Jonathan Duhamel is sitting atop the poker world.

As the chip leader at the World Series of Poker's Main Event, Duhamel will be travelling to Las Vegas this weekend to play the final table with a $9 million first prize up for grabs.

But Duhamel's introduction to the game of poker was not unlike legions of others.

It began as an excuse to get together with friends and have some fun. But before long, they were having so much fun they began to play every night. And for Duhamel, something just clicked.

"It kind of became a passion for me," the 23-year-old Boucherville native says. "We wouldn't play for that much money, we just loved to play. I think it was a passion for all of us."

But Duhamel decided to take things a step further.

While studying finance at UQAM, Duhamel had some doubts about what he wanted to do with his life. So he decided he would take a year off from school and try his hand at poker to see how far he could go. That meant convincing his parents, Luc Duhamel and Johane Grenier, that it was a good idea.

It wasn't easy.

"Obviously, when he explained what it was he wanted to do, we didn't agree," Duhamel's father said. "I don't think too many parents would."

"But we talked about it a lot," added his mother. "Once he convinced us he was serious, we decided to let him try it."

Duhamel began by reading poker books and opening a $100 online poker account, playing $5 games with as little as two cents riding on each hand.

"If I won 50 cents a day I was happy," Duhamel said. "Because I was up."

Duhamel methodically honed his game playing at these low stakes until he was confident enough to put a bit more on the line, and within months he had banked enough to pay for trips to live poker events.

His first trip overseas was to a European Poker Tour event in Prague in December of 2008 where Duhamel finished 10th out of 570 players, pocketing 43,000 euros, allowing him to finance more tournaments in the Caribbean, around Canada, the United States and, ultimately, Las Vegas.

Duhamel took his first shot at the World Series of Poker Main Event last year and made it to Day 3, finishing just outside the money.

But this time, Duhamel left for Las Vegas a month in advance to prepare for the event, except he lost practically every tournament he played except for the very last one before the Main Event, finishing 15th and netting $37,000.

Then, the Main Event began and Duhamel plodded his way through the early stages until turning it on towards the end, riding a wave of aggressive play and some very fortunate cards to first place in the tournament with nearly 66 million chips, 20 million more than his closest competitor and about one third of all the chips in play.

"In a tournament that big, with all the best poker players in the world," he said, "you need to be lucky and good."

Duhamel has had four months to think about what will happen this weekend, when he will have eight other players gunning for him and the mountain of chips he holds.

Over that time his life has changed completely in that he gives interviews to the international poker media on a near daily basis. But otherwise, his friends and family say he remains the same guy.

With the $812,000 Duhamel and the other eight remaining players received as the minimum winnings for the 9th place finisher, all he has allowed himself is a new luxury car. He lives in the same Boucherville condo he first bought last year and he still goes to watch his beloved Montreal Canadiens, sitting far up in the blue seats with his $35 tickets.

"Me personally, I don't think I've changed that much," Duhamel said. "But there's a lot of people who want to shake my hand. It's a cool feeling."

And on top of all that, Duhamel still plays regularly with the same friends he started with, except since he's become virtually poker royalty the dynamic of the game has changed a little.

"They beat me pretty often, and now they go in a group all against me," Duhamel says, laughing. "So it's pretty tough right now."

He's only hoping it won't be quite so tough this weekend in Las Vegas.

Part Two looks at the large number of Quebecers gambling for high stakes, their success, and the problems caused by excessive gambling. It airs on CTV Montreal at 12 and 6 p.m. on Wednesday, November 3.