Chip Reese, who passed away recently, spoke to PokerPlayer before his death about his life in poker
If your only exposure to poker is from watching tournaments on television, you might have some idea as to who Chip Reese is. After all, he did win last year’s mega-rich $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. tournament at the 2006 World Series of Poker. But more astute students of the game know him as a high-stakes cash game wizard.
Anytime the Big Game denizens are asked to name poker’s best, most respected player, Reese’s name invariably comes up. As stated by Barry Greenstein, a man who tends to be a bit parsimonious with the compliments: ‘Doyle [Brunson] and Chip are the Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus of poker.’
Most of Reese’s success has come under the radar of poker media and gossip. He’s devoted the majority of his card- playing energy to low-profile cash games for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: that’s where the money is. And, much to his chagrin, he proved this maxim back in
1984, the one year in which he wanted to challenge the tournament scene and play whole hog in the World Series. ‘I decided that I would try to win best all-round player that year,’ remembers Reese. ‘I made six final tables, but didn’t win any of them. Meantime, the other guys, they all got knocked out early and played in a big cash game with Jimmy Chagra [a convicted narcotics trafficker who was notorious for spraying loads of cash around the poker scene]. I got the trophy for all-round best player, but lost out on the opportunity to win a lot of money from Chagra.’
This explains why today Reese buys into only the biggest tournaments and gets less TV exposure than others of his ilk. However, the relative invisibility has done nothing to tarnish his reputation among younger household-name pros such as Patrik Antonius, Daniel Negreanu and Jennifer Harman.
They’ve all played high-stakes cash games with Reese and all of them admire his ability to remain calm even after the most horrendous beats. ‘The worst I have ever seen Chip do is rap the table a little bit hard with his cards,’ Harman recalls. ‘I’m not sure if it slides right off him or his stomach is in knots, but you would never know it.’
Maintaining coolness under pressure is nothing new for Reese. The Dayton, Ohio, native had first come to Las Vegas on a lark in the summer of 1973, having just graduated from Dartmouth University where his card-playing skills were so deadly that fraternity brothers there named their home poker room in his honour. He had already been accepted to law school at Stanford University. But he was expected to head west in time for the start of the school year after playing a bit of $10/$20 poker in partnership with his high-rolling Dayton buddy, Danny Robison.
Early on, while grinding it out at the Flamingo, he kept one eye on his cards and the other on what then qualified as Vegas’ Big Game. Reese watched the hi-lo split action with more than just a spectator’s interest. He had the audacity to believe that he could crush the game.
After all, Reese had earned his stripes at Dartmouth by playing this very form of poker. He knew that the best way to win was to play for the low and fold all other hands. But from spying on Brunson, Puggy Pearson and Johnny Moss going at it, he realised these titans of the game were playing incorrectly. They were angling for highs as well.
After getting a reluctant green light from his partner Robison, Reese bought in for $15,000, which amounted to a good chunk of their bankroll, and started playing. He forced himself to forget about the stakes – to sublimate thoughts of putting so much cash in jeopardy against such strong competition – and to just play the game. Reese succeeded. He sat down on a Thursday afternoon and by Monday morning, he had run his buy-in up to a staggering $390,000. Needless to say, he never made it to law school, and instead became a consistent Big Game winner.
Although Reese came to Las Vegas as a hi-lo specialist, he quickly became an expert at all the poker variants. A game- playing fanatic, he got good enough at backgammon to routinely hustle Pearson and used his gambling prowess to succeed at golf as well as sports betting. When a young Stu Ungar wanted to master no-limit hold’em, he turned to Reese for lessons and, in exchange, gave him a master-class in gin.
‘I’ve never walked up to a game and asked, “What are you playing?” I don’t care what the game is. I walk up and ask how big the game is. Then, if the stakes are high enough to be worth my while, I say: “Deal me in.”’
LESS IS BEST
For all of this, though, Reese is not a particularly flashy player who succeeds through the kind of moves nobody else can fathom. He remains super-solid and finds his edge in doing very little wrong. This point is driven home when I ask him about his most memorable run in the Big Game. I expect him to tell me about hitting a monster rush and winning millions off Brunson and Greenstein. But the story he tells me is very different.
In 2003, the Big Game raged on for a few weeks at an off-strip casino called Sam’s Town. The temporary move away from Bobby’s Room came about because Bobby Baldwin – a top executive with the MGM Mirage and whom the high-stakes enclave in the Bellagio is named after – wanted to feel more comfortable buying in without a perceived home-court advantage. During this stretch, Reese averaged losses in excess of six figures every day. After three weeks he was down $2.5 million, yet he insists he played some of the best poker of his life during this brutal period.
‘I really believe that if someone else had been getting my cards, they’d have lost $7 million. This is one of the great things in gambling that you learn. If you are the strongest player in the world, you might win 65 days and lose 35. But if you let those 35 days affect you, you will have an unhappy life away from the table and it will be a disaster while you are playing. When things are bad, the best players with the most character drop down to 90% of their skill levels. Others will go down to 65 or 70%.’
Reese lets this concept sink in for a moment, then he illustrates it: ‘I’ve always said that if you took the eight best players in the world and locked them in a room for ten hours every day for a year, there are probably two or three of them who would wind up with all the money. This is not because they are the best players, but because they have the most character and will lose the least when they run bad.’
These days you are likely to find Chip Reese wherever the stakes are highest. Usually, that means competing in the Big Game where $1 million swings are not at all uncommon. It also, not coincidentally, means that he will be confronting the scariest poker talent in the world, simultaneously sharpening and testing his skills against the continually evolving strategies of the new breed of poker star. And, like his great friend Brunson, the fiery lifestyle of being a high-stakes cash game king still rocks Reese’s boat the most.
‘You have to like living on the edge if you want to be successful [at gambling],’ he says. ‘If I had to play $200/$400 limit, I couldn’t do it. Even though I know I could win. There has to be a fear of disaster on the other side in order for me to be interested. That is what makes me tick.’
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