It seems like anyone can win the $68-million US World Series of Poker.
Joe Cada. Ever heard of him? Jerry Yang? Probably not — yet each made a small fortune as 2009 and ’07 WSOP champs, respectively.
Then there is Jamie Gold, who won a world-record $12 million winner’s share in 2006. The guy has averaged less than $35,000 a year at tournaments since.
In other words you, me, the mailman, the paper boy, even grandma could win at no-limit hold ’em poker. It just requires a bit of practice and a ton of luck.
Or, maybe not.
You’ve likely never heard of Jonathan Duhamel, either a 22-year-old Canadian from Boucherville, Que., who dropped out of university, intent on travelling the world on his online poker earnings.
Two years later, Duhamel can afford a Maserati if he wants — having qualified for the “final table of nine” at this year’s WSOP main event. Duhamel, fellow Canuck Matt Jarvis of Vancouver, six Americans — including the nearly famous Michael (The Grinder) Mizrachi — and an Italian each are guaranteed $811,823, even if they don’t win another hand.
Duhamel, thanks to a crazy, lucky or astute poker victory against the more experienced and now eliminated Matt Affleck of the U.S., carries a staggering $65.98 million in chips into the Nov. 6 final. That’s $20 million more than his closest rival, Florida’s John Dolan.
Jarvis, 25, has $16.4 million in chips left, The Grinder, $14.45 million.
But those who know poker, believe Miami’s Mizrachi remains the favourite, having won $8.8 million at tournament tables by age 29.
Fact is, no Canadian has ever captured the WSOP’s main event. The guy with the most chips entering the final table has never won, either. Not this decade, at least.
But after spending 20 minutes with Duhamel on Wednesday, I do know this: He is intelligent and a multi-tasker who likely aced algebra, trigonometry and calculus in high school when he wasn’t playing basement poker with his pals.
Duhamel didn’t reach the November showdown in Las Vegas by accident. He devoured books — poker-math books, reading-your-opponent books, how-to-focus books. He plays 35 to 40 hours a week online, eight to 10 tables simultaneously.
He won’t say how much he has squeezed from his anonymous website opponents. “It’s a lot,” he allows.
So, coming up with the $10,000 required to buy a spot at PokerStars’ WSOP tournament wasn’t a problem. The challenge was outlasting 7,318 opponents, most of whom had no trouble plunking $10,000 on the table, either.
The WSOP’s main event started in early July — lasting about 12 days — until there were only nine players remaining. However, for marketing reasons, the final table is held three months later, followed two days later by a title-deciding clash between the two players with the most chips.
I wouldn’t bet against Duhamel playing in that head-to-head showdown for the $8.9 million grand prize, even if lots would — based on his lack of tournament experience and his unorthodox shakedown of Affleck.
On a board of 10-9-7-queen, Duhamel called Affleck’s all-in with pocket jacks. Affleck had two aces and the Canadian’s chances of seeing an eight were slight. But it fell, and Duhamel won with a queen-jack-10-9-8 straight.
“If I was 100% sure he had two aces, I would have folded,” Duhamel explained. “The thing is, I thought he was bluffing maybe 10 or 15% of the time (earlier in the tournament). Plus, if I lost the pot, I still had about $15 million left, so it’s not over for me.”
Affleck was not bluffing, but when the 8 turned up, it didn’t matter. It was all over for the guy.
“I know he was upset, but that’s normal in a tournament that big, when you’re that close to the final table. It happens.”
But not often. In fact, one poker expert told me that Duhamel exposed himself as wannabe when he bet $20 million on his pair of jacks.
But Duhamel, who keeps himself in peak physical condition playing hockey three or four times a week, is convinced his online experience and success will serve him well in November. Eight of the nine players, by the way, are under 30.
“Most of the players in the final nine play online — where you can play and see multiple tables at the same time,” he said. “An online player can see 500-600 hands an hour. In a casino, (where older players tend to play) you don’t see more than 25-30 hands in an hour.”
What you can’t see are your opponents’ faces, body language.
So, Duhamel has been going over TV action clips of his eight rivals as he preps for the world’s biggest poker game.
As for Mizrachi, Duhamel is aware of his legacy, but doesn’t seem overwhelmed by it.
“People will probably fear him more than the others, but everybody at the table is very good. Anyone you play against is going to be dangerous.”
Duhamel, his opponents would probably agree, is a hard player to read. He wears a hood over his head and is pretty expressionless.
“I don’t want to show any emotion — when I’m happy or not happy at all — so people have no read on you. So they can’t read your soul.”
The hoody is his security blanket.
“When I sit down and put my hoody on, it’s only poker that I’m thinking about,” he continued. “I don’t see anything else. Just the table, the chips and the player.”
Duhamel, whose poker idol is Toronto’s Daniel Negreanu, has been bombarded by interview requests since reaching the final nine. He recently hired an agent, Yves Bouchard, to work on sponsorship deals.
He’d consider it an honour to be the first Canadian to win a WSOP main event bracelet, as we’re sure Vancouver’s Jarvis would, as well.
“I played with Jarvis for two days,” Duhamel said. “He’s a very good player, a very aggressive player. But I don’t want to get involved with him (socially).
“He’s just a player. He could be my brother. But I still want to beat him.”
An $8.9-million, winner’s-share poker game.
Win it once, and who cares if the fame is momentary?
Remember 2008 WSOP champ Peter Eastgate, who pocketed $9.152 million for his win? Probably not. Last month, the Dane announced his retirement from poker at age 24.
“When I started playing poker for a living, my goal was to become financially independent,” Eastgate said.
He is now. But as any past champ will testify, winning is never as easy as it looks. Only the losing.