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Shark Attack

To Play Poker with Vegas' Big Boys, Bring a Lot of Skill--and Plenty of Cash
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

The poker room at The Mirage in Las Vegas is one of those great democratic institutions that pays no heed to race, religion, creed or social pedigree. It doesn't matter here if you are a debt-laden deadbeat or the world's richest man or something in between: If you have the requisite buy-in--as low as $30--you're welcome to play in this expansive card arena. Poker is color-blind, except for the money being green.

That is why nobody who regularly gambles in The Mirage poker room was particularly dumbstruck when Bill Gates wandered in recently to play in the smallest game offered, a $3-to-$6-limit hold 'em affair. Though the irony of a multibillionaire gambling with the minimum-wage crowd was lost on nobody, the fact that Microsoft's CEO would sate his poker appetite in public, at The Mirage, was no surprise. Hollywood stars (and their agents), sports heroes, titans of industry, Bible Belt politicians--all come through here on an almost weekly basis.

Sure, it's always exciting to see one of the most powerful men in the world get his two-pair snapped off by a grandmother from Ohio. But to poker cognoscenti, the real drama was unfolding in the corner of the room, behind the velvet ropes, next to the sign that says "Please do not stand in this area," where seven locals and a wealthy visitor were conducting The Big Game.

Typically, The Big Game, where the wins and losses regularly run into six and seven figures, resembles a school of sharks dismembering an unfortunate bait fish. Today, though, the bait fish of the moment, a flamboyant Aussie, has grown fangs, and the sharks are looking for a place to hide.

Several years ago, author Al Alvarez wrote a revealing account of high-stakes poker in Las Vegas called The Biggest Game in Town. In his book, originally a series of articles in The New Yorker, Alvarez introduced readers to some of poker's heaviest hitters, a coterie of seasoned road gamblers and brilliant card sharps, reckless plungers and savant-like prodigies, who thought nothing of playing for pots the size (and value) of a 1979 Cadillac.

Some of the colorful gamblers from The Biggest Game in Town, like legendary two-time poker world champion Doyle Brunson, still play in The Big Game. Others have died. Most, however, have been supplanted by a new breed of player: The regular combatants in today's biggest game in town are generally younger, better educated and more private than their forefathers. They are less inclined to publicize their poker triumphs and less likely to fire the public's imagination. They don't publish how-to books or make appearances on late-night talk shows. They simply play poker--quite well, and for quite incomprehensible stakes.

Recently, before his untimely death last year, an enormously wealthy businessman from Paris known throughout Las Vegas as "The Frenchman" inspired the biggest poker game in America. He liked to play hold 'em for astonishingly large stakes, like $2,000 to $4,000 a bet. The local experts happily obliged, and The Frenchman often dropped $1 million or more per visit. Before him there was The Southern Gentleman, the scion of a prominent Confederate family. The Gentleman preferred good old-fashioned seven-card stud, the game his grandpappy played. Again, the local experts happily obliged, and The Southern Gentleman often dropped $1 million or more per visit. Before him there was The Movie Producer, and before him The Publisher, and before him a long legacy of brave visitors who wanted to play real big. The locals always obliged.

Most of the players in The Big Game just want to be left alone, free to ply their lucrative trade. (At their request, names and identifying details have been changed for this article.) But like the old-timers, the new breed plays in public, here at the corner table of The Mirage poker room. Anyone who wants to see the largest casino ring game in America can stop over and take a good look at the action, though if you tarry too long an officious employee with a clipboard and a regretful smile will politely tell you, "I'm sorry, we can't have anyone standing here."

Like fish need water, The Big Game needs a fish. There wouldn't be a game if not for the presence of an honored guest. The locals figure there's no point in playing each other: They'd just be passing the money back and forth, gambling without a discernible edge. They need a soft spot in the game, just one. Because when you play high enough, one producer is sufficient to feed the whole game. Divide $3 million up six ways and you've got a nice week's salary.

The generous visitor is the game's fuel. Be he a former governor or a billionaire industrialist with an utter disregard for money, his presence compels the best (and best-financed) poker players in Las Vegas to make the corner table at The Mirage their office until the visitor is ready to return home--usually after a week or so, with a million or two dollars less than when he arrived. Whether a celebrity or an anonymous member of a laudatory Forbes list, the game's honored guest usually is honored. He's honored just to be playing with the gang of experts that nearly everyone in poker considers the biggest talents in the game. Unlike tennis or basketball or hockey, where merely being super rich does not allow you to compete against the game's best practitioners, poker affords anyone with the courage and the bankroll the privilege of playing with the superstars.

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