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More than the Games

As poker's popularity skyrockets, many of the top names in the game are making more money as media darlings than as competitive players
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Antonio Banderas, Nov/Dec 2005

(continued from page 2)

"I've always been a good guy and felt comfortable dealing with people," says Negreanu, ticking off traits that are rare among those who choose poker as a way to earn a living. "Even when I play poker, I entertain at the table. I talk a lot and keep things lively. Of course, though, I'm not stupid. I realize that the more likable I am at the table, the more it helps me at the table." He maintains that people feel better about losing to a nice guy and that they're likely to chat back at him, giving away valuable information in the process.

While the poker boom, and all opportunities associated with it, might very well be in its infancy—and, if the Balsbaughs of the world have their way, will only intensify—there are some players who are less than thrilled about it all. They secretly long for the bad old days, when being a poker player was the equivalent of belonging to a secret society and the only way the Binions could get the World Series of Poker on TV was by picking up the production costs and paying ESPN $100,000.

Adam Schoenfeld got into high-stakes poker after he made his millions in high tech, as the vice president of Jupiter Communications (an Internet analysis firm that went public before the technology bubble burst), and he loved the underground nature of poker back in the 1990s. "I miss my squalid, seedy backroom club on Houston Street [in lower Manhattan], where the Italian chef cooked pasta to order," says the lanky, burr-headed pro. "I liked being part of something that wasn't homogenized."

On the other hand, he admits, "Right now I'm playing in a free-roll in which we're down to 45 players, the first prize is $200,000 [with a total prize pool of $500,000], and my equity is $10,000 but my entry fee was nothing. It's good money. But poker used to be where I went to get away from the real world." It goes without saying that poker has become the real world, complete with guys worrying about their reputations and the deals they're cutting.

Underscoring it all, at this year's World Series of Poker, players were suspended for 10 minutes each time they said "fuck." It's bad enough that you can't smoke in many poker rooms, now you can't even curse at the most famous poker event in the world. What's going to be taken away next—gambling? And even as Schoenfeld—a nonsmoker and, more or less, noncurser—misses the more freewheeling days, he admits to feeling some stress about winning enough tournament money to maintain his professional status (necessary for getting into free-roll tournaments) and discloses having a bit of angst about a recent poker-related TV audition.

Nevertheless, before leaving to try turning his zero-dollar entry fee into a six-figure windfall, Schoenfeld says, "We can't return to the old days, because there's simply too much money in poker now. But if I could, I would like to turn back the clock"—maybe for just one last Hold'em and pasta binge at the seedy joint on Houston Street.

Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.


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