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Raising the Stakes

Hollywood's interest in poker has helped drive the upsurge in lavish high-stakes poker rooms

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.

But she is far from alone in having this thought. The MGM Grand has opened a cozy, coolly designed poker room, emphasizing lower-stakes action. The Mandalay Bay, where poker had long been a backwater activity, has plans to expand its poker presence by enlarging the room and hosting a World Poker Tour event in June that will be taped for TV, thus providing the casino with a Texas Hold'em seal of approval. Harrah's has hired marketing gurus away from NASCAR and the NFL in a bid to take the World Series global and make it bigger than ever in the States. New York-New York is thinking about putting in a card room, and Wynn Las Vegas, which opened last April, has made its poker facility state-of-the-art: you can sit in your room and watch the waiting list on a flat-screen TV to see how far you are from getting a seat in your game of choice-and, hopefully, your take of other people's money.

Despite the potential it holds for players-"Anyone who's good at games looks at poker and sees that it gives you the best shot at making millions of dollars," says Greenstein-poker is anything but a hard-and-fast moneymaker for the casinos. They do way better by putting in slot machines or blackjack tables, which makes the Bellagio's expansion all the more stunning. "We spent $5 million to add 10 tables," says Doug Dalton (yes, Edna's husband), who runs the Bellagio's poker room. "They moved out 21 tables and slots for poker. Have you ever heard of that in your life? But we are the largest poker room in Nevada, and we need to accommodate the demand."

As it turns out, though, replacing those tried-and-true moneymakers with poker tables may not be so counterintuitive. "A few years ago these casino executives didn't realize that poker players bring their friends and girlfriends and wives, who do all the other sorts of gambling," says 1994 World Series champ Russ Hamilton. "Plus, look at the poker players themselves. They blow lots of money in the pit. Look at Phil Ivey and Chau Giang. Those guys go into the pit and blow hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars."

Seidel-who enjoyed a windfall several years ago thanks to the wild style of a wealthy, losing European player called George The Greek-remembers, "It frustrated casino executives when they saw George dropping so much to us and they weren't getting any of it. But they eventually realized that he wouldn't be in the casino if there was no poker, and he played baccarat as well."

More importantly, if casinos can't accommodate the high-rolling, cash-bleeding pit-game players by providing them with high-stakes poker games, there is the very real risk that the whales will swim out and spout off their money elsewhere. "I can't tell you how many customers we've gained from other properties," brags the Bellagio's Dalton. "I can tell you about one guy who came over here from Caesars [before poker was up and running there] and wound up losing $20 or $30 million to us at baccarat. But if Caesars had a poker room, he never would have left. It used to be that the number one question asked at any casino was, 'Where's the buffet?' Now everybody wants to know where the poker room is." In other words, casinos now have no choice but to offer poker, lest they want to lose their customers.

With the breakneck popularity, however, comes more poker rooms and more competition. While there clearly are waiting lists for games all over town, it can't possibly be that way forever. At the rate in which poker facilities are growing, the very real possibility exists that tables will ultimately exceed demand, at least in some casinos.

The challenge of succeeding is on display in the Wynn poker room, which looks great, feels great, employs great dealers, and has nice art on the walls. But that is not enough. The initial plan, when Wynn opened, was to hire Daniel Negreanu to be the room's poker ambassador. The idea was that he would play there, attract some big-money studs, and bring in the crowds. But the anticipated high-stakes ring-game action never materialized, and Negreanu, who's played in the Big Game, felt frustrated. He tried to compensate by issuing a challenge in which he would compete in $500,000 freeze-outs against anyone, at any form of poker.

That was interesting enough-pros such as Barry Greenstein, Mimi Tran, and David Oppenheim all took him on-but it couldn't compare to a big-money ring game. As he puts it, "There was no action for me at Wynn." After six months, when Negreanu was contractually allowed to bail, he asked if it would be okay for him to resume playing cash games at the Bellagio while maintaining his position with Wynn. "They came to me and said, 'Picture this: Ask your wife if it's okay to bang another broad a couple nights a week,'" remembers Negreanu, understanding their need for his exclusivity, but pointing out that the gig with Wynn infringed on his livelihood. Negreanu left, but Wynn management isn't exactly sweating his departure. As this issue goes to press, the biggest poker game in the world has settled in there: billionaire banker Andy Beal vs. a consortium of poker pros, playing heads-up Texas hold'em for the monstrous stakes of $50,000/$100,000, in the high-limit area of the Wynn.

Rich as that showdown is, however, when an ambitious poker pro leaves a cushy day job because he can't afford not to play cards for the highest stakes, well, you know that lots of games have got to be good; it's not just at the Beal level. Online poker has become a cash cow for the pros, many of whom play under names that you'd never be able to trace back to them. Plus the tournaments, in and out of Vegas, have gotten huge and alluring for those who excel in that arena.

Nevertheless, Erik Seidel is half-serious when he complains about all the opportunities. "Poker's left me with very little time for myself; I'd like to read and spend time with my family and get things done," he says. "But there are so many tournaments outside of Vegas-in January alone, I was scheduled to play in Australia, the Bahamas, Atlantic City and Tunica-that I feel compelled to travel and play [because the action is so juicy]. We have people buying into $10,000 events who've never played a tournament before; the $25,000 buy-in at the Bellagio was up by one-third over 2004. That's great. Two-thousand-five stands as my best poker year yet, but I'll be happy if the bottom drops out of this. I want my life back."

Seidel's penultimate sentiment begs a question: how much longer can it go on for? Is there a poker bubble, which will soon burst, leading the game to go the way of so many other things that were once huge but now are not? I ask this of Doug Dalton and he responds like a true gambler. "If you think that's the case," Dalton says, "let's make a wager and see where things are at in a year."

I opt out (too many smart people are betting the game will thrive), but I tell Dalton that I think bad players will eventually get sick of losing money to good players and find other ways to entertain themselves. "What do they lose? A few hundred a month?" asks Dalton. "What would they do with the money if they didn't lose it at poker? Save it? I don't think so. Jack Binion [son of Benny Binion, with whom he founded the World Series of Poker] says that the poker business will double every year, probably for as long as we can accommodate everyone." Dalton glances across his crowded poker room and says, "Already we can use more tables here, and we just got through expanding."

Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.