All of Australian poker can essentially be broken down into two distinct periods of time.
There was the time that came before Joe Hachem’s historic 2005 World Series of Poker Main Event victory and everything after.
Poker has exploded in the land Down Under and every year the Aussie Millions series at the Crown Casino in Melbourne attracts thousands of players and fans.
Hachem remains the most iconic Australian in poker and is treated as a rock star in the country.
There are signs, however, that the scene is changing once again and a new wave of skilled Australian poker players are ready to invade the poker world.
That might be a surprise considering the average Australian poker player still has some catching up to do compared to his American or European peers.
Poker didn't really catch on in Australia until Hachem's victory, and the Aussies have always been a few steps behind the rest of the world in terms of skill.
It’s common to see some downright bizarre plays, even in prestigious tournaments like the $10k Aussie Millions Main Event and in many ways the level of play seems more reminiscent of the WSOP in 2005-06.
“Our average player is still not as sophisticated as ones from Europe or North America but overall we’re getting better,” said Joe Hachem.
There is a group of players, however, who are quickly changing the perception of Australian poker players.
The Online Revolution
The best poker players in Australia seem to all be coming from the online space as Aussies have waged an all out assault on the Pocket Fives MTT leaderboard over the last year.
Players such as Matt “brownie682” Brown, Matt “mjw006” Wakeman and Jay “Seabeast” Kinkade have all spent time on the top 10 MTT player leaderboard over the last few months.
In fact Australia is currently ranked third in the country rankings, right behind Canada and the United Kingdom. It’s not bad considering Australia is dwarfed by poker markets like Germany and France.
It's obvious the online players are starting to transition to live too, as online pro Andrew Hinrichsen recently broke through by winning his first WSOP bracelet at WSOP Europe in Cannes.
“At the moment we’ve got quite a lot of young, up-and-coming superstars,” said Hachem. “Most of them are online players that have transitioned to live play and they’re getting really great results.”
One such player is Jonathan “xMONSTERxDONGx” Karamalikis.
The Adelaide-native started playing online poker when he was underage but began taking it seriously in 2007.
“That’s about when I started neglecting school and work to play poker,” Karamalikis joked.
Since then he has amassed over $1.2 million in live tournament earnings including a win at APPT Sydney. He’s also made several gigantic online scores including a WCOOP win for $179,569. He’s worked his way up to 11th place on the all-time Australian live tournaments leaderboard.
He’s still looking up to Hachem who has over $11 million thanks, in large part, to his Main Event win.
Hachem sees Karamalikis as one of the Australian players who has both the skill and character to become a legitimate star in the poker world.
“He’s a great player and a good boy,” Hachem said. “You need those characteristics to succeed in the poker world. I can find you a hundred good players in the poker room but maybe a handful have the personality to become something.
Hachem also really likes what he’s seen from Jarred “FlopNutsOnYou” Graham who has over $600k in lifetime earnings and incredibly won the APPT Sydney High Roller event back-to-back in 2008 and 2009.
That's Not a Score, This is a Score
It’s not just the high stakes players who are finding success either. According to Newcastle-native Matt “mjw006” Wakeman there are skilled players from top to bottom.
“There some really good players but I think the next tier down, where you’ve got a lot of mid-to-high stakes MTT grinders, there are a bunch of guys who are really exceptional and stack up really well on the world stage,” he said.
Wakeman could very well be amongst that group as he recently switched from Sit & Goes to MTTs and quickly made his way into the top 10 rankings on PocketFives. He's earned hundreds of thousands playing online poker.
It’s not just the tournament players who are making waves either.
“In terms of cash games players like Michael Egan – who is an absolute beast at 6-max cash games – kind of go unnoticed,” he said. “In Australia the MTTers get all the glory. A lot of the scores get recorded where the cash ones don’t.”
Hearing about the numerous skilled Australian poker players immediately brings to mind the emergence of the so-called “Brit Pack” in the United Kingdom that includes absolute killers like Sam Trickett, Chris Moorman and Jake Cody.
In the last year that group of close-knit players has won millions and raised the bar for what people expect from U.K. poker players.
Karamalikis, Graham and Wakeman could very well be the start of an “Aussie Pack” if it weren’t for one looming obstacle.
The only major tournament close to Australia is the Aussie Millions. The WSOP, WSOPE, WPT and EPT are all on the other side of the world.
“It’s hard,” said Hachem who has travelled the globe in pursuit of the poker dream.
“We live so far away from everything. Every poker player dreams of going to the WSOP but at the same time it’s really expensive. Every trip that I go on takes at least a day. It’s a hell of a lot of time to spend on an airplane.”
The Future of Australian Poker
Despite the distance, Australians are breaking through. Dan Neilson came third in EPT San Remo and Andrew Hinrichsen won a bracelet at the 2011 WSOPE in France.
“There’s a group of guys who like to travel and they’re certainly carrying the flag for Australia,” said Wakeman. “For the rest of us it’s just far too expensive to be traveling on a regular basis.”
What lies in store for Australian poker? It’s difficult to say but with players like Karamalikis, Graham, Wakeman, Kinkade and Hinrichsen leading the way it will only get bigger.
“Exposure-wise we don’t hit the public eye as much as players from other countries but there are always new up-and-coming players in Australia and it looks great for the future,” said Wakeman.