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The $100,00 Buy-In

Big cash games lure poker pros and affluent amateurs to ante up their own money
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

If you spend very much time reporting on the world of high-stakes Texas Hold'em, it is inevitable that you will be kicked out of a poker room or two. I am no exception. I've been eighty-sixed from Bobby's Room in the Bellagio, a high-stakes home game at Trump Tower, and an underground poker club that once dominated a busy corner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The evictions don't stem from my having done anything terribly wrong; in each instance, I was simply there, invited by a player in regard to a story I was working on, sometimes scribbling notes and other times merely observing (once with a take-out salad in hand, expecting to be there for the night and anticipating that I'd need to be fortified—needless to say, I wound up eating the salad at home). The problem with watching these elite poker battles is that reporters, kibitzers, "sweaters" and the general public are usually unwelcome. This is completely different, of course, from poker tournaments held in casinos, where reporters are accredited, bleachers are rolled out for fans, and television cameras are often present.

Obviously, the private cash games, in which players can blow through $100,000 or more over the course of a single session, sometimes a single hand, are more intriguing, stressful, dramatic and competitive than tournaments with $10,000 buy-ins. But observing big cash games—in which top-of-the-line pros are in their natural habitat—has long been difficult for guys such as myself and impossible for most everyone else. Too bad, because, judging from the little bit of action I've been privy to, I can tell you that the money at risk, the personalities, the strategies, the clashes and the rivalries are fascinating.

Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks this. Last year, I received a telephone call from a publicist with the Game Show Network. He told me about a Vegas-based television program that was being developed in which big-name pros would be playing a cash game of no-limit Texas Hold'em. At the time, this publicist wasn't sure who would participate, but he seemed confident that the game and show, called "High Stakes Poker," would succeed. I heard the guy out, told him that I couldn't see it happening. I didn't understand why the Doyle Brunsons and Johnny Chans of the world would be willing to risk six-figure buy-ins to create a show for GSN. After all, they could play for similar money, with more control, in the Bellagio. We chatted for a few minutes, he accepted my skepticism, and that was it. Or so I thought.

Fast-forward to this past February when I happen to be chatting with Daniel Negreanu, one of poker's top players. "Have you seen 'High Stakes Poker?'" he asks me. I tell him that I haven't and that I'm pretty burned out on televised poker. Seeming surprised, he says, "Considering what you write about, I thought you'd be watching it. It's really great. You ought to check it out." I discover that Negreanu dropped a six-figure sum on the program and that he likes it so much that he'll be anteing up for a second season. Right there is a vote of confidence that I don't ignore. So, one Monday night soon after, I tune in, and he was right, the publicist was right and I was wrong.

The show is excellent, the action is heavy and the table talk is at turns funny, enlightening and colorful. After cash-game specialist Eli Elezra orders a soft drink and innocently says to a cocktail waitress, "Lay it down there, baby," a big-money regular, noticing that Elezra is up, fires back, "Lay it down there, baby? You only say that because you're ahead. If you were losing, it'd be, like, 'Gimme my drink, bitch.'" Try that at the World Series of Poker and you might find yourself suspended from play for 10 minutes.

Big name pros—including Chan, Brunson and Negreanu—sit at the table with bricks of cash and giant stacks of Golden Nugget chips (the first season was shot at the Nugget). Blinds are $300/$600 with antes of $100 and the buy-in is a minimum of $100,000, but Negreanu pulls up with a $1 million arsenal. "I wanted to start with the dominant chip stack," he says with a shrug. Maybe so, but that doesn't explain why the pros have signed up for this show. Creator Henry Orenstein, a fairly legendary TV producer, highly adept seven-card stud player and inventor of the in-table camera, (which allows viewers to see players' hole cards) says it's simple: "The pros play in cash games anyway, and their desire to be on TV is bigger than their worrying about giving away secrets." One major allure here is the pros are not just playing against each other. Sprinkled in among the Vegas card sharks are well-off amateurs, including Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Chicago-based restaurateur and backgammon specialist Freddie Chamanara, and Vegas physician Amir Nasseri, along with a smattering of poker pros who are best known as tournament players. "Doing well in tournaments is about beating up on weak players; so a lot of [the top tournament players'] games are geared toward dinky value bets and telegraphing hand strengths in certain situations," says Barry Greenstein, who's made so much money playing cash games that he donates all his substantial tournament proceeds to charity. "In this game they can't give away their hand strengths or people will take them off of their hands. I will do that. I like playing against tournament players, even though they get recognized as being the best players in the world"—generally because they log more TV time than their better heeled, better playing, cash-game counterparts. "To me, tournament players are predictable."

When nine-time World Series of Poker winner Phil Hellmuth sat down to play on the "High Stakes Poker" set last season, Negreanu literally licked his chops and uttered "Yum" as if he was getting ready to eat a big slice of birthday cake. "I think Daniel's reaction was a combination of doing it for TV and doing it to put Phil off," says Gabe Kaplan, the former "Welcome Back, Kotter" star who is a top player in his own right and the commentator for "High Stakes" (he manages to be knowledgeable and hilarious). "Phil's not quite as good as the people who play the big cash games, but I think he is better than they give him credit for being. And he tried to make some star plays because of the pressure he was under—everybody acts a little different on TV." Hellmuth went through six figures' worth of his money before departing.

His quick spanking illustrates that for the heartiest of big-time cash players, the advantage is substantial. Jennifer Harman, the skinny, blond-haired poker pro who's competing in the second season of "High Stakes" (held at the Palms and slated to premiere June 9), explains the difference between playing for cash and playing tournaments. "Cash games are more about getting extra value for your hands," she says prior to a taping on a set that is designed to resemble the living room of a hotel suite (complete with girlfriends and hangers-on lounging upon sofas and milling about). "If you think you are a slight favorite in a cash game, you raise. In a tournament, because chips are so valuable [i.e., once you lose them, they can't be replaced], you would just call the bet." Harman, who often wears a black leather jacket at the table and, notably, is the only female who antes up in the famously high-stakes Big Game at the Bellagio, is quick to point out that cash-game players tend to be more resilient than the tournament specialists. "You need a lot of heart to play cash," she says. "To lose and go broke is a lot more devastating than busting out of a $10,000 tournament." She explains that cash players take bigger risks with their money, realize richer rewards and generally operate in a more competitive environment. That said, she points out that one edge all the big-money cash-game players bring to the table is the ability to handle losing extremely large sums.

For example, during the first season, after Antonio "The Magician" Esfandiari dropped $100,000 in a single hand, he looked stunned and immediately acknowledged that it was the most he had ever lost in the turn of seven cards. "One of my advantages is that I can stomach losses," says Harman, whose normal poker milieu is games with stakes that start at $2,000/$4,000 and go up to $4,000/$8,000 or even higher. "Right now, my pain threshold is about $400,000 in one night. I can lose $350,000 and go home and feel OK as long as I played well and made the right decisions. If you're a tournament player and you lose that kind of money, your stomach is going to hurt." Indeed, during the first day of play at the Palms, Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, who won $1 million at the 2006 World Series of Poker and is best known as a tournament player (though he plays cash online and got his start competing in Vegas ring games), appears to be a favorite whipping boy. But he gives as good as he gets; at one point he seriously insists that he is the most famous player in poker, and that he's very quick to single out perceived faults in his opponents. Then he throws everyone completely for a loop when, after half a day of action, he announces that he will be leaving.

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