Marc Etienne McLaughlin: The wild card

Simon Duhamel/Sportsnet magazine

How a hamburger-loving Montreal entrepreneur turned a poker hobby into a shot at $8.3 million

As you walk through the double doors, the first thing that hits you is the darkness. Not one window breaks up the black walls here, nothing to signal a sunny Sunday about 20 minutes outside Montreal. It’s 11 a.m., and already every seat in this room is taken and then some, dozens of men and the odd woman waiting for their names to pop up on computer screens. Nearly everyone else is hunkered over white tables, many of their straight faces concealed by sunglasses or hats or hoods, and this has to be home to the most sweatpants per square foot in Quebec. Smiles are hard to find. Conversations are even rarer. The only constant sound is the click-click-clicking of plastic. Muted sports highlights play on TVs, women give massages, and girls in tiny black dresses serve food and drinks.

No, this is not the world’s most depressing yet wildly popular brunch spot. It’s the 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year poker operation that is considered by many to be the country’s best for Texas Hold ’Em, Omaha, 7-Card-Stud, you name it. You can lose a day here; several, even. It’s part of the design.

Rolling a $100 chip methodically from one finger to the next is Marc Etienne McLaughlin, who just sat down at an open cash game with $1,000 worth of round plastic. To his left is a beer-bellied man who looks like he hasn’t moved since Saturday night, and two guys over is a ponytailed player who cheers every time he hauls in chips. That’s as animated as it gets. McLaughlin is in jeans and grey Asics, his dirty-blond hair combed back, and he’s the only man at the table other than the dealer wearing a button-up shirt. That’s not all that sets him apart: As soon as he sits down, he gets fist bumps and “bonne chance” wishes. That’s because McLaughlin, 25, is the only guy here—the only person in Canada, period—set to play in Vegas for $8.3 million at the biggest poker tournament in the world.

An entrepreneur from Brossard, Que., with a rapid-fire, deadpan sense of humour, McLaughlin doesn’t align with a poker world that, away from the action and dazzle seen on TV, can seem dank and gloomy. He represents the bright side. A graduate of the Université de Sherbrooke in finance and administration, McLaughlin doesn’t spend day and night playing this game; this is not his job, and it won’t be even if he follows Jonathan Duhamel and becomes the second Canadian to win the World Series of Poker’s Main Event in early November. It’s a hobby that started on a Ping-Pong table in his parents’ basement because all his friends were playing, and, eight years later, it has landed him at the most lucrative poker game there is.

After a brief stint at the card table, McLaughlin sits down for lunch and mulls over his food options, which, he says, “represents 80 percent of my daily stress.” He’s reserved at first, but gets chatty after he orders a Caesar salad with chicken. He loves soccer (he sponsors one of the teams he plays on: “my big head is on the jersey”); Ireland (his great-great-grandparents were from there and his nickname is “Irish”); and business (he plays the stock market, flips houses and is part owner of a company that sources goods between China and Quebec). You’ll read on a lot of poker websites that McLaughlin is a tattoo artist, but that’s because he lied about his profession at a tournament earlier this year; he thought it’d be funny. His girlfriend, a poker player named Laurence Grondin, has a sleeve tattoo on her left arm, and McLaughlin swears he designed it. He says he’ll use the publicity he gets in the days leading up to the Main Event’s Final Table “to tell people about my art.” Then he promises to stop lying: “I tell only the truth over Caesar salad.”

McLaughlin says what makes him excel in poker is a unique way of thinking. He doesn’t play a lot of cards—on average, 10 hours a week, and mostly online, though since September he’s ramped up to 15 hours, with more cash games and two World Poker Tour tournaments. “I’ve always been different, since I was very young,” he says. “Thinking differently helps in poker, where a lot of people think the same way.”

Duhamel, a fellow Quebecer, likes his buddy’s chances—McLaughlin was in Duhamel’s rail, cheering him on three years ago, and Duhamel will return the favour. “He knows when to make moves, when to take chances,” says Duhamel, whose career tournament earnings total more than $11 million. “He knows how to put pressure on the opponent and control the table.”

As for his strategy, Irish won’t get into specifics—“The other guys might read this!”—but says he plays upwards of 30 percent of his hands, whereas the majority of high-level players might play half that. He knows a fair bit about the eight other guys who round out the “November Nine,” but won’t offer much there, either. “I’m not clueless,” McLaughlin says. “But I can’t tell you what I know, because they’ll know that I know.” Same goes for how often he bluffs: “It happens.” The cards are firmly against his chest.

You need more than mystery and luck to crack the World Series of Poker’s Final Table. It’s damn near impossible: The field began with 6,352 players and was whittled to nine after 70 hours of play over seven days. McLaughlin is one of the lesser-known at the Final Table because he doesn’t play as many tournaments, he’s the second-youngest, and one of two who haven’t made gambling their occupation. But in poker circles, it’s well-known that the kid is an ace; he finished third for a $292,634 payday in a WSOP tournament two years ago, and he’s twice cracked the Main Event’s top 100—30th in 2009, 86th in 2011. And, of course, skill and risk and luck—“of the Irish”—all had a hand in getting him here. On day four of the Main Event, McLaughlin had just $180,000, and went all-in with pocket nines for his tournament life. A nine on the flop sealed it and kept him alive to beat an ace-9. That’s the aggressive and unexpected play that defines McLaughlin’s game. “You never know when the boom is coming,” he says, grinning. Grondin, a talented poker player in her own right, says it’s “terrifying” to watch, because despite the fact they’ve been together for three years, live together, and talk cards often, she can’t predict his play. Four hours after that boom and “a seriously good run” later, McLaughlin had $1.2 million, and midway through the next day, he was chip leader, an achievement he celebrated with a trip to Fatburger, his favourite. McLaughlin started day seven ranked 16th, with $5.5 million, then capped the 10-hour penultimate finale with $26.525 million, third overall. “I ran good,” he says, smiling. He celebrated that with a Guinness—he was told it was the last bottle at the Rio in Las Vegas, which is also set to host the Final Table. Many, many more Guinnesses followed through the month of August, which he took off to party.

The Final Table appearance guarantees McLaughlin will more than double his career live tournament earnings of $677,168 (this doesn’t include online wins, which he won’t disclose), because even if he busts out first, he’ll still make $733,224. McLaughlin admits “it’s a pretty good bad day.” But, he adds, “I’ll be pissed.” It’s not just the money he’s after—McLaughlin wants to be the best. He’s fiercely competitive, and while it comes out on the soccer field, McLaughlin can’t and doesn’t show it at the table—his small mouth turns poker face in a split second and he can hold it forever. And while he doesn’t wear hats or glasses, carry lucky charms or even say a word, inside, Irish is fired up.

McLaughlin knows for the first time in his life, millions will be watching, and that every flop, call, fold, bluff and river will be more important than ever. But for now, he’s having fun with it. When ESPN’s camera crew visited last month, Irish got friends together for a dodge-ball game; they wore short shorts, other ridiculous costumes and talked strategy. And it was better than talking about himself, which he finds “weird.” The whole road to the Final Table has been that way. That he’s earned a chance to play in the poker equivalent to game seven of the Stanley Cup Final hits him for a few moments every day. His eyebrows raise just thinking about it. “It’s surreal.”

McLaughlin isn’t looking for fame, even if he admits being recognized and gaining the respect of fellow players is “really sweet.” Whatever happens in Vegas, he plans to refocus on his business endeavours afterwards. He does like his chances at turning this hobby into an $8.3-million payday, though. “Obviously, I do,” he says. “You have to be focused and confident. It could happen.” As for what he’ll do with all that cash, McLaughlin doesn’t want to get ahead of himself, but he has thought about it. “Hamburgers,” he says, smiling. “I’ll buy a lot of hamburgers.” In that case, Fatburger better get ready. And no matter the outcome, the Rio better restock their supply of Guinness, because Irish promises it’s going to flow.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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