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Last Woman Standing

Posted: Nov 5, 2014 1:00pm ET
By Michael Kaplan

It's one of those good-news/bad-news stories. For the second time, professional poker player Maria Ho qualified as the last woman standing in the World Series of Poker Main Event. This year she finished 77th out of 6,683 entrants and took home $85,812 in prize money. In 2007, the game broke her heart with a 38th place finish and $237,865 for her trouble.

All told, she's won nearly $1.7 million in live tournament winnings. Nice as those distinctions might be, they're nowhere near as appealing as making the Main Event final table, playing for the world championship bracelet and competing for an ungodly sum of money. This year's first-place finish pays $10 million. Had a few things gone her way, Ho would have been the first female vying for the richest, most prestigious windfall in poker.

When the so-called November Nine play down to a winner this coming Sunday and Monday at the Rio in Las Vegas (ESPN airs the final table on Monday and Tuesday, November 10 and 11), Ho will be watching with interest and quite possibly licking her wounds. What she won't be doing is second-guessing the bluffs and heroic plays she made over the course of the $10,000 buy-in tournament. In fact, she's proud to have not kept her eye on the prize over the course of the Main Event.

"People can't do their best when they put too much emphasis on having a shot at $10 million," says Ho, who began playing poker during a break between college and a possible run at grad school. (She stayed at the tables and remains satisfied with her undergrad degree.) "You stop making the best decisions and become unwilling to put your tournament life on the line when you should." Speaking of which, she adds, "Being a woman helps. We only account for 3 percent of the players, and men think we're unwilling to bluff. Women are grossly underestimated."

Ho, of course, would have it no other way. She's suitably driven that recognition for being the last woman standing feels like a dubious honor. "It's not something I am shooting for," she says dryly. "I am always looking to make the final table. I would be the first woman to do it at the main event. Getting there is the dream of every poker player-male or female."

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March Sadness

Posted: Apr 1, 2014 12:00am ET
By Michael Kaplan

If you thought Warren Buffett was a stone-cold madman for putting up a billion-dollar free-roll to anyone who could complete a perfect March Madness bracket, well, it's time to reassess the Oracle of Omaha's sanity. That irresistible offer brought Buffett and the venture's sponsors, Quicken Loans Inc. and Yahoo Sports, boatloads of publicity with virtually no risk. Just about everyone washed out on making it through the first two rounds of the NCAA finals.

However, there was one exception: Brad Binder, a misbegotten soul who went into week-two of the tournament with a perfect Yahoo bracket—but somehow failed to enter the contest put on by Buffett. As Jay Farber, second-place finisher in the World Series of Poker, put it: "So this kid has the potential to miss out on a billion dollars? I might off myself."

Farber's life is safe from his own hand. Binder failed as miserably as the rest of us on the Round of 32 (specifically, game 37, after Dayton beat Syracuse by two points). He's out of the running for a perfect bracket—as the math dictates he should be. According to oddsmaker RJ Bell, founder of, assuming that the remaining games after the first weekend would all be even money, the chance for a perfect bracket spiked to 102 trillion to 1.

While each game is clearly its own event, the likelihood of flawlessly picking teams grows increasingly distant as March Madness progresses. "Odds of getting the first day perfect were 284 to 1," says Bell, laying out a long shot that is far from astronomical. "Getting the first two days perfect was 815,000 to 1. It literally increases exponentially." The unfortunate Binder might have been better off using his run of good luck on a lottery ticket or getting struck by lightning, which is only a 3,000 to 1 shot.

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Gamblers Gone Dirty

Posted: Feb 5, 2014 12:00am ET
By Michael Kaplan

The past year has been a good one for gamblers who enjoy scandal and chicanery – particularly when it involves other people. For our voyeuristic pleasure, there was the busted poker/bookmaking ring allegedly centered around a high-end Picasso dealer who operated out of Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel, audio tapes emerged on which Russ Hamilton reportedly admitted to scamming players out of millions on the now defunct poker-site UltimateBet, and Phil Ivey got himself into a widely reported kerfuffle with Crockfords in London over a bit of advantage playing (definitely not cheating, at least from my purview) at the punto banco table.

As 2013 wound down, Archie Karas, famous for having one of gaming’s all-time great winning streaks—the story goes that that he hit Las Vegas in 1992 with $50, borrowed $10,000, and ran it up to $40 million in three years—got accused of marking cards at a San Diego blackjack table. Supposedly, he burned through the $40 million in just three weeks time, so, by 2013, he must have needed cash. Colorful as Karas’s entry to Vegas may be, recent events seem rather bleak. His allegedly ill-gotten blackjack winnings were just $8,000 and his actions (if he did them) would clearly be criminal. In El Cajon, California, Superior Court, Karas pleaded not guilty to winning by fraudulent means and burglary (both felonies) and cheating (a misdemeanor). Whatever the outcome, there is good reason to believe that guys like Karas always land on their feet. Shortly after he was charged with marking cards, a Hollywood production company announced plans to make a biopic, based on his life, entitled, appropriately enough, The Run.

Christian Lusardi made headlines for taking the chip lead in day two of the Borgata Winter Poker Open Big Stack No-Limit Hold ‘Em Tournament, but his good press turned bad after tournament officials sensed something wildly wrong—there were too many chips in action—and play was suspended. They say that 160 counterfeit chips (totaling $800,000) had been introduced, compromising the integrity of the contest.

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Year's Worth of Cigar Tastings

Posted: Dec 20, 2013 12:00pm ET
By G. Clay Whittaker

It's usually around the holidays that I get a lot of questions about what I do as tasting coordinator, and what we do here at Cigar Aficionado when we rate cigars. This week you're seeing the final results of that as we reveal the entire Top 25 list for 2013. But to get to those 25, there's a long, ash-laden road that the editors take every year.

In the last 12 months, Cigar Aficionado editors have puffed their way through more than 700 cigars for the ratings in the magazine and in Cigar Insider. On top of that, there was the special tasting of Top 25 cigars that began with a round of 45, then a second round of 13 finalists.

Here's how it works in brief: I get the cigars that will go into each taste test, and I personally remove the bands from every cigar that goes out for tasting. (I keep the bands for reference, in a half dozen sturdy, gallon-sized Ziploc bags throughout the year, eventually leading to a large, colorful and gilded pile of what our art department calls cigar confetti.) I pass out the cigars to each of the panelists. Most folks would welcome a personal cigar sommelier/courier in every day, but a couple of the panelists cringe when they see me coming.

The tasters receive unknown cigars banded with a white label marked with only a number. I hold the code, and I'm not one of the tasters. They rate the cigars, return their scores and notes to me, and from that information a final score is determined and a tasting note is written.

Cigar labels.

It's a considerable number of cigars. Looked at by ring gauges, laid side by side, they'd reach out over 120 feet—about the distance between home plate and second base on a major league baseball field. I mentioned that next year we should try for the outfield and was nearly fired.

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Hot Summer In The City

Posted: Aug 26, 2013 11:00am ET
By Michael Kaplan

Atlantic City's gaming industry has weathered a steep downslide, but, even so, summer months traditionally provide salvation for the casinos there. After all, A.C. is blessed with an oceanfront location. So if you can spend your days on the beach and your nights at the tables, what's wrong with that? Considering its natural attractors, Atlantic City usually goes easy on the comps each summer. Apparently that has changed. With increased competition from casinos in Philadelphia and the racino at Aqueduct racetrack in Queens, N.Y., things may be getting a little desperate.

If desperate times lead to desperate measures, then the Atlantic City casinos are definitely right where they should be. This summer has been a bonanza for gamblers who venture down to Vegas by the Sea. The Borgata is signifying its 10th anniversary by giving away more than $100,000 over the course of 10 weeks. Caesars Entertainment—the parent company behind Caesars A.C., Bally's, Harrah's and Showboat—has a Millionaire Maker promotion, which is exactly what it sounds like: a series of gaming opportunities for players to stumble upon $1 million.

Down-and-dirty Atlantic Club, the casino that PokerStars hoped to take over in order to get a toehold in A.C.'s burgeoning online poker realm, allows customers to use casino comps like cash in local businesses. Revel, which went through a brutal Chapter 11 and didn't help itself by not allowing smoking on the premises (a silly rule that has since been flip-flopped), spent the month of July crediting slot players for losses between $100 and $100,000. The casino is now giving away free gas cards, 48 free cars between August 29 and September 1, and matching slot promotions offered by rival Atlantic City operators.

Most audacious of all, Trump Taj Mahal will be burying $200,000 worth of cash vouchers in the sand behind the hotel. Gamblers will go out with shovels and dig them up. Maybe somebody at the Taj overheard Revel marketing man Randall Fine who commented to the Press of Atlantic City on his casino's new slogan "Gambler's Wanted." "I think it's not a bad idea to show gamblers that we want their business," he told the Press. "‘Gamblers Wanted' should be the slogan for Atlantic City as a whole."

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Phil Ivey's $12 Million Case

Posted: May 22, 2013 2:00pm ET
By Michael Kaplan

Back when I reported a 2010 cover story on Phil Ivey for Cigar Aficionado, his penchant for high-stakes gambling away from the poker room was no secret. I watched him at a craps table, casually putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into action. Then I witnessed casino hosts wooing him with cases of expensive Spanish wine and the kinds of sublime, small-production cigars that most of us will never see.

Hosts didn't kowtow to Ivey because he's a great guy or a world famous poker player. They did it because he's willing to bet huge sums of money at games in which the odds are tilted against him.

Whether or not he's an overall winner, I have no idea. But I know for sure that he gives casino executives the levels of action that they crave. It's easy to believe that he takes out the high-denomination markers that hosts love extending to their best customers, as reported in my story "Collecting the Debt" in the current issue of Cigar Aficionado.

So it's hardly surprising that Crockfords, the most venerable casino in London, welcomed him with open arms last August. As is the custom for those who gamble at the highest stakes, Ivey was given his own table on which to play. His game of choice that night was punto banco, similar to baccarat, based purely on chance, and unbeatable in the long run. Ivey promptly dropped $500,000 and took the loss like a man, as is his norm. Then he asked the casino to raise his betting limit from $50,000 to $150,000 per hand.

The folks at Crockfords complied, surely expecting a windfall from the famous poker pro. But it did not turn out that way. Ivey went on to score approximately $12 million over three days. Management did not take the beating very well and refused to let Ivey collect his winnings. He left London with a receipt for his profits and a payout of his $1 million buy-in.

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