31 May 2011
The Pride of Australia
He won the 2005 World Series of Poker, pocketed almost AUD $10 million and now mingles with the rich and famous. But five years after that victory, Joe Hachem is still the down-to-earth guy from Melbourne’s northern suburbs as Sarah Marinos discovered.
14 Aussie Millions Special Edition 2011
Joe Hachem has experienced more than a few of those “pinch-me” moments since winning the 2005 WSOP Main Event. As he stepped into the foyer of the luxurious Hotel Du Cap in the South of France he spotted Angelina Jolie chatting to Robert De Niro.
George Clooney and Brad Pitt were nearby. Joe had just spent the afternoon on a multi-million dollar yacht standing next to Pitt, Clooney, Matt Damon and the other Hollywood heavyweights who starred in Ocean’s Thirteen.
“A photo shoot was organised with me and the cast at the Cannes Film Festival,” Hachem said. “I was on a yacht dressed in a tuxedo and slippers because we weren’t allowed to wear shoes on the yacht. There’s Brad Pitt and George Clooney and Matt Damon with me – it was surreal.
“But I’m a poker player so I bluff. Nobody knew what I was feeling. Inside I was thinking ‘Joe, is this really happening?’ On the outside I looked like I did this sort of thing every day!” Back at their hotel, Damon and actor Don Cheadle suggested a game of poker. But Clooney and Pitt blanched.
“Matt and Don were solid guys but the rest of the cast were apparently intimidated. We wanted to play a poker tournament for fun and Matt tried to persuade Brad and George to join the game but they said no. Matt explained they probably didn’t want to look like fools when they played with me,” Hachem laughed.
He shakes his head in disbelief at the thought of Hollywood’s highest-paid and most popular actors feeling intimidated by a father-of-four and former chiropractor from Melbourne’s northern suburbs.But since his win in the WSOP Main Event five years ago, life has changed dramatically for Hachem and poker in Australia has now a mainstream interest.
Hachem has become so well known internationally that a couple of years ago he was even – wrongly – rumoured to be dating Britney Spears.
A celebrity website confused Joe with Adnan Ghalib, the paparazzi photographer that once dated the troubled pop star. The two men share similar looks but as the misinformed website later pointed out “Hachem is a married fella and seems to be wise enough not to be involved with someone like Spears”.
Despite the fame and the flitting around the globe, Hachem insists he’s the same person. He still likes to hang out with friends he grew up with.
A get together usually means a family barbeque in a mate’s backyard and his
Right: Quietly reflecting, four years on from his 2005 WSOP triumph
tight-knit family are still his top priority. “That will never change. The friends I had 10 years ago are the friends I have today. I have a strong group of people around me who love me now and who loved me before. I was happy before I won the World Series and that has been my
saving grace,” he said. “I remember sitting under the pergola
in my backyard in April 2005, a few months before I won the World Series. I was with cousins and (wife) Jeanie and we were talking about a friend who lost the plot after making some money. He was in his 40s and going to clubs and leaving his wife at home and he bought a Porsche.
“I said if money was going to change me, I didn’t want it. There was nothing in my life I wanted to change. I drank good scotch, went to good restaurants and took my family on holidays. I had a nice car, a nice house, lovely children and a beautiful
wife. The good part now is I am debt free and I’ve secured a future for my children. I’ve given them a stepping-stone I didn’t have as a migrant from Lebanon.
“I helped out my family, I bought my wife a beautiful diamond ring and I put my kids in private school. Life is good – but I’m the same person.” Life before his world poker title was good – but it wasn’t always easy.
Hachem was born near Beirut in Lebanon and spent the first seven years of his life there. When his maternal grandparents died, his parents brought Joe and his two brothers – Tony and Elei – to Melbourne to join the rest of the family. “I had no idea about Australia because in Lebanon we didn’t have a TV,” Hachem said.
“I didn’t speak English when I first arrived and remember making up my own language and pretending it was English. One day in Grade Two we were copying work from the board and the teacher asked us to put our name on the top of our page. I remember looking over at what the boy next to me wrote and I wrote the same name. But within six months to a year I was fluent.”
He remembers facing racism at school because of his background: “I got into a few fisticuffs and had to smack a few people in the mouth. Usually it was the Italians who ran the school but that sorted itself out.”
By the time he was at university and studying to be a chiropractor, Hachem was the main breadwinner in the family. He ran a stall at Coburg market selling car seat covers, organised fashion shows in nightclubs and did bar work while studying.
“Before Mum’s dad passed away I was the apple of his eye in Lebanon. I was his first grandchild and he always said ‘this boy will do something with his life’. I’d get that drilled into my head at every family barbeque – your grandfather said you’ll do this and that,” Hachem laughed.
“I thought about dentistry but knew I couldn’t spend my life looking into
people’s mouths. Then a friend told me about chiropractic and I fell in love with it. The sad thing was my friend and I both applied to study chiropractic and I got in and he didn’t. His father never spoke to me again!”
When Hachem was 21, tragedy struck. On a hot spring day in 1987 his younger brother, Elei, was killed in a car crash.
“He went out with his mates all night and popped home about six in the morning. He said goodbye to mum, jumps in the car with his mates. They fell asleep and ran into a bus. He was 19,” Hachem said.
“I was angry at him for so long because he was not supposed to be in that car. I’d asked him to look after my market stall that weekend while I was visiting cousins in Sydney.”
Helping Hachem through his brother’s death was the woman who’s been part of his life since Joe was only 15 – Jeanie. Jeanie’s family were friends of the Hachem family and Hachem remembers Jeanie in her primary school years at gatherings. When Elei died, Jeanie was there to offer support to Hachem.
“A few months later I noticed she’d lost weight and I asked her friends what was happening. They said ‘she’s in love, don’t you know? She’s in love with you, stupid!’ he recalled.
“I never proposed. There was just an understanding that we’d get married one day – her father would have killed me otherwise! Jeanie is my rock and she keeps me grounded. She’s honest and her loyalty is unbreakable.”
Jeanie also supported Hachem when, after 13 years as a chiropractor, he was forced to quit because of health problems. He switched to mortgage broking.
“I was devastated but I kept that to myself. I was never afraid of finding something else to do but it was disappointing after all those years of study and creating a business to have to stop. But I had a mortgage, four children and a wife. I had to find something else,” he said.
At weekends he played poker – a game that had fascinated him since he was 13 and watched his parents play. Later he began playing every week with his mates. They played for 20 cents and for the fun of trying to bluff and beat each other.
“I love the competition and trying to get into someone’s mind and making them do something they don’t want to do,” he said.
“I started playing online at PokerStars and played little tournaments and cash games. In dead times at my office I’d play poker online and made a reasonable earn out of it.”
When Hachem suggested the trip to Las Vegas in 2005 with some friends, Jeanie was initially reluctant. “We’d talked about going to Vegas with the kids but then a friend asked me to go with a group of mates. I asked Jeanie what she thought and she just said ‘no’ and that was it. End of conversation,” Hachem said.
“But soon after that we were on holiday in Queensland and we were on the beach. Jeanie said, ‘Honey, why don’t you go to Vegas for two weeks with your friends. Good luck’. I ran back to our hotel and booked my accommodation and flight before she could change her mind. Now she takes all the credit for that win, of course.”
In the hours when Hachem was playing for the World Series title, Jeanie was with her family at her brother’s home. She was wrapped in a blanket and silently sitting in the kitchen, too stunned and tense to talk. A tournament that started with 5619 players gradually whittled down to the final 27 and a guaranteed $440,000 for Hachem.
“That’s a big chunk of money for a guy who owed $400,000 on his property,” he pointed out.
But then he reached the final table – a guaranteed $1 million and for Jeanie the shock began to set in. A cousin was in a spare room on a PC hooked up to live coverage of the World Series.
“Nobody else was allowed in that room. My cousin gave updates and Jeanie was wrapped in her blanket and couldn’t talk. Then she’s told I’m in the final three, then down to two players and then my cousin told her I’d won,” Hachem said.
“Jeanie couldn’t move. I rang her and she was very emotional and then the phone cut out and I thought she’d fainted. Two days later she arrived in Vegas with the children and when I met them at the airport I broke down and cried like a little baby.”
Hachem is still a regular at Crown where he takes part in tournaments. Between tournaments and trips abroad he returns home to Jeanie and his children aged between 17 and 12.
“I’m Dad most of the time but when someone asks me for a photograph or autograph they’re pretty impressed. There’s a Playstation game with me in it and they thought I was super dad because of that!” he laughed.
While the interest in poker among Australians has soared since Hachem’s major win, the game has its critics who oppose any form of gambling.
“Poker is a competition. You pay an entry fee and when you lose you are out – you don’t refuel. There’s an element of luck but also a lot of skill,” he said.
“People are getting together and playing poker for fun. It brings people together and that’s good. I don’t gamble on any thing other than poker because with other types of gambling I can’t have an edge. With poker – I have that edge.”