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Trump Cards: The U.S. Poker Championship

Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

Poker tournaments are similar to PGA Tour golf events: They measure their success by the quality of the field they attract. Like the unfortunate Tour stops that are scheduled opposite the British Open or Ryder Cup, struggling poker tournaments draw few players and, in turn, even fewer top players. Flourishing poker tournaments, on the other hand, draw thousands of entrants and most of the "leading money winners," who follow the scent of available cash like vultures find carrion. The presence of big-name competitors--world champions, winners of the poker "majors"--gives a poker tournament instant prestige and cachet, like when Tiger Woods or Greg Norman deigns to play the Greater Milwaukee Open.

The World Series of Poker, at Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, draws the biggest and best field in poker. The tournament is 27 years old. The United States Poker Championship, at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, draws the second biggest and second best field in poker. The tournament is one year old.

There are any number of plausible reasons why a fledgling poker tournament like the U.S. championship might draw more than 3,000 entries and pay out more than $4 million in prize money: the novelty of simply being something new in the world of gambling, the highly respected administrators (Jim Albrecht and Jack McClelland, who also run the World Series) directing and coordinating the action, the East Coast location.

And one more reason: a guy named Donald J. Trump attaching his name to the event.

Trump, as you must know--for he wouldn't be doing his job well if you didn't--likes Big. He likes Top. He likes Number One. So you can be sure when Donald J. Trump presents the inaugural United States Poker Championship at his Trump Taj Mahal casino, the event won't be just another new tournament hoping to get its feet wet in the immense pool of money that is professional wagering. It'll be a Trump kind of thing.


Trump has an enormously developed talent for attracting television cameras, even to poker tournaments, which normally draw hapless dreamers and ruthless opportunists, not network news coverage. Thus the USPC is the kind of Trumpian spectacle where, in addition to the best poker players in the world, a young lady named Yasmine Bleeth, one of the cast members on the syndicated bikini-fest "Baywatch," competes for the $500,000 first prize. Though her putative assets are plain to see, her poker-playing ability is not as immediately clear. Still, in the early going of the main event, before the 10 o'clock news crews have left, before the bags under her eyes start to show through her cosmetic fortification, Yasmine Bleeth has a ton of chips. The delicious irony in all of this--lost on the paparrazi and boom-mike operators--is that Ms. Baywatch, through the luck of the draw, has been randomly assigned a seat next to a gentleman named Huck Seed, who happens to be the reigning World Champion of Poker. The further irony is that he has far fewer chips than a lady whose chief talent was previously thought to be wearing a swimsuit.

Flashing a smile almost as glittering as the ornate chandeliers that hang over the Taj Mahal poker room, Bleeth tells the cameras she has never played poker before, but that it's a lot of fun to find a sport where you don't have to sweat.

Now, whether or not tournament poker is a "sport" may be open to discussion, but, as far as the arbiter in such matters, ESPN, is concerned, poker qualifies. The total sports network has dispatched a large production crew to the U.S. Poker Championship to produce an hourlong highlight show for airing after the Super Bowl. (This being the championship's first edition, one can sense the hand of Trump at work again, garnering coverage that others might take years to procure.) ESPN has enlisted Gabe "Welcome Back, Kotter" Kaplan, himself an accomplished poker player, to do color commentary and spot interviews with the poker luminaries in attendance, including, of course, The Girl from Baywatch, as everyone has taken to calling the gambler seated next to Huck Seed.

Besides Seed, seven former world champions are in the field, including Phil Hellmuth Jr., who, in contrast to Seed, steadily and surely amasses a stack of chips, cutting away at his opponents' bankrolls--and confidence--like a surgeon removing a polyp. Hellmuth raises frequently and fearlessly, forcing the competition to constantly guess: Does he or doesn't he? Does he have the hand he claims to have, or is he bluffing? This being a no-limit event--meaning you may bet any or all of your chips at any time--being wrong can mean an early exit from the tournament and a quick farewell to your $7,500 entry fee. Of the 100 contestants in the finals of the USPC, Hellmuth seems best prepared to take home the half million.

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