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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

(continued from page 1)

It's an ego thing.

Some of the out-of-towners who take a shot at The Big Game believe they may have the skills and stamina and character to win. Some aren't sure but intend to find out. And others know they're not very good. They just want to be able to say they played with the great ones--and had a great time.

This week at The Mirage, the visitor--call him The Aussie--is a magnificently rich restaurant magnate from Melbourne who considers poker his second favorite hobby after big game hunting. "These days it's easier to find a good poker game than to shoot an elephant," he cackles, tucking a long lock of auburn hair behind his ear.

To his delight, The Aussie finds himself competing against the usual Las Vegas suspects: The Wonk, a lean, impeccably groomed software designer-turned-gambler; Big Ricky, who gave up a lucrative rare-coin business for an even more lucrative career in poker; The Philanderer, who finances his expensive taste in wives at the gaming tables; The Pretty Boy, a former model who has parlayed his family's trust fund into a seat with the big boys; The Hick, who has built the profits from his chain of Midwestern sporting goods stores into a formidable poker bankroll; The Gamesman, an internationally recognized bridge and backgammon expert whose love of games led him to the most dangerous one of all; and The Bruiser, a waif-like wisp of a man who is often called the best all-around player in poker. Four other professionals, including a couple of middle-limit players hoping to take a once-a-year shot at the big time, have their names on the waiting list.

You can almost taste the anticipation, the barely restrained urge to begin the hunt. One pro tells me that this particular game, even for the corner table of The Mirage, is unusual. "Normally, the biggest game in here is maybe one-tenth the size of this game," he says. "This is a two- or three-times-a-year kind of occurrence. Except for when Archie [Karas] was playing everyone heads-up [see Cigar Aficionado, Summer 1994], I haven't seen a game like this in a while, not since The Frenchman."

The form of poker they play is whatever The Aussie feels like playing. During his last visit several months ago, it was $2,000-to-$4,000 seven-card stud. Today it is pot-limit Omaha, a four-card variation of hold 'em, in which the player must meld two cards from his hand with three community cards on the table. The ante is $500. The blinds--compulsory bets made without looking at one's hand--are $1,000 to $2,000. The maximum bet is the size of the pot or $75,000, whichever is less. The buy-in is $100,000, though most players start with at least double that.

Whereas most poker games are accompanied by the staccato clatter of ceramic chips hitting the pot, The Big Game's sound is augmented by the dull thud of bundled $100 bills being blithely tossed onto the green felt.

According to one pro on the waiting list, the honored guest has no hope of selecting a game in which he has the advantage: The superstars of Las Vegas are good at all forms of poker. But The Aussie's choice, pot-limit Omaha, may be the worst possible alternative. "This game will give the amateur player a repeatedly bad price [odds] on his hand, and he won't ever know it," the pro whispers. "Some other games, The Aussie might have a chance to get lucky. But this one? Almost no chance."

If The Aussie has any edge, the pro says, it's his physical conditioning. "If he's stuck, he can play 36 hours straight. Timewise, this guy can play us into the ground. Just like he respects our skills, we respect his fortitude. There're not many people who can stay awake that long, let alone play decent poker. Besides that, though, I don't see how he could beat this game."

How about by getting lucky? To the chagrin of the assembled experts, The Aussie begins his planned three-week stay in Las Vegas with four consecutive winning sessions. Though he plays nearly every hand dealt to him--a sure recipe for financial disaster--The Aussie is pounding the game, scooping up $20,000 pots as if they were so many stray quarters. In a typical encounter, a pro will raise the pot; The Aussie will call. After the community cards are distributed, the pro will bet again; The Aussie will raise him back the size of the pot, or, in some cases, $75,000. Most of the time the pro, not wanting to risk the price of a new Mercedes, surrenders. When the pro decides to play on, more often than not the gleeful visitor shows his hosts the best hand.

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