Immediately after you arrive at Las Vegas's McCarran International Airport, the impact of the poker boom hits you. It's illustrated on the walls of Terminal B in the form of big, backlit advertisements for Belvedere vodka. The caricatured shills on these signs, designed to coincide with the 2004 World Series of Poker, are familiar faces to anyone who's been watching poker tournaments on TV: Chris Moneymaker, Annie Duke, Howard Lederer, Daniel Negreanu, Layne Flack, Phil Hellmuth, Chris Ferguson and T. J. Cloutier.
At Binion's Horseshoe, site of the 35th annual World Series, 52 all-but-naked women, body-painted as playing cards, parade around to promote an online poker site. Upstairs, near the big room where the tournaments take place (there are 33 events, culminating with the seven-day championship match), the long-haired, bearded 2000 champ, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, can't walk more than a few feet without someone stopping him for an autograph. And in the Horseshoe's executive offices, World Series honchos are pleasantly surprised that the championship event has attracted some 2,600 players, leaving this year's Series with 1,800 more contenders than last year. This adds up to a prize pool in excess of $40 million, including a first prize of $5 million.
With a line of waiting spectators snaking far beyond the tournament room's entrance, poker mania is in full force. A rep from Oakley sunglasses walks around, handing out shades, suggesting that he might be into cutting promotional deals with players. Every poker stud of note seems to have a contract with one online site or another, and it's suddenly commonplace for unknowns to be thrown $10,000 in exchange for wearing hats emblazoned with logos at final tables being taped for broadcast on ESPN. Whenever Moneymaker, last year's champ and the most prominent player in town, competes at a tournament table, he is surrounded on one side by TV cameras and on the other by spectators pressing up against a padded rail. With all the attention, you wonder how Moneymaker can focus on his cards.
If poker is going to bust out and become a mainstream spectator sport, as it seems poised to do, this is the tipping point. "Three years ago a poker player couldn't get a $50 dinner comp," says Adam Schoenfeld, senior vice president of marketing for Advanced Global Applications, which owns finaltable.com and designed the software for pokermountain.com. "Now we're looking at low six-figure guarantees to get a top name to be affiliated with a poker site."
Schoenfeld, who was once an oft-quoted analyst with Jupiter Communications, says it's worth it: "The right players add credibility and glamour and excitement."
He should know. Veteran tournament star Cloutier and hot newcomer Negreanu (who, as of July, is poised to be named Card Player magazine's Player of the Year) have both been signed to promote the pokermountain and finaltable sites. The number two online site, PokerStars.com, had so much success with Moneymaker (he entered, and ultimately won, last year's World Series championship after qualifying in a satellite tournament on PokerStars) that the online operator not only inked him to a one-year promotional deal, but spent $1 million in sending 316 qualifying players to 2004's Series. "When Moneymaker won, it got our name out," says Dan Goldman, vice president of marketing for PokerStars. "Newspapers ran articles about Moneymaker, but they all mentioned our site."
In the end more than 800 would-be poker kings won their entry fees by playing online. While it may have once been reasonable to dismiss Internet players as dead money, the enduring success of Moneymaker (he finished second in a World Poker Tour showdown at the Bay 101 casino in San Jose, California), coupled with the sheer penetration of online qualifiers, makes it difficult to maintain that attitude. "A lot of online people have the idea that they can play better than the name players," says Erik Seidel, who has won six World Series bracelets. "Some of the online guys will break through. And though they may not play better than Phil Ivey, they will be good players."
Of the thousands of amateurs diving into Las Vegas for the World Series, a Texan is making the biggest splash of all. His name is Andy Beal, and he's a billionaire banker—that is, he owns a bank—from Highland Park. He came to Vegas a few years ago wanting to play super-high-stakes Texas Hold'em, and, not surprisingly, an elite group of players was willing to accommodate him. He sat down and entered into a game with the best high-stakes specialists in the world, guys such as Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Bobby Baldwin and Johnny Chan. Equally predictably, he got his clock cleaned. Then, fearing collusion among the pros, Beal made an arrangement with the big players. The group, which dubbed itself the Corporation, put together a multimillion-dollar bankroll to take on Beal one at a time.
Typically, Beal shows up at the Bellagio, on short notice, and the Corporation is waiting for him. Sitting alongside his personal accountant/bodyguard, Beal wears headphones, plays from early in the morning till late afternoon and barely talks—except when he is trying to raise the stakes. The game has gone from $10,000/$20,000 to $15,000/$30,000, and as high as $50,000/$100,000. Typically, Beal gets slaughtered and the Corporation loves it. On this trip, however, coinciding with World Series mania, Beal manages to get the stakes up to an unprecedented $100,000/$200,000. Every pot contains more than $1 million, and, one would reasonably conclude, that's enough to rattle even the most seasoned pro.
"Maybe," surmises a plugged-in player, "it's his strategy. Get them to gamble for enough money that they leave their comfort zones."
David Sklansky, author of poker bibles such as Getting the Best of It, denies a rumor that Beal is taking lessons from him, though he does speculate that "maybe he's hired a game theory specialist to analyze the hands and figure out strategies."
Sklansky's guess gains credence as the opening days of the World Series near. One night, just outside the Golden Nugget's high-limit room, Corporation member Johnny Chan tells me that Beal has won more than $6 million during his most recent session of play. "Seventeen of us put up the bankroll, and we each lost $360,000 to him," says Chan, who acknowledges that Beal may be less skilled than the Brunsons of the world, but recognizes that he is plenty dangerous—especially when the stakes become sky-high. "He's fearless and you can't bluff him; the money is meaningless and he plays ultra-aggressive all the time. He only thinks of his hand [as opposed to reading his opponent] and won't back off of anything."
Contemplating the quality of Beal's play and the moves that a pro can employ against him, Chan slyly adds, "Let me put it this way: you can't bluff a sucker."
So how did the sucker get to be ahead by so much money during this last round? "Chip [Reese] was playing against him early in the morning, at 7 or 8 a.m. And Chip lost [around] $6 million to him. Chip is not only a solid player, but he is a player's player, a great player. He is the No. 1 or 2 player in the world. You will not find another Chip. I guarantee you Andy got lucky on Chip. The deck ran cold [for Reese]. Andy started catching gut-shot straights and making flushes."
Beal's good fortune converts into seven-figure bad beats that Chan can relate to. "Me and Andy played, and I had 7-8," continues Chan. "The flop came 4-5-6. I had the stone nuts. He raised me with 8-9 and caught a 7 on the end. What can you do?" The good news, adds Chan, is that "he'll be back within a month. Where else can he go? He's excited now. He's in heaven. And it's not the money. We are his toys. He wanted to accomplish this, and he did."
Back at the World Series, a different kind of bad beat is dealt to the online sites that had spent big bucks to send players to Vegas and provide them with hotel rooms and walking-around money as inducements to wear promotional hats and T-shirts. It is the reversal of an earlier policy, which stated that virtually any logo could be worn at each tournament's final table—a special table that is rigged for television, complete with multiple cameras, lights and spy-cams to view down cards—as long as no more than two players wear logos from any one site. After one site has five players wearing logos and another takes to passing out leaflets to spectators, tournament officials ban all gambling-site logos at the final tables—which, of course, will eclipse the lion's share of TV exposure. Adam Schoenfeld is angry with the sites that took advantage and disappointed by the timing: "We were waiting for one of our guys to make the final table. And the day T. J. Cloutier did it [during the the seven-card razz tournament] was the day the dictum came down."
Dan Goldman, of PokerStars, says that if logos had been banned ahead of time, "it would have been a tough decision [to invest $1 million in putting up players and providing them with swag]. We probably would not have done as much as we did. We hope [the World Series of Poker] will see the benefit of our involvement and be able to work something out for next year."
Logo-friendly or not, the championship event attracts so many entrants that opening day gets broken up into two flights. Nearly 1,300 players go up against one another in the first session, and an equal number play in the second. By the third day, it gets down to a manageable 1,100 or so and feels like a normal opening day. The primary difference is that some of the best-known players aren't there to participate. Online poker is typically faster and more aggressive than the live version, and many of the top flesh-and-blood stars appear unable to adjust their games. Cloutier gets knocked out when he fails to make his gut-shot straight—leaving a lot of people wondering why he went all in with an apparently marginal hand in the first place. Celebrities Norm Macdonald, James Woods and Tobey Maguire all get busted during their first day. An unknown gets lucky against Moneymaker, doing him in and, no doubt, causing untold heartache for the marketing folks at PokerStars, which had invested a lot of time, energy and, yes, money in promoting him as their guy. Now much of his TV time—complete with a PokerStars logo on his shirt and hat (permitted everywhere but at the final table)—will show him getting eliminated.
Whenever a well-known player gets low on chips, ESPN producers hustle over to monitor what they have taken to calling "deathwatches."
Cameras stay in close proximity, poised to capture every brutal moment of great players going bust. As the big names from World Series past—Phil Ivey, Johnny Chan, Howard Lederer—bite the dust, the TV people endlessly fret about there being "a final table full of nobodies."
Former champion Phil Hellmuth gets extra flashy, showing the camera his pocket kings before he lays them down. Struggling to stay alive, and on seemingly continual deathwatch, Hellmuth hangs in there like the gifted tournament player he is, often doubling up when he seems a breath away from being knocked out. After a feisty opponent makes a big bet at him, Hellmuth shoots the guy a tight grin and sharply asks, "Are you bluffing me again? This is the third time you've bluffed me. But that's OK. I always get the guys who bluff me."
Hellmuth mucks his cards and the guy looks at him curiously. "You'll come after me?"
"No," Hellmuth replies. "You'll come after me and I'll be waiting for you with top set."
It sounds good, and it's a compelling sentiment, but it never comes to pass. Before day three is over, Hellmuth is out of the tournament.
One star who lasts the third day but not much beyond it is Brunson, a great player with unbelievable stamina. At 70 years of age, Brunson has been playing in a $4,000/$8,000 game at the Golden Nugget, right across from the Horseshoe, just about every day for the last month. It's a game that routinely starts in the early afternoon and ends 14 or 15 hours later. When a young player at Brunson's World Series table complains about being tired from all the action, Brunson looks at him, smiles gently and lets the kid know that he's been putting in the long hours all month. On top of that, Brunson's recently finished the sequel to Super/System, which has long stood as the most reliable instructional manual on poker.
Considering Brunson's lifelong career in the game, combined with his advancing age, it's easy to get sentimental and hope that he might pull out a final World Series win, which would be his eighth victory in a World Series event. He has a shot at moving toward that goal when he makes an all-in bet before the flop. Sitting across the table, the burly and bearded Bradley Berman—whose father, Lyle, co-founded the World Poker Tour and is a regular fixture in Brunson's big game at the Nugget—doesn't hear the bet and thinks Brunson has checked from the big blind. Attempting to steal the pot, Berman says, "Raise."
He has no interest in going all in on the hand, and the last thing Brunson wants, with his pocket 10s, is a caller. But, regardless of a misunderstanding, tournament rules dictate that a call is a call. Berman is forced to push all his chips to the table's center. He sheepishly turns over his cards: ace 7. The odds of winning remain in Brunson's favor—until an ace comes on the flop. Brunson never improves his hands and gets knocked out in a manner that no book could ever prepare you for. "I had a gut feeling he was going to catch that ace," Brunson later says, slowly shaking his head. "It's the kind of unfortunate break that I'd been trying to avoid all tournament. But it's kind of like this was destiny or something."
Brunson rises from his seat to leave the tournament room, and the place erupts with cheering. It turns into a standing ovation. He tips his hat to the crowd, smiles broadly and exits in the classiest way imaginable. Asked how it felt to get such a show of appreciation, Brunson puts on his poker face: "It was nice that all those guys in there knew me and were appreciative of the contributions I had made. It was kind of a touching moment for me."
Asked if he'll be playing in 2005, Brunson replies, "I said this was going to be my last tournament because it's so grueling, even though I still hold up pretty well."
Then he hesitates for a beat before adding, "But I'm sure I'll be there next year."
After a week of bad beats, big bets, thousands of spectators, hundreds of reporters from around the world and continually escalating blinds, the World Series comes down to a final table of nine players—and it seems anticlimactic. Except for former champ Dan Harrington (ironically nicknamed Gamblin' Dan, for the legendary tightness with which he plays), it's all unknowns (most of whom qualified online), making ESPN's worst nightmare come true. The chip leader is a 39-year-old patent attorney from Connecticut named Greg "Fossilman" Raymer. He's a big guy who collects fossils and wears flashing hologrammed sunglasses, purchased a couple years ago at Walt Disney World's Tower of Terror ride: "Some people couldn't stand to look at me. One guy told me that the glasses made him sick to his stomach. That was good."
Raymer, who won his entry on PokerStars, has $8,215,000 in chips before him, nearly twice as many as his closest competitor, Texas college student Matt Dean, who also qualified on PokerStars. "I was in good shape throughout the tournament," Raymer says. "I won a small pot on the first hand I played and was chip leader at my table for the majority of the tournament. Only on day three did I get to a table where somebody else was ahead of me. I went from $300,000 to $200,000 in about 10 minutes. I was up and down like a yo-yo that day. Otherwise, though, it all went quite smoothly."
Raymer whittles down his opponents quickly and methodically, and wins the Series in what seems like no time at all, taking home $5 million without once being in danger of blowing it. (See story, page 82.) "My only problem when I got to the final table," he later says, "is I had to temper myself from pounding too hard. But I still went after the blinds more than once per orbit."
After winning the Series, with a pair of pocket 8s that gave him a full house, Raymer is invited to join a posse of top pros who are going to party at the Hard Rock Casino. He declines, as he's allergic to alcohol and not particularly fond of the bar scene. Folks at the Horseshoe want to upgrade him to a suite, and he rejects that, insisting that the bed in his standard room is perfectly comfortable. An agent who represents a number of poker pros for endorsement deals wants to discuss the possibility of signing up Raymer. Raymer tells the guy to mail him the information. This is not somebody who lets a poker championship go to his head. When tournament organizers offer to box up the money, so Raymer can take his prize in cash (or secure it in a Horseshoe lockbox), Raymer tells them to hang on to the money for now. He'll work things out in the morning. He has something else he needs to do: "I was tired," Raymer says a week later. "I went to my room, hung out with my family, watched myself on the news and went to bed."
Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.