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Las Vegas Stories

A Secret Golf Course, The World Series of Poker and a Lesson 007 Should Learn
By Michael Konik | From Bill Cosby, Autumn 94
Las Vegas Stories

Suites the size of supermarkets, hostesses worthy of a Playboy centerfold, corporate jets, limos, show tickets, gourmet food and wine--for the highest of Las Vegas rollers, these are the typical perks. But of all the lavish "comps" heavy gamblers receive from grateful casinos, none may be more cherished than an invitation to Shadow Creek.

It's the greatest golf course in the world you'll (probably) never play.

You cannot pay a green's fee. You cannot bribe the starter. You cannot be pals with the head pro. There are only three ways to get on Shadow Creek: be a close, personal friend of Steve Wynn, CEO of the Mirage; be a close, personal friend of Bobby Baldwin, president of the Mirage; or have something like a $1 million line of credit--and a penchant for gambling with it--at the Mirage. Monster bettors who play in the neighborhood of $500 a hand for eight hours a day might make the cut.

When Alan Feldman, who manages the casino's public relations, was approached about the possibility of a story on Shadow Creek, he said absolutely, unequivocally, no. "We just turned down a four-page spread in Sports Illustrated. We don't need and we don't want the publicity," he said. "It just makes more people want to play the course. And if they're the kind of people who might be qualified, we probably already know about them."

Exclusivity is clearly one of the charms of fine country clubs. But never in the history of golf has there been a club as exclusive as this. Shadow Creek, set in a remote, underdeveloped stretch of north Las Vegas, is invisible from the road and virtually impossible to find without detailed directions. A tall, unmarked gate at the end of a cul de sac is the only physical sign of the desert's lushest oasis.

"Walking through that gate is like entering the Land of Oz," according to one lucky hacker who has actually played Shadow Creek. "Everything goes from black and white to Technicolor. It feels as though you've wandered into some sort of bird sanctuary. There are thousands of them: quail, pheasants, flamingos, chuckers and snow-white swans. They have a wallaby, too. The place really is like a mirage."

Because so few people have ever seen the course, let alone played it, rumors about Shadow Creek abound: around Las Vegas it is widely believed that Shadow Creek cost $30 million to $40 million to construct, that Steve Wynn bamboozled his shareholders into building what amounts to a private playground, that either Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson (depending upon whom you ask) is building a home on the course. Golf Digest certainly has bought into the mystique. In the magazine's listing of golf courses last year, Shadow Creek was ranked eighth in America. That only stepped up the noise level about the course, with torrents of criticism decrying the lofty ranking of a golf course that few can play.

After talking to two men who have played the course a total of six times, both of whom requested anonymity, I learned that the rumors are probably just that. "Shadow Creek isn't as mysterious as everyone thinks," the men agreed. "But it's even more spectacular than you could imagine."

An attendant greets guests at the gate in a Rolls-Royce of a golf cart, accented with crushed-velvet seats and equipped with a built-in cooler stocked with the beverage of your choice, including, if you are so inclined, Champagne and caviar. Driving slowly to avoid the wildlife, golfers are chauffeured to the practice tee, where, instead of unsightly, red-striped range balls, they may work out their slices on an unlimited supply of brand-new Titleists.

Guests do not have to fret over missing their tee time, says one source who has played Shadow Creek four times. He saw only one gambler-cum-golfer on the course. By his estimate a maximum of eight, maybe 10, people play the course in a day. (The premier municipal course in Los Angeles, Rancho Park, sees 300 duffers on an average day.) Indeed, by his recollection, there are about six or seven course-maintenance employees per golfer. "You never see another player; you never see another cart; you never see another divot. It's like playing golf in your own little world. You have complete privacy. The only ones watching you are all the birds."

In fact, Shadow Creek has a couple of peculiar guidelines known as the Steve Wynn Rules that help preserve the experience of playing virgin sod: nobody may hit off the first tee until the green, more than 400 yards in the distance, has been vacated. If your ball is anywhere near flowers, foliage, trees or other natural wonders--you may move it and take a generous drop. And for goodness' sake, no matter what the fawning employees do for you, there is absolutely no tipping allowed.

The emerald scorecard, which credits Shadow Creek's architecture to Tom Fazio and Steve Wynn, has neither photographs nor drawings of the 7,158-yard layout. (The Mirage will provide a stock picture to most news organizations upon request.) According to those who have enjoyed Vegas' ultimate comp, the fairways are wide and forgiving, the greens large and immaculate. Tee markers are constructed of blue, yellow and white violets. Water hazards, which run through nearly half of the holes, are dyed a brilliant blue. And sparkling white sand, clearly not indigenous to Nevada, fills the bunkers. A special telephone awaits golfers at the eighth green, from which they may order customized lunches to be picked up at the turn.

"You've never seen a place like this," one gambler says. "It's like being on a course that's never been played."

"They can't do enough for you," he recalls. If by chance you've left your $1,000-minimum blackjack table in a hurry and have forgotten something--sweater, shoes, golf clubs--by all means, please, have a complimentary set, no problem. You want a snack? Say, chilled lobster and a glass of Dom Perignon? No problem. You want to play the fourteenth hole twice, just for the hell of it? No problem. On the other hand, if you're a scratch golfer, a respected member of your country club and an occasional $25 bettor at the craps table, playing Shadow Creek could be a problem.

"You don't have to be good to get on the greatest golf course in America," says one gambling golfer, "only rich."

The 1994 World Champion of Poker is Russ Hamilton, 44, a professional player from Las Vegas, who defeated 267 other competitors at the twenty-fifth annual World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe. Hamilton won $1 million and, to commemorate the tournament's silver anniversary, his weight (330 pounds) in silver ingots. His victory was a thoroughly professional effort, a demonstration of how intimidating power and surgical precision can obviate the variances of good and bad "luck."

The most compelling card playing of the tournament, however, came in the $5,000-buy-in Limit Hold 'Em Championship.

After 12 hours of play, the battle for the title--and $210,000 for first place--was down to two contestants, Erik Seidel, an options trader from New York, and Mike Davis, a professional poker player from Vegas who looks like Curly from the "Three Stooges" with a beard and goes by the sobriquet "Mad Dog." Though Seidel has won numerous poker tournaments, including two World Series Championships, and is generally considered one of the game's best players, Mad Dog loudly and persistently informed the standing-room-only crowd that Seidel was "pitiful," had "no shot whatsoever to win" and was "a joke." Some of the other things Mad Dog said cannot be printed here, although the comments were vitriolic enough that tournament officials asked Mad Dog to curb his outbursts and behave like a world-class gambler, not a drunken slob.

"They don't call me Mad Dog for nothin'," he announced.

Though most of the audience was horrified by Mad Dog's behavior, several well-known poker players applauded his every utterance, urging him on to bigger put-downs, bigger pots. Most of these people had a financial interest in Mad Dog's finish, a percentage of his winnings. This, in fact, was the cause of all the ugliness.

In poker tournaments, the final two or three (or sometimes more) contestants often split the remaining prize money, usually based on the percentage of chips they hold. Most players view these deals as insurance policies, a safe way to defray the game's short-term volatility. When the Limit Hold 'Em Championship was reduced to a one-on-one battle, Mad Dog, Seidel and their respective backers retreated to a private room to hammer out an agreement. They could not reach a mutually acceptable split--Mad Dog wanted more than Seidel was willing to give--so it was decided they would play to the finish. Moreover, one of Mad Dog's backers, believing his man had been insulted in the negotiations, challenged Seidel's backers to an additional side bet of close to $10,000. They accepted. The game--and battle--was on.

At one point Mad Dog had Seidel "all in"--all of Seidel's chips were in the pot. Mad Dog held three tens with an ace kicker. Seidel had only one "out," a nine to make a straight. Miraculously, it came, giving Seidel a huge pot and new life in the tournament. Mad Dog went berserk, deriding Seidel's lucky play, yelling to the crowd that his opponent was a chump, an utter chump. "Anyone who thinks this clown can win," Mad Dog proclaimed, "is stupider than I thought."

Seidel said nothing. He continued to raise most pots, pressuring Mad Dog into bad decisions, bluffing him out of a $100,000 hand. Mad Dog kept barking; but Seidel, the epitome of class, had bite. At approximately three in the morning, he got Mad Dog to put in his last chip on a loser. Despite the psychological abuse, the humiliating remarks, the derisive laughter--despite the pressure of playing for $210,000--Erik Seidel became this year's World Champion of Limit Hold 'Em.

His response upon beating a man who had mercilessly taunted him, trying vainly to crush his will? Seidel offered Mad Dog a silent, conciliatory handshake.

I have never attended a poker tournament where the applause was longer or louder.

One prominent, imaginative Hollywood screenwriter clearly has a more vivid sense of story than gambling sense. He claims that on the past 11 trips he has made to Las Vegas, he has won 10 times, averaging $6,000 in profits.

"How?" I ask.

"Blackjack," he responds.

"So you're a counter," I exclaim, eager to hear how he has managed to make 11 consecutive trips to Las Vegas casinos without being detected.

"No, I never went in for that counting stuff," he scoffs, regaling me with tales of complimentary rooms, meals and even airfare--the mark of a dearly prized customer. And on top of all the perquisites, he won thousands. Ten out of 11 times.

"You must be a very lucky guy," I say.

"Nah, I had a system. A betting system." He manages to blurt out a few sentences about starting with a $100 bet, doubling his wagers and eventually reaching the table maximum before I am able to change the subject to baseball.

Anyone with even a meager knowledge of probabilities and high-school math ought to understand what every wise gambler knows from sheer instinct: betting systems (varying the size of your wager in a predetermined pattern) cannot beat casino games.

Remember that fact the next time someone urges you to place a large wager on black because the roulette wheel has come up red seven spins in a row. "Odds are it's going to come up black!" Actually, the odds are the same as they were the previous spin, the spin before that and every upcoming spin for the rest of eternity: 10 to 9 against red, 10 to 9 against black and 18 to 1 against the green zeros.

Like stock-market mutual funds, past performance does not guarantee future gains. Each spin of the wheel, each toss of the dice, is an independent event, subject to the same unbending numerical laws. Doubling your bet does not mean you've increased your wager at an opportune moment, it simply means you're gambling double (or quadruple or eight times') your previous wager on the same losing proposition.

If you had an infinite amount of money and, more important, the casinos didn't impose a limit on how much you could bet, a "betting system" might theoretically work. So, too, would "pyramid" and "ponzi" schemes or any other endeavor that relies on a constantly replenished supply of funds and dull-witted participants.

"Foolproof" betting systems, alas, are primarily utilized by fools.

The last person you would think a fool is that suave fellow James Bond. But while watching a 007 marathon on television recently, I was not so sure.

When he's not bedding a panoply of exotic beauties and foiling the world's most pernicious criminals, Bond, as you might recall, enjoys the game of punto banco, otherwise known as baccarat. And he appears to be quite good at it, too, possessing a highly refined ability to draw "nine" when his opponent pulls an "eight." Watch enough James Bond movies and you'll see him win many hundreds of thousands of francs--always, of course, in a perfectly pressed tuxedo, with a crowd of approving onlookers witnessing his triumphs.

I don't begrudge Bond his terrific record. He is, after all, our gallant hero. But, James, baccarat?

Despite the high-society glamour of the game, baccarat is the one casino activity that most resembles picking "heads" or "tails" on the flip of a penny. The house deals two hands: "player" and "bank." The hand with a point total closest to nine (picture cards are worth zero) is best. Gamblers bet on the hand they think will win.

That's it. That's the extent of the decision making involved.Based on how the rules are set up, after commissions the house has a 2 to 3 percent edge over the bettor. The shoe cannot be counted effectively; the cards cannot be bluffed, and, as we know, there's not a "betting system" in the world that can beat it. In other words, a losing proposition completely immune to skill, style or good looks.

Wouldn't Bond be better off playing poker? For that matter, wouldn't anybody?

Michael Konik is the gambling columnist for Cigar Aficionado.