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Winner Take All

After a week of bad beats and big bets, the 2004 World Series of Poker championship came down to a table of mostly unknown names
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

Immediately after you arrive at Las Vegas's McCarran International Airport, the impact of the poker boom hits you. It's illustrated on the walls of Terminal B in the form of big, backlit advertisements for Belvedere vodka. The caricatured shills on these signs, designed to coincide with the 2004 World Series of Poker, are familiar faces to anyone who's been watching poker tournaments on TV: Chris Moneymaker, Annie Duke, Howard Lederer, Daniel Negreanu, Layne Flack, Phil Hellmuth, Chris Ferguson and T. J. Cloutier.

At Binion's Horseshoe, site of the 35th annual World Series, 52 all-but-naked women, body-painted as playing cards, parade around to promote an online poker site. Upstairs, near the big room where the tournaments take place (there are 33 events, culminating with the seven-day championship match), the long-haired, bearded 2000 champ, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, can't walk more than a few feet without someone stopping him for an autograph. And in the Horseshoe's executive offices, World Series honchos are pleasantly surprised that the championship event has attracted some 2,600 players, leaving this year's Series with 1,800 more contenders than last year. This adds up to a prize pool in excess of $40 million, including a first prize of $5 million.

With a line of waiting spectators snaking far beyond the tournament room's entrance, poker mania is in full force. A rep from Oakley sunglasses walks around, handing out shades, suggesting that he might be into cutting promotional deals with players. Every poker stud of note seems to have a contract with one online site or another, and it's suddenly commonplace for unknowns to be thrown $10,000 in exchange for wearing hats emblazoned with logos at final tables being taped for broadcast on ESPN. Whenever Moneymaker, last year's champ and the most prominent player in town, competes at a tournament table, he is surrounded on one side by TV cameras and on the other by spectators pressing up against a padded rail. With all the attention, you wonder how Moneymaker can focus on his cards.

If poker is going to bust out and become a mainstream spectator sport, as it seems poised to do, this is the tipping point. "Three years ago a poker player couldn't get a $50 dinner comp," says Adam Schoenfeld, senior vice president of marketing for Advanced Global Applications, which owns finaltable.com and designed the software for pokermountain.com. "Now we're looking at low six-figure guarantees to get a top name to be affiliated with a poker site."

Schoenfeld, who was once an oft-quoted analyst with Jupiter Communications, says it's worth it: "The right players add credibility and glamour and excitement."

He should know. Veteran tournament star Cloutier and hot newcomer Negreanu (who, as of July, is poised to be named Card Player magazine's Player of the Year) have both been signed to promote the pokermountain and finaltable sites. The number two online site, PokerStars.com, had so much success with Moneymaker (he entered, and ultimately won, last year's World Series championship after qualifying in a satellite tournament on PokerStars) that the online operator not only inked him to a one-year promotional deal, but spent $1 million in sending 316 qualifying players to 2004's Series. "When Moneymaker won, it got our name out," says Dan Goldman, vice president of marketing for PokerStars. "Newspapers ran articles about Moneymaker, but they all mentioned our site."

In the end more than 800 would-be poker kings won their entry fees by playing online. While it may have once been reasonable to dismiss Internet players as dead money, the enduring success of Moneymaker (he finished second in a World Poker Tour showdown at the Bay 101 casino in San Jose, California), coupled with the sheer penetration of online qualifiers, makes it difficult to maintain that attitude. "A lot of online people have the idea that they can play better than the name players," says Erik Seidel, who has won six World Series bracelets. "Some of the online guys will break through. And though they may not play better than Phil Ivey, they will be good players."

Of the thousands of amateurs diving into Las Vegas for the World Series, a Texan is making the biggest splash of all. His name is Andy Beal, and he's a billionaire banker—that is, he owns a bank—from Highland Park. He came to Vegas a few years ago wanting to play super-high-stakes Texas Hold'em, and, not surprisingly, an elite group of players was willing to accommodate him. He sat down and entered into a game with the best high-stakes specialists in the world, guys such as Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Bobby Baldwin and Johnny Chan. Equally predictably, he got his clock cleaned. Then, fearing collusion among the pros, Beal made an arrangement with the big players. The group, which dubbed itself the Corporation, put together a multimillion-dollar bankroll to take on Beal one at a time.

Typically, Beal shows up at the Bellagio, on short notice, and the Corporation is waiting for him. Sitting alongside his personal accountant/bodyguard, Beal wears headphones, plays from early in the morning till late afternoon and barely talks—except when he is trying to raise the stakes. The game has gone from $10,000/$20,000 to $15,000/$30,000, and as high as $50,000/$100,000. Typically, Beal gets slaughtered and the Corporation loves it. On this trip, however, coinciding with World Series mania, Beal manages to get the stakes up to an unprecedented $100,000/$200,000. Every pot contains more than $1 million, and, one would reasonably conclude, that's enough to rattle even the most seasoned pro.

"Maybe," surmises a plugged-in player, "it's his strategy. Get them to gamble for enough money that they leave their comfort zones."


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