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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

(continued from page 1)

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.

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