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Trump Cards: The U.S. Poker Championship

Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 1)

But before he does, he'll have to acquire every chip in play. The tournament works like this: you play until you lose all your chips, and the tournament isn't over until one person has everybody else's money, in essence, parlaying $7,500 in chips into $750,000 in chips. At the U.S. Poker Championship, the process takes three days. Winning is not so much the function of one big dramatic moment as the accumulation of hundreds of small moments, thousands of small decisions, like a sculptor chipping away at marble.

Remarkably, after the first day of play, in which 57 players are eliminated, Ms. Baywatch still remains, outlasting three world champions, including her tablemate Huck Seed. The effect of her five-inch heels upon the luck of the cards is unclear; the effect on her competition is obvious.

But it is another woman who is making the most profound impact upon the tournament. Atlantic City local Cyndy Violette, one of Donald J. Trump's personal favorites, has the second most chips after day one: $45,300 worth. Only Hellmuth has more. The staff of the Taj Mahal, where Violette regularly plies her trade as a high-limit poker pro, is rooting for her to make the final table.

So is tournament director Jim Albrecht, who tells me the presence of a woman in the top five would do wonders for this new tournament, not to mention poker in general. But even without a gender-based public relations coup, Albrecht says the first U.S. Poker Championship is a startling success. "In its first year, four million dollars in prize money? That's unheard of. I'm thrilled," he says. "We've had our difficulties. The regulations in New Jersey require so much paperwork it takes a week to switch anything, including the starting time of an event. But despite the growing pains, we've set all kinds of records."

The record that Albrecht--as well as poker room manager Tommy Gitto and everyone else connected to the tournament--is most proud of is the one set in the Seven Card Stud event, which draws 122 players, each of whom puts up a $4,000 entry fee. The prize pool, $513,000, is the largest for a Stud event in the history of poker, larger even than the World Series of Poker. "Texas Hold'em is the most popular game back in Vegas," Albrecht says. "But Stud is still king here. It's the Beast of the East. So it's appropriate, I guess, that the new world record belongs to the Taj."

Indeed, the biggest poker room in town puts on the biggest Stud poker tournament in the world. In its first try. Very Trump.

Fierce play during day two finally eliminates The Girl from Baywatch from the proceedings. "You mean I don't get to keep any of my money?" she jokes, making an exceedingly graceful exit from the felt-covered battleground. Astoundingly--some might say incredibly--Bleeth comes in 29th place, outlasting five world champions and dozens of other grizzled poker veterans and perennial contenders.

Among the remaining hopefuls are young Ted Forrest, who recently won three World Series titles in one year; Dr. Bruce Van Horn, the 1996 runner-up in the World Series championship event; and Kassem "Freddie" Deeb, a regular in The Mirage's "Biggest Game in Town" (see Cigar Aficionado, Spring 1996). It is an exceptionally strong field, with big-name players at every table. Violette and Hellmuth still have chips, as do World Series titlists Tom McEvoy, Frank Henderson and Noli Francisco. And so does one William McKinney, 72, from Kingsport, Tennessee, whose grandson watches proudly as Grandpappy chews on an unlit stogie, chats with his youthful competition and somehow manages to bob and weave, fold and raise, until he's made it to the final table. It's his second poker tournament ever.

Yes, poker dreams sometimes do come true. At the U.S. championship, two Vietnamese immigrants, Nhut Tran and Men Nguyen, finish 1-2 in the Best All-Around Player competition, tabulated over the course of 21 preliminary events, and respectively earn $30,000 and $20,000 bonuses. When Tran and Nguyen talk about America as the land of opportunity, they mean it.

By the end of day two, most of the players--and their poker dreams--have been extinguished. Only six contestants remain, chief among them Hellmuth, who has built what should be an insurmountable chip lead. He has $207,000. His closest opponent has $138,500.

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