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Winner Take All

After a week of bad beats and big bets, the 2004 World Series of Poker championship came down to a table of mostly unknown names
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

(continued from page 1)

David Sklansky, author of poker bibles such as Getting the Best of It, denies a rumor that Beal is taking lessons from him, though he does speculate that "maybe he's hired a game theory specialist to analyze the hands and figure out strategies."

Sklansky's guess gains credence as the opening days of the World Series near. One night, just outside the Golden Nugget's high-limit room, Corporation member Johnny Chan tells me that Beal has won more than $6 million during his most recent session of play. "Seventeen of us put up the bankroll, and we each lost $360,000 to him," says Chan, who acknowledges that Beal may be less skilled than the Brunsons of the world, but recognizes that he is plenty dangerous—especially when the stakes become sky-high. "He's fearless and you can't bluff him; the money is meaningless and he plays ultra-aggressive all the time. He only thinks of his hand [as opposed to reading his opponent] and won't back off of anything."

Contemplating the quality of Beal's play and the moves that a pro can employ against him, Chan slyly adds, "Let me put it this way: you can't bluff a sucker."

So how did the sucker get to be ahead by so much money during this last round? "Chip [Reese] was playing against him early in the morning, at 7 or 8 a.m. And Chip lost [around] $6 million to him. Chip is not only a solid player, but he is a player's player, a great player. He is the No. 1 or 2 player in the world. You will not find another Chip. I guarantee you Andy got lucky on Chip. The deck ran cold [for Reese]. Andy started catching gut-shot straights and making flushes."

Beal's good fortune converts into seven-figure bad beats that Chan can relate to. "Me and Andy played, and I had 7-8," continues Chan. "The flop came 4-5-6. I had the stone nuts. He raised me with 8-9 and caught a 7 on the end. What can you do?" The good news, adds Chan, is that "he'll be back within a month. Where else can he go? He's excited now. He's in heaven. And it's not the money. We are his toys. He wanted to accomplish this, and he did."

Back at the World Series, a different kind of bad beat is dealt to the online sites that had spent big bucks to send players to Vegas and provide them with hotel rooms and walking-around money as inducements to wear promotional hats and T-shirts. It is the reversal of an earlier policy, which stated that virtually any logo could be worn at each tournament's final table—a special table that is rigged for television, complete with multiple cameras, lights and spy-cams to view down cards—as long as no more than two players wear logos from any one site. After one site has five players wearing logos and another takes to passing out leaflets to spectators, tournament officials ban all gambling-site logos at the final tables—which, of course, will eclipse the lion's share of TV exposure. Adam Schoenfeld is angry with the sites that took advantage and disappointed by the timing: "We were waiting for one of our guys to make the final table. And the day T. J. Cloutier did it [during the the seven-card razz tournament] was the day the dictum came down."

Dan Goldman, of PokerStars, says that if logos had been banned ahead of time, "it would have been a tough decision [to invest $1 million in putting up players and providing them with swag]. We probably would not have done as much as we did. We hope [the World Series of Poker] will see the benefit of our involvement and be able to work something out for next year."

Logo-friendly or not, the championship event attracts so many entrants that opening day gets broken up into two flights. Nearly 1,300 players go up against one another in the first session, and an equal number play in the second. By the third day, it gets down to a manageable 1,100 or so and feels like a normal opening day. The primary difference is that some of the best-known players aren't there to participate. Online poker is typically faster and more aggressive than the live version, and many of the top flesh-and-blood stars appear unable to adjust their games. Cloutier gets knocked out when he fails to make his gut-shot straight—leaving a lot of people wondering why he went all in with an apparently marginal hand in the first place. Celebrities Norm Macdonald, James Woods and Tobey Maguire all get busted during their first day. An unknown gets lucky against Moneymaker, doing him in and, no doubt, causing untold heartache for the marketing folks at PokerStars, which had invested a lot of time, energy and, yes, money in promoting him as their guy. Now much of his TV time—complete with a PokerStars logo on his shirt and hat (permitted everywhere but at the final table)—will show him getting eliminated.

Whenever a well-known player gets low on chips, ESPN producers hustle over to monitor what they have taken to calling "deathwatches."

Cameras stay in close proximity, poised to capture every brutal moment of great players going bust. As the big names from World Series past—Phil Ivey, Johnny Chan, Howard Lederer—bite the dust, the TV people endlessly fret about there being "a final table full of nobodies."

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