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The Hold'em Hackers

Not content with making a fortune at the tables, poker pros are now taking aim at golf
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

It was the summer of 2006 when Daniel Negreanu realized that poker's biggest players had completely flipped for golf. Over the course of a few weeks that season, the Bellagio's highest stakes tables remained eerily vacant. Deep-pocketed sharks were going to bed early and rising in time to tee off before it got too hot. "It was kind of creepy," remembers Negreanu, standing in the living room of his Las Vegas home, as he obsessively takes practice swings with a clicking and ratcheting contraption that is designed to perfect his drive. "The golf action had gotten bigger than poker. Everyone who played in the Big Game seemed to be out on the golf course." Indeed, among top poker players, golf has become a Hold'em doppelgänger. There's even a new tournament format, dubbed the World Series of Golf, in which you literally bet on holes as if they're Hold'em hands (not surprisingly, two top poker pros made it to the final foursome). On the cash tip, guys such as Barry Greenstein, Doyle Brunson, Bobby Baldwin, Phil Ivey and Erick Lindgren have all embraced (or, in some cases, reembraced) the game at its highest stakes level. And they're putting their Benjamins where their mouths are. Rounds at Shadow Creek with $50,000 wagers on every hole are not uncommon. Baldwin recently landed a 45-foot putt and collected $120,000 on spontaneous side bets. Lindgren casually dropped $10,000 after goofily wagering that he wouldn't toss a golf club for the remainder of a round. He smirks and acknowledges that he hung in there for 20 minutes.

Swedish pro Erik Sagstrom is so bullish on the game that he's invited wagers as to whether he can make the U.S. Open within 10 years. "I asked him if he would bet $1 million to $10 million," recalls Mike Sexton, commentator for the World Poker Tour. "He said it would have to be $10 million to win $100 million. He knows how hard it is to get that good; he'd need to give up his poker career. But it shows the confidence the guy has and how skillful he thinks he can get." It also shows how big golf has become among gamblers. No doubt, on his way toward the Open, Sagstrom, whether he makes it or not, would become sharp enough to win much more than $10 million by gambling on the course.

The gumption of transplanted Parisian poker star David Benyamine is nearly as audacious as Sagstrom's. After playing the game for just two weeks, he made a sizable bet with Doyle Brunson, wagering that within two more weeks he could outplay Brunson, who had once been close to a scratch golfer but is no longer that adept. Brunson wanted to book the bet, recounts Negreanu, "but people convinced David not to do it. It's actually impossible for him to win, and nobody wants to see the money going to Doyle and leaving the poker economy."

Veteran gamblers such as Brunson, Bobby Baldwin and Dewey Tomko have been playing high-stakes golf for decades. Back in the 1970s, Las Vegas Country Club reigned as the site for seven-figure matches. By the turn of the century, however, as poker was poised to become America's hottest game, action on the course dried up. But now the pendulum is swinging back again. "The new players are gamblers at heart," says Sexton, a fixture at Shadow Creek, where he regularly squares off against Brunson and Baldwin (who rides the course with two bags of clubs). "I like to play for $20,000 a hole [rather than $50,000, which is the preference of Baldwin and Brunson]; that way you're unlikely to lose more than $100,000 in a single day."

Sexton allows this to sink in for a moment before recognizing how outrageous it all sounds. "You have to realize that these guys play in poker games where you can easily drop half a million dollars over the course of a session. So having a $100,000 win or loss at golf just isn't so big. It's difficult for an ordinary guy to understand this, but that's just the way it is."

The point is driven home on a spring morning in Las Vegas. Negreanu and Lindgren embark on a friendly round with fellow poker pros Shawn "Sheiky" Sheikhan and Gavin Smith. The match is being held at Canyon Gate, a private country club, and is being taped by the online site RawVegas.com. After a 45-minute warm-up on the driving range, punctuated by loads of negotiating, needling and squabbling, a complex skein of bets is stitched up: all told, there will be $19,000 wagered on every hole. Negreanu and Lindgren each book $5,000 total-score bets with Sheikhan (Negreanu needs to break 99, Lindgren needs to break 84), a few Nassaus are thrown into the mix, and they head off to the first tee.

Continually angling to get today's action higher, no doubt convinced that he can stomach mega-stakes better than some of his competitors can, Negreanu grumbles, "We're playing so cheap it's embarrassing." That said, a few holes in, with his potential profits for the day already passing $25,000 and the round shaping up to be one of the best of his life, he doesn't exactly appear to be blushing. But he is a little bummed: "Why can't I be shooting like this when I'm playing against Doyle for $50,000 a hole?"

Among poker pros, it is largely agreed that the recent spate of golf action was kicked off by Texas Hold'em champ Phil Ivey. Once nicknamed the Tiger Woods of Poker, Ivey is now looking to do that moniker justice. By all accounts he took up golf to have something constructive to do when he wasn't playing poker. But as a gambler, Ivey couldn't get motivated by engaging in $100 Nassaus. But once the golf-gambling poker pros realized that Ivey was willing to drive and putt for the same stakes he risked at the Bellagio, they were on him. After all, he was a superstar at the table but a novice in the tee box. His quick infatuation with golf presented a perfect opportunity for them to snatch away some of his Hold'em millions.

For a while Ivey was the live one when it came to matching up (that is, negotiating strokes and terms, which is at the heart of every golf wager). At the beginning he blew a lot of money on the course. But then something happened: Ivey got tired of losing and became serious about the game. He hired a former tour pro known as Danny to coach, caddie and advise on matchups. Ivey reportedly pays Danny a weekly salary and a cut of the winnings. In exchange, says Negreanu, "This guy's always with Phil on the course. Basically, Phil will not play without Danny. Besides helping Phil to match up and improve his game, Danny can detect hustlers from a mile away."

Sometimes, however, bizarre things happen. Negreanu remembers one match between him and Ivey in which Ivey had fallen behind and was having trouble with his swing. In the middle of the round, Ivey pulled out a couple dozen golf balls and turned the fairway into a driving range, working with Danny to straighten out his swing before he'd be willing to continue the match. "I sat there and got iced," recalls Negreanu, "while he hit practice shots. It's not normally allowed, but we're friends and he told me that if he can't hit the ball, he's going to quit for the afternoon." This is something that Ivey is notorious for. He only gambles hole for hole (as opposed to playing Nassaus) and negotiates the provision that he can bail at any time. In that regard, he treats the golf course as if it's a poker table. If he's not feeling up for it, or believes that things are unlikely to fall his way, he leaves—often without even saying good-bye.


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