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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

(continued from page 1)

When things are going well, however, Ivey has no aversion to making big bets. On a trip to Hawaii, while he and poker pro Joe Cassidy were playing for relatively low stakes ($5,000 a hole), Ivey found himself facing a 60-yard chip shot. As related by Negreanu, Ivey asked Cassidy to bet him on it and got 200-to-1 odds on a $1,000 bet. The correct odds have been placed in the range of 2,000-to-1—so Cassidy was getting a pretty good price—but then Ivey sunk the chip for a $200,000 payday. Cassidy, by all accounts, felt pretty sick about the whole thing.

But not all of Ivey's golf bets are so easy to win. Soon after undertaking golf he made a long-term wager with Erick Lindgren. "Phil and I mouth off to each other all the time, and I told him that he will never beat me in 72 holes of match play," remembers Lindgren. "So we made a half-million-dollar bet on it. He has 10 years, with 10 tries a year, to do it. And we made another bet for this year: the same deal, 10 tries. As far as this year goes, I think he's got no shot. Even Phil makes a bad bet sometimes."

And even when the bet is a perfectly good one, he occasionally has a hard time collecting. Such was the case when Ivey tangled with British poker pro Ram Vaswani and his golf/poker buddy Marc Goodwin during the Aussie Millions poker tournament this past January. Ivey and his caddie slaughtered the Brits. Vaswani and Goodwin cried foul, maintaining that Ivey had misrepresented the degree to which he'd improved since their last match (which Ivey had lost and paid off). The sum that Ivey and his caddie won was well into the six figures and driven up by Vaswani's desire to get even. When the sand cleared, however, he refused to pay. Vaswani's logic for reneging? He had been hustled by a friend.

Soon after that imbroglio, the matter was settled in the way that a lot of gambling disputes are: a three-person arbitration committee convened behind closed doors at the Bellagio. Chip Reese, Erik Sagstrom and Gus Hansen heard all sides of the argument. The situation is supposedly resolved and by mutual agreement the decision has been kept private.

Regardless of how things were hashed out, the very fact that Goodwin and Vaswani would use the hustling allegation to get out of paying speaks volumes about the prevailing attitudes of young golfers today. Back in the day, when poker pros were repeatedly fleecing and getting fleeced, hustling was a part of the game. (Puggy Pearson, for example, once came close to getting shot after he kicked his ball to improve its lie during a big match against the convicted marijuana trafficker Jimmy Chagra, a notorious pigeon in the 1970s.) Russ Hamilton, who won the World Series of Poker in 1994 and is a notoriously tricky golf opponent, once marveled, "Regular golfers don't have it in them to miss a hole on purpose. They always play as well as they possibly can." Not Hamilton. When a hole is inconsequential, he will happily flub it to increase his equity in the match or in the future.

The irony of high-stakes golf among the new-generation players is that none of them are really very good and, thus, not really in a position to hustle. Most of the hackers, Ivey notwithstanding, are admittedly too lazy to improve their games. As a result, they shoot in the 90s, although they gamble with the gusto of scratch players. This has created fabulous opportunities for Mike Sexton, who seems genial as host of World Poker Tour but becomes a killer on the golf course, especially when the money of a young poker pro is at stake. "Sexton can be a dog," maintains Lindgren. "Last year, he said that he can't break 90. Then he went out and shot 77 on me. He won eight bets and $80,000. Hopefully, though, I'll give him his medicine someday. I'd like to punish him."

Back on the greens and fairways of Canyon Gate, the foursome of poker stars squares off against one another amid simmering action. Going into the last three holes, Negreanu has distinguished himself as the big winner for the day. At the moment, he is positioned to go home with $40,000 or $50,000 in profits from what thus far seems like a friendly round of golf.

But like all friends on the course, each of these men manages the game's frustrations differently. Lindgren, who is being spanked to the tune of $30,000, handles his losses with little more than the occasional grimace and groan. Husky Gavin Smith has exercised his propensity for pitching golf balls after blowing easy putts. Sheikhan is playing well enough but sweating every hole on his home course, jumping in and out of bets, getting into an argument with Lindgren about moving a ball away from a sprinkler head (but laughing about it right after) and half-seriously accusing his opponents of sandbagging. Negreanu, meanwhile, is coasting through the round and loving every second of it.

At the same time, however, he never forgets that this is as much about gambling as it is about golf. Illustrating the point, he recounts an incident that took place while he and his friend Lindgren were playing a round in Lake Tahoe. "I hit the green, had a 15-foot putt, and Erick bet me $10,000 to win $20,000 on the putt. I was getting a stroke on the hole, so I pretty much had that bet won," he says. "Now it was all about sinking this putt. His ball was lined up with mine, and he was going first, so I had an opportunity to see which way the green broke. He was about to hit the ball, when he looked at me and said, 'You've got to be kidding.'" Lindgren whacked the ball off to the side, unconcerned about his own score. He was much more interested in keeping his opponent from gleaning any knowledge about the impending putt. The subterfuge, by the way, was for naught: Negreanu made it.

By the final hole today, it actually looks as if relatively small sums will change hands. "If things go well," Lindgren tells me, "I'll owe $40,000 to Negreanu and win $20,000 from Sheiky and Gavin." He smiles widely and adds, "Losing $20,000 at golf? That'll be a beautiful day for me. Just perfect."

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