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Trump Cards: The U.S. Poker Championship

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

Poker tournaments are similar to PGA Tour golf events: They measure their success by the quality of the field they attract. Like the unfortunate Tour stops that are scheduled opposite the British Open or Ryder Cup, struggling poker tournaments draw few players and, in turn, even fewer top players. Flourishing poker tournaments, on the other hand, draw thousands of entrants and most of the "leading money winners," who follow the scent of available cash like vultures find carrion. The presence of big-name competitors--world champions, winners of the poker "majors"--gives a poker tournament instant prestige and cachet, like when Tiger Woods or Greg Norman deigns to play the Greater Milwaukee Open.

The World Series of Poker, at Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, draws the biggest and best field in poker. The tournament is 27 years old. The United States Poker Championship, at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, draws the second biggest and second best field in poker. The tournament is one year old.

There are any number of plausible reasons why a fledgling poker tournament like the U.S. championship might draw more than 3,000 entries and pay out more than $4 million in prize money: the novelty of simply being something new in the world of gambling, the highly respected administrators (Jim Albrecht and Jack McClelland, who also run the World Series) directing and coordinating the action, the East Coast location.

And one more reason: a guy named Donald J. Trump attaching his name to the event.

Trump, as you must know--for he wouldn't be doing his job well if you didn't--likes Big. He likes Top. He likes Number One. So you can be sure when Donald J. Trump presents the inaugural United States Poker Championship at his Trump Taj Mahal casino, the event won't be just another new tournament hoping to get its feet wet in the immense pool of money that is professional wagering. It'll be a Trump kind of thing.

 

Trump has an enormously developed talent for attracting television cameras, even to poker tournaments, which normally draw hapless dreamers and ruthless opportunists, not network news coverage. Thus the USPC is the kind of Trumpian spectacle where, in addition to the best poker players in the world, a young lady named Yasmine Bleeth, one of the cast members on the syndicated bikini-fest "Baywatch," competes for the $500,000 first prize. Though her putative assets are plain to see, her poker-playing ability is not as immediately clear. Still, in the early going of the main event, before the 10 o'clock news crews have left, before the bags under her eyes start to show through her cosmetic fortification, Yasmine Bleeth has a ton of chips. The delicious irony in all of this--lost on the paparrazi and boom-mike operators--is that Ms. Baywatch, through the luck of the draw, has been randomly assigned a seat next to a gentleman named Huck Seed, who happens to be the reigning World Champion of Poker. The further irony is that he has far fewer chips than a lady whose chief talent was previously thought to be wearing a swimsuit.

Flashing a smile almost as glittering as the ornate chandeliers that hang over the Taj Mahal poker room, Bleeth tells the cameras she has never played poker before, but that it's a lot of fun to find a sport where you don't have to sweat.

Now, whether or not tournament poker is a "sport" may be open to discussion, but, as far as the arbiter in such matters, ESPN, is concerned, poker qualifies. The total sports network has dispatched a large production crew to the U.S. Poker Championship to produce an hourlong highlight show for airing after the Super Bowl. (This being the championship's first edition, one can sense the hand of Trump at work again, garnering coverage that others might take years to procure.) ESPN has enlisted Gabe "Welcome Back, Kotter" Kaplan, himself an accomplished poker player, to do color commentary and spot interviews with the poker luminaries in attendance, including, of course, The Girl from Baywatch, as everyone has taken to calling the gambler seated next to Huck Seed.

Besides Seed, seven former world champions are in the field, including Phil Hellmuth Jr., who, in contrast to Seed, steadily and surely amasses a stack of chips, cutting away at his opponents' bankrolls--and confidence--like a surgeon removing a polyp. Hellmuth raises frequently and fearlessly, forcing the competition to constantly guess: Does he or doesn't he? Does he have the hand he claims to have, or is he bluffing? This being a no-limit event--meaning you may bet any or all of your chips at any time--being wrong can mean an early exit from the tournament and a quick farewell to your $7,500 entry fee. Of the 100 contestants in the finals of the USPC, Hellmuth seems best prepared to take home the half million.

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.

But funny things can happen when you're playing for $500,000 under the hot television lights, with hundreds of spectators (including the guy who owns the casino) watching your every twitch. Hellmuth begins day three playing his typical game, steamrolling anyone who dares to challenge him. After a string of "bad beats," i.e., unluckily losing hands when he is the odds-on, mathematical favorite, Hellmuth goes "on tilt," as gamblers say, and begins playing poker with his boiling emotions, not his cool head. This is not the recommended method for winning a major championship, whether you're a master of the game or a "Baywatch" nymph. Hellmuth does not last; late in the day, Ken Flaton, from Henderson, Nevada, sends the former world champ packing. Shortly thereafter, Flaton eliminates Surinder Sunar, from Wolverhampton, England, and earns the title of United States Poker Champion.

Flaton tells me he grew up across from Manhattan in North Bergen, New Jersey, and worked briefly as a vendor at Madison Square Garden, where he sold peanuts and popcorn. After a brief career as an accountant and bookkeeper, he took up poker professionally. That was 22 years ago.

"I'm very proud to have won this championship in its first year," Flaton says, elated by his victory. "That's like becoming part of history. I'm going to look forward to coming back here next year as the defending champ. Something tells me," Flaton says, smiling wryly, "that next year is going to be even bigger and better."

Contributing editor Michael Konik is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist. Talking with Trump

Casino and real estate magnate Donald J. Trump has brought big-time poker to the East. His Taj Mahal poker room is the dominant parlor in Atlantic City, and his United States Poker Championship is the second largest poker tournament in the world. Cigar Aficionado met with Trump in the casino's Alexander the Great penthouse suite to talk about this addition to his gambling empire.

Cigar Aficionado: What is your personal poker background?

Trump: My life is a poker match.

CA: Are you a player?

Trump: I've never had time to play seriously. I've been too busy to really focus on poker. But my life is a series of poker games. Ins and outs. Ups and downs. Highs and lows.

CA: Why have you created the United States Poker Championship? Why here and now?

Trump: Here at the Taj Mahal, we have a tremendous poker facility that has swept out the competition in Atlantic City, and we've become the dominant factor, the dominant place, the one place to play. Most of the big play is here. Through my own luck and talent, the poker players on the East Coast have gravitated to the Taj. The United States Poker Championship brings a lot of glamour to this venue.

CA: Why such a large commitment to poker in such a large space, a space that we both know could turn a much greater profit if it were filled with slot machines?

Trump: It costs me money. But overall it's a very positive experience. You've got every major television station down here, ESPN. It's been really terrific. I have one of the biggest slot parlors in the world, I think almost 5,000 slots. Whether we add some slots, I have a level of slot machines that practically nobody in the world has, so it's not like the slot revenue is suffering. So it doesn't matter to me. Poker has been great for the facility. It's brought excitement, it's brought glamour and it's brought a tremendous amount of people. And a lot of these people then go from poker to our baccarat tables, which, you know, is at a very high level.

CA: Where do you see this tournament going? How big can it grow?

Trump: We'll get bigger every year. I think we can become the most important poker tournament in the world. I look forward to having the biggest poker tournament in the world. And I think that will happen in the very near future.

CA: Did the first time out meet your expectations?

Trump: It far exceeded them. I had no idea this tournament would be as important as it turned out. I thought we would have a nice tournament, that we would have some of the big pros. But I had no idea we'd get this kind of tournament, with all the press coverage, the magnitude of the players.

CA: Steve Wynn is coming to Atlantic City. Any chance of Donald Trump going to Las Vegas?

Trump: Yes, I think will go to Las Vegas. Las Vegas is having a little rough time now. The Trump Taj Mahal is number one in Atlantic City and the Trump Plaza is number two. There seems to be not much more I can do to eclipse myself in Atlantic City. It's hard to be number one and number two. You're competing against yourself. We want to continue to do great with these places, but, yes, I will be going to Las Vegas, perhaps in the not too distant future. The company is geared up to do whatever we want to do there. --MK

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