Unofficial World Champion Freddy Deeb talks exclusively to PokerPlayer: “I definitely agree with most of the pros when they say the World Champion is the winner of the H.O.R.S.E

Ask most pros and they will tell you there is only one World Champion of poker – and that is Freddy Deeb

When it comes to defining greatness, the two sides of the poker world rarely see eye-to-eye. In one corner there’s the cash game proponents, whose superstars remain hidden away from prying eyes in high-stakes rooms where poker means money and little else. In the other, you have the tournament fanboys whose love for the likes of Phil Hellmuth is based as much on his Hollywood tantrums as his no-limit poker skills.

But then there are men like Freddy Deeb. Men who – for a brief moment – bring these two tribes together and unite opinion across the poker world. Indeed, among the sea of Cinderella stories at this year’s World Series of Poker, it was undoubtedly Deeb’s victory in the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event that remained the biggest talking point of the six-week poker festival. According to many who make a serious living from this game, winning the H.O.R.S.E. is the truest test of one’s poker skills. Its twists, turns and changes of pace far exceeding the challenge posed by the relentless slog of the main event.

This was always meant to be the case. When Daniel Negreanu first took the idea of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. to WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack three years ago, his vision was to create a tournament for the game’s greats. The inaugural victory of the legendary Chip Reese last year was testament to such vision. And while Deeb may at first be a less obvious champion, his record in both tournaments and cash games certainly makes him no less impressive.

Kassem ‘Freddy’ Deeb is a charismatic and instantly likeable World Champion. His exuberant personality spills over with every word. Generous with the handshakes and warm greetings, he’s keen to bundle me into a taxi as we meet at the Rio Casino and head over to the Bellagio, where he needs to eat.

‘Everybody wants to know me,’ he says with a grin that would make the Cheshire cat envious. ‘But everybody knew me before I won. People just come up and shake my hand. It’s crazy. But I like it. I’m not the kind of guy who gets angry with attention, you know.’

Deeb may be less well known than last year’s winner, but his tournament record is arguably more impressive with over $5 million in winnings as well as a WPT title and a second WSOP bracelet won in the $5,000 deuce-to-seven draw event in 1996. However, just like Reese, he remains adamant he be recognised as a cash game player first; Deeb is a man who regularly fights his corner against the most aggressive players in the world – detached from the cosy environment of the tournament circuit.

‘Cash game players are tough,’ he says with a deep sigh. ‘I am a cash game player, always have been. My tournament record is good, but playing cash games is how I learnt to play poker. You have to have the heart to gamble and wherever there is action, I want to be in it. A lot of players just don’t have that heart. ‘If I have $100,000 in my pocket, I’d rather lose it quickly, or make bigger money. If there are two tournaments; one with a $100,000 buy-in and one with a $10,000 buy-in, there’s no way I’m playing for $10,000. Players will look to invest in a tournament, that’s not how I look to play the game’

But apart from having that killer instinct with fire running through your veins, is there anything else that separates the great cash game players from the great tournament destroyers? Surely there’s more to it than winning and losing bigger sums of money?

‘It’s not about getting cards,’ says Deeb, his stare becoming more focused with every word. ‘I play the bad hands good, the good hands better. You have to evaluate every hand, every player. All the great cash game players have that skill.

I have played with Doyle and Chip for many years. I like to play in the huge limit games because I like playing with rich people who don’t play tight. They gamble; that’s what it’s all about. If you look at Phil Ivey, he is considered the best all- round player in the world because he has made a lot of money from playing in the Big Game. He deserves his title, but they all do. They are all great players.’


But while the debate rumbles on surrounding the high- stakes big-hitters, there seems little doubt as to who the title of World Champion belongs to, unofficially at least. ‘Freddy Deeb is the World Champion in my eyes,’ says Negreanu. ‘And I would say that even if I won the main event. I was very happy to see Freddy win the H.O.R.S.E. – it was good for poker.’

So how does Deeb see his new status as the ‘pros’ champion’ in a tournament arena? And is it fair that we should determine the game’s greatest player through an event that serves as a VIP statement to poker’s elite with a $50,000 buy-in that turns many players away before they have even knocked on the door?

‘It’s the tournament all the professionals want to win,’ says Deeb. ‘Yeah, the buy-in is big, but poker is the same game all across the world. To be honest with you I never really understood beforehand what winning that tournament would mean. Everybody has so much respect for it.

‘I definitely agree with most of the pros when they say the World Champion is the winner of the H.O.R.S.E.. For starters, you are playing five different games which are hard to play, and you have to play well in all of them. There is nothing but top notch players; the cream of the crop. The real difference between this tournament and others at the WSOP is that if you take a beat or two, it’s only a temporary setback. If you take a beat or two in others, it’s a knockout.’

Following Reese’s H.O.R.S.E. success last year, the general consensus seems to be that this event is a tournament where cash players excel. According to Negreanu – himself a man who holds distinguished records at the Rio and Bobby’s Room – that will be ‘the norm’ for years to come due to the level of skill learned in high-stakes cash games.

Understandably, Deeb is not one to disagree, saying: ‘My skills put me in control. The thing about that tournament was that I played so good, I really wasn’t surprised I won. But it was so stressful. I did have a lot of setbacks during the course of play, but when you lose a big pot you can always fight your way back. I got crippled a few times when I lost like five hands in a row.’

‘I sat there for a long time and didn’t manage to win a hand. Then I tripled up, and tripled up again. In the end I just said: “Well boys, I’m going to do it Freddy Deeb-style.” Once I had the stack, I was always in control.’

So after coming through a field carrying such distinguished tournament names as Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow and Allen Cunningham, not to mention cash game giants like Barry Greenstein and last year’s winner, Reese, surely the feeling of victory could not have been more elated?

‘Afterwards,’ says Deeb with a momentary pause, ‘I just went back to my hotel room and slept. Then, when you wake up and realise you have $2.3 million to pick up, there is a different feeling to just having won a bracelet.’ It’s a statement that highlights the man’s hunger for cash game play.

And yet still, behind the tough gambling exterior, there lies a much softer centre where Deeb is concerned. In truth, he was never destined to be a poker player. Arriving in America in the late 1970s following the break out of Civil war in Lebanon, he planned to continue his mechanical engineering degree. But with no cash and no work visa, Deeb turned to gambling as a way to survive. There’s certainly a feeling that he won’t let his roots become a thing of the past.


‘With the civil war breaking out back home, I lost touch with my parents for a couple of years,’ he says. ‘I had no money. When I first came to Vegas I got into the poker games and started making some money. I never went back to school because I ended up beating the game on a regular basis.’

Deeb recalls Sin City in a much different light when he first arrived on the strip in 1978. He started playing stud games wherever he could, studying bad beats and looking to learn from his mistakes in a poker environment that was very close-knit at the time.

‘It wasn’t easy because I had to borrow money at the beginning,’ he adds. ‘Poker is a tough business and it was no different then. The game was not what it is now; the numbers were smaller. There were only about 20 or 30 of us who played regularly. As I learnt, I got better. Pretty soon I was winning about $300 a day. That’s a lot of money thirty years ago.’

The issue of money seems a fitting way to end our conversation, and so I ask Deeb if there is a lack of value where the dollar is concerned in today’s game, particularly in high-stakes poker. The look and answer is far from what I was expecting, a sign that, for all Deeb’s success in the biggest games in town and for all his gambling ferociousness, he still appreciates the value of the pot he is playing for.

‘You can talk about gambling “big” and gambling “small” all you like, but it’s all the same at the end of the day. People play blinds at $2/$5, but they can still lose $500 in a game. It’s big money. There is no such thing as a small game.’

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