted his confidence immensely. Hachem says, ‘Leading into that period I was playing the best poker of my life, with record profits online. My friends said I’d be crazy to come to Vegas playing the best poker of my life and not play in the Main Event.’

But with a field of over 5,000, did Joe seriously expect to cash? ‘If I didn’t have the confidence, I wouldn’t have put up $10,000. What really helped was playing that $1,000 event – it was the biggest live tournament I’d ever played in, and I still made the final table. So many people have gone before me and failed miserably; I thought, “This is great. If I could play with these guys for six months at this level, my game would be fantastic.” I went into the World Series not with high expectations, but feeling confident in my own play. On day one I walked in and saw 2,000 people. I thought to myself, “What have I just done – it’s gonna be so hard.” What helped me get through the initial stages, was that I slapped myself around a little bit and said, “Don’t worry about everyone else, play your table and that’s all you have to worry about.”’

Were there any key hands earlier that might have influenced the ultimate outcome? ‘As far as accumulating chips, there’s one hand that comes to mind. I had to make a really tough call at the end of day two or three. There was this very aggressive Scottish player, and his chip stack was going up and down radically, so I didn’t give him too much respect. It was late in the day and he raised my big blind so I decided to see the flop with A-9. The flop came A-6-3 with two spades, and immediately I thought, “I’m gonna check-raise him very quickly and make out I’m on a flush draw. I check, he goes all-in and I know I have him so I call. He shows A-7 to my A-9 and I didn’t even think he had an Ace! The A-9 won, but I would have been out if I’d been any more wrong about it.’

But, Hachem says, you can’t linger on such instances. If you survive a close call you can’t let yourself be distracted by the past. ‘I made a couple of mistakes – two that I’m aware of – both against small stacks. You live – you just move on.’

For the most part Hachem managed to avoid any big confrontations. ‘I tried to play small pot poker and tried to avoid risking my stake whenever possible. I was only all-in three or four times leading up to the final table, which is not a lot in six days. The most gut-wrenching moment was when I flopped the nut flush against Andy Black. It was down to the last three tables. I’d flopped the nut flush and we got all the money in and I felt sick. He’d got top set so I had no outs if the board paired.’

And Hachem’s confidence only grew as he moved towards the $7.5m first prize. When he moved to heads-up against Steve Dannenmann, he was convinced the bracelet was going to be his. ‘I was almost 100 percent that I was going to win. I had more chips than him and I was the better player. I thought to myself all you have to do is not get unlucky and the title’s yours. People don’t believe this but I wanted to win the bracelet so badly that I would have given him $3m to win the bracelet. How many people in their lifetime get to become a world champion? How many people do you know that are world champions? My children and my grandchildren can go to Vegas and see my picture and say, “That was my granddad. He was the world champion in 2005.” That’s worth everything to me.’

Amateur dramatics

In addition to ‘quite enjoying’ winning $7.5m, Hachem made the most of the entire event and found some new friends along the way. He also met some ‘interesting characters’. ‘Most of the guys were great,’ says Hachem. I met Englishmen, Scots, Americans, Irishmen… There was one Brit I’ve played with before online – he was a nice guy – but the pressure must have got to him. The guy was forever standing on a chair. He got a bit carried away. Whether he was trying to be dramatic for the cameras or it was the pressure of the World Series, I really don’t know. I do think some people get star struck and want the lights and cameras on them. My way of thinking is if I make it to the final table I don’t need to be ranting and raving, the cameras will be there. These guys think it’s cool to act up, but it’s not.’

And what about winning it again? ‘Well I’d like to think I could do it again, but obviously a lot of things have got to go right. What Greg [Raymer – 2004 World Champion] did last year was awesome – just incredible. To come 25th out of a field of 5,600… imagine the pressure on him. That will be me this year: interviews, autographs, photos, and people stopping me every five seconds. I worked out the odds as far as success goes. For a start 70 percent of people in the room don’t have a chance to win. So if you start with 8,000 people that leaves 2,400, and out of those only 50 percent will have a shot [because of the nature of cards] so I’m about 1,200/1. It’s such a big field; you’re losing lots and lots of players for the first four hours. You’ve got to remember how many people have qualified online – they’ve never played a big tournament, if ANY live tournaments, before. They walk in and see all these people. All they’ve got to do is take their time, but it ends up being a crapshoot. They end up going all-in with A-J when they’ve still got 10,000 chips.’

Regardless of how you use maths to thin the field, the WSOP has grown to include a huge number of entrants. Does Hachem think this should be capped? ‘Even last year I felt it was too hard. With 6,000 people playing it’s just too hard to survive, even though I ended up winning!’ Hachem favours a 25-table event where people can only qualify by winning other tournaments along the way. ‘That would be a true test, but then I guess it takes away the allure to the general public – the thought that anybody on a given day can run good. And the World Series has been branded so well for so long, nothing will ever beat it. It’s embedded in the public’s mind.

‘When the World Poker Tour first started in the US and people won the first few events, they became poker personalities. Today the personalities are established; it’s so hard to break through, regardless of what tournaments you win. Unless it’s the Big One.’

Pot shots

One of the perils of being one of the ‘personalities’ of the game is that people treat you differently, both on and off the table. ‘People are constantly trying to take a shot at you so they can beat the world champion, but at the same time they’re so scared. One guy [at London’s Gutshot] said, “I should have called you as I’ve got nothing to lose. If I get KO’d it’s to the champ.” One of the pitfalls of my position is that you’re constantly dodging landmines. A lot of these guys will base their decision on who you are, not on what the game dictates.’

But it’s not all bad. Now, he says, he changes gears a lot quicker. ‘I’ll go really loose, really tight, loose, tight, moderate, raise, fold everything for an hour, call everything for an hour. Actually it’s made my game so much better. You have to. You can’t get away with the same stuff anymore. We [world champions] get called more often than anyone else in poker.’

And there are other – more obvious – perks away from the table, although Hachem is a dedicated family man and immune to any attention from interested parties. ‘The most embarrassing moment for me was in the Bellagio last year. In the middle of the poker this bombshell comes up to me and says, “Mr Hachem, do you want company tonight? Are you sure you don’t want company tonight?” There’s 400 people in this cardroom. I politely declined.’

The reign is over

Now, with Joe’s reign coming to an end, he plans to play a few more events before passing on the crown and sceptre, but is mostly concerned with being able to look back and say he represented poker in a positive way. ‘Poker’s becoming a mainstream sport and you’ve got to care about being a good ambassador.’

And what does Hachem plan to do once his reign is over? ‘Play more poker of course!’ But he does have one more major ambition, one that’s about giving back to poker in Australia.

‘I want to build an Australian poker tour. It’s going to happen. We’re waiting on a couple of casinos to get back to us and decide if they want to get involved. Australian casinos are like British casinos with a lot of red tape bullshit, but Australia is so ripe for a poker tour.’

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Back to the present day and there’s still one question we have to ask. Now that Hachem has millions of dollars, does he ever look at a $10,000 tournament and think, what do I care? ‘Never! It’s strictly business every time I play – that’s the competitive streak in me. I love poker. I give it the best shot I can in every tournament. I try to achieve gold. I’ve always been a high achiever and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I always take it seriously – I want to perform. I hate busting out of tournaments. I’m such a bad loser. On the outside I’m cool, but inside the pain of losing is so bad. It’s a good thing I win a lot!’

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