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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Aussie Gambler on Top of the World

18 July 2005

About 7 a.m. Saturday, when many Southern Nevadans were just beginning to awaken, Joseph Hachem had completed nearly 14 hours at the final table of the 36th annual World Series of Poker.

He picked up a friend's wireless phone to call his wife back home in Melbourne, Australia, with news that his paycheck for his efforts would be $7.5 million.

Hachem also wanted to describe the gold and diamond encrusted championship bracelet he would be bringing with him, but the phone connection went dead.

"She kind of just screamed, and then all I heard was a buzz," said Hachem, 39, who was born in Lebanon but moved to Australia in 1972 and became a naturalized Australian citizen. "I think she fainted, but I hope not."

Hachem, a former chiropractor who gave up the practice three years ago to concentrate on professional poker, outlasted eight other players at the final table and a record field of 5,619 competitors to capture the $10,000 buy-in no-limit, Texas hold 'em World Championship.

Playing in his first-ever World Series of Poker, Hachem became the third straight relatively unknown poker player to win the game's most coveted title. Unlike the previous two champions, Chris Moneymaker in 2003 and Greg Raymer in 2004, who earned spots in the event by winning tournaments on the Internet, Hachem paid the $10,000 entry fee in cash.

"I bought in the old-fashioned way," Hachem said, wrapped in the Australian flag and surrounded by $7.5 million in $100 bills bundled into $10,000 stacks and more than $56 million in World Series of Poker tournament chips.

The first-place prize was the largest-ever awarded to the World Series of Poker champion, topping Raymer's $5 million payday last year.

"One million dollars is a life-changing figure," Hachem said. "But $7.5 million, that's hard to comprehend."

For much of Friday evening and Saturday morning, Hachem had the lowest chip counts of final table competitors and seemed on the brink of elimination.

At 1:30 a.m., he had less than $3 million in chips, trailing leader John "Tex" Barch by almost $18 million. Hachem slowly built up his stack of chips and, by 5 a.m., had taken over as chip leader.

"I just played with what I had and pulled back when I needed to," Hachem said. "It was a very competitive table."

Hachem was boosted by a small collection of friends and family members from Australia who offered strong vocal support. Many times, shouts of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie," reverberated throughout the second floor Benny's Bullpen at Binion's, where the final table was played.

ESPN filmed all 14 hours of final table play and will air one- and two-hour segments later this year.

Harrah's Entertainment bought the World Series of Poker last year and moved the tournament from downtown to the Rio, where play began in early June with 45 events attracting more than 30,000 participants. The tournament drew a record prize pool of more than $103 million.

At the request of Mayor Oscar Goodman and to help Las Vegas celebrate its centennial, the final two days of the world championship event were held at Binion's, birthplace of the World Series of Poker and home to the event for 35 years. Goodman did not make an appearance during the final day, however, nor were he and the city's 100th birthday ever mentioned by tournament officials.

Play at the final table started just before 5 p.m. Friday. It ended at 6:45 a.m. Saturday, when Hachem flopped a seven-high straight to beat two pair, aces and fours, held by Steven Dannenmann, a 38-year-old certified public accountant from Severn, Md., who also was participating in his first World Series of Poker.

Dannenmann, who split the $10,000 entry fee with a sponsor, won $4.25 million as runner-up.

The 13 hours and 56 minutes for the final table eclipsed the previous record of 13 hours and 38 minutes from the 1983 World Series final table won by Tom McEvoy.

The competition Friday night and Saturday morning was marked by slow and mostly conservative play by the participants. But when large pots were contested, there was sharp volatility in chip counts that led to numerous leadership changes.

By the 9 p.m. dinner break Friday, only two players had busted out. By 10:30 p.m., the field was cut to five. However, it wasn't until 2 a.m. that another player was eliminated.

During those 3 1/2 hours, chip counts fluctuated wildly, with each of the final five players taking the chip count lead at different times.

Andrew Black, a 39-year-old charity worker from Ireland, who had $20 million in chips by 11 p.m., saw his stack dwindle when he lost several hands, including a pot totaling $19 million to Dannenmann at 1 a.m. An hour later, Dannenmann caught a pair of kings on the turn and knocked out Black in a pot worth almost $16 million.

About a half-hour before Black was eliminated, Aaron Kanter, a 27-year-old mortgage loan officer and Internet poker player, lost a $21.2 million pot to John "Tex" Barch when his pair of kings lost to Barch's two pair, kings and sevens. Kanter had been the chip leader going into the final table and had seen his total increase to more than $20 million.

"That was probably my biggest mistake of the night," said Kanter, who had a vocal contingent of friends and family members wearing "Team Kanter" T-shirts purchased by his fiancee.

Kanter was eliminated at 4:50 a.m. and was followed an hour later by Barch, who lost his sizable chip lead throughout the morning. The North Texas bar owner was knocked out when he lost a three-way pot to Hachem and Dannenmann.

That led to the eventual winner and runner-up playing about 15 minutes of heads-up poker.

"Joseph and I had a lot fun throughout the evening," Dannenmann said. "We chatted a lot. Everyone at the final table got along well."

Benny's Bullpen had room for only about 300 invited guests, friends and family of the competitors and media, who sat in bleacher seats set up around the final table. Rows of chairs were placed behind the bleachers, and big screen television monitors were set up throughout the room and the hotel.

Poker fans without World Series of Poker credentials lined up outside the arena to await any available seating, waiting sometimes up to three hours. By 4 a.m., however, the lines had vanished.

By daybreak, the arena took on the appearance of college fraternity house after a raucous party, with empty beer bottles and soda containers strewn across the room.

Downstairs, during the evening and morning, players filled tables in Binion's large poker room. Starbucks, inside the Golden Nugget across Fremont Street from Binion's, did a booming business with large lines of poker fans looking for a caffeine jolt to help them stay awake for nearly 14 hours of poker.

39-year-old wins $7.5 million with straight after 14 hours of poker

Aussie Gambler on Top of the World is republished from