Hustler’s Larry Flynt has made millions in the adult industry but poker is a different story altogether…
Perched on his gold-plated wheelchair, in an office crowded with Tiffany lamps, metal sculptures and a giant conference table, Larry Flynt sits behind a big, wooden desk. Paralysed from the waist down as the result of being shot by a white supremacist in 1978, he’s confined to the chair and speaks with drooping lips and whirring inflections. Laboured appearances to the contrary, Flynt experiences no pain as a result of the injury – key nerves have been deadened in order to relieve discomfort – and he seems perfectly content, absently chewing on ice cubes while discussing his primary passion.
Though Flynt is best known as the publisher of Hustler magazine (an interracial photo spread is what supposedly instigated the shooting), within the card-playing world he is known for something that many professionals find sexier than sex itself: Flynt is a wealthy amateur willing to play for the highest stakes imaginable against the best players in the world.
No newcomer to big-money poker, Flynt has been competing in WSOP events since the 1980s. His tournament results are unspectacular, but his enthusiasm remains unflagging. This has proven to be a good thing for the pros who routinely drive and fly from Las Vegas to Flynt’s dandified Hustler Casino, near Los Angeles, where he holds the biggest Seven-Card Stud game in the world. In 2004, commenting toward a table full of sharks, he said, ‘I’ve been supporting these guys and their families for five years.’
Despite the fact that pros come from near and far to play against him, Flynt now tells me that he’s an overall winner in his game. ‘I’d look like a real sucker if I sat down every week and lost $ 200,000 to these guys,’ he says. ‘It would be stupid and I wouldn’t do that. If I couldn’t [win], I wouldn’t play.’
Though it’s hard to imagine Flynt turning a profit against the likes of Barry Greenstein, John Hennigan and Ted Forrest (all of whom regularly buy into his game), he’s definitely not the fish you’d assume him to be. Gabe Kaplan, a serious player in his own right, best known as the commentator on High Stakes Poker, remembers Flynt being only a small loser during the early years of the so-called ‘Larry Game’. However, David Benyamine, an occasional presence in Flynt Land, echoes the typical pro’s stance when he says, ‘It’s always nice to play against somebody who can lose a lot of money, smile, and take it easy.’
Long before Larry Flynt began the seemingly suicidal mission of testing his mettle against a murderers’ row that includes the above-named players (along with Phil Ivey, Eli Elezra and Stud specialist Danny Robison), Flynt screwed around at cards just like most of us do. He played in the military, gambled with friends, and forged a lifelong love affair with Seven-Card Stud.
He began going to Las Vegas in the 1970s and played in the high stakes games at the Golden Nugget. He convinced Kaplan to indulge him in rounds of his favourite game: heads-up, no-limit. ‘Nobody really played no-limit Stud at that point,’ remembers Kaplan, pointing out that Flynt was unpredictable for all the wrong reasons. ‘You never really knew what Larry was doing or why. Sometimes you’d bet and he’d take five minutes to make a decision. But Larry was taking a lot of pills at that point.’ Kaplan figures that he finished ahead by a bit, but, he points out, ‘It wasn’t a windfall. Stud is a game with a lot of variance.’
Like everybody passing through the small, insular world of top-end poker back then, Flynt had his share of run-ins with Stu Ungar. He remembers a time when he and Ungar were playing heads-up and things went awry. ‘This story sums up Stu’s personality perfectly,’ recounts Flynt. ‘I made a gutshot straight and he had trips, bet out, I raised, and he called. He saw my cards and said “god damn” before flipping over the table.’ Flynt smiles at the memory and chuckles ruefully. ‘Stuey had a temper, and it was always pretty easy for me to get him irritated.’
Then there was the day when Ungar wanted a taste of the very stuff that made Flynt’s matches with Kaplan into such a time-consuming ordeal. ‘I used to drink a Brompton cocktail for pain; it was 60 percent morphine, 30 percent alcohol, and 10 percent cocaine,’ says Flynt, whose physical agony at that time was considerable. ‘The concoction was perfectly legal for me and was devised for cancer patients during their final few weeks of life. Well, Stuey wanted to try it. I gave him a cup and he went into the rest room to drink it. He didn’t come out for a while, so a couple of people went in to look for him. They found him sprawled on the floor, unconscious. When he came to, he accused me of trying to kill him.’
A man with strong appetites for food, women and gambling, Flynt has been known to say, ‘My two favourite things in life are pussy and poker – but not in that order.’ He’s long enjoyed playing high stakes blackjack, has done a bit of sports betting, and once claimed to have tried fixing a World Series (of baseball, that is). Eric Drache, a long-standing fixture on the poker circuit and currently the co-producer of Poker After Dark, remembers a time when he inadvertently saved Flynt $ 2m. ‘The first sports bet I remember him making was $ 500,000 on Pete Rose’s team to win the World Series; he paged me in a casino and asked me to get it done,’ remembers Drache. ‘Then he wanted me to bet another $2m and I couldn’t get that much down. So I saved him some money. Back when he was running for president [in 1984, as a Republican!], I got him down with the English and Irish bookmakers. He got 80/1 odds and bet $ 250k that he’d win the election. I remember William Hill taking it off the board for some reason.’
For all of that, though, you cannot convince Larry Flynt to try his hand at prop betting, a pastime that most poker pros are totally enamoured with. ‘It’s just gambling,’ Flynt says dismissively. Then, without noticeable irony, he adds, ‘And you can really lose your ass on props.’
Anyone who knows anything about Larry Flynt knows that the country boy turned pornographer likes to do things his own way. Not surprisingly, then, when he had a shot at potentially winning the 1988 World Series of Poker (and had a huge bet with Doyle Brunson riding on that unlikely outcome), he reportedly decided to go off the grid and give himself an edge: as recounted in Positively Fifth Street, he bought off players who were willing to dump chips his way. This worked pretty well, according to the book, until Jack Binion (a good friend of Brunson’s) got wind of the plan. He stationed his buddy Dewey Tomko alongside Flynt’s table and asked him to keep an eye on Flynt. Whatever Flynt was doing, it couldn’t have pleased Binion a whole lot. Larry Flynt did not win that Series, didn’t even make the money, and got himself banned from future tournaments at the Horseshoe.
However, once Becky Binion wrested control of the family-owned casino from brother Jack, Flynt was allowed back in. That was in the late 1990s and it dovetailed with him launching the famed ‘Larry Game’. It began, according to Gabe Kaplan, with a call from Flynt. He was looking to put together a $ 300/$ 600 Stud game. Filling the table would be a bunch of wealthy amateurs, including Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who hosted the first game in his trophy room at the old LA Forum sports arena. ‘Larry was really straight by then [he had stopped drinking Brompton cocktails],’ remembers Kaplan. ‘He brought cash, lost, and the swings were not huge – maybe $ 20,000 or $ 30,000. Next time we played in a hotel room, and then Larry said he wanted to have the game at his house in Beverly Hills. It stayed there for three years.’
Eric Drache, who once ran the Mirage poker room and had long been Flynt’s go-to guy in Vegas, was enlisted to bring in players and essentially manage the game. While he was careful to keep from loading the table with a whole lot of pros, a few of them did manage to squeeze through. Barry Greenstein and Ted Forrest were both early attendees. But, as Kaplan points out, it’s no coincidence that the superior Stud player Chip Reese was not initially invited. ‘Larry wouldn’t have cared,’ believes Kaplan. ‘But Eric knew that it would be in Larry’s best interests if he didn’t play with people like Chip or with those who specialised in Stud.’
Within a year the game became a thrice- weekly affair (at least on some weeks) and stakes began to rise dramatically. For the last two hours each night, limits jacked up to $ 2,000/$ 4,000 and there were opportunities for players to make real money. Flynt got into the habit of protecting his cards with chunky blocks of wood – because of his injuries, he was not adept at handling cards without revealing what he held – and, like all regular home games, this one developed a few of its own idiosyncrasies. For one thing, Flynt began charging players $ 500 fines if they arrived late. Those proceeds went toward dinner, which tended to be fantastically catered by the finest restaurants in LA. The meal’s pace was usually dictated by Flynt’s standing in the game. ‘If he was winning,’ remembers Kaplan, ‘we ate quickly. When he was losing the meals were a lot slower.’
For three years, the Stud game raged on at Flynt’s house, where, due to his injury and a screwed-up internal thermostat, the temperatures were kept exceedingly low. Barry Greenstein, who views himself as a player with extraordinary survival skills, has told me that he benefited by being able to endure the discomfort better than others. Players wore thermal underwear to the game, wrapped their necks in scarves, and shivered through high stakes hands. It’s said that one attendee, unprepared for the arctic conditions but unwilling to bow out of a good game, needed to be treated for a minor case of frostbite.
While the game was clearly built around Flynt, Gabe Kaplan points out that Flynt did not blow off money recklessly. ‘Larry does not have a lot of different sides to his game, but he plays solidly,’ says Kaplan, who points out that the game then featured enough wealthy amateurs to keep things cool for non-pros who were adept. ‘He lost over the first four years, but he didn’t lose all the time and he had streaks where he won four or five times in a row.’
In fact, more recently, since moving the game to his Hustler Casino (an operation that generates as much income for Flynt as his naughty publishing empire does), Flynt has gone on at least one streak that netted him $ 1m. He maintains that he’s won $ 5m over the last year or so. Though this sounds like unadulterated posturing – after all, he competes against the most talented players in the world and if he were winning like that they’d most likely cut their losses – Flynt maintains that the high level of competition is precisely the point. He says that he improved his game by observing the best.
Nevertheless, when it comes to poker, Flynt is said to have the same Achilles’ heel as many gifted amateurs. When things go well, he plays winningly (‘If Larry is ahead, I want to go home,’ admits Barry Greenstein), but when he starts to lose he can drop a lot more than the solid pros do. ‘He plays a lot more hands when he’s losing,’ says Greenstein, explaining that the pros find their edge when Flynt gets into the red and starts chasing a positive session. ‘Part of it is an issue of bankroll. He’s thinking of putting wins on the board and not thinking of losing less.’
Flynt’s skill level is illustrated by the fact that when the Hustler Casino first opened, a $ 75/$ 150 Stud game was initiated around Flynt. The idea was that it would attract business. It did – at first. Then Flynt won so much that he actually busted his own game. These days he sticks to $ 4k/$ 8k, almost always going up against the same murderers’ row of professionals. ‘Occasionally we get fresh blood,’ says Flynt, recalling some of the businessmen who have donated to the game. ‘Then you get people playing $ 1k/$ 2k and getting their bankrolls up so they can play at our table.’
This, of course, was not possible when the game was taking place at Flynt’s house – there was no smaller game to shimmy up from – and a price has been paid for the transition from home game to feature game. For one thing, some of the juiciest players – the successful businessman types – have no enthusiasm for playing in public venues. On the upside, though, through his casino, Flynt can grease the wheels of gambling in a way that no home game host ever could. ‘I’ll give players half-million-dollar markers,’ says Flynt. ‘But they have to pick it up in three working days. No other casino, in Vegas or California, gives credit to poker players.’
This is particularly convenient for Ivey, who, according to Eli Elezra, will sometimes back half the players at the table. ‘Without him backing these people, there would be no game,’ says Elezra, who’s played 40 or so times. ‘Who has that kind of money?’ Though Elezra doesn’t normally dig single-game poker, he makes an exception in this case. ‘Larry is a nice guy,’ Elezra enthuses, ‘but he plays way too many hands. That is why everyone plays with him. He’s won a million dollars a few times, but, at the end of the year he loses what he is supposed to lose.’
And, if this is really the case – if Flynt’s boast about being up $ 5m is a little optimistic – one gets the impression that it will suit Flynt just fine. ‘It would be no fun for me to sit down and play a bunch of amateurs – even if I could easily beat them,’ he says. ‘Money is not important to me.’ Then, just as you think the Hustler boss is about to unspool a sentimental lie about getting something beyond winning or losing from poker, he half smirks and says, ‘I would rather play against good players and beat them.’
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