WPT bad boy Jean-Robert Bellande on the LA scene, from the 24-hour cardrooms to the infamous celebrity home games
Few players know the City of Angels as well as Jean-Robert Bellande, the ex-nightclub promoter who bankrolled his way into poker via the city’s pool-halls. The 35-year-old has established his reputation as a fearsome cardsman during long nights at the famous Commerce, Bicycle and Hustler casinos, and is now one of the best-connected poker players in Hollywood. The life Bellande has made for himself in Los Angeles is pretty impressive, so there’s no one better to show us what really goes down in LA after dark.
Bellande meets us at one of the world’s premier high-roller locations, the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills, on the night of an invitational hold’em tournament. The crowd is eclectic. Alongside Hugh Hefner’s private collection of exotic monkeys, there’s a light sprinkling of actors (Tara Reid, Mekhi Pfifer), a furtive huddle of poker legends (Daniel Negreanu, Mel Judah), some dwarves, a DJ and a bevy of uniformed Bunny Girls. Bellande is clearly in his element.
Born in New York to Creole parents and then raised in Taiwan, he settled in LA from the age of 17 and became streetwise to the West Coast club scene while studying marketing at college.
‘I hooked up with some promoters and they offered me work,’ he tells us, sipping on a vodka-lemonade, deep in the bowels of Hefner’s underground grotto. ‘I thought, “What a great gig this is. I get to invite hot girls to the most exclusive clubs in town, buy them all drinks, look like a superstar and meet celebrities.” I really connected with Hollywood.’
Bellande threw parties for the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio, Carmen Electra and Shaquille O’Neal, and quickly built up enough of a reputation to open his own spot – Sky Sushi in West Hollywood. At the same time, he supplemented his nightclub earnings on the pool circuit.
I’ve always been a pool player. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a hustler, but I’m a profitable player. I could negotiate good games. I was probably making about $400-500 on the side a week.’ One night, in the year 2000, he found himself $6,000 to the good after a great run on the tables at the Hard Times pool hall in Bellflower, and decided to chance his arm at blackjack at the Bicycle Casino. He tripled his pool winnings. Then, for the first time, he had a crack at poker.
‘They put me in the biggest game in the house, which was a 60-120 mixed game,’ he recalls, with a sheepish grin. ‘The guys at the table realised I really had no clue. They couldn’t believe what a fish they had got in the game. I didn’t care. I was having fun. I lost $13,000 my first night ever playing poker.’ But Bellande was hooked. As part of his learning curve, he hosted games at the Bike and then at Hustler Casino, where he became a break-even player.
The Iceman cometh
‘I really thought I could play as well as anyone in the Omaha hi-lo,’ says Bellande. However, his bubble burst when he took on Jeff ‘Iceman’ Lisandro. ‘Jeff completely outclassed me. I couldn’t believe there was a whole other level of poker. I said to him, “You know, that was a cakewalk. You beat me out of $20,000. Maybe you can do a little blow-back because that was like taking candy from a baby.”’ Iceman held onto his winnings, but compensated Bellande by becoming his poker mentor.
‘A few months later, I went through a bit of a hard time,’ says Bellande. His father died of cancer, he split up with his girlfriend and Sky Sushi shut down. ‘Somebody fired a gun in the air outside Shaquille O’Neal’s birthday party and the city ended up taking away the dance permit. Lisandro invited me to go to Prague, where he was running a poker room. I stayed there for six months.’
At the end of 2004, a six-figure win at the Bellagio’s Third Annual Five Diamond World Poker Classic marked Bellande’s arrival as a poker pro. ‘We split the prize three ways – $100,000 each. After that, I started getting a lot of confidence going.’ During a threeweek hot streak over March and April 2005, Bellande bagged nearly half a million tournament dollars. He had arrived – big time.
You get the feeling fortune hasn’t finished messing with Bellande yet. Where will he be and what will he be doing in five years’ time? Running a casino staffed entirely by dwarves? Beating Ben Affleck heads-up with a stone-cold bluff at the final table of the WSOP? Who knows, but if Bellande’s life so far is much to go by, anything’s possible in Lalaland.
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