Commentary

Lockout leads McLaughlin to felt

November Niner turned to poker after his favorite game was shelved for a season

Updated: October 16, 2013, 1:55 PM ET
By Bernard Lee | ESPN.com

Watch Marc-Etienne McLaughlin's journey to the WSOP main event final table every Tuesday night on ESPN.

Since the turn of the century, the game's biggest tournament, the World Series of Poker main event, has included remarkable multiyear runs.

2004 WSOP main event champion Greg Raymer almost won back-to-back titles, but finished just short with his 25th-place finish in 2005. Two of the original 2008 November Niners, champion Peter Eastgate and third-place finisher Dennis Phillips, made it deep and finished in 78th and 45th place, respectively, the following year. This year, two former 2012 final table participants made impressive back-to-back runs: defending champion Greg Merson finished 167th, and last year's ninth-place finisher, Steven Gee, finished 24th.

Setting aside the back-to-back criteria, others have had similarly consistent success over the past two decades, including 2005 WSOP champ Joe Hachem (233rd in 2006, 103rd in 2009), Mike Matusow (four finishes among the top 87 since 2001) and 1995 champion Dan Harrington (17th in 1996, third in 2003, fourth in 2004, 252nd in 2009). Then there's Phil Ivey, who has had four remarkable finishes over the past 12 years (23rd in 2002, 10th in 2003, 20th in 2005, seventh in 2009).

[+] EnlargeMarc McLaughlin
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonMarc-Etienne McLaughlin enters the WSOP main event final table third in chips.

The performances of those names above are strong, but over the past five years, no player has had a more impressive run than one French Canadian. No, it is not 2010 WSOP main event champion Jonathan Duhamel -- it's Marc-Etienne McLaughlin.

The 25-year-old is a member of the 2013 November Nine and enters the final table third in chips with 26.525 million with a realistic chance to capture Canada's 11th bracelet this summer. More impressively, McLaughlin has three top-86 finishes in the past five WSOP main events, coincidentally occurring all during the odd years. In 2009, during his first major poker tournament, he finished 30th. In 2011, a year after his good friend Jonathan Duhamel captured the WSOP main event bracelet, McLaughlin was eliminated in 86th place.

Even years haven't treated McLaughlin as well.

"It was short. I busted in the first level or so each year," said McLaughlin. "I think it is a pattern, I make a deep run, then I bust early."

Despite his phenomenal success, McLaughlin does not deem himself a professional poker player. Instead, he considers himself to be a full-time entrepreneur and part-time player.

"Poker is a hobby, a lucrative hobby, but still a hobby," he said. "I have a real estate business. I also have a sourcing business with China, where we do importation and exportation of Quebec products. And I'm also interested in the stock market. I have studied a lot and it's really similar to poker. You have to take some risk, and be smart and do some good math. I really enjoy it."

He may play down his passion for the game, but poker has always been one of his interests ever since college. At University de Sherbrooke, McLaughlin learned to play with his friends on a makeshift poker tabletop on his ping-pong table. He started out playing for small stakes to get a taste of the game. What fueled him further? A "devastating" strike.

"Back in Montreal, we are big-time hockey fans and when there was the [NHL] lockout [in 2004-05], there was no hockey to be watched on TV," he said. "So they played all kinds of poker tournaments and people got interested. It created a poker boom and I was part of it."

While McLaughlin continued to play poker, live and online, he never lost his passion for learning. Interested in finance and marketing, he pursued his degree in administration (the equivalent of a business degree in the U.S.). After a few years in school, he decided to leave college, just a few credits short, but unlike the story told time and time again, McLaughlin didn't leave for poker.

"I had a lot of stuff going on at the same time," he said. "I had some business opportunities that I decided to take a risk and start right away. Some worked and some did not. I like to take some risks in my life and also at the poker tables. It is just part of who I am."

Although he enjoys working on his entrepreneurial ventures, he also loves the freedom these opportunities grant him, especially because he is able to pursue his other passion, poker, during the summers.

"I like the game, especially the creativity of the game. And the summer is my break time," said McLaughlin. "I focus on playing poker and tournaments. It works for me. The WSOP is mainly the tournaments I play. I played a couple of WPT's but play mostly at WSOP."

His Vegas breakthrough came in 2009. After turning 21 in January, he had his eyes set on the WSOP main event, his first event ever.  With few expectations, McLaughlin built a solid stack during the early days and headed into the money bubble with a big stack. Although he could've had dreams of glory, he focused on crafting a successful formula for the WSOP main event.

"It's probably a cliché, but you really have to play one hand at a time and really be 100 percent focused on the hand you are playing and all the little details," he said. "You try to avoid thinking too far ahead of yourself. ... Of course, the good structure of the main event really helps good players. You can wait for spots and people to make mistakes. You got to be patient and aggressive at the same time."

Using this methodical and deliberate playing style, his surreal run continued to the end of Day 6, where he was agonizingly eliminated in 30th place. After an uneventful 2010 (141st place in a $1,500 no-limit event and an early exit from the main event), McLaughlin returned to the Rio in 2011, ready to make up for the previous year. With three deep runs, including a final table appearance, the Quebec native had an amazing summer.

During his early years playing, McLaughlin roomed with other French Canadians, including Duhamel. Today, Duhamel is an outstanding resource for McLaughlin, who admits that he has sought Duhamel's advice, but not for poker.

"Mostly he has helped me with media related and other things I really wouldn't think about it," McLaughlin said of his relationship with Duhamel. "He is a great ambassador for poker and good friend, too."

2012 failed to produce any big results for McLaughlin, and when he returned to Las Vegas this summer, he was planing on making the trip a quick one given other business commitments. He primarily played cash games and only three tournaments. His first two tournaments passed by without excitement, but the third one, the only one he cashed in, has become one of his greatest accomplishments on the felt.

After a slow start, McLaughlin entered Day 4 on the money bubble with a healthy stack of about 650,000 chips. This trend was similar to his other odd-year main event runs.

"What I liked is in my past deep runs, I have always entered Day 4 with a pretty good stack," he said. "So when the money bubble is long, I really enjoy it because all the people were folding. So it was really good for me having a big stack until the bubble burst."

After the bubble, it would be understandable for McLaughlin to dream of another magical run. And why not? He had another huge stack. 2013 was another odd year. But that just isn't his formula for success.

"I was still just thinking hand for hand," he said. "I'm not thinking of top 100 or top 200. Just focusing on the next hand or the hand I'm playing. ... It is a long, long marathon. [You] can't think about the final table, just focus on the things you can control and the rest is up to the cards."

Using this simple, yet effective strategy, Day 5 became another amazing day thanks to one massive hand in which his aces held against his opponent's queens for a pot of nearly 5 million.

McLaughlin ended Day 5 with almost 6.7 million in chips, second out of the 68 players remaining. Day 6 turned sour, but even though his chips were depleted, breaking the top 30 was a key accomplishment.

"It was a relief to burst the top 30," he said. "It was kind of a magic number. From then on, I was kind of on a free roll because I really wanted to go deeper this time [than I did in 2009]."

Feeling that sense of relief, McLaughlin entered Day 7 without any pressure and completely focused on the task at hand: making the November Nine. Although 2012 October Niner Steven Gee and 2001 WSOP main event champion Carlos Mortensen headlined the day, everything went according to McLaughlin's dream script.

"I just focused on myself. Honestly, I did not notice that Gee was still there. I did not play with him on Day 7. Carlos was at my table on Day 7 and he played great. But I was really focused on myself and on Day 7, I ran good, I played good, I was really focused. Everything went my way on Day 7."

After Mortensen shockingly broke the November Nine bubble, McLaughlin's dream became a reality. While he normally would have packed up and gone back to work, now the 25-year-old French Canadian is solely focus on the task at hand: trying to become the second French Canadian to win the WSOP main event in four years.

"Right now I'm really, really focused on poker right now," he said. "I'm playing sit-n-gos online, talking strategy with friends, watching the WSOP coverage and I'm going to play WSOP Europe. I'm practicing to get ready for the final table, not really anything else right now."

For someone who spends his time split among many interests, his venture into poker is poised to pay off come November. He's got the support, the focus and, of course, the right year behind him. Will another French Canadian capture the world's biggest title? In just a few weeks, we'll find out, and with his record, who wouldn't like his chances?

Bernard Lee is a columnist for ESPN.com and the co-host of ESPN Inside Deal. Since finishing 13th in the 2005 WSOP Main Event, Lee has earned over $2 million in career earnings, including three poker titles. Along with his contributions to ESPN.com, Bernard is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and also the host of a weekly poker radio show in Boston, "The Bernard Lee Poker Show".

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