Is Martin Jacobson The Best Main Event Champion Ever?

Is Martin Jacobson The Best Main Event Champion Ever?

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Tom Victor considers.

Martin Jacobson's ability was hardly a secret. The 27-year-old from Stockholm started the final table eighth in chips, with less than 40 big blinds, but his odds to win were shorter than the two players immediately above him on the leaderboard. This guy was good. Really good. He just hadn't had the big tournament victory to prove it.

Until 2014, Jacobson was best known as a nearly-man, making 11 final tables across the European Poker Tour, World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker during a seven-year professional career. He even made it to heads-up play on three occasions, losing out to players as talented as Toby Lewis, as eccentric as Lucien Cohen and as…erm…Swedish as Ragnar Åström.

He had won side events, including picking up $120,000 for victory in a Hold'em event at EPT London in 2013, but his biggest scores were for coming close to really huge prizes. More than $300,000 for eighth place in an Aussie Millions High Roller where Yevgeniy Timoshenko took just shy of $1.8m for first. Three quarters of a million for his runner-up finish against Cohen when the Frenchman took home nearly $1.2m. And the largest to date, an $800,000 score in the One Drop High Roller in 2013. Tony Gregg's first-place prize in that tournament? $4.8m.

Even his online record is dominated by close calls. Playing as 'M.nosbocaJ' (the sharper amongst you will have worked out that's 'Jacobson' backwards), the five highest scores of his career read as follows: Fourth, Second, Second, Second and - you guessed it - Second again.

For some, such a run of close calls could prove demoralising, with each final table just a new setting for a painful elimination. That's the thing with poker tournaments - no one leaves the stage entirely happy except the winner, and a 6,000-runner tournament will end with 5,999 players thinking "what if…?"

Still, while he might not have won a major title before, deep run after deep run is evidence of a strong poker mind, while several years worth of final table experience may have helped him on his way to the ultimate prize.

Biding His Time

With 37 big blinds to start the day, Jacobson was short but not dangerously so. A live misclick on the final table bubble resulted in him doubling up Will Tonking back in July, but all that did was ensure the Swede was able to keep a slightly lower profile over the summer and autumn months. Sure, a live and online beast with $4.8m in career earnings wouldn't be able to fly under the radar altogether, but if you'd thrown a top three chip-stack into the mix then the pressure would only have grown. If anything, missing that flush draw against Tonking during 10-handed play ultimately proved a blessing in disguise.

Martin Jacobson 2

The early stages of a high-profile final table will often see play begin tentatively, with players feeling each other out. So it proved with this year's November Nine, as just one of the first 35 hands produced a pot of more than 10 million chips.

Jacobson largely stayed out of trouble to begin with, taking down the occasional pot with a well-timed three-bet and moving in over the top of a few opens when his stack size made it appropriate. He didn't panic once, even dropping as low as 6.375m before grinding his way back up.

How many times?

Incredibly it was not until hand number 176 of the final table that the experienced pro won his first hand at showdown - an unremarkable hand against Felix Stephensen where Jacobson's third pair was good for a pot worth about nine big blinds. It was not until the 208th hand that the Swede was all in and at risk for the first and only time at the final table, his pocket fives outrunning Billy Pappas' ace-jack for a 50 million chip pot, and despite a couple of hiccups he would eventually ride that double to the chip lead and, finally, the bracelet.

Putting pressure on your opponents with a well-timed shove is just one part of being a successful tournament player, and Jacobson had no trouble adjusting to the relative tightness of the table to build his stack at opportune moments.

Over the course of the 244 hands on the final table's opening day, Jacobson moved his stack across the line some 19 times, getting the bet through on 17 occasions (his double-up against Pappas and the elimination of fourth-place finisher Will Tonking the only exceptions). After Tonking's elimination, however, the story changed. With a workable stack there was no need for Jacobson to make any high-variance plays, and he ground down his two opponents to enter the final day at his highest chip ebb of the entire tournament.

Having more than quadrupled his stack over the course of one day, entering the final stretch with more than 64 million in chips and with leader Jorryt van Hoof in his sights, Jacobson picked up where he left off. He seemed entirely at ease against van Hoof and eventual runner-up Felix Stephensen, outplaying the pair and grinding them down to the point that his eventual victory was a formality. Seeing the best player win is rarer than some might think, but there is something rewarding about witnessing skill win out in the end.

Good for the game?

The months between the final table being set and the first hand being dealt were dominated by discussions of which of the nine potential winners would be best for the game. Short-stack and eventual eighth-place finisher Bruno Politano was many people's tip - a likeable amateur from a growing economy (Brazil), with support from celebrities (among them world-famous footballers Neymar and Kaká) thrown into the mix. But could it be the case that a Jacobson win proves the best outcome?

Martin Jacobson 3

The phrase 'good for poker' has been bandied about often enough that it has begun to lose meaning and become little more than an in-joke among members of the online community, as with any phrase that spends half its time alongside a hashtag on Twitter. A woman leading the Main Event on day 3 or 4? #GoodForPoker. A comeback kid taking his seat at the final table? #GoodForPoker. A high-profile sportsperson playing a super high roller tournament, regardless of their ability, performance or even personality? Well you can be damned well sure that's #GoodForPoker.

But what if the best thing for poker is a winner who is a respected pro, well-spoken and lucid, who has risen to the top through skill more than luck (albeit winning a crucial coinflip along the way) and will encourage beginners that it could be them with a bit of hard work rather than a lot of luck.

Back in the early-mid 2000s, when amateur after amateur was taking down the biggest prize in poker, there was clamour from some circles for a top pro to taste victory to lend strength to the 'more skill than luck' argument. Now some of those same voices - perhaps in response to the online poker industry's increased catering to recreational players (or even just the oversaturation of major poker tours and tournaments dominated by the same few names) - have done a u-turn and think another Chris Moneymaker could be what we need.

Sure, Moneymaker himself has been an excellent ambassador for the game, as have the likes of Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem, while some feel that certain pros could have done more after their victories. But for every media-friendly amateur there is one who shies away from the spotlight and for every reclusive pro there is one who does wonders for poker's image. A player's past is never the be all and end all.

Martin Jacobson earned his victory through hard work, persistence and, yes, a small amount of luck. No one even gets close to the Main Event final table without winning the occasional flip or taking advantage of an opponent's unplanned generosity. He seems humble enough that the title won't overwhelm him, and has the credentials to represent the poker world in the best way possible - not out of any misplaced or artificial responsibility, but just by continuing to play the game he loves. We expect he'll make a great world champion - maybe even the best of his generation.

Tags: WSOP, World Series of Poker, Martin Jacobson