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Who Wants to Be a Poker Millionaire?

The game is shedding its outlaw image and going prime-time, with big purses up for grabs
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

(continued from page 1)

That a poker game is poised to start at the Bellagio is not exactly news. Even that it's a tournament with a $25,000 buy-in—the highest in history—won't stop the presses. Take into account, however, that the game at the Las Vegas hotel-casino is being played on a hard-angled soundstage, backdropped by a set worthy of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and will be seen by an estimated 5 million television viewers, and it starts to become something else altogether.

The event gains resonance when you consider that, until the last 10 or so years, poker was viewed largely as a backroom enterprise, and the outside world regarded its high-stakes practitioners as being more than a little bit sketchy. Now, however, poker tournaments are airing each week on cable TV, via the Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour," scheduled in prime time and generating talk around office watercoolers. Factor in that major publishers have recently released books by poker greats Phil Helmuth and Amarillo Slim. It's clear that a seismic shift is taking place. Poker is being mainstreamed into the same culture that loves NASCAR, "Survivor" and the U.S. Open. Right now the flinty-eyed guys with stacks of hundreds and mad chip-riffling skills are not the only ones staking big money on the game.

The Bellagio tournament's field of 111 players, each of whom has put up $25,000 or won a seat via satellite tournaments or previous World Poker Tour events, has been winnowed down to six card sharks competing for a first prize of $1,011,886 in this season finale. Situated under bright lights and bathed in smoke, the game's table has been specially equipped with tiny cameras that read players' hole cards. Perched behind the action, poker pro Mike Sexton and amateur enthusiast Vince Van Patten provide color and commentary for viewers at home; sometimes their remarks are dubbed into the edited tape, making them seem like the smartest guys in the world.

Today's finalists include Kirill Gerasimov, a Matt Damon look-alike from Moscow whose presence in the tournament had been arranged specifically by the Bellagio; Alan Goehring, a former Wall Street trader who spends two months a year playing the biggest tournaments in town; Phil Ivey, an Atlantic City poker king who's often lauded as the game's Tiger Woods; and the legendary Doyle Brunson, the author of Super System (a book that schooled many a young player).

Minutes before the first cards are dealt, Brunson sits alongside his son Todd, a top player in his own right, and marvels at what the game has become. A TV camera swooshes past him, production executives scurry around, and a PR woman hands out T- shirts adorned with the World Poker Tour logo. "I wish I could've shown some people futuristic pictures of this," says Brunson, possibly thinking of long-gone poker stars such as Johnny Moss and Brunson's old partner, Brian "Sailor" Roberts. "They wouldn't believe it. It would be like bringing back Ben Siegel and showing him the Vegas Strip."

Following several hours of heart-stopping play, only the Russian Gerasimov and the American Goehring remain in contention. The capacity crowd, sitting in bleachers, watch what two decades ago might have been a cold-war showdown. Both players hide their eyes behind enormous sunglasses. Gerasimov does a weird annoying swishing thing every time he takes a sip of water. Goehring maintains tight-lipped concentration and looks like the Terminator's skinny, brainy younger brother. On the final hand, after the flop comes 4, 5, 8, Goehring goes all in and Gerasimov calls. It puts Goehring in the lead until the next card is revealed to be 7, which gives Gerasimov his straight. Goehring, a frequent also-ran in big tournaments, needs to get lucky on the river. The room holds its collective breath. The dealer burns and turns, revealing…an 8.

It gives Goehring his full house. The lithe Wall Streeter leaps in the air and shows a burst of emotion that's the antithesis of his stoic table persona. Gerasimov whips off his sunglasses and looks miserable. "He told me that he's the world heads-up champion," says Goehring, as a couple of stunning World Poker Tour presenters, dressed in spangly evening gowns, swoon around him and a mountain of hundreds stacked on the poker table. "I hardly play any heads-up and I thanked him for telling me. Not exactly a good move on his part. I won a hand and got into his style of play: he never raised before the flop, and when the board looked scary he tried to power the pot." Goehring looks as if he's got more to say, but a photo op alongside the women in the gowns trumps our conversation.

 

In downtown Vegas and a world away from the publicly traded glitz of the Bellagio, Binion's Horseshoe is just getting started with its own poker event, the preliminary tournament that kicks off the 34th annual World Series of Poker. This marks the first time that the Series has had formidable competition and it shows: fewer people are playing in the early games than in previous years. This situation has not gone unnoticed by players—people who'll handicap anything. Many on the poker circuit have concluded that the Bellagio event is designed to put a dent into the Horseshoe's famous $10,000 buy-in that seems to draw more players and more revenue every year and has inspired a global circuit of tournament poker.

If Benny Binion Behnen, Horseshoe heir apparent, is concerned about the competition, he's not showing it. "The more popular tournament poker gets, the better it is for everybody," he insists, puffing on a cigarette just outside a sprawling room where one of his tournaments is in progress. "People find ways to get money for tournaments." Then Behnen hesitates for a beat and softly allows, "The $25,000 buy-in is a big step. And it did soak up the economy at some point."

Highly ranked poker pro T. J. Cloutier strolls by and happens to overhear Behnen. He stops to offer an opinion, "The people who play in the $25,000 event will also play here in the $10,000 tournament. They're all top players with top bucks and they will play in all of them. It's the little tournaments that can dry up money."

"Plus," adds Behnen, looking for an upside, "there is the dead money theory. In the $25,000 buy-in there is no dead money"—that is, players with hardly a chance of winning. "That was 110 of the best players in the world at the Bellagio."

Cloutier concurs, "Three hundred of the players here (about one-third of the field) have absolutely no chance. Of the next 300 you can block off 150. If they get lucky for five days, they have a chance of winning. But you wouldn't want to bet on them getting that lucky."

While the extra week of events that has been added to the World Series can cause people to be initially conservative with money, some players attribute the slowdown in the tournament's early games to an inevitable evolution of poker. Melissa Hayden, a slender redhead who is a regular on the tournament circuit, believes that the Internet, with its 24/7 online games, has removed some of the emotion wrapped up in a place like the Horseshoe. On top of that, she points out, the sheer volume of tournaments around the world has diluted the uniqueness of the Series. "Online players don't come here with a three-dimensional attachment to the World Series or, for that matter, to any poker tournament," says Hayden. "The World Series is still the one that everyone wants to win. But with big tournaments taking place every month, something gets taken away (from the Series)." And, she adds, that will be magnified "in five years, when playing poker online really takes off."

In downtown Vegas, at the poker room of Sam's Town, a casino favored by locals, a game that would daunt all but the most fearless of players is in progress. Brunson, world-class player Chip Reese and entrepreneur Lyle Berman casually enjoy the kinds of stakes that could drain a wealthy person's life savings in an afternoon of bad and unlucky play. However, in his role as financier of the World Poker Tour, Berman has spent the last year playing an even higher stakes game than the one unfolding at this table.

His World Poker Tour ante was $5 million and, even at that price, Berman viewed it as too good a bet to pass up. But he wanted partners. So, over dinner at Prime, Bellagio's steakhouse, he proposed the idea to Brunson, Reese and Jack Binion (the former force behind the World Series of Poker). They listened, considered and ultimately opted not to invest. Still confident, Berman decided to take on the risk himself and put up the seed money. "I had been thinking about placing poker on the air as a spectator sport for a long time," says Berman, who developed and built casinos around the United States before merging his company, Grand Casinos Inc., with Hilton Hotel Corp. in 1998 to create Park Place Entertainment Corp. Right from the start Berman realized that it would be critical for viewers at home to see the players' hole cards and to follow their thought processes via incisive commentary. He understood the need for drama rather than pure entertainment. "We didn't want the show to be a one-off thing. The idea was always for it to be something that you could follow for 13 weeks, like 'The Sopranos.'"

Berman reports that first-season revenues will return all but a half million dollars of his investment, and, as tournaments continue to grow in popularity, there seems to be nothing but upside in his near future. He talks about making the World Poker Tour into a card-playing version of the PGA Tour—complete with sponsor-funded prize money—but he points out that his event will always have an egalitarian edge. You can't buy your way into the PGA but you can buy your way into a poker tournament; anybody with $5,000 or $10,000 or $25,000 can belly up to the baize and match wits against the Johnny Chans of the world. While Berman talks about getting sponsors and having seeded players, he notes that unknowns keep it interesting. "If you have skills, even home-game skills, you can enter the tournament and compete," he says, not needing to mention that poker's luck curve is sharp enough for plenty of unknowns to have made final tables at the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour.

Besides sweetening the pot with dead money, non-professionals serve an important purpose for home viewers: it's satisfying to watch an anonymous weekend player occasionally cleaning the clock of a well-known poker stud. But whoever's playing, the pressure-cooking nature of high-stakes poker is a natural for television. "You can't camouflage your feelings in a poker game," says Berman, who's had enough high-stakes adventures to know. "In any 12-hour session of poker, you get down to every emotion a man can experience. How does he handle elation? How does he handle defeat? You get down to the raw truth at a poker table."

This naturally leads to the question of whether or not poker players want the raw truth exposed, if they mind being on television and having their strategies revealed to potential opponents. Like it or not, as Berman points out, if they want to play in some of the world's largest tournaments, they have no choice. And the allure of stardom and the possibility of their game breaking out big time provide potent counterbalance. Finally, according to Bellagio winner Goehring, "It takes more than a couple hours of watching me on TV to tune in to my trade secrets."

Producer/Director Steve Lipscomb, who had filmed a couple of gambling-related programs before pitching the idea of the World Poker Tour to Berman, insists that some players use the TV angle to their advantage. "Our repeat winner, Gus Hanson, plays to the camera," says Lipscomb. "He shows his cards to the camera and he does it to play with the other guy's head. Poker is one of the greatest psychological battles you'll ever see. And there's an educational component. Watch these shows a second and third time and you'll get stuff you didn't notice the first time. It'll make you into a better player."

True or not, it's a convenient stance for Lipscombe to take. Doug Dalton, who manages poker for the Bellagio, views the whole explosion of tournaments in a more measured way. "In the big picture of poker, it is not advantageous for poker players to play in tournaments; it is not good for the poker economy," he says. "You pool together all this money and it gets handed back to one or two people. Who knows what they will do with it? It may end up back in poker. Or it may get taken out of circulation. Plus, a player without a lot of experience gives himself a better chance by sitting down (in a ring game) with $2,000, winning a little, and getting up to leave. In a poker tournament, you can't get up to leave."

While Dalton obviously has his own biases, he acknowledges that the growth of tournament play and an association with the World Poker Tour have their appeals. "Poker tournaments are not going away, and I realized I can't keep overlooking them," he says, sounding resigned. "We have the highest limits for poker in the world, and it there was no reason for us not to be a major player in this industry. It made no sense for our customers to go everywhere else while we don't do anything."

So, in typical Bellagio style, he stepped up and put on the biggest tournament that poker has ever seen.

It is easy to imagine that the Bellagio and World Poker Tour want to devour the Horseshoe and its World Series. But Dalton, Lipscomb and Berman insist that nothing can be further from the truth. Still, considering the world they're operating in, a bluff from them would hardly be out of the question. Lipscomb acknowledges that the World Poker Tour wanted the Series to be the finale of its season, but the Horseshoe turned the offer down (it has a deal with ESPN). Rumors swirl that the Series name was once up for sale with a $6 million price tag and people in the poker world whisper that the Binion's classic is hobbling.

In the wake of the 2003 event, however, that last nugget of gossip is hard to take very seriously. The big game at the World Series attracted 839 participants, creating an overall purse of $7.8 million and a first prize of $2.5 million. Those are all record breakers, and there's no reason to doubt that next year will be even bigger. Driving the whole thing home with poetic efficiency is that the winner of this year's Series was an unknown accountant from Tennessee, with the improbable name of Chris Moneymaker, who had never before competed in a live tournament. Moneymaker qualified by putting up $40 to play a satellite event on the Internet. Upon completion of the World Series' final hand—which he won with a full house—this poster boy for the mainstreaming of poker turned from the table and bear-hugged his father who had loaned him the $2,000 that financed his trip to the big game.

No doubt it's a moment that will make for great television.

Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.

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