POSTED: 7:22 a.m. HST, Nov 9, 2010
LAS VEGAS >> Quebec poker professional Jonathan Duhamel said he worked a series of bad jobs before getting into cards and making his living online at tables with $5 and $10 minimums.
Now — if he wants — he might never have to work again.
Duhamel won the World Series of Poker title and $8.94 million on Monday night, becoming the first Canadian to take down the no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event in Las Vegas.
"It is surreal. I could never dream of that. It's so huge — so big — it's a dream come true for me," Duhamel said after winning the gold bracelet. "I don't know what to think right now, I don't even know what I feel. It's just — it's amazing."
Duhamel, who said poker has been his primary income for the past two years, was spending the night partying like a high roller with 125 friends and family in a suite at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. Many in his group donned Montreal Canadiens jerseys in an ode to their hometown and national pastime.
The Sin City suite reserved for celebrities and gamblers who easily lose tens of thousands of dollars in a single blackjack hand is a far cry from the Montreal suburbs, where the French speaking, NHL-loving Canadian said he plays hockey several times a week and hones his poker skills online.
"I was aggressive on the final table, so I wanted to mix it up a little bit," he said. "I didn't fold at all, but I limped a little bit just to try to confuse him and have a good balance in my game."
It didn't hurt that Duhamel started the night with a big chip lead and put away John Racener before the 24-year old tournament specialist could pick up good cards.
"He was patient and kind of threw me off a little bit," said Racener, of Port Richey, Fla., who got his start in poker by turning a $50 stake from his mom into $30,000 within six months.
"I was like, 'Wow, you know, this is going to be harder than I thought," Racener said.
With many of poker's biggest names watching, Duhamel took the last of Racener's chips after 43 hands.
Racener was never better than a 4-1 underdog in chips in a session that lasted just over an hour — the finale for a tournament that started July 5 with 7,319 players paying $10,000 to enter.
On the last hand, Duhamel pushed Racener all-in and Racener called with a suited king-eight of diamonds. But Duhamel had an unsuited ace-jack, giving him a 60 percent shot to win.
A flop of two fours and a nine helped neither player; and Racener didn't improve with a six on the turn and a five on the river. Duhamel won the hand — and the tournament — with an ace high.
"The only thing that I was thinking for the past four months was to be sure that my game is sharp and that I play good on the final table," Duhamel said.
Racener won $5.55 million for second place, never finding real traction in the biggest heads-up card match of his life.
Racener said his only good hand was pocket queens and he didn't pick up anything besides that better than an ace-deuce.
"I could never get anything going," he said. "It was unfortunate and he played it well."
Duhamel had nearly 90 percent of all the chips in play when players took a 10-minute break after 36 hands. He put the pressure on after that, pushing all in on three straight hands and dropping Racener's stack to just above 16 million chips.
When Duhamel pushed again, Racener unsuccessfully tried to make a last stand.
Racener began the session a 6-1 underdog in chips, with just 26 big blinds in his stack.
Chips have no monetary value in the tournament, and Racener had to lose all his chips to be eliminated.
Now, Duhamel can think about a bigger future in poker and buying Canadiens season tickets — or perhaps dropping a ceremonial first puck before a game.
"To drop the puck would mean so much to me, I mean, 'cause since I'm two years old I've watched the Montreal Canadiens on TV," he said. "I played hockey all my life."
Duhamel, who left the Universite du Quebec a Montreal during his second year studying finance, said he doesn't know how he'll spend most of his winnings, but pledged $100,000 to a foundation for kids in Montreal. Duhamel worked a series of odd jobs before playing poker full-time, mostly in cash games.
The score was Duhamel's third cash in more than a dozen tournaments at the summer series, a 57-event spectacle that attracts big-time rounders, wealthy amateurs and smaller tournament winners.
But Monday's win — worth $8,944,310 — dwarfs the $43,000 he won in three earlier events this year.
Duhamel hopes that money and the prestige of being a champion will help take his young career even further.
"I'm going to be playing all those big tournaments and try to make other big scores," he said. "I'll be there next year in the World Series and try to do my best again."