Judo Champ Joe Marchal Regains Olympic Passion with Poker

Joe Marchal 4
Joe Marchal says the first time he played Texas Hold'em he won $202,000.

52-year-old Joe Marchal competed on the US Judo team in the 1988 Olympics and says he hadn't felt the same thrill of competition again until he sat down at a poker table.

Marchal grew up in Midwest America and learned to play cards at a young age.

He ended up going to school in Japan and later pursued simultaneous careers in competitive Judo and finance. According to Marchal he was part of the first wave of foreigners to trade live on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

Now Marchal lives with his family in Guam and has retired from both fighting and finance to try his hand at poker.

“It's all about the competition,” Marchal told PokerListings.com at the 2013 World Series of Poker.

“When I stood on the mat in the world championships or the Olympics, that feeling has never been captured again.

“That feeling that something really big is happening. I hadn't felt that since competing in the Olympics but poker makes me feel that,” Marchal explained.

That feeling might have something to do with the fact that the first time Marchal ever played Texas Hold'em, he won more than $200,000.

Marchal has only been playing tournaments for a few years but already he's had some success, including a 191st-place finish in last year's WSOP Main Event.

PokerListings.com spoke with the former Olympian in Las Vegas to find out more.

PokerListings.com: Can you give us your backstory and how you got into poker in the first place?

Joe Marchal: I grew up in Wisconsin but I'm originally from Traverse City, Michigan and my family was a big-time Bridge playing family. They were always winning Bridge tournaments.

And of course whenever you have card games, there's going to be poker. So my grandfather taught me how to play poker when I was like five years old. I kid you not, games like Three-Card Draw, Five-Card Draw, Seven-Card Stud.

This is all happening in the mid-60s. So I grew up always playing cards, playing poker. And my dad had me playing chess and I competed a bit.

The whole point is that from a very young age I was taught to approach everything very analytically.

1988 Olympic Judo
1988 US Olympic Judo Team (Marchal third from right)

Then in 1980, when I was 20, I was living at the US Olympic Training Center and we took a trip out here to Las Vegas for a Judo tournament.

I bought into a Seven-Card Stud tournament and there was probably 100 people in it and I won the whole thing.

And this was back in the 80s and they didn't check your ID or anything when you registered, but they needed to see it when I went to get paid out. So let's just say I was never able to claim that money.

And back then the poker scene was so small, all the top guys were in this tournament. Doyle (Brunson) and his whole crew were there.

PL: Even though you didn't get the money, did that first win get you hooked on poker?

Well at the time I had a permanent residency at the US Olympic Training Center, and I was training to compete in the '84 and '88 Olympics, I was also traveling to Japan where I worked part time at a small brokerage trading stocks and bonds.

I was the second foreigner to ever trade live on the Tokyo trading floor. I actually graduated from university in Japan originally.

I wasn't playing poker but the whole time I was trading I was learning the same skills you need in poker.

So a number of years later they had the trials for the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Las Vegas, and they flew me in from Japan.

I flew my dad in as well and we were walking through a casino and my dad was like, “You should play some poker. You used to be really good at cards.”

Joe Marchal 3
Joe Marchal at the 2013 World Series of Poker.

Now I hadn't played poker since the the '80s so I walked up to the poker room and asked for a Stud game and they laughed at me.

They said I'd have to go downtown or something, all they spread there was this game called Texas Hold'em.

So I watched the game and they explained it to me but right away I could see there were tremendous opportunities in this No-Limit game if you understood risk.

So I sat down in a $5/$10 game and that was around 10pm. I played all night and by the time I quit in the morning I had $202,000.

I knew it was hugely beginners luck but I was basically hooked from there.

PL: That was in 2008 so what's happened since then to get you here to Las Vegas for the WSOP?

Well, a few years ago my wife and I were deciding where to move and we chose Guam. It's a great location for raising a family.

It's very close to Japan, my wife is Japanese, and it's a great location to get places to play poker.

So I told my wife I wanted to play poker. I didn't know if I wanted to do it full time or part time but I knew I wanted to try, and she was cool with it. So for the first few months I was flying all over the place for tournaments, Manila, Korea, Australia.

So I've basically retired to play poker, and now I'm here at the WSOP playing as many events as I can.

My family's coming out in a couple weeks for their first trip to the mainland ever so I'm really excited.

PL: You have a very competitive background coming from Judo. Is it the competition or the money that motivates you to play poker?

It's all about the competition. Listen, when I stood on the mat in the world championships fighting for gold or silver, that feeling has never been captured again.

That feeling that something really big is happening. I hadn't felt that since competing in the Olympics but poker makes me feel that.

It's competition. These people might not look like athletes but it's extremely challenging.

I know my game's not there but I know that if I work hard I can get there, or I would never take this on in the first place. I would never enter the WSOP Main Event if I didn't think I had a chance.

Poker is a great challenge for me and it gives me something to go for. I absolutely love it. I want the competition.

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