The Professional

Martin Jacobson takes his game, and now his championship, seriously

In the 2,835 hours between the last day of play in the World Series of Poker Main Event in July and the resumption of the final table in November, Martin Jacobson was focused on one thing and one thing only.
Winning $10 million.

“It was very stressful, It’s basically the last thing on your mind before you go to bed and then the first thing you think about when you wake up,” said Jacobson. Part of that stress was routed in the belief that the November Nine break actually hindered Jacobson.

“When the final table broke in July, I thought it was going to be a huge disadvantage for me because I felt pretty good back then,” said Jacobson. “I kind of wanted to keep playing and not give the other opponents with less experience a chance to catch up and improve and prepare themselves for the final table.”

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Jacobson had a right to be nervous. He was clearly the most experienced high stakes tournament player of the bunch. Sure, Mark Newhouse had made the final table before and already had a World Poker Tour title to his credit, but Jacobson was clearly more seasoned and had posted more consistent results. He had nearly $5 million in earnings, 52 career cashes and three wins in smaller tournaments.

So Jacobson knew he had to do his best to further separate himself from the field during the down time. While his opponents suddenly had every opportunity to spend the break improving their game, closing the talent and experience gap between themselves and Jacobson, the 28-year-old Swedish poker pro buckled down.
“I realized that this break was like the best thing that could have happened for me. I got a chance to improve my game a lot,” said Jacobson. “I’ve improved so much over these last three months of making sure I was prepared. I was also mentally and physically prepared for a long final table.”

The preparation paid off for Jacobson. He outlasted the other eight players, earned himself the title of World Champion and added that $10 million to his lifetime earnings. It also erased years of frustration in the Main Event that saw him go without a single cash despite being a well-respected live and online tournament player.

“I’ve played the Main Event seven times, and I’ve never made Day 2 dinner break,” recalled Jacobson. “Actually, the first time I played, was my first live tournament, back in 2008. I managed to bust out on the third hand.”
Back in July, Jacobson got people talking right from the get go. He finished Day 1A as the chip leader and even looking back now, he feels that getting through that minefield of a day in such good shape, really did help propel him through the rest of the tournament.

“Given my history in the Main Event specifically, I just felt different this year. Having that great start on Day 1 and finishing with the overall chip lead, just gave me a huge confidence boost and good momentum heading into the rest of the tournament,” said Jacobson.

Things could have been entirely different for Jacobson had he followed through on his plan to quit poker, at least as a full-time pursuit, to start flipping burgers. That’s not a typo — you read that right. Jacobson had found himself not focusing as much on poker and took it as a sign that he needed to quit playing professionally and find something else to do with his life.

“About a year ago, I was fairly confident I was going to quit poker within a year or so. Then I went to the (2014) Aussie Millions and I had some success over there,” said Jacobson, who cashed in both the $100,000 and $250,000 buy-in events to earn over $560,000. “I found my passion back for the game again and decided I’d keep playing a little bit more.”

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The passion never disappeared entirely, but Jacobson admits it did struggle almost in step with some of the challenges the poker world was facing. Getting through the seven days of play in the Main Event was a grind, but it also awakened the love Jacobson had had for poker for the better part of 10 years.
“I feel like I’ve been kind of lazy the last few years with the future of poker being so unreliable. I didn’t know how much more time I wanted to invest in the study of the game,” said Jacobson. “This was a great opportunity for me to really start taking poker seriously again, because I knew that this was a once in a lifetime shot, probably, at getting the Main Event title. It’s not an opportunity that comes around very often. I knew I wanted to make the most of it.”

And what about the flipping burgers thing?
“I was actually writing a business plan for a healthy fast- food franchise that I wanted to open,” said Jacobson, who lives in London now after leaving Sweden and their less-than-friendly gaming tax laws. “But I was always going to go to the World Series. Glad I didn’t quit before the World Series.”

Starting the final table with the second shortest stack, Jacobson had decided on a course of action that was supposed to see him opening a lot of pots early, trying to be aggressive to chip up while a few of the others were more cautious in their approach, likely due to nerves.

Things didn’t go according to plan though.
“I just didn’t have any good spots to open really. Everyone was opening a lot more pots than I expected them to be. I later found out that (Dan) Sindelar was opening (with) a lot of mediocre hands,” Jacobson said of the player who was on his direct right. “If he doesn’t open those, I’ve got a spot to open. Since everyone was playing looser than I expected, I had to switch my strategy and go for a more tight-aggressive image.”

While players were firing with a little more reckless abandon than expected early on, that’s not what shocked Jacobson the most. Having obsessed over every detail he could think of since the break started in July, Jacobson was bewildered by the lack of preparation from almost every other member of the November Nine.

“What surprised me the most was that everyone felt so unprepared; didn’t seem to want it enough or take it seriously enough,” said Jacobson. With the opportunity to win life-changing money and have a career-defining moment on live television in front of him, Jacobson expected the others to be ready for battle when cards went in the air. Spending time with the other players in the days before the final table, Jacobson discovered that at least a couple of the other players hadn’t done any prep work.

Rather than feeling some satisfaction in the realization that his fears about his opponents closing the gap on him were unfounded, Jacobson was annoyed — almost embarrassed for the game that he calls his profession.

“When I found out that the other guys barely put any effort in preparing themselves. Like Newhouse didn’t even play a single hand of poker since the break. He’d just been partying, same with Felix (Stephensen),” said Jacobson. “It’s just mind blowing to me. What other profession would you do that?”

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Jacobson’s game plan wasn’t just about what hands he was going to open with or three-bet with. He seemed to have everything thought out ahead of time. His rail of advisors was full of some of the brightest poker minds today. Jason Koon, Mohsin Charania, Marc-Andre Ladouceur, Connor Drinan, JC Alvarado and Mark Radoja were all working with Jacobson in preparation for the final table, but also as the final table played out.

With hole card information available on the live broadcast, Jacobson knew he’d have the ability to get not just information from his rail, but quality analysis as well.

“As soon as I walked over there, they were just talking. They knew what to say,” said Jacobson. “I think I got the necessary information. I didn’t get all the hands, but I don’t think that’s really necessary. But all the key hands, I knew what they had.”

Most players who make the November Nine end up with a rail full of cheerleaders, some bring signs and witty cheers and some of them end up getting heavily lubricated over the course of the 12-14 hour day. Not Jacobson’s rail.
“My preference was to have a rail that’s as focused as I was. It was really about paying attention to everything, 100 percent focus. I didn’t want any partying going on in my section. I’m really impressed by how they all handled it, like true professionals.”

There’s that word again, professional.

“I’ve always treated poker as a sport rather than gambling. Obviously there’s luck involved. That’s a great thing about the game — anyone can win any tournament, any day,” said Jacobson. “But to be successful in the long run, I think you really need to take it seriously if you want to last.”
That high level of focus that Jacobson demanded from his team meant that he had a rail different from every other November Niner ever in one important way. No family.

“I didn’t want my family there. I didn’t want to go over there and get emotional,” said Jacobson. “I think it really helped me stay focused.”
The focus he talks about, and the preparation he put in in the months leading up to the final lead a number of poker fans, pundits and pros to give Jacobson high praise throughout the final table. Some even threw around the word “perfection” to describe the route he took to the title.

“I don’t agree that I played perfectly. I think I played well, but I think playing perfectly on such a big stage is impossible with all the pressure,” said Jacobson. “Even when I was down to eight big blinds, I just felt really confident. I never really doubted myself.”

The big stage is something Jacobson will have to get used to. Along with the second largest payday in Main Event history and the gold bracelet worth an estimated $250,000 comes an expectation from some of the diehards in the poker community who feel the world champion needs to give back. For now Jacobson seems okay with it.

“It’s not something I’ve been focusing on or thought about a lot. Everything happened so quickly. I spent these last three months preparing for the final table; how I could play my best,” said Jacobson. “I think I’ll make a good ambassador, especially representing the professionals in the game; the guys that play pretty seriously and have a strong passion for the game.”

As for the burger joints — those are going to have to wait. Jacobson is anxious to get back out there and get back to work.

“Even if I didn’t win, I was pretty sure was never going to quit after this, win or lose. Even though I said to myself I wouldn’t make any promises or any plans for after the final table, I was just going to play it by ear, see how I felt,” said Jacobson. “Right now, I just feel like my passion for the game is stronger than ever. I want to play more tournaments.”

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December 2014