Big cash games lure poker pros and affluent amateurs to ante up their own money
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.
The other players, who view chemically off-kilter Matusow as vulnerable, eye his $100,000 stack and beg him to stick around. "Only if you each give me $1,000," Matusow crows back. Four of his opponents cough up a grand apiece. That appears to satisfy Matusow, who resumes gambling, wins a big hand and promptly becomes intolerable, telling his tablemates that they're donkeys for paying him to take their money. A short time later, however, as everyone in the game has been predicting, volatile Matusow flames and burns out. With his $100,000 stake eviscerated, Matusow gets up, turns to his poker pals and kiddingly announces, "I'm going to Hoover Dam and bungeeing without a cord." Some smaller stakes players, however, seem to thrive in this high altitude. Big-winning Big Game titan Barry Greenstein explains that he normally considers Esfandiari to be too loose of a tournament player, but "playing in this game, Antonio did pretty well. It leaves you thinking that getting Antonio out of his comfort zone tightens him up enough to make him a better player." The same might be said about Phil "Unabomber" Laak, the hoodie-wearing poker pro who's best known for hiding his head (and any tells) inside his sweatshirt and doing push-ups while waiting for critical cards to be dealt. Though Laak is a frequent cash-game player at L.A.'s Commerce Casino, he's not used to competing for mega-high stakes against the poker's greatest wizards.
But during the taping at the Palms, Laak ratchets up his game and rises to the occasion. He sits down and immediately creates a distinct table image when he declares that, after the first nine-hand round, he won't join the others in spending the rest of the game straddling (that is, starting off with a blind bet in front of them and, as a result, raising the stakes dramatically). Laak later acknowledges that the gambling was already high enough for him and that the $300,000 playing bank he brought in a shopping bag was based on there being no straddle.
He also points out that the eyebrow-raising pronouncement helped him inadvertently to establish a conservative table image. In poker parlance, refusing to straddle made him seem like a nit, a squeezer who plays by the book and lacks a whole lot of gamble. "The best thing is for them to think I'm a nit; that gives me a license to steal pots," explains Laak after his session has finished taping. "It's also great when they think you're insane or you have no clue or you're lucky." He acknowledges, on the other hand, that such impressions might not be beneficial for his public image and may negatively impact the likelihood of his being invited back on the show. He grimaces at those revelations and adds, "If I could have rethought it, I might have chosen to straddle [throughout]."
At any rate, he can't have many complaints about the outcome of his "High Stakes" session. Laak plays well and puts a truly impressive move on Daniel Negreanu. It happens after Laak catches a third six on the flop, keeps himself from showing strength, and plays as if he is on a draw. By the river, when Laak makes an oddball bet of $44,400, Negreanu is completely stymied, verbally acknowledging that he can't put Laak on a hand. Ultimately Negreanu feels compelled to call the big bet and mucks his cards after the Unabomber shows a set of 6s. That pot contributes mightily to Laak's two-day win of more than $280,000. But before you start feeling very bad for Negreanu, keep in mind that, this season, his first round of "High Stakes" action, took him from being stuck $175,000 to being ahead by $200,000.
While the players are clearly having a good time, enjoying the TV exposure, and earning $1,200 per hour from GSN (a pittance when you consider the capital they're putting at risk and the many hours of programming that GSN is getting), the advantages of playing on air seem minimal for some. So much so that Doyle Brunson and Greenstein initially expressed ambivalence about participating in the second season (although both ultimately did). Henry Orenstein's opinion notwithstanding, Greenstein, who's already as famous as he wants to be, believes that playing cards on TV can hurt his earning power: "Seeing the hands I play and the hands I discard probably helps people who play against me." And for someone who regularly competes in the world's biggest cash games, "High Stakes Poker" is almost not high stakes enough. "If I can get to winning six figures in a game, that is when it starts to seem worth my time," Greenstein explains, sounding very matter of fact. "And if I can get to seven figures, then it is really big-deal stuff. I think I have a reasonable chance of winning $100,000 today. But I need to adjust down. In this game the stakes are about one-third of what I normally play."
For example, Greenstein recalls a $75,000 all-in bet that came from Brunson during the first season of the show. Holding queens at the time, Greenstein was thinking in terms of the stakes they routinely play at, and he acknowledges that he would not normally fold his queens over a $75,000 call. "But I probably should have given it more thought and related to the stakes properly. At my normal stakes a $225,000 bet from Doyle would have made me think for a long time about calling, and I probably would have laid it down." Greenstein sighs, then adds, "I didn't play that badly, but I need to get into people's heads and think about what the bets mean to them."
On the upside, unlike with tournament poker, when this TV taping ends, the game continues—in one form or another. People who play in tournaments compete within a very finite time frame. But for cash game players, the action is ongoing. As one big-money specialist has told me, "When you go to sleep at night, you're just taking a break; the game never really ends. It goes on and on and on…" And that, no doubt, makes it easier to deal with the inevitable bad beats. While nobody wants to be bluffed or outplayed on television (or spend six figures just to see an opponent's decisively winning cards), there is the reality that you're never knocked out of action, unless you go broke. Even then, more money is always available somewhere and there is no such thing as the killer hand that puts you on life support.
Lucky for Daniel Negreanu, who thinks he has it made at the Palms when the board pairs 5s on the turn and gives him a full house of 6s over 5s (the flop is 5-6-9). He is head-to-head with Gus Hansen, who's been betting from the flop onward. Negreanu must be concerned that Hansen has a bigger full house, but he calls the Danish player's moderate raises and bets (Hansen pushes in $24,000 after the 5 comes on the turn). Then, when Hansen checks on the river, Negreanu makes a healthy bet of $65,000 only to see Hansen fire back and go all in.
"This can be ugly," Negreanu says, mostly to himself but partly to the camera and partly to the poker-faced Hansen, contemplating what to do next. "He might've been setting the trap."
Negreanu counts chips, goes through hand possibilities, considers what he might be up against, then decides to call, pushing in enough money to make a pot of $547,000. He jokes, "If I lose this hand, there's a cooler in the game," referring to the possibility of a fixed deck.
Hansen turns over a pair of 5s, giving him an improbable four of a kind—which slaughters his opponent's full house. It is a big and disappointing loss for Negreanu. Although Hansen's play initially seems odd, it makes sense after he explains it. "I didn't think Daniel had a full house and figured he'd be likelier to make a bet than to call my bet," he says.
But that's cold comfort for Negreanu. He still looks quite stunned as the next hand is dealt, new victors emerge, the cameras continue to roll and fresh opportunities arise. With no time for the savoring of victory or the mourning of defeat, poker's never-ending game of high stakes Hold'em speeds along on its infinite path to heaven for some and oblivion for others.
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
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