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The Exalted Amateurs

Poker is one of the few arenas where money can buy an amateur the chance to bust a pro
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, July/August 2010

Poker night is a big event for Jerry Buss. Buss, who's owned the Los Angeles Lakers since 1979, tells me that his regular game stands out as an anticipated highlight most every week. In that regard, he shares something with millions of other Americans. However, when Buss buys in and looks across the table at his opponents, it's clear that he plays in a different league. Jerry Buss's tablemates are likely to include well-known pros such as Barry Greenstein and John Hennigan. The stakes are mind-blowingly large and the level of poker does not get any higher.

Everybody at the table-including Buss-realizes that it will be a struggle for him to leave the game a winner. But for Buss, the sizable stacks of $100 bills at risk are beside the point. "The sums are not significant to me," says Buss, who has been widely described as a billionaire. "The only thing significant is this: Can I compete against the best poker players in the world? Playing against people who are similar to me [in terms of their skills] is not significant. If I can beat champions on one out of three occasions, that is significant to me."

Buss ranks among an elite group of recreational poker players. They tend to be extremely successful, as competitive as Olympic athletes and are all but consumed with the game. Buss and the others-a diverse coterie that includes Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, Texas banker Andy Beal and California-based real estate investor Bob Safai-go out of their way to play against the most notorious card sharks in the world. Not so different from divers who court trouble with real sharks, these well-heeled businessmen can often be seen in Bobby's Room at the Bellagio or on TV shows like "High Stakes Poker." They are challenging themselves and aiming for adrenaline rushes that even the most high-flying careers can't provide.

Eric Drache, former poker pro and currently a producer of "High Stakes Poker," has seen more than his share of wealthy amateurs mixing it up against the professionals. I ask him what drives them to do it. "There's no other activity where you can enter right at the top and compete," says Drache. "There are a lot of guys who would pay to do it in baseball or the NBA if they could. In poker, you put up your money, you sit down and you play."

That said, Drache points out that it would be a mistake for me to underestimate these exalted amateurs. "They're smart enough to have gotten their money," he continues. "Their only fault is that they haven't spent 12 hours a day for most of their lives playing poker."

During the course of writing this article, I happen to find myself in a Las Vegas poker room. A few feet from where I stand, a game is going on where players can easily win or lose six-figure amounts. I recognize an amateur occupying one of the seats and ask a friend of mine (a young pro who I consider to be a favorite in this game) whether or not the amateur, who'd made a significant fortune in business before retiring, is any good.

"Yeah," my friend tells me. "He's a good poker player."

"Really?" I reply, a little doubting. "So he's a winner in your game?"

"No," my friend says. Then he laughs and adds, "He's not that good."

The point being that the retired businessman is skilled enough to beat a lot of guys at poker. But he chooses to play with people against whom he stands little chance of succeeding. I pose this incongruity to Aaron Brown, who wrote The Poker Face of Wall Street and manages risk for AQR Capital Management, a hedge fund based in Connecticut. Brown is a good person to discuss this with, as he knows both sides of the coin. In the late 1970s and into the '80s, Brown played poker professionally and gambled at blackjack as a means of meeting desirable opponents. He also traded options, went to grad school and did computer work. He never stopped playing poker, but, over time, poker stopped being the most profitable thing in his life.


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