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Before the Game: Martin Jacobson the Chef (Part One)

Martin Jacobson was a chef before he struck it big in poker.

In 2014, Martin Jacobson won the second-largest prize the WSOP Main Event had ever awarded, a cool $10 million. In beating fellow Scandinavian Felix Stephensen, Jacobson fulfilled a poker dream and cemented his place in the pantheon of poker greats.

For the man who had come so close to EPT success, the achievement of winning the one tournament no one thinks they’ll ever win was the moment of his poker career. But who was Martin Jacobson before he found poker? The Swedish professional was used to chopping vegetables - not pots - when he was a chef... Before the Game.

To the Kitchen

"I was tired of sitting behind a desk studying all day," says Jacobson, who grew up on a small island called Lidingö, not far from Sweden’s capital city of Stockholm. "My mom suggested a culinary school where I’d still do the theory classes, but it would be 50% learning how to cook. For a lack of better options, I applied and got in."

Unlike other countries, Sweden has a system where you can choose which high school you go to after elementary school. Jacobson was 15 years old and got to enjoy the blend of studies and cookery classes. His grades improved, and he started playing poker as a hobby.

Jacobson also gained a passion for cooking over three years of tuition. He got a job cooking seafood in a restaurant in Stockholm, but when he turned 18, he was forced to leave the job.

"Even though it was hard, I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a lot of fun being fresh in the kitchen. But I’d committed to doing military service. I didn’t feel like doing it when I was 18 but I didn’t have much choice."

"Even though it was hard, I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a lot of fun being fresh in the kitchen."

Having agreed to fulfil military service back in elementary school, Jacobson had to travel via a five-hour bus ride to a city called Karlskrona each Monday morning, returning home every weekend. He was assigned to be a chef for 11 months in the Swedish Royal Navy and was stationed on a stealth battleship, one of two chefs catering for 40 men and women at sea.

"You couldn’t get Wi-Fi reception anywhere; it was like a submarine. It was brand new and pretty cool."

One thing Jacobson was desperate to do in his time in the Navy was travel. When he’d signed up at elementary school, the Navy officer had told the teenage audience that they’d travel around the world. They’d just returned from Thailand to help people after the devastating Tsunami. It was the reason Jacobson and others had signed up. But five years later, the budget had been ‘streamlined.’

"We didn’t have any big trips. We went to Stockholm! It would have been nice to go overseas or at least to Denmark."

Life at Sea

Despite the lack of distance, the battleship was at sea. It was on the rolling waves and when it rolled, so did the sailors on board... and the chefs.

"It didn’t require that much wind for it to become very stormy. It was a stealth battleship, there were no windows anywhere and it was a weird experience. Even when it’s windy, you still have to cook for everyone. Half the people were sick, but the other half still wanted their food."

Jacobson found himself cooking in a permanent storm and on his own, his chef partner doubled up through sickness. He enlisted the help of a 19-year old sailor who didn’t know one end of a potato peeler from the other.

"Even when it’s windy, you still have to cook for everyone. Half the people were sick, but the other half still wanted their food."

‘The boat was rocking from one side to the other and we were making a stew. He’s never been in a kitchen in his life and he asks me: “Hey Martin, do you want me to cut the onions this way or that way?” It really didn’t matter!’

While some departments may have had budget constraints, the Swedish Navy was eating good.

"We could buy anything we wanted. We bought reindeer steaks, foie gras, literally anything we could think of."

Martin Jacobson
The 2014 Main Event winner has over $12 million in WSOP earnings alone.

Cooking Up a Poker Career

When Jacobson finished his stint in the Navy, he returned to Stockholm and worked in a restaurant for 18 months, during which time he indulged in a hobby he’d played on and off since high school - poker. With no laptop, Jacobson would have to visit an internet café if he wanted to hop online.

After a few months, he’d had success playing satellite step tournaments, and in the build-up to the 2008 World Series of Poker, he reached the final satellite stage. Incredibly, Jacobson won it, and was given the agonizing choice of $12,000 in real-life money or a seat into the Main Event.

"I was dying to go and play, but that was a huge amount of money. If I took the money, I didn’t know where it would go, so it felt like a freeroll, but I wasn’t convinced," says Jacobson, who confided in his family. "I asked my mom what she thought I should do. I was convinced she’d say to take the money, but she said, 'You’re going to go and play.'"

"I played the Main Event and was very nervous; I’d never played a big live tournament before."

Jacobson had won the package late, and was only 20, but would turn 21 three days before the Main Event. He saw that as a sign and despite knowing no one in poker and having no friends who could afford to travel with him, he flew solo to Las Vegas.

"I didn’t know what to expect, but I met some friends on the plane and made more friends when I got there. I played the Main Event and was very nervous; I’d never played a big live tournament before."

With his only live experience being a few cash games at a casino and the odd home game back in Sweden, Jacobson sat down, one of thousands of players taking on the biggest poker tournament in the world for the first time. Others seemed nervous too. Jacobson, who had planned meals and had a backpack full of drinks to be consumed at timed intervals throughout the gruelling Day 1 schedule, was ready for anything except for what happened.

"I got eliminated during the third hand, ten minutes in."

Find out how Jacobson’s Main Event fell apart and how he’d rise from the ashes of his disastrous introduction to the World Series of Poker to conquer the poker world and become Main Event champion six short years later... in Part Two of Before the Game: Martin Jacobson.

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  • WSOP Main Event winner Martin Jacobson spent time as a chef in the Swedish Navy before getting serious with poker - article sponsored by @888poker.

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