Imagine losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every night to players you know are better than you. You’d find another game, right? Not for these guys
Poker night is a big night for Jerry Buss. In that regard, Buss, a multi-millionaire who’s owned the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team since 1979, shares something with countless other men around the world. But when Buss buys in, his opponents are likely to include Barry Greenstein, Daniel Negreanu and John Hennigan. The stakes, of course, are mind-blowingly large.
Everybody at the table – including Buss – realises that it will be a struggle for him to leave the game a winner. But, for Buss, the sizeable stacks of $100 bills at risk are beside the point. ‘The sums are not significant to me,’ says Buss. ‘The only significant thing is this: can I compete against the best poker players in the world? Playing against people who are similar to me [in terms of their skills] is not significant. If I can beat champions on one out of three occasions, that is significant.’
Buss ranks among an elite group of recreational poker players. They tend to be extremely successful businessmen, with a competitive streak to shame an Olympic athlete, and totally obsessed with the game. Buss and the others – who include Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, Texas banker Andy Beal, Cirque du Soleil creator Guy Laliberté, and California-based real estate investor Bob Safai –go out of their way to play against the most notorious card sharks in the world. They challenge themselves and aim to experience adrenaline rushes that even the most high-flying business careers just can’t provide.
Eric Drache, former poker pro and currently a producer of High Stakes Poker, has seen more than his share of wealthy amateurs swimming with sharks. I ask him what drives them to do it. ‘There’s no other activity where you can enter right at the top and compete,’ says Drache. ‘There are a lot of guys who would pay to do it in the NBA if they could.’
That said, Drache points out that it would be a mistake to underestimate these exalted amateurs or write them off as complete fish. ‘They’re smart enough to have made their money,’ he continues. ‘Their only fault is that they haven’t spent 12 hours a day, for most of their lives, playing poker.’
During the course of researching this article, I happen to find myself in Bobby’s Room, the home of high stakes cash games in Vegas. A few feet away, a game is going on where players can easily win or lose six-figure amounts. I recognise an amateur occupying one of the seats and ask a friend of mine, a young pro who I consider to be a favourite in this game, whether or not the amateur, who’d made a significant fortune in business before retiring, is any good. ‘Yeah,’ my friend tells me. ‘He’s a good poker player.’ ‘Really?’
I reply, a little doubtful. ‘So he’s a winner in your game?’ ‘No,’ my friend says. Then he laughs and adds, ‘He’s not that good.’ The point is that this rich retiree is skilled enough to beat a lot of guys at poker. But he chooses to play with people against whom he stands little chance.
I pose this incongruity to Aaron Brown, who wrote The Poker Face of Wall Street and manages risk for the hedge fund AQR Capital Management. Brown knows both sides of the coin. In the late 70s and into the 80s, he played poker professionally and gambled at blackjack as a means of meeting desirable opponents. He also traded options, went to grad school and did computer work. He never stopped playing poker, but, over time, poker stopped being the most profitable thing in his life.
So what keeps him in the game? ‘Five years ago, I would have said that I make money at poker; now I have to admit that people are better than me,’ he acknowledges. ‘You can call it pride, but if I wasn’t willing to sit down and play against anybody and everybody, I would think of myself differently.’ Highly competitive poker, whether he wins or loses at it, infuses Brown with advantages at his day job. Because of his experiences on felt-topped tables, he says, ‘I am not afraid to make a trade that other people think is crazy. In that regard, the most valuable thing I’ve gained from poker is not money or contacts. The most valuable thing I’ve got from poker is what it has done for me as a man. It turned me into a person who can win at things that require focus, intelligence and psychology.’ Adding that card-playing has helped him to develop tilt control, which can translate into preventing booked losses from sabotaging current performance, he says, ‘In trading and in poker you need zero memory.’
Other non-pros find a payoff in television time and fame. ‘Playing with the pros on High Stakes Poker was kind of an ego trip,’ admits Fred Chamanara, a successful restaurateur who ranks among the show’s memorable goats. ‘I lost $100,000 on my first appearance, dropped $30,000 or $40,000 on the second appearance, and I got a cheque for $20,000 from GSN [Game Show Network pays appearance fees to players on High Stakes]. I found out that I have a little bit of courage and that money is not everything in the world to me.’
Looking back at the experience, he does it without a whole lot of veneer. ‘When I sat down to play on High Stakes, seven or eight of the guys at the table were world champions; they were looking for a schmuck like me,’ he says, sounding completely good-humoured about the experience. ‘Appearing on the show was worthwhile to do once or twice, but I don’t think it is something to do again.’
Alan Meltzer made his millions in the cutthroat record and CD business. Then he developed a penchant for poker. He started off messing around online, graduated to low stakes games at the Commerce Casino near Los Angeles, and then developed a full-on obsession during a series of trips to some of the world’s premier poker rooms.
One time in Vegas, early on in his poker evolution, Meltzer found himself at a $25/$50 no-limit table with Johnny Chan sitting down. Meltzer was dealt Q-8 and enjoyed a rich man’s indulgence: after everybody else folded, he stayed in for the opportunity to play a hand against Chan. When the flop came 8-8-9 he checked and called a substantial bet from Chan. ‘Johnny bet again on the turn [a Queen] and I made like I was sweating it out,’ says Meltzer, who figured his full house was good. ‘Then I thought that maybe Johnny had pocket nines for a bigger full house.’ Meltzer called anyway and found a miracle on the river: the Queen that gave him the best full house and almost certainly the winning hand.
All the money was in the pot, and, says Meltzer, ‘I busted Johnny Chan for $35,000. He immediately got up, after playing just that one hand, and left the table. Boy, was he pissed. Then we raised up the stakes to $100/$200 no-limit, went into Bobby’s Room, and I continued to win – even though I was bluffing too much and calling too much.’ Meltzer got his comeuppance after an opponent hit a straight on the river, taking all of the money that Meltzer had on him, including the winnings from Chan. Looking back, he says, ‘It was a good lesson.’
Since then, Meltzer has improved markedly. Though he’s lost plenty of cash along the way, Meltzer views the cost of his poker education as tuition. Eventually, he believes, it will pay off. ‘When I first met Alan, I thought he was the juiciest guy in the game; I thought he was the worst player ever,’ says Erik Boneta, a watch dealer who enjoys nipping at the pros. ‘Now, though, he is probably the most improved player I have ever met.’
Unlike Meltzer and some of the others, Boneta does not seek out professional competition. But, as a consequence of the stakes he plays, he invariably comes up against guys like David Williams, Nick Schulman and David ‘Viffer’ Peat. He’s not expecting to be the best player in the game, but he won’t sit down if he’s the worst either. Driving home the delineations between high stakes pros, serious amateurs and the very best, Boneta recalls the night Tom Dwan showed up at Boneta’s regular home game.
Dwan had a pair of friends with him and there were only two seats available at the table. Considering that Boneta’s standard $25/$50 or $50/$100 stakes were not sufficiently nosebleed for him, Dwan slipped into a spare bedroom and his friends took the last remaining seats. ‘About 28 minutes later,’ remembers Boneta, ‘he came out with a big grin on his face and said, “I just won a quarter.”’
The word was short-hand, of course, for a quarter of a million dollars. That casually stated sum underscores the ambitions, skills and desires that separate the true elite professionals from well-heeled amateurs for whom poker is a gut check, a challenge, and a potentially pricey kick that clocks in far below Dwan’s ‘quarter’.
That said, it begs a question for the recently poker-smitten Meltzer. Has he yet crossed over to profitability? Is there at least a glimmer of light at the end of the high stakes tunnel? ‘I’m not going to boast that I’m a winning player,’ Meltzer replies, sounding a little cryptic. ‘What I will say is that I can comfortably play poker against anybody.’ And, as Jerry Buss attests, for the exalted amateur, being able to pull off that feat is enough.