What happened when a billionaire banker challenged the world’s top pros to a game of heads-up?
Poker professionals make their bread and butter, and most of their jam and caviar, from cash games. Sure, tournaments give them headlines, publicity and extra income, but it’s the side games that pay the bills.
The most lucrative of these takes place in the card room at Bellagio, Las Vegas, and it was there in February 2001, that a self-made Texan billionaire banker named Andy Beal first played in a $400-$800 limit hold’em game. He came out ahead and was encouraged to play for bigger stakes. Beal had the bank he owned in Dallas wire him more cash and the following night he played in a $1000-$2000 game. He did well again and flew home a winner. But despite that and his earnings of around half-a-million dollars a day at Beal Bank, he sat in economy. ‘Why waste money flying first class?’ he asked.
But he didn’t skimp on his poker. In fact he was back in Vegas the following month, asking to play for the dizzy stakes of $15,000-$30,000 – but only, he insisted, heads-up against poker’s elite. Doyle Brunson acted as the professionals’ negotiator. The deal they agreed was that a group of pros would pool their resources and take it in turns to play him.
First up was Ted Forrest, winner of last year’s $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em bracelet at the WSOP. They began playing at 1pm and by dinnertime Beal had lost just over $1m. Defying the golden rule of never chasing losses, he asked that the blinds be raised to $20,000-$40,000 – and lost $2m more. He then lost another million to Howard Lederer and flew back to Dallas with his tail between his legs. But he wasn’t about to give up.
Beal set about learning to play heads-up hold’em properly. He converted his office, replacing the conference table with a regulation ten-seat poker set-up. He modified the lighting to match the Bellagio’s card room and ordered replicas of their cards, dealer buttons and bottled water. Afraid that the time he took in his decision-making was giving away too much information, he built a vibrator that he strapped to his leg and which gave off a tiny tremor every eight seconds; this trained him to fold, call, bet or raise the moment it buzzed. He also modified a pocket watch to cue his action randomly in coin-flip situations. He watched heads-up videos endlessly and engaged the services of a retired pro as a tutor.
Let the games begin…
Finally, on Monday May 10, 2004, Andy Beal was ready. He called Doyle Brunson and asked if the pros would play him heads-up for $50,000-$100,000 or $100,000- $200,000. Although the World Series of Poker was in progress, Brunson couldn’t agree quickly enough. Beal’s first opponent that night was Chau Giang, one of the biggest winners at the Bellagio. The blinds were set at $50,000- $100,000. Beal won $1.3m before quitting at 10pm. Other members of the group, who were each putting up a minimum of $500,000, criticised Giang for playing too conservatively. ‘My mother could beat Chau if he keeps playing like that!’ snapped Gus Hansen.
So the next day, the pros put up one of the most successful and savvy of their group, Howard Lederer. He came charging out to win a whopping $6.3m. Beal was down $5m but still eager for higher stakes action.
On Wednesday May 12, 2004, he had $15m wired to the Bellagio. With Lederer away at Binion’s Horseshoe playing at the WSOP, he came up against Todd Brunson. Within half-an-hour he was down more than $3m. But a superb fightback put him $7m ahead before Todd, bit by bit, turned the tables. When Andy called it a day at 9.45pm, he was $1.1m down. ‘That comeback was more important psychologically than financially,’ Todd recalls. ‘He thought he was going to crush me. When I came back, he was real upset and didn’t say goodnight.’
One of Beal’s conditions had been that play started at 7am. He was at his best in the morning and believed the pros would be at their worst. So bright and early Thursday morning he sat opposite Chip Reese, winner of two WSOP bracelets. He stayed ahead during the morning and by the time they broke for lunch at 11.40am, was $8m ahead on the day and $2m on the trip. Beal came back for a final session at 2pm to find Hamid Dastmalchi, 1992 world champion, waiting to play him. Hamid was famous for once playing a 100-hour heads-up with Ted Forrest, which ended when he was carted off in an ambulance. In the first hour, Hamid won back $5m for the group. But he was drinking beer and brandy, and by 4.30pm had lost it again. Gus Hansen took over and won $2m, but when Beal realised he was mostly bluffing, he changed his tactics and won it back, plus another $2m. Hansen was then replaced by Jennifer Harman, who moved $5m ahead, only to lose it again – plus another $1.5m.
Beal flew back to Dallas having won an amazing $11.7m that day and an impressive $6m overall on the trip. High on success, he returned to Vegas only 12 days later to try for more. On May 26 he lost $5m to Todd Brunson in six hours but pleaded for another game the next day. Only with Howard Lederer, the group said. Beal accepted and lost another $9.3m more in eight hours. Not happy with his losses, he issued another challenge late last year in an open letter to US magazine CardPlayer: ‘I challenge you to put up or shut up… Come to Dallas and play me for four hours a day, and I will play until one of us runs out of money.’ This time, however, there were certain conditions.
Beal wanted to handpick his opponents (from a group of six chosen by the consortium) and play the game in Texas, either at his bank or a neutral location agreed upon by both parties. Brunson’s reply was swift. He suggested a $40m freezeout to be played in a licensed casino, but he wouldn’t let Beal pick his opponents. It looked like a stalemate but then Beal made a counter offer by agreeing to let the consortium pick who played and when from the group, but demanding that all six players must play at some point until they win or lose $8m.
To date the game still hasn’t been played. Whether it ever will is a matter of conjecture, but if it does, rest assured we’ll be there for the ultimate showdown…
[Beal returned in February 2006 to play another raft of ultra high-stakes games – read about them here!]
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