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Shark Attack

To Play Poker with Vegas' Big Boys, Bring a Lot of Skill--and Plenty of Cash
| By Michael Konik | From Matt Dillon, Spring 96

The poker room at The Mirage in Las Vegas is one of those great democratic institutions that pays no heed to race, religion, creed or social pedigree. It doesn't matter here if you are a debt-laden deadbeat or the world's richest man or something in between: If you have the requisite buy-in--as low as $30--you're welcome to play in this expansive card arena. Poker is color-blind, except for the money being green.

That is why nobody who regularly gambles in The Mirage poker room was particularly dumbstruck when Bill Gates wandered in recently to play in the smallest game offered, a $3-to-$6-limit hold 'em affair. Though the irony of a multibillionaire gambling with the minimum-wage crowd was lost on nobody, the fact that Microsoft's CEO would sate his poker appetite in public, at The Mirage, was no surprise. Hollywood stars (and their agents), sports heroes, titans of industry, Bible Belt politicians--all come through here on an almost weekly basis.

Sure, it's always exciting to see one of the most powerful men in the world get his two-pair snapped off by a grandmother from Ohio. But to poker cognoscenti, the real drama was unfolding in the corner of the room, behind the velvet ropes, next to the sign that says "Please do not stand in this area," where seven locals and a wealthy visitor were conducting The Big Game.

Typically, The Big Game, where the wins and losses regularly run into six and seven figures, resembles a school of sharks dismembering an unfortunate bait fish. Today, though, the bait fish of the moment, a flamboyant Aussie, has grown fangs, and the sharks are looking for a place to hide.

Several years ago, author Al Alvarez wrote a revealing account of high-stakes poker in Las Vegas called The Biggest Game in Town. In his book, originally a series of articles in The New Yorker, Alvarez introduced readers to some of poker's heaviest hitters, a coterie of seasoned road gamblers and brilliant card sharps, reckless plungers and savant-like prodigies, who thought nothing of playing for pots the size (and value) of a 1979 Cadillac.

Some of the colorful gamblers from The Biggest Game in Town, like legendary two-time poker world champion Doyle Brunson, still play in The Big Game. Others have died. Most, however, have been supplanted by a new breed of player: The regular combatants in today's biggest game in town are generally younger, better educated and more private than their forefathers. They are less inclined to publicize their poker triumphs and less likely to fire the public's imagination. They don't publish how-to books or make appearances on late-night talk shows. They simply play poker--quite well, and for quite incomprehensible stakes.

Recently, before his untimely death last year, an enormously wealthy businessman from Paris known throughout Las Vegas as "The Frenchman" inspired the biggest poker game in America. He liked to play hold 'em for astonishingly large stakes, like $2,000 to $4,000 a bet. The local experts happily obliged, and The Frenchman often dropped $1 million or more per visit. Before him there was The Southern Gentleman, the scion of a prominent Confederate family. The Gentleman preferred good old-fashioned seven-card stud, the game his grandpappy played. Again, the local experts happily obliged, and The Southern Gentleman often dropped $1 million or more per visit. Before him there was The Movie Producer, and before him The Publisher, and before him a long legacy of brave visitors who wanted to play real big. The locals always obliged.

Most of the players in The Big Game just want to be left alone, free to ply their lucrative trade. (At their request, names and identifying details have been changed for this article.) But like the old-timers, the new breed plays in public, here at the corner table of The Mirage poker room. Anyone who wants to see the largest casino ring game in America can stop over and take a good look at the action, though if you tarry too long an officious employee with a clipboard and a regretful smile will politely tell you, "I'm sorry, we can't have anyone standing here."

Like fish need water, The Big Game needs a fish. There wouldn't be a game if not for the presence of an honored guest. The locals figure there's no point in playing each other: They'd just be passing the money back and forth, gambling without a discernible edge. They need a soft spot in the game, just one. Because when you play high enough, one producer is sufficient to feed the whole game. Divide $3 million up six ways and you've got a nice week's salary.

The generous visitor is the game's fuel. Be he a former governor or a billionaire industrialist with an utter disregard for money, his presence compels the best (and best-financed) poker players in Las Vegas to make the corner table at The Mirage their office until the visitor is ready to return home--usually after a week or so, with a million or two dollars less than when he arrived. Whether a celebrity or an anonymous member of a laudatory Forbes list, the game's honored guest usually is honored. He's honored just to be playing with the gang of experts that nearly everyone in poker considers the biggest talents in the game. Unlike tennis or basketball or hockey, where merely being super rich does not allow you to compete against the game's best practitioners, poker affords anyone with the courage and the bankroll the privilege of playing with the superstars.

It's an ego thing.

Some of the out-of-towners who take a shot at The Big Game believe they may have the skills and stamina and character to win. Some aren't sure but intend to find out. And others know they're not very good. They just want to be able to say they played with the great ones--and had a great time.

This week at The Mirage, the visitor--call him The Aussie--is a magnificently rich restaurant magnate from Melbourne who considers poker his second favorite hobby after big game hunting. "These days it's easier to find a good poker game than to shoot an elephant," he cackles, tucking a long lock of auburn hair behind his ear.

To his delight, The Aussie finds himself competing against the usual Las Vegas suspects: The Wonk, a lean, impeccably groomed software designer-turned-gambler; Big Ricky, who gave up a lucrative rare-coin business for an even more lucrative career in poker; The Philanderer, who finances his expensive taste in wives at the gaming tables; The Pretty Boy, a former model who has parlayed his family's trust fund into a seat with the big boys; The Hick, who has built the profits from his chain of Midwestern sporting goods stores into a formidable poker bankroll; The Gamesman, an internationally recognized bridge and backgammon expert whose love of games led him to the most dangerous one of all; and The Bruiser, a waif-like wisp of a man who is often called the best all-around player in poker. Four other professionals, including a couple of middle-limit players hoping to take a once-a-year shot at the big time, have their names on the waiting list.

You can almost taste the anticipation, the barely restrained urge to begin the hunt. One pro tells me that this particular game, even for the corner table of The Mirage, is unusual. "Normally, the biggest game in here is maybe one-tenth the size of this game," he says. "This is a two- or three-times-a-year kind of occurrence. Except for when Archie [Karas] was playing everyone heads-up [see Cigar Aficionado, Summer 1994], I haven't seen a game like this in a while, not since The Frenchman."

The form of poker they play is whatever The Aussie feels like playing. During his last visit several months ago, it was $2,000-to-$4,000 seven-card stud. Today it is pot-limit Omaha, a four-card variation of hold 'em, in which the player must meld two cards from his hand with three community cards on the table. The ante is $500. The blinds--compulsory bets made without looking at one's hand--are $1,000 to $2,000. The maximum bet is the size of the pot or $75,000, whichever is less. The buy-in is $100,000, though most players start with at least double that.

Whereas most poker games are accompanied by the staccato clatter of ceramic chips hitting the pot, The Big Game's sound is augmented by the dull thud of bundled $100 bills being blithely tossed onto the green felt.

According to one pro on the waiting list, the honored guest has no hope of selecting a game in which he has the advantage: The superstars of Las Vegas are good at all forms of poker. But The Aussie's choice, pot-limit Omaha, may be the worst possible alternative. "This game will give the amateur player a repeatedly bad price [odds] on his hand, and he won't ever know it," the pro whispers. "Some other games, The Aussie might have a chance to get lucky. But this one? Almost no chance."

If The Aussie has any edge, the pro says, it's his physical conditioning. "If he's stuck, he can play 36 hours straight. Timewise, this guy can play us into the ground. Just like he respects our skills, we respect his fortitude. There're not many people who can stay awake that long, let alone play decent poker. Besides that, though, I don't see how he could beat this game."

How about by getting lucky? To the chagrin of the assembled experts, The Aussie begins his planned three-week stay in Las Vegas with four consecutive winning sessions. Though he plays nearly every hand dealt to him--a sure recipe for financial disaster--The Aussie is pounding the game, scooping up $20,000 pots as if they were so many stray quarters. In a typical encounter, a pro will raise the pot; The Aussie will call. After the community cards are distributed, the pro will bet again; The Aussie will raise him back the size of the pot, or, in some cases, $75,000. Most of the time the pro, not wanting to risk the price of a new Mercedes, surrenders. When the pro decides to play on, more often than not the gleeful visitor shows his hosts the best hand.

After two eight-hour sessions, The Aussie is up more than $900,000. Big Ricky is not amused.

"I had a made flush on the flop," Ricky complains, recalling one particularly painful hand. "The guy calls me with a pair. Just a pair! There's a flush out there staring him in the face and he calls all his money with a pair. Next card gives him two pair. Next card gives him a full house. Two perfect running cards to beat me. You see what we're dealing with here?"

With each small victory The Aussie neither gloats nor apologizes. He just keeps playing, hand after hand, rubbing a polished set of rosary beads in his left palm. When he becomes tired, or perhaps when he feels his fortunes may be turning, he stacks his $5,000 chips in a plastic rack and bids his famous hosts goodnight. They tell him they look forward to playing with him tomorrow morning. "Yes, me, too," The Aussie says, and disappears with their money.

In the Hollywood version of this story, The Aussie would continue to win, breaking The Wonk and The Pretty Boy and The Gamesman and all the rest of the sharks, until only he and the putative best, The Bruiser, were left. They would then play heads-up, famous pro versus wily amateur, until The Bruiser, down nearly $4 million, concedes the game to our unknown hero, telling The Aussie he is surely the finest poker player to have ever visited Las Vegas. At which point The Aussie would reveal that he is not actually an Aussie at all, but a mid-limit grinder from The Mirage's
$50-to-$100 game, an astute observer who has studied The Big Game from close up for three years, memorizing each player's weakness, planning a grand assault. Or some such nonsense.

Alas, this is not Movieland. It is Las Vegas, where the cruel mathematics of The Edge eventually crushes even the luckiest gambler, no matter how many restaurants he owns back in Melbourne. At his zenith, The Aussie is $1.2 million to the good. By the time he gets back on his jet to the land of kangaroos, he's donated several million dollars to the local economy.

And, honestly, he doesn't really mind. He's had fun. He's had the best poker players in the world perplexed, anxious, down. He's been treated like a royal ambassador. He's felt the sting of failure and the elation of triumph. More than anything else, he's been one of the boys, a temporary member in one of the most elite clubs in Las Vegas. He's played in the biggest game in town.

Contributing Editor Michael Konik is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.