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All Bets Are On

Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

What would you say to a morbidly obese man who can barely walk, yet claims that he can do five sit-ups on the spot? If you happen to be Roger Moore -- the high-stakes poker player, not the actor -- an appropriate response might be, "Wanna bet?"

Moore offered precisely this bet to supersized Doyle Brunson in Las Vegas during a poker game in Caesars Palace's high-stakes arena. Brunson proceeded to complete five sit-ups on the spot and collected his five grand. Later on Brunson was heard to comment, "I'd have bet all my money on that one, but I didn't want to scare the guy off."

You can argue that $5,000 is chump change for high-stakes gamblers who risk that much on a single card without feeling a nervous twitch, but wagers like this one are for more than money. They're called proposition bets and qualify as the crack of wagers, as they provide gamblers with an immediate but short-lasting buzz of action.

Howard Lederer, a professional poker player and a vegetarian who once ate a cheeseburger to win a $10,000 bet that he wouldn't consume meat, sees an intellectual angle to these seemingly degenerate wagers.

"You're trying to figure things out when you make the bets," says Lederer, agreeing that the most impressive props tend to fall into three categories: self-improvement, feats of athletic prowess and goofy things that nobody would normally want to do (one gambler, for instance, spent 48 straight hours in the Vegas go-go bar Crazy Horse, Too). "The fact that nobody has yet figured out whether or not these things can be done is what makes the bets interesting. And it's the satisfaction of winning a bet that makes you want to do it. The amount of money is never enough to impact anybody's lifestyle."

Lederer is hanging out in the Bellagio sport book, sitting amid the big-screen TVs, next door to the poker room, where prop bets are routinely cooked up between hands. Bearded and burly, Lederer describes himself as a "weight bet sucker" (somebody who bets that he can lose weight but never quite manages to stick with the diet). He is far from alone. Pro gambler Russ Hamilton estimates that Brunson, one of the world's greatest poker players and savviest sport bettors, has lost upwards of $3 million on weight wagers. "The bets always start off really well, then you lose a big pot in poker and order a pizza," says Hamilton, who's been in that situation, too. "Making a $50,000 weight bet with Doyle Brunson is the best bet you can ever make in your life. But you have to be careful who you bet with. You need to make these bets with people who don't care about the money. Some guys will cut off their arms to win a $50,000 bet."

While weight bets tend to be long shots for gamblers with girth, there are other wagers for which a hefty physique can be beneficial, as it was for Brunson with the sit-up challenge. Lederer certainly used size to his favor when Huck Seed claimed he could beat him, hopping on one foot, in a 50-yard dash. The fact that Seed, a former World Series of Poker champion, had already proven himself to be extremely athletic (via a wide range of other prop bets) didn't bother Lederer one bit. After watching Lederer do a preliminary run, Seed realized that he could never win on one foot and paid off the $5,000 bet.

But that's OK, because he got back at Lederer with another bet, one involving a back flip. "Huck beat me out of $10,000 on that one," says Lederer. "He's 6 feet, 6 inches tall and had to do a standing back flip. He had to start flat on his feet, jump over, and land on his feet backwards. That was the bet. Apparently his father or his uncle was an acrobat, and Huck learned to do it with a harness, jumping into a pool or something." Lederer's voice is full of admiration, sounding as though he figures that Seed earned the money and deserves it. "Huck takes pride in the physical stuff. He's a talented guy."

Asked to comment on his seemingly uncanny skills as a prop bettor, Seed shrugs them off, insisting, "People think I win a lot more of these proposition bets than I really do." Even though Seed lost a "beard" bet (he had to spend a year not shaving, but needed to when there was a death in the family) and an "ocean" bet (fellow poker player Phil Hellmuth bet him $50,000 that he could not stand up to his shoulders in the ocean for 18 hours. Seed lasted three before paying off), Lederer is skeptical about Seed's purported mediocrity. "Huck has been struggling a little bit in poker, but he has not been struggling in proposition bets."

Maybe Lederer's opinion stems from Seed's having won what most of us would deem an impossibly challenging bet. With many thousands of dollars at stake, he had to play a desert golf course four times in a single day and break 100 on each round while using only a 5-iron, a sand wedge and a putter. "The guy making the bet was able to choose the day, and he selected a day when the temperature was up to 120 degrees," remembers Lederer, adding that Seed had to play without the benefit of a cart -- he had to run the course to complete all the holes. "He shot a 100 on his first round at 6 in the morning. So at 8:30 he still had to shoot four more rounds." More incredible than Seed's winning the bet is that he improved with each round. As Seed put it at the time, "I really got into a groove with the 5."

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