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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

(continued from page 1)

Still, he keeps playing and he has no qualms about anteing up when superstars like Phil Ivey and Tom "durrrr" Dwan are in the game. "I want to polish my skills and hone my competitive instincts," says Brown who regularly takes time off from going up against pros to participate in a pricey game with Wall Street professionals at the Grand Havana Room in midtown Manhattan. "As I see it, there may be 10 guys in the world who you can say are the best players," he tells me. "The second tier is composed of guys who will sit down and play against anybody for high stakes. I want to be in that tier."

Can poker against professionals be profitable for him? "Five years ago, I would have said that I make money at it. Now I have to admit that people are better than me. You can call it pride, but if I wasn't willing to sit down and play against anybody and everybody, I would think of myself differently." Highly competitive poker, whether he wins or loses at it, infuses Brown with advantages at his day job. Because of his experiences on felt-topped tables, he says, "I am not afraid to make a trade that other people think is crazy. In that regard, the most valuable thing I've gained from poker is not money or contacts. The most valuable thing I've gotten from poker is what it has done for me as a man. It turned me into a person who can win at things that require focus, intelligence and psychology." Adding that card playing has helped him to develop tilt control, which can translate into preventing booked losses from sabotaging current performance, he says, "In trading and in poker you need zero memory."

Though Brown has not appeared on any of the televised poker shows, their proliferation does nothing to dissuade his fellow exalted amateurs from anteing up. Recognizing the instant celebrity bestowed on everyman tournament-superstars who've included Greg Raymer, Darvin Moon and, of course, Chris Moneymaker, a small number of high-rolling executives and entrepreneurs take their shots in the much more competitive cash-game realm. Doing it under TV lights may be an excuse to play, but it definitely gets them motivated.

Some nonpros, win or lose, keep coming back for more. Others go on television, gamble higher than they ever have before in their lives and view the experience with a weird sort of trial-by-fire wonder. "Playing with the pros on "High Stakes Poker" was kind of an ego trip," admits Fred Chamanara, a Chicago-based restaurateur whose eateries include the highly regarded Bijan's Bistro. "I lost $100,000 on my first appearance, dropped $30,000 or $40,000 on the second appearance and I got a check for $20,000 from GSN [Game Show Network pays appearance fees to players on ‘High Stakes']. I found out that I have a little bit of courage and that money is not everything in the world to me."

Unfortunately, poker is not Chamanara's best game. Among those who like to gamble, he's known as a gifted player of backgammon and gin. But Texas hold'em is all the rage and nobody's putting him on TV to see how he handles a doubling cube. "When I sat down to play on ‘High Stakes,' seven or eight of the guys at the table were world champions; they were looking for a schmuck like me," he continues, sounding completely good humored about the experience. "Appearing on the show was worthwhile to do once or twice, but I don't think it is something to do again."

Alan Meltzer made a fortune in the cutthroat business of record and CD distribution. Then he developed a penchant for poker. It began with his messing around online, graduated to low-stakes games at the Commerce Casino near Los Angeles and blossomed into a full-on obsession during a series of trips to the Borgata in Atlantic City. According to New York-based Meltzer-who can afford to be a gentleman poker player, flying around on private jets and residing in luxury digs on Park Avenue-the game's draw is as much about personal interaction with exceedingly bright people as it is about trying to win their money.

However, when we meet in his suite at the Venetian, during one of Meltzer's poker jaunts to Vegas, he acknowledges that his opponents, often younger than half his age, have liked him for reasons that went beyond sociability. "Players used to say that I was good for the game," he recounts, using a term that defined him as easy pickings and in possession of a seemingly bottomless bankroll. "They couldn't wait to sit down with me."

One time in Vegas, early on in his poker evolution, during a blackjack trip with a friend, Meltzer announced intentions to try his luck against a table full of professionals. "My friend told me I was crazy; he told me I'd get myself killed," remembers Meltzer. Undaunted, he began playing, surely to the glee of the pros in the game. "Over the course of the session, after I was able to bluff Brian Rast [a well-known and successful online pro] off a hand he should have known better on, I realized I could hold my own."

If that was Meltzer's introduction to high-stakes poker, his true baptism came when he found himself at a $25/$50 no-limit table with players who included Johnny "The Orient Express" Chan. Meltzer was dealt the not-so-good starting hand of Queen, 8, and enjoyed the sort of indulgence that the very wealthy can afford: After everybody else folded, he stayed in for the opportunity to play a hand against Chan. When the flop came 8, 8, 9, he checked and called a substantial bet from Chan. "Johnny bet again on the [Queen producing] turn and I made like I was sweating it out," says Meltzer, who figured that his full house was good. "Then I thought that maybe Johnny had pocket 9s," he adds, which would give Chan a bigger full house. Meltzer called anyway and was rewarded with a miracle card on the river: a Queen that gave him three Queens over two 8s and almost certainly the winning hand.

All the money was in the pot. "I busted Johnny Chan for $35,000. He immediately got up, after playing just that one hand, and left the table. Boy was he pissed. Then we raised up the stakes to $100/$200 no limit, went into Bobby's Room and I continued to win-even though I was bluffing too much and calling too much," Meltzer remembers. But he got his comeuppance after an opponent hit a straight on the river, taking all of the money that Meltzer had on him, including the winnings from Chan.

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