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Raising the Stakes

Hollywood's interest in poker has helped drive the upsurge in lavish high-stakes poker rooms
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Vegas, Mar/Apr 2006

This past New Year's Eve, Caesars Palace heralded the opening of its $12 million, 14,500-square-foot poker spread-complete with a dozen LeRoy Neiman paintings on the walls and 25 flat-screen TVs around the room-by holding a tournament hosted by professional party girl Nicky Hilton and her "Entourage"-star boyfriend, Kevin Connolly. The $2,000 buy-in event attracted a mix of Tinseltown celebs and Vegas royalty: 2004 World Series of Poker runner-up David Williams; Phil "Unabomber" Laak; his sexy movie-star girlfriend, Jennifer Tilly (winner of last year's women's tournament at the WSOP); and Mike "The Mouth" Matusow. This time, however, the pros were not only out-glitzed but also outplayed. Actress Shannon Elizabeth took the $120,000 first prize, underscoring the degree to which scenesters have gotten hip to poker.

One night later, Nicky's big sister, Paris, proved her mettle at the Bellagio where she settled down at a $100/$200 table and surprised everyone by winning what one player estimates to be "$6,000 or $7,000 in just an hour." According to another pro who had been at the table, "Paris doesn't really know how to play, but she has good instincts. One thing for sure is that the stakes don't intimidate her. David Williams [who was playing in the game] kept rallying to make it $100/$200 no-limit and Paris wanted to do it."

For the Hilton sisters and, seemingly, half of Hollywood, poker has become the nightlife activity of choice, and Las Vegas casinos are, of course, the obvious venues. When The Mirage's new Jet nightclub opened on January 12, its debut was greeted with yet another celebrity-studded poker tournament-such events have become commonplace at the Palms and Hard Rock. Completing the bizarro world chain of events, poker pros are now as likely to have lawyers, publicists and agents in tow as are any of the stars who've embraced their game. It's reached the point where poker is as de rigueur as private Gulfstreams and chauffered Escalades for coddled nightlifers-and the big-name pros are part of the attraction.

"In the old days, Sammy and Frank and Dean were synonymous with Vegas; now it's poker players," says the goateed and pierced Daniel Negreanu. Sporting a blond-tipped hairdo, Negreanu is one of the hottest young players in the game. "Five years ago, people assumed we were criminals or something. Now we get treated like rock stars."

And, of course, all of this trickles down to everyone else-from the low rollers who obsess over poker on TV to the big fish who line up to try out the game of the moment. The widespread obsession has not gone unnoticed by casino bosses, who are always eager to provide their customers with what they want. In the last year or so, the Bellagio has expanded its already mammoth poker area and built an enclave called Bobby's Room (named for Bobby Baldwin, president and CEO of Mirage Resorts, who's regarded as one of poker's top players). It's a leather-accented lair that houses, among other games, the so-called Big Game, where stakes can go as high as $4,000/$8,000 and you can win or lose enough to buy a nice house in just a few hours. "The poker boom is huge if you're a cash-game player," says Erik Seidel, who won the $2,000 buy-in no-limit Hold'em event at 2005's World Series. "People are coming in now and playing poker who never would have done it before."

For Chip Reese, regarded by high-stakes pros as the most solid guy in poker, the explosion of interest in Texas Hold'em has been a great thing. "A lot of money filters up to us," says Reese, who spends a few days each week playing super-high in Bobby's Room. "But it's like the Peter Principle: Until you reach your level of incompetence, you don't know how good or how bad you are. You have a million dollars in tournament winnings in your pocket, you're not going to play $100/$200. What'll that do for you? You've been hit by the deck for five days, you think you're a really good player, and you want to try playing high"-and most probably reach your level of incompetence.

Barry Greenstein, a Big Game regular, remembers one particular evening, late last year, when four recent tournament winners bought in. "They had each made a million dollars in various tournaments and would never ordinarily be in our game," Greenstein remembers. "We play a mixed game"-which makes it impossible for someone who specializes in one form of poker, say, Hold'em or Omaha, to even have a fighting chance-"and you don't learn those [poker variations] in tournaments or on the Internet. As a group, tournament winners are losing players in the Big Game, and these four have not been back. But if they make more tournament money, I'll expect to see them again."

Opportunities abound for a less-than-seasoned player to go on a rush (if he doesn't go broke first) and put together the kind of bankroll that will float him up to the higher levels. "Stakes have doubled in terms of what the out-of-towners will play for," marvels Negreanu. "Random recreational guys who used to be $80/$160 players at The Mirage have moved up to $300/$600. And now the $10/$20 no-limit games attract novices who would have once sat down in $5/$10 limit games. But they're playing no-limit and losing 20,000 or 30,000 in a sitting. The funny thing is that a few years ago no-limit was dead because good players get the money so quickly in that game. These days, though, people lose their money and we see a never-ending supply of fresh meat. It never seems to stop. Suckers come and leave and more suckers replace them. But people are willing to gamble. They see it on TV and think it's easy."

Never mind that for those who get lucky and win, things can be very deceptive. "Unlike backgammon and chess, poker is a wonderful game because it has enough of a luck component that bad players sometimes beat good players, which keeps the bad players interested," says Steve Zolotow, a veteran pro who's moved away from the larger cash games and now focuses his energy on tournaments. "But on the other side of it, poker requires enough skill that you can keep growing and keep learning more about the game. I love that there is a boom and that there are tournaments everywhere. During the last few years, I've traveled around the world playing poker."

Caesars Palace hopes to accommodate deep-pocketed enthusiasts by having no-limit sit-and-go's-that is, single-table tournaments-around the clock in a space that is designed specifically for these events. The Venetian is preparing to open its new poker room, where the walls will be lined in silk and leather, and high-limit players can order food from any of the casino's four-star restaurants, allowing them to eat gourmet meals, tableside, as they play. "Either you step up and be one of the top, or else you are a five-table room that is in the back of the casino and out of the way," says Edna Dalton, who will be running the poker program for The Venetian.

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