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  • Hold Me, Darling (Part 2)

    By Anthony Holden

    Anthony Holden’s new poker strategy manual, HOLDEN ON HOLD’EM, is published this week by Little, Brown. By way of celebration, is proud to present an exclusive, five-part extract chronicling the origins and history of Texas Hold’em.

    Where once stood the Dunes now stands the Bellagio, opened in 1998 by the one-man force behind contemporary Las Vegas, Steve Wynn, who himself fired the cannon from his latest Strip resort, Treasure Island, that appeared to trigger the implosion of the Dunes – watched by millions on live television and since immortalised in the closing credits of Wayne Kramer’s 2003 movie The Cooler. So the spot where No Limit Hold’em was first played on the Strip is now the home of Vegas’ leading card-room – rivalled only by the sleek poker room Wynn opened in 2005 in the 215-acre, $2.7 billion Wynn, the eponymous hotel-casino he built after selling his Mirage chain to Kirk Kerkorian’s MGM Grand group in 2000 for $4.4 billion.

    It was in the Bellagio card room, in the first few years of this century, that the biggest cash-game in the history of poker was played. A Texas banker named Andy Beal challenged a group of professionals, who called themselves The Corporation, to play heads-up, fixed-limit Hold’em for stakes so high as to lift even them beyond their comfort zone. More than merely a gifted player, Beal was also a high-calibre mathematician, especially interested in such arcane mysteries of number theory as Fermat’s Last Theorem. At home in Dallas Beal wrote a custom-built poker programme through which he ran literally millions of hands, to calculate (and memorize) the odds in any given situation. To avoid giveaway ‘tells’, he attempted to eliminate his personality by donning wraparound shades and headphones to shut out distracting noise and all backchat. Then battle commenced, with the blinds gradually escalating to an astonishing $50,000-$100,000.

    It lasted, on and off, for more than three years, with sessions where Beal would win as much as $12 million, others where the pros would win more. One of Beal’s edges was to get them to play at 7 a.m., not a starting-time favoured by many of the world’s top players. But most sessions would, of course, run to marathon lengths, giving the edge back to the pros, who could take over from each other while Beal played his long, lone game. In the end, if not by much, he finished a loser; but he is made to sound like a winner in Michael Craig’s thrilling account of the episode in his 2005 book The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King (continued in Craig’s account of a brief revival of hostilities the following year in Bluff magazine, April-May 2006).

    The ‘Corporation’ that responded to Beal’s challenge was led by Doyle Brunson – yes, that same ‘Texas Dolly’, by then in his seventies, who had sat down with Crandell Addington and others in search of ‘producers’ outside the Dunes showroom back in the Sixties. To make his point about those ‘producers’, Addington describes a memorable hand involving the aforementioned Major Riddle, the Dunes boss who is the stuff of many a Vegas legend, not least as the first casino owner to stage a topless cabaret on the Strip in 1957 (‘there was initial uproar in the State Legislature,’ according to the hotel’s official history, but ‘the show set a record for attendance in a single week at 16,000.’). As the first hand of the many to be played in this book, it contains several object-lessons for beginners.

    On one hand, all but Texan Johnny Moss and Major Riddle folded, leaving a huge heads-up pot. Johnny was in the lead and never checked his hand; Riddle never hesitated to call Johnny’s bets from before the flop or after the river. When all the cards came out, the board was K-K-9-9-J. Moss moved in on Riddle, and Riddle called him. Moss rolled a pair of nines out of the hole for four of a kind. Major Riddle rolled a pair of deuces out of the hole. See what I mean about the five-card stud players and their learning curve? Riddle had a wired pair, and he was not about to lay them down, not realizing that he had the worst hand possible in this situation, and could not even beat the five cards on the board.

    One of the other players, an Alabaman named Joe Rubino who specialized in Kansas City lowball, registered an objection as Moss scooped in the huge pot. Since Riddle could not beat the board with his pair of deuces, argued Rubino, he should be able to take back his last bet. ‘It didn’t take but a second,’ recalls Addington, ‘for Johnny to tell him that sometimes the board is the best possible hand in Texas Hold’em, and that his comment showed how little he knew about the game.’ Oh, and Moss also told Rubino a couple of things about ‘minding his own business when he was not involved in a pot.’

    As the game caught on in Vegas, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the amount required to sit down at a No Limit Texas Hold’em table soared as high as $10,000 to $100,000 – the equivalent of $60,000 to $600,000 in 2005, when Addington was recalling those early days. By 1973, with the Dunes mired in perennial financial difficulties, Sid Wyman had moved across what was then Las Vegas Boulevard (now the Strip) to the Aladdin (now Planet Hollywood). Here Johnny Moss hosted a card-room spreading NLHE not just for the handful of local professionals, but for plenty of the ‘drop-ins’ on whom they fed. ‘It was so well attended,’ says Addington, ‘that games often ran for days at a time, and fortunes changed hands.’ Among the ‘drop-ins’ was, yes, Major Riddle, whose poor play cost him so much that he lost control of the Dunes to ‘parties represented by Sid Wyman’.

    Riddle then acquired control of a Strip casino called the Silverbird (formerly the Thunderbird, subsequently the El Rancho), where in the late 1970s Brunson and Eric Drache were hosting high-stakes games including NLHE. In 1976 Johnny Moss had opened the first card-room on the Strip at its oldest casino, the Flamingo, while the late Chip Reese opened a bona fide card-room at the Dunes, as opposed to that showcase table outside the showroom.

    Between them, these and other Vegas entrepreneurs not merely disproved the 1940s theory that gambling could never move from downtown Las Vegas to the remote, dusty, blisteringly hot stretch of desert that eventually became known as the Strip. They also showed that neither the Golden Nugget nor Benny Binion’s downtown Horseshoe Casino – the pride of Glitter Gulch, ‘where the real gamblers go’ – held a monopoly on poker in Las Vegas, least of all on Texas Hold’em – as the game which started life as ‘Hold Me, Darling’ had by now, perhaps inevitably, became known.


    Extracted from Anthony Holden’s new poker strategy guide, HOLDEN ON HOLD’EM, published by Little, Brown on 6 November.

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    Comment from Richard Whitehouse
    Time: November 8, 2008, 6:22 pm

    I played poker in the Dunes on the last day it was open. It was a very sad place and the players more so. The biggest game was a 2-4 limit Hold’em game!

    I elected to play 7 card stud as I had little experience, save all that 5 card stud I played at college, and wanted to learn. The card room manager played to make up the numbers. It was he who gave me an interesting lesson.

    Thinking I was a beginner he said to me on the river, ‘I check my three Aces’.

    Thinking this a normal poker players’ ploy I bet my three jacks.
    He called saying, ‘you must have me beat’.

    When I showed he asked whether I had heard him. I said yes.
    He gave me back my money.

    I still haven’t figured out what the lesson was.

    Ahh the good old days.

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