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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.

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.

Looking back, he says, "It was a good lesson."

Since then, Meltzer has improved markedly. Though he's lost plenty of cash along the way, Meltzer views the cost of his poker education as tuition. Eventually, he believes, it will pay off solidly. "When I first met Alan, I thought he was the juiciest guy in the game; I thought he was the worst player ever," says Erik Boneta, a 29-year-old watch dealer who enjoys nipping at the pros. "Now, though, he is probably the most improved player I have ever met."

Unlike Meltzer and some of the others, Boneta does not seek out professional competition. But, as a consequence of the stakes he likes to play, he invariably comes up against guys like David Williams, Nick Shulman and David "Viffer" Peat. Considering the high standard of competition, he's not expecting to be the best player in the game, but he won't sit down if he's the worst either. Driving home the delineations between high-stakes professionals, serious amateurs like him and Meltzer, and the very best, Boneta remembers the night that Tom "durrrr" Dwan showed up at Boneta's regular game.

Dwan had a pair of friends with him and there were only two seats available at the table. Considering that Boneta's standard $25/$50 or $50/$100 stakes were not sufficiently nosebleed for Dwan, he suggested that his friends buy in. While they sat down, Dwan slipped into a spare bedroom. "Like 28 minutes later," remembers Boneta, "he came out with a big grin on his face and said, ‘I just won a quarter.' "

The word was shorthand, of course, for a quarter of a million-dollars. That casually stated sum underscores the ambitions, skills and desires that separate the true elite professional poker players and the exalted amateurs. For the former, it's a handsome living. For the latter, it's a gut check, a challenge and a potentially pricy kick. There's an element of fantasy attached to it and the knowledge that on any given day, a pro might be taken down. Additionally, considering how smart these guys are, you never know when someone who does it as a serious avocation will step up and actually turn into a consistent chip vacuum at the table.

In talking to Meltzer, who's devoting as much time to playing poker as any of the amateurs I've spoken with, a question is begged. As he competes at a tough level, going up against guys who think about little more than the game, has he yet crossed over to the point where poker is a profit center? "I'm not going to boast that I'm a winning player," Meltzer replies, sounding a little cryptic. "What I will say is that I can comfortably play poker against anybody."
And, as Jerry Buss attests, for the exalted amateur, being able to pull off that feat is enough.

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

LOU RUSSO: FROM ATTORNEY TO POKER PRO

Lou Russo is doing the very thing that a lot of people fantasize about. Russo, who's worked as an attorney and experienced success in the futures market, has taken the plunge and become a professional poker player. That happened in 2006, three years after he began playing the game seriously, and closely following a tournament windfall of more than $200,000 at the Borgata in Atlantic City.

He's won World Series of Poker seats and has come up against his share of seasoned, professional players. Sometimes they intimidated him, sometimes they inspired him, and at least one pro turned into a friend who willingly offered valuable advice. The pro in question is Andy "The Monk" Black, an Irishman who is highly respected on the European tournament circuit.

In the course of playing in the 2005 World Series of Poker main event, Russo buddied up with Black and quickly predicted that he'd win the tournament (close; Black finished fifth and took down a profit of $1,750,000). "When you're a relatively new poker player, you have a tendency to discuss bad beats," explains Russo. "Obviously Andy thought this was a waste of time. Before he would discuss a hand and how it should be played, he wanted to know everything about the hand: my position, my chip stack, where I was relative to other players. It took me aback, but it also helped to elevate my thinking, taking me up from the first level."

Over the course of his time playing tournaments, as he transitioned from amateur to pro, Russo came across his share of the game's superstars. He says that his toughest opponent, thus far, has been Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi. "He made one or two laydowns against me that I could not believe," marvels Russo. "At Foxwoods, I flopped top set, he flopped bottom set, and he got away from it after I check-raised a non-scary board. I didn't misplay my hand, but he made a hell of a laydown."

Other times, Russo discovered, his status as an amateur (or at least as a little-known pro) can be used to his advantage. "At the 2006 Main Event, I had Phil Ivey on the cut-off [one to the right of the dealer button] when I was in the big blind," remembers Russo. "I was relatively short stacked, he had more chips than me, and I knew I would not be getting a free ride; guys like Ivey are pure aggression and they will raise with any two cards. My philosophy here is that I will call wide-knowing how aggressive he is-and if I hit the flop I will make a lot of money. If I don't, I will fold and lose a little. I wound up losing 2,000 in chips to win 7,200 after I hit a flop pretty hard."

By playing against fearless pros, Russo has learned lessons that would never come to him if he stuck with games that only attract weaker amateurs. He knows that his playing at this level has helped him to make more careful decisions.

"You need to be disciplined enough to fold when the flop doesn't hit you," he advises, but he's also learned a few of the game's more subtle moves. Russo remembers one hand in which he made top set against the talented young pro David Williams. Williams, who appeared to be on a straight draw, folded to Russo's river bet. When he asked Russo what he had, Russo was at first a little cagey, only revealing to Williams that he had him beat. "Then I told him that I had the set," says Russo. "Telling him proved to be a good thing. It kept him a little more in line against me."

A couple days after our conversation, Russo headed to Atlantic City to play in the Borgata's Spring Poker Open, which culminates with a tournament that guarantees at least $1-million in prize money. He acknowledges that it's been a somewhat rough road thus far, with plenty of ups and downs and obstacles. But Russo views poker as a business and he is optimistic about his future in it. "This is like any start-up," he says. "I've been playing seriously since 2006, and I recognize that you experience some break-even stretches while hoping for a monster year. I'm confident about having that monster year. I'm in it and always learning."

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