Knowing when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em and when to walk away may be catchy lyrics popularised by Kenny Rogers, but they’re also key tenets that a poker player must abide by if they want to be truly successful. Joe Hachem is a professional poker player from Australia with career earnings exceeding $12.2 million dollars – 10th on the all-time money list for live tournament poker. Joe’s big break came at the 2005 World Series of Poker where he bested 5,618 other players to claim a $7.5 million prize and the much coveted WSOP bracelet.
More than just a poker player, Joe has translated this poker expertise into business with a variety of ventures across film and hospitality. I had the chance to chat to Joe about about the rigours of live tournaments, reading opponents and strategy, and the parallels between poker and the business world ahead of his June visit for the World Poker Tour at SKYCITY in Auckland.
Where did your passion for poker begin?
Poker was played in our home from the early stages. Our family and relatives used to play religiously. We grew up with card games. They played poker around Christmas and New Year’s and Easter time. It would be a big thing on New Years to play a poker game to see what your fortunes are going to be like for the New Year – that type of thing. I think I had my first poker game at the age of 13. All the cousins came around and we played a 20
cent game of poker.
You were actually a chiropractor to begin with but then things changed and you began to pursue poker. What was it like during the early days of your poker career?
I was a chiropractor for 13 years and then I developed a condition in my hands. I was playing poker at the same time. Because I couldn’t practice I spent a lot more time playing poker, online poker and was pretty much winning all the time! It was more of a natural instinct that I had for the game more than anything else. In my first five years the biggest frustration was that in tournament poker, I was at the final table at every event in Australia and my best finish was a fourth or a third place. I just couldn’t get that win in any real event in Australia. When I went to the States and played in the World Series it was the right time and everything just turned my way.
Were there any moments in the early days where you thought about returning back and sticking to the mould of a 9-5 life? You effectively pretty much just went “all in” on poker. Did that little voice in the back of your mind creep up?
In 100% honesty, no. I just took off and didn’t look back. I was fortunate too. You have got to understand, I had my good run at the height of poker. I capitalised to the maximum on it. I ran well, I played well and my timing of when I did this was perfection. That is good fortune, not a skillset. I was at the right place at the right time doing the right things.
I saw that in the lead up to the ‘05 win at the World Series of Poker there were 5,618 players all coming there for the $7.5 million (USD) prize. With something that big, what’s your mentality?
You’re playing one hand at a time, one table at a time, one opponent at a time. If you lift your head up to see what is going around, it is very overwhelming. What you’ve got to remember is that you can’t control what is going on around you, all you can control is what is happening at your table. It was a big struggle to actually get my head around that and just focus on my table, my players, my chip stack and my game.
Maintaining focus must be difficult. Obviously fatigue must set in if you’re sitting there for hours and hours trying to be in the zone. How do you stay focused?
Practice makes perfect, I guess. You can help yourself by making sure you get a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation is probably the biggest killer in long tournaments because you are playing for 12 hours a day. Back then we played 14 hours a day. You are totally wound up. By the time you get home and go to sleep it’s another two hours. Then you can’t sleep for another 2-3 hours. You have 4-5 hours’ sleep and you are back at it again. Sleep deprivation is the biggest killer and people just lose their mind. I make sure that during big tournaments I sleep really well or try to anyway. Also, food. A lot of people don’t understand how much food can affect your concentration levels. When you are on dinner break, going out and having a nice big steak and a bottle of red is not the thing to do. Have a piece of chicken, some salad and a glass of sparkling water, or maybe one glass of wine to mellow you a little bit. You can’t come back to the table all lethargic and dozy eyed, it is just not good for the game. Then there’s staying physically fit leading up to the event – being in good condition, being in good physical health helps your stamina immensely.
Do you try and keep your fitness up as best as possible? What’s your training regime and how does that work into being a pro poker player?
For me it is a lifestyle. I don’t just do it for the sake of doing it. I train in the gym regularly – 3-4 times a week. I eat really well on a regular basis, it’s just who I am. I am not dieting or whatever, I always look for new things to improve my health. Because it’s not a chore, and part of my lifestyle, it’s easy for me to follow. For the last 9 months, I’ve been intermittently fasting, doing the 16/8. It has actually changed the game for me totally. Intermittent fasting and all the research behind it and the results of it – you speak about concentration, you speak about endurance and energy levels, it has been amazing. I love it!
I remember watching you on Poker After Dark and you get to see the banter and all the legends there – Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, for example. Are there moments when you see these other names and you sort of get taken aback?
My first trip to Vegas, I definitely was star struck in a couple of spots when I saw players that I’d read about and I’d watched on television. But I guess after that they just became opponents. Especially when I was able to compete against them at that level. They just become opponents.
Who gives you the most grief? There’s all these different players, but is there one guy at the table where you think to yourself, “I know I’m in for a big night”?
Antonio Esfandiari and I have had some epic battles at the table. Whenever we’re together and because we are such good friends as well, we’re constantly going after each other. I just buckle up and I go, “OK, Antonio is coming after me no matter what happens, so I need to just focus and make sure I get the better of him”. One time we were in Belize. We were playing in a cash game. Antonio and I basically argued for 20 minutes in front of everybody over seat position.
For 20 minutes. He wanted to change seats so he could get to my left, so I moved seats to get to his left. We were playing musical chairs and arguing for 20 minutes. Basically I was saying I’m going to quit the game and I’d already busted him once in that game. He was furious. It made very good comical viewing for those around and we laughed about it at the end. In the moment though, I was dead serious. I was not going to let him get the advantage. He desperately wanted to try and get back at me. It was a fun night.
When you get to play with your friends, you begin to pick up their game and learn their nuances. How do you handle playing with somebody you know versus a dark horse or an unknown?
I’d rather play with someone that I know every day of the week. I don’t care how good they are. If I know them – like you said, I know their tendencies, I know their nuances, I know what they are capable of doing and what they’re not capable of doing. Here’s an example – someone like Doyle Brunson or Phil Hellmuth, they have a tendency to underplay their big hands. I’m always more concerned when they call rather than when they raise. My alarm bells go off. Even Johnny Chan, all those old-time guys, they have a tendency and they can’t change it because it is in their DNA of trying to trap people with big hands. I am comfortable to put pressure on them. When they’re raising, I’m happy to re-raise more often than not. Generally, they’re raising with mediocre hands. Their big hands they like to protect and keep them really hidden so they can trap you and bust you. Those sort of things are a big advantage to me. I don’t like playing against randoms who I don’t know or what the hell they’re capable of doing. They’re playing against me and they know who I am, so they’ve seen me on television and they’ve seen me do this or whatever and they’re trying to do all this crazy stuff. I’ve got to sit there and hope I miss a landmine.
Are there new trends coming up in modern poker? You were talking about how Doyle Brunson and Phil Hellmuth and how they like to underplay. Is there a new school philosophy that is setting the tone at the moment?
The game has evolved so much. I will not exaggerate this. Let’s say in 2005 there was a certain bar for the level of play. That bar has been raised by 100 times now. The strength of competition, the level of play, the depth of thought into the game is through the roof. To be a winning player these days you have to be really, really good. You have to really understand every aspect of the game, and not just Hold ‘Em, but you need to understand all the other games as well to be a good player. The game has evolved a lot.
Is there a newcomer that you look at and go “that guy could be really, really big in the future”?
That’s hard to answer because a lot of the young talent that is up-and-coming, we don’t hear about them until they actually do “up and come”. They’re sitting in the background just grinding away in the smaller cash games. Then they will get a break, a breakthrough tournament and that sets them off. Because I’m not playing and I’m not privy to the smaller stuff, it’s hard to keep track of what’s actually happening.
When it comes to bringing poker to the mainstream, television coverage and online poker really helped popularise the game. I know Australia has banned online poker, but what’s your take on online poker?
I think the government are idiots for banning online poker. If you watch a sports channel, it seems that every five minutes there is an ad for sports betting and horse racing where the punters have zero chance in winning. At least in online poker you are playing against other people, you are not playing against the house. In poker, you are playing against people, all the house is doing is setting up the game and taking a commission from the game. The big players in the game, like Pokerstars, 888 and Party Poker, those guys did not step up and do the right things to protect their players and allowed all these other players to use software programmes that could basically analyse everybody’s play for them and tell them exactly how to play against them. I think that is just bullshit. Poker is about you doing the work, it is not about a programme doing the work for you. If I was talking to someone who wants to play socially online, I would say don’t waste your time, just go and burn your money. Go burn it up. The guys who are playing there are all playing 10-20 tables at a time, they’ve got their software programmes going and you just can’t beat them. You are not playing poker against people anymore, you are playing poker against robots. I think it is a damn shame that these guys were allowed to do this because it ruined online poker. That is why live poker had such a resurrection because all you’ve got live is yourself – your wits, your brain, your intuition and nothing else. It is an even playing field. The other side of the argument is they say, everybody else can get the programme as well. Well, not everyone else wants to spend ten hours a day doing these things, they just want to play socially and have fun.
For a young poker player that is looking at potentially turning pro in the future, what are the best steps then? If online poker is not a good avenue, just keep entering tournaments?
Here is where the problem lies. The current environment is really tough if you are thinking about becoming a pro player. You need volume for tournament poker to realise your edge. You physically can’t play enough tournaments live to realise your edge. You are hoping for that lucky score and unless you’re a good cash game player that can grind out cash on the side, it makes life really difficult. Bankroll management is always a big issue. You have got to have a crack at the higher stakes, but at the same time you don’t want to destroy your bankroll too much. It’s balancing bankroll management, volume, managing your down swings. Tournament poker is a very streaky game – you can be going hot and make every final table and win six tournaments in a row and then maybe you don’t get a sniff of any major cash for 12 months. It happens.
When you’re not at the poker table what do you get up to?
From a leisure perspective, I am at the gym or I’m playing golf. I’ve really started to enjoy my golf and I’m trying to get better now. Then I have several businesses. My family take up a lot of my time, I’ve got four grown up kids that I am still mentoring through their adult phase of life. One of them is married, one of them is about to get engaged. I’ve got three restaurants, I’ve got interests in building and movie production. I’ve also got interests in a burger chain that we’re taking to China. I have got enough on my plate to keep me busy.
Are there any sorts of principles that you learned from poker that are applicable to the business world?
That is a great question! The principles of poker relate to every aspect of life, both business and life in general. You talk about restaurants – not blowing your budget, making sure that you are cash positive, these are big principles when it comes to managing restaurants. A lot of people go, “Oh, I’ve got $200,000, I’ll spend $200,000 on a restaurant and see how we go”. That is nonsense. A $200,000 restaurant needs $300,000 to start because you need to have fall back, you are not going to make money for the first 12 months. The same applies in poker, playing in a $100 tournament means you need to have $5,000 in the bank so you can play several tournaments and not get hurt.
In the business world there’s all sorts of different players that you come across as well. Different characters. One of the big things in poker is you have to read people, and you should have a good enough read of players around you. Do you feel like you have had to read people in the business sense?
I do that intuitively. In my life, I spend half the time reading the people around me. It is something I guess I’ve developed from poker. Be it business, pleasure or socially, I like to just listen and read who people are. I’ll happily just sit there and listen to people talk about themselves and ask questions about them and their idea of who they are, rather than me talking about myself and things like that. It just comes naturally to me. I am always processing information to see how it can be useful to me, rather than me giving out information.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about poker and poker players?
The one thing that frigging irritates me the most is people getting confused with pokies, the slot machines. I can’t tell you the number of people that come up to me and say, “Yeah, I won a jackpot at the pokies as well”, and I‘m going – “what are you talking about”? I think to some extent the big government bodies don’t know the difference between pokies and poker, and that’s why they make these stupid decisions. Whoever started calling slot machines “pokies” – I wish I could go back in time and just convince them not to!
I understand that your son, Anthony is into poker as well and he will be coming around for the World Poker Tour?
Yeah, he joined in. He’s got quite the resume, he has won a couple of titles in Australia just recently. He manages one of the restaurants and that’s his full time job. He plays socially. This is a trip that I thought we could take together and get some time away from work and give it a crack.
What’s it like having a relationship like that with your son, bringing him through a hobby that you have loved and enjoyed from when you were a child?
My family is my life. My kids are my best friends and I don’t say that lightly. I am a very content human being, I don’t need much to make me happy. I am very fortunate I’ve got such a good relationship. I’m constantly being told by them that I’m their best friend. Having a road trip with my son – I mean, what more could I ask for? He is 27 this year, at 27 he still feels comfortable to come up and put his head on my shoulders and give me a hug and ask my advice. To me that makes me the richest man in the world. I am very fortunate.
Where do you see yourself or where would you like to be in five years’ time?
In five years’ time, well I see a few options – a movie producer, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, or the CEO of a huge burger franchise in China.
Three really big goals man, that is awesome.
They are all on the table. They are all there depending on which direction I decide to go in. There are pros and cons to all three. I mean they could all happen to be honest. I am the sort of person that rather than setting a beeline for exactly where I want to go, I just head in the general direction and let nature kind of veer me off in one direction or another. If this feels right I’ll go this way or if this feels right I’ll go that way.
That is a great philosophy.
Things happen. I am a control freak by nature but with my life I am old enough now and wise enough to understand that I can only control what I can control, the rest of it is out of my hands and I’ve got to just go with the flow.