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Survival of the fittest

WSOP defending champion Joe Hachem is the man to beat this year, but few can unravel the enigmatic man from Down Under when it comes to the main event. A nurturing disposition belies a dogged interior. But in preparation for the 2006 WSOP, he opens up to the trappings, teachings and tight schedules of being a marked man. Take what clues you can get because he, along with Pokerstars brethren and former WSOP champions Greg Raymer and Chris Moneymaker, can make for some intimidating company.

There are a lot of images branded in our collective memory of Joe Hachem’s 2005 WSOP win: the Australian flag draped over his shoulders, his muscular build, amiable smile and a meticulously groomed soul patch. Yet the most challenging thing to wrap your head around—let alone Hachem’s arms—was the strewn bricks of banded $100 bills on the table that virtually obscured him. The 2005 WSOP $7.5 million jackpot was the biggest to date. But as the stage sets for this year’s tournament, Hachem along with previous WSOP winners and legions of obscure hopefuls are getting their game faces fine tuned for a crack at a possible $11.5 million jackpot—that’s $4 million more than last year and more than the 2001-2004 winnings combined.

So he’s hitting the road hard, playing as many lead-up events as possible. He just finished one with 400 runners in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, but only came 3rd—good, but not good enough for the defending champion. Not many people have done it, but for Hachem (pronounced Hash’em), defending his title is top priority (Johnny Chan did it in 1987 and 1988; Doyle Brunson in 1976 and 1977; and Johnny Moss in 1970 and 1971). So now it’s off to New Orleans, around Europe, back home and Los Angeles before culminating at the Rio in Las Vegas for the main WSOP event. It’s a gruelling schedule of high-profile appearances, backstage passes and VIP treatment.

The exposure has been surreal but for “Hach the Cash,” now 40, keeping focused and grounded are essential to maintain his edge, and the key to that strategy is his family: Jeanie, his wife, and his four children who get to travel with him as much as possible. Another personal priority is keeping fit. “I refuse to be unhealthy,” he says. “Especially with this lifestyle of always travelling, not eating the right things at the right time. So it’s a real challenge to control the right intake.” (The 6 a.m. steak sandwich this morning after a tournament was the exception to the usual fresh-fruit start to the day.) But when he’s at the poker rather than breakfast table, his winning strategy all boils down to a simple formula: tread cautiously and be patient. “A lot of people lack the experience to stay focused,” he said from his home. “I add one log of wood to the fire at a time and every time I deviate from that plan, I end up walking out the door.”

So don’t look for flashy, jaw-dropping all-ins from Hachem. He waits for his opportunity to build chips rather than just hammer, which has resulted in big, steady returns. “My father always said, ‘You can’t go broke making a profit,’” he says. “But you have to watch out to not overextend your capacity just because you have more chips on the table than everyone else. You can’t just walk into the game because you have money. You have to build your way up or you get eaten up every time.” Hachem sees it all the time: people with more money than sense, and people who just want some of the spotlight; the bragging rights to say they went head-to-head with the best. “They don’t care about losing overall,” he says. “They just want to be entertained and claim they beat me at one pot.”

Few people in professional poker can relate to the heights Hachem has reached. One that immediately comes to mind is the 2004 WSOP winner Greg Raymer. “There’s a strong camaraderie with me Greg and Chris,” Hachem says. “We look out for each other; we’re part of an elite group of people. But Greg and my style are similar, so we tend to stay out of each other’s way.” However, where Hachem and Raymer’s game overlap, there is a big difference in philosophy. There’s no adrenaline rush like what you get in poker, says Hachem: “It’s in a class by itself.” Raymer, on the other hand, avoids getting rushes in poker. “Getting a rush means you’re going to exhibit the physical signs of the adrenaline,” he says. “And that can give away a big tell to a good opponent.” But don’t expect Hachem to reveal any secrets. He’s hard-wired for the game and the competition, always processing information. And any weaknesses he picks up he does subconsciously and eventually punishes.

So when the 2006 WSOP gets underway at the Rio Hotel, Las Vegas, in July and August, appreciate Hachem’s subtle war of attrition at the tables. It will appear to be a low-key affair to the untrained eye, considering his playing style and relaxed demeanor. And as the poker world knows, given all those indelible images from last year, his strategy paid off. And who’s to say it won’t happen again?

By Carl Friedmann

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