"The first time I was introduced to hold 'em was in Joe's garage in 1999."
Tony Hachem's face reflected the importance of that moment. Those are the origins of the life he's now engulfed in -- the beginnings made possible by the brother to whom public perception and familial bonds would irrevocably join Tony at the hip.
No two brothers have ever made the final table of the WSOP main event, let alone won it, but as you'll see on the WSOP broadcasts on ESPN (starting Tuesday night at 9:30 ET), Tony is indeed chasing history. When Joe won his championship in 2005, Tony was there celebrating alongside big brother. At that moment, his own poker aspirations weren't so much as a glint in his eye. He'd made the trip to Vegas for the life experience. When it was all over, his brother had won a then-record $7.5 million and was vaulted into international celebrity.
"I was there to witness history," Tony said. "I didn't realize how big poker was. I didn't realize how big the WSOP was. I didn't realize someone could go from rags to riches overnight, unknown to famous. Joe played in the World Series and we were railing. I just felt it was Joe's time rallying around Joe, it was classic. Seeing Hellmuth and Moneymaker and Raymer, establishing relationships with known players. Unbelievable."
When Joe Hachem won the championship, little brother was there as he'd always been. An accountant turned bar owner who'd done some high-profile work in hospitality for an Australian celebrity client list, Tony was in the know where Joe wasn't when it came to what to do with his newly discovered fame.
"Tony is best described as a lovable rogue," said Joe. "Tony is proudly my biggest supporter and he saw my win as our win, rightly so. However, as a result, he got the poker bug and then decided he wanted to make a name for himself, which he has done successfully."
"I embraced his success," Tony recalled. "I'm always going to be Joe's brother. It couldn't have happened to a better person. My relationship with Joe is as much best friend as brother-brother. It's been like that since I was 6 years old. My late Uncle Vince [a father figure to the Hachems, who lost their father when Tony was 6] said to me, 'Don't leave your brother.' I don't know if Joe knows this, but he said I should stay close to Joe no matter what, because I knew a lot of people, [such as Greg Norman and Shane Warne] the biggest sports stars in Australia."
Tony also understood that getting deeply engaged in poker could continue to bring the brothers closer.
"I wasn't in love with the game," he said. "I ended up falling in love with the game because I became good at it. I figured I had the potential to do well if I stuck with it. It gave me an opportunity to travel with Joe, sponge off him. I'd sit between he, Daniel [Negreanu], Phil [Hellmuth] and they'd talk poker and I'd listen and learn."
The lessons were learned well. While Tony barely knew hold 'em at the '05 WSOP, Joe's win led to an Australian poker explosion that saw that country's industrial poker revenue go from seven to nine digits. Just like many others in the country, Tony was impacted by the boom.
"Joe never taught me to play," Tony said. "What he did is allowed me to put myself in a position to absorb the material, the conversations. Believe it or not, Joe's win at the WSOP and the way he played made me realize that I had a massive advantage. Joe would talk about every TV or radio interview or seminar. I was there and it was invaluable. Priceless. It was great. Doing the PokerStars stuff, all of a sudden I was falling in love with the lifestyle and then the game. I could see the opportunities, but I didn't know how to grasp them. I didn't come from that background. Then, before we knew it, Crown Casino [Melbourne's live poker hub] exploded. Joe took it to a different level. PokerStars came in and I did a lot of work with them. I used my network to get them massive radio and TV exposure here and that spread the word. Joe becomes this great ambassador and my uncle calls me up and asks me what I'm doing."
Tony took it upon himself to learn, and his game grew. PokerStars signed him at least in part because of his recognizability as Joe's brother, but he wasn't content to ride it out. "I didn't want to be like the rich kid who got a job because of their dad," Hachem said. "I took the bull by the horns and really embraced the opportunity. I started working hard and started playing better and won Player of the Year of the ANZPT, which is now the Australasian Poker Tour. I won the Player of the Year in 2009."
He won it again in 2010.
Eight cashes over those two years earned him more than $175,000. The younger Hachem had shown he could play the game his brother made famous in Australia. Surprisingly, PokerStars informed Tony in June that it had opted not to renew his contract in the weeks after Black Friday. The last few weeks of that contract paid off in spades. Tony was patched during his run at the WSOP, when he got more than his share of ever-precious air time. Now, he's back in the market for a deal.
"Tony has gone from not knowing what under the gun meant to really understanding how meta-game strategies can play out," Joe said. "He has worked really hard and I am proud of him for that. Tony has a determination that can climb mountains. He can achieve anything he puts his mind to."
The proof of that will be seen Tuesday night on ESPN. As if the pressures of what the main event can offer weren't enough, Tony was carrying the twin burdens of his brother's shadow and the possibility of history. The shadow will always be there, but Tony is finally sharing the spotlight. It's a long way from his brother's garage to ESPN, but the journey is worth your attention.