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Bigger Deal

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From Bigger Deal: A Year on the New Poker Circuit by Anthony Holden

In 1978, the year I first visited Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, Bobby “the Owl” Baldwin beat a record field of forty-two players to the title of world champion and a handsome first prize of $270,000. A decade later, in 1988, the first time I played in the main event myself, there were all of 167 starters and the title was worth $700,000. By 2005, when I take part again at the beginning of this book, the field has risen to nearly six thousand. The first prize is $7.5 million and all nine players who reach the final table become dollar millionaires.By the book’s end and the 2006 World Series there are 8,773 starters, myself again included, vying for a first prize of $12 million — the richest, by some distance, in all sport. The 2006 prize pool of more than $150 million made the thirty-seventh World Series of Poker, staged over seven weeks in July and August, the biggest sporting event in the history of the planet. No fewer than 44,500 players took part in at least one of its forty-five events. Thanks to a combination of television and the Internet, poker was booming as never before since being introduced to the fledgling United States by French sailors landing in Louisiana in the 1820s. And now some interested parties really do call poker a sport, rather than the game most of us have long considered it.

Thirty-six years ago, when the wily Benny Binion hosted the first World Series at his downtown Horseshoe Casino, the field of runners numbered a mere six, the prize purse $30,000. Today, in terms of participants and prizes, the WSOP No Limit Hold ‘em Championship is the world’s largest single competitive event, growing at an annual rate of more than 200 percent for the three years 2002-2005. The prize money — $82,512,162 (almost £50 million) in 2006 for the main event alone — dwarfs that of any other global sporting championship.

The not insignificant difference from all other sports is that this prize purse is paid by the players. The romance of the WSOP’s world-title event lies in the fact that ambitious amateurs can take on the top professionals on equal terms. All you need to play is the $10,000 entry fee — or, these days, not even that. Thanks to the democracy of cyberspace, at least two-thirds of the giant fields of recent years have won their way there via online tournaments for as little as $5. The world championships of 2003 and 2004 were both won by players who had earned their $10,000 seats online for $40 or less, which they proceeded to parlay into millions.

At no other sport is the opportunity for amateurs to compete against professionals so readily available — at such small prices and for such potentially huge rewards, even without any corporate sponsorship. The 2005 winner, an Australian chiropractor turned mortgage broker named Joe Hachem, put up his $10,000 entry fee himself. But his $7.5 million prize money for a week’s work was many more times that of Tiger Woods for winning the Open golf championship the same weekend or Roger Federer’s for conquering Wimbledon earlier that month.

This is a radically different world from the one I chronicled almost two decades ago in 1988 and 1989, when I spent a year attempting to earn my living as a professional poker player. It’s a long story; but it all really happened by mistake. As a dedicated recreational player in my Tuesday Night Game in London, I had been traveling to Vegas each summer as a journalist, and an envious railbird, for ten years before I surprised myself by winning a seat in the 1988 main event via a $1,000 “satellite” (or heat). When I returned to London with my then girlfriend, the American novelist Cindy Blake, I was so insufferably excited by the experience that she suggested (with some feeling) that I get it all out of my system by hitting the road on the pro poker tour — and writing an account of my adventures.

So I played in tournaments from Malta and Morocco to Louisiana and the Caribbean, with the objective of trying to improve on my performance in the following year’s World Series. Cindy came along for much of the ride, as did my poker-playing writer pal Al Alvarez; they became “the Moll” and “the Crony” in the story of my adventures that I published in 1990 in a book called Big Deal. Having set out with a bankroll of £20,000, I finished the year almost as much in profit — even after deducting absurd expenses, including sixteen transatlantic flights, one on Concorde. Satisfying, yes — but not, alas, enough to sustain the extended Holden tribe. So for the rest of the 1990s it was back to writing — and recreational poker.

In the first few years of the twenty-first century poker began to boom, as television and the Internet brought the game out of the shadows of smoke-filled back rooms into the mainstream of what passes for everyday life. If Big Deal bore witness to the “old” poker — the pioneers who built Vegas into the game’s world capital, the roller-coaster ride of personal triumph and disaster endured by the handful of “rounders” then making a living from the game — how about revisiting that world, I thought, to see just how much it has all changed, to examine the pros and cons of the “new” poker?

Modest bankroll in hand, I took myself off to the 2005 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas to check out the new poker scene. I managed to qualify for the main event — as you will see in the ensuing pages — and refreshed my appetite for a town I had not visited in almost a decade. While renewing old friendships, and making new ones, I swiftly saw that the poker world I had chronicled in Big Deal had changed beyond even the wildest rumors, facts, anecdotes, or statistics I had heard. After years of resisting the idea, I felt a sequel coming on. The impulse to write Bigger Deal became irresistible.

By the early years of the twenty-first century the marvels of modern science have revolutionized a game that used to be the romantic, often shady preserve of a few, of high drama in low dives. Online poker has also changed the way people play the game, and lowered the average age of its leading exponents. Does this count as an improvement? That was among the questions I was intent on exploring as I set off on a twelve-month journey reliving the one I took nearly twenty years before.

This time, as then, I would play poker in as many different locations as possible, from Vegas to the Caribbean, Connecticut to Monte Carlo, London to Walsall, on board ship and online, in rinky-dink home games and the biggest tournament ever staged. Last time around I was a hopeful unknown; this time, thanks to Big Deal, my anonymity would be largely blown — and for some events, to my own surprise, I would even receive sponsorship. Such are the rewards, for a player more experienced than inspired, of writing one of the first of the handful of poker narratives (as opposed to the growing shelf-loads of manuals) — somewhat ahead of its time, perhaps, but never out of print and still selling merrily to each new generation of players.

Big Deal has led to numerous encounters with total strangers who have credited it with inspiring them to take up the game, move to Vegas, even give up their jobs and turn professional — many of whom, I admit through gritted teeth, have made out far better than me. Over the years since the book first appeared, the most unlikely people have approached me in bars or restaurants, on trains and planes or merely on the street, and told me, Yes, this was what they had always wanted to do: to give up their jobs and turn poker pro.

People tell me that Big Deal helped to make poker respectable in Britain, where the game had hitherto been regarded almost exclusively as a seedy offshoot of East End, sub-Kray gangsterdom. The book earned me the world’s first regular poker column in a mainstream publication, Esquire, and the first-ever poker documentary on, of all places, BBC Television. In vain had I spent years attempting to persuade British TV executives that poker could be big; this was the nearest I got — a clunky pilot for a series that never happened — to what would become a multimillion-dollar TV phenomenon. Big Deal was also hawked around Hollywood as a potential vehicle for some of the more rugged stars — with one of whom, James Woods, I enjoyed a genial conversation in the queue for a modest satellite into the 2005 World Series, by which time the movie was actually being scripted.

Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who brought down Barings Bank, read Big Deal while serving his time in Changi jail, Singapore; now he is a regular player and poker columnist. My copy of Death Plus Ten Years, by Roger Cooper, falsely accused of espionage and imprisoned in the ayatollahs’ 1980s Iran, is inscribed: “To Tony, Remembering Big Deal, which meant a lot to me at the time, and in daydreams still does…”

One of the most startling surprises came when I received a late-night call in London from Erik Seidel in Las Vegas. Runner-up to Johnny Chan in the 1988 World Series (as immortalized in the film Rounders) and still a highly respected professional, Erik was then working with Annie Duke, sister of his friend and fellow poker pro Howard Lederer, on a new (but short-lived) poker magazine called Poker World. Seidel had just seen Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates, he told me breathlessly, playing poker in the cardroom of the Mirage Hotel. So he had gone over to him and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Gates, I didn’t know you played poker.”

“I don’t,” said Gates. “I play bridge. But I’ve just read this new book about poker and I thought I’d give it a try.”

“That wouldn’t be Big Deal, by Anthony Holden?” asked Erik.

“Yeah,” said Gates, “that’s it.”

“Well, Tony is a friend of mine,” ventured Erik.

“Sounds like a nice guy,” said Gates.

“If I could get him out here from London, would you play a game of poker with him for Poker World?”

“Sure,” said Gates, which is why Erik was calling me in the middle of the night. Nothing ever came of it, of course; but I have since derived some solace, in moments of darkness, from knowing that the world’s richest man seems to think I’m a “nice guy.”

My other favorite moment came the day I was introduced to one of my movie heroes, Walter Matthau, at a Hollywood awards ceremony while writing a history of the Academy Awards in the early 1990s. Right after Big Deal, the book was really an excuse to spend more time in that poker-sodden part of the world, as well as gratifying my three (then) young sons’ passion for the movies.

Knowing that Matthau’s Friday game in LA and my Tuesday Game in London had a particular player in common, the restaurateur Michael Chow, I mentioned the connection and asked Matthau: “So who’s the sucker in your game?”

“If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table,” he replied, “it’s you!” — adding that he had just read this line in a “great” new book about poker.

“What’s it called?” I asked.

Matthau couldn’t remember.

“It’s not, er, Big Deal, by any chance?” I ventured.

“That’s it!” He smiled. “That’s the one!”

“Um, well, I wrote it.”

Matthau didn’t believe me. How could this Limey in a suit and tie, with a new (and rather brutal) haircut, be the guy who had written Big Deal? Mutual friends had to be summoned to assure Matthau that I was indeed Holden. At which point he asked when it was due out in paperback and whether a jacket quote from him might help. Soon, I replied, and, You bet. So Matthau summoned pencil and paper, and sat alone in the corner of the room for quite some time, mostly crossing things out and screwing up sheet after sheet. By the time the luncheon had begun and he was needed at the top table, the best he could come up with was “Reading Big Deal is better than losing at poker.”

Seeing my face fall, Matthau said, “You’re right, it’s not great, is it?” — and asked me to come see him again after the meal. Throughout which he sat furiously scribbling away…what turned out to be his postprandial speech, when presenting a lifetime achievement award to his old friend Howard Koch, the Hollywood veteran who had (among many other celluloid achievements) written the immortal Casablanca.

When the meal finally ended, I hung around for a while as Matthau was mobbed by admirers and thought, Well, he’s been terrific, it was a thrill just to meet him. As I was slinking off, without bothering the great man further, that unmistakable voice yelled after me: “Hey, Holden, where d’you think you’re going? I got something for you.”

Matthau came toward me with his place card, which he handed over, saying, “Will this do?” On the back of it he had written: “Big Deal is the best book about poker I’ve ever read.”

I thanked him, of course, profusely, and it duly appeared a few months later on the front jacket of the American paperback.

Readers of Big Deal will be pleased to know that in the year of the book’s publication, after several years of cohabitation, I married the Moll at her family’s Cape Cod home, with former world seven-card stud champion and long-time WSOP tournament director Eric Drache sharing the role of best man with my friend and former editor, Harold Evans. They may also share my pain to know that ten years later she decided she had had enough of me. But we are still, after a decent interval, the closest of friends; and Cindy was sitting beside me as my wife when perhaps the seminal encounter took place.

It was Saturday evening in the mid-1990s, a few years after the book was first published, when a young American approached me in the bar of London’s Victoria Casino (the “Vic,” to its habitués), introduced himself, and asked if I was really the guy who had written Big Deal.

Indeed I was, I replied with a modest smile, looking over to the Moll for the mocking smile that usually greeted these occasional little boosts to my ego. I asked him what he did. “I work for IBM in Mississippi,” came the reply. “At least I did until I read your book. Then I quit my job and became a professional poker player. Just like you.

“And you see my friend over there, that guy at the craps table — he’s a lawyer. Works in the office of the governor of Mississippi. Or he did until I lent him your book. Then he decided to quit his job, too, and now we travel the world together as poker partners.

“We’re off to Austria on Monday. I was just wondering if you had any tips about the Hold ‘em scene in Vienna?”

I was still a sentence or two behind him. It was not just that I then knew nothing at all about the poker scene in Vienna. Never before, despite the polite remarks about their work to which writers become relatively accustomed, had I met someone who had actually given up his job — and a damn good job at that — because of me.

Over the few years since Big Deal was first published, I had grown uneasily aware that I had inadvertently altered a few lives. There were regulars here at the Vic, and elsewhere, who had told me that they’d taken up poker because of me and my book. But they hadn’t, so far as I knew, given up their jobs, or left their wives and children, or wound up on skid row or in jail. Or worse.

“My God,” I finally managed to gasp. “And how are you doing?”

“Um, I don’t want to be rude, but the truth is, we’re doing rather better than you. We’re in our second years as pros now and we’re making a lot more money than we ever did back in Mississippi.”

Both Americans proceeded, as that Saturday evening wore on, to reach the final table of the tournament and then to get into the money. The following day they duly flew off to Vienna. Six months later at the World Series of Poker at Binion’s in Las Vegas, I met them again. Both were leading contenders for that year’s world title.

On my recent forays to Vegas for this sequel, just as much as in Britain, people still come up to me and tell me they’re there because of me. They read Big Deal and they took up poker. They took up poker and they started to win. They won so much that now, look, here they are in Vegas. In fact, it would be an honor if I sat down with them for a few hands of…

There are limits even to my vanity. I am more than aware that the poker played in those (and these) pages is far from world-standard. Whether or not these guys had even opened Big Deal — if they hadn’t, it was a stylish scam — I knew they were better players than me.

But are they still? Are all the students with laptops who win online tournaments these days really better than wizened old-timers like me with decades of hard-earned experience at the green baize? Has the game changed for better or worse thanks to the Internet and TV revolution? Has poker become a young person’s game? These were among the questions I have set out to answer by embarking on another tilt at the world title and the coveted bracelet that goes with it.

This time I wasn’t going to give up my job — a nice one, as music critic of the Observer — or risk the car, even the house, on the turn of a card. There is, at last, no more alimony. My three sons are long through higher education, out in the world earning their own livings. So my modest ambition for Bigger Deal was merely to cover my costs in tournament and cash-game winnings — and, oh yes, of course, to win the world title.

Could I still perform in my late fifties at the same (okay, modest) standard as I had when turning forty? What was it about poker that still got my juices going after all these years? While rediscovering all that, I could also check out how the world of poker has moved on from those heady days of nearly twenty years ago. For one thing is beyond doubt: the first few years of the twenty-first century have seen the world of poker, both amateur and professional, alter beyond all recognition.

In terms of active participants, poker is now without question the most popular game (if not sport) on earth. Eighty million people (1.5 percent of the global population) are said to play regularly — nearly thirty million of them in the United States, five million in Britain, and almost a third of them women. The game’s universal appeal, transcending sport’s traditional gender barriers, lies in its uniquely democratic spirit. You can sit down to play anywhere in the world, with a table of millionaires and hoboes, and poker’s eternal verities at once render everyone equal.

Poker is played against other people, not a bookmaker or casino, so it can truly be said to be the only form of gambling where, if you know what you’re doing, you are wagering favorable odds. Lady Luck may (and will) turn against you from time to time; but an expert, if he or she plays accurately and carefully, will win more often than lose. And the losers will always blame anyone but themselves.

In poker, most significantly, you don’t need the best cards to win. Bet the right amount and you can push your opponents out of the pot without even showing your hand. In no other game is licensed larceny such a bonus. Thanks to its unique element of bluff, which sets it apart from all other card games and sports, poker is the only contest at which the worst hand can still win all the money.

Poker is, or should be, the triumph of psychology over chance. Skill, in the long run, will overcome luck — unlike other forms of gambling, from lotteries to the horses, or other casino games such as craps, roulette, and blackjack, in all of which the odds are stacked against you. This is why casinos have deep-pile carpets and chandeliers. That’s not to say luck doesn’t play a role in poker — of course it does — but the best players tend to make their own.

Poker has been said to be “100 percent skill and 100 percent luck.” That’s one way of putting it. Connoisseurs of the game suggest that at its highest level poker really comes down to 80 percent skill, 20 percent luck. In the lower echelons, where I reside, that comes as far down as fifty-fifty. But with guile, perception, courage, patience, and grit — among them, a definition of what the top players call “heart” — anyone can bend the odds in their favor and learn to beat the game, maybe even win a fortune on the turn of a card or click of a mouse.

For nearly two centuries, since those former Napoleonic troops landed in Louisiana with a card game called “poque,” whose final “e” American southerners pronounced as a separate syllable, poker was associated primarily with cardsharps in saloons, where cheating was rife and disagreements settled by bullets rather than floormen. Aces and eights are still called “Dead Man’s Hand,” being the cards “Wild Bill” Hickok was holding when he was shot in the back of the head in Deadwood, Dakota, in 1876. For most of the twentieth century, to those without their own home games, poker remained largely the preserve of a select few in the movies, usually westerns, dubious characters who were probably out to cheat you — or would draw a gun if you won their money.

With the advent of legal gaming in Nevada in the 1930s, the game gradually became more honest. You could still get bilked in a back room in Chicago; but play in casinos, or your own home game, was for the most part straight — and a welcome way of relaxing from your everyday woes. Today, in a regulated casino, it is very unusual to get cheated; online, it’s increasingly less likely, with proceedings strictly monitored by the Web sites.

In the 1980s, as the World Series grew, a tournament circuit developed, breeding a few hundred professionals, mostly in the western United States, who ground out some sort of living from poker. Now, suddenly, there are thousands of pros, maybe tens of thousands lurking in cyberspace — and many more amateurs also seeking and earning handsome money, sometimes fortunes. Over the last few years, thanks to the combination of the Internet and television, the poker universe has been expanding at a thousand pots a second.

As I lived and wrote this book, around $100 million was being wagered online every day. Web sites like PartyPoker were earning £500 a minute from the many millions of hands they dealt 24-7. The flotation of its parent company, PartyGaming, on the London Stock Exchange in 2005 was the UK’s biggest IPO in five years. Valued at more than £5.5 billion, the business leaped straight into the FTSE 100. With Internet poker expanding at a rate of 16 percent a month, the popularity of online gaming, and poker in particular, was credited with a major role in rejuvenating the “new” economy. These days you can even play poker on your mobile phone.

Since its reincarnation online, television coverage has helped poker to explode. Frenzied competition between Web sites offers famous players lucrative sponsorship deals — and the pros can’t believe their luck. Former world champions from Doyle Brunson to Phil Hellmuth Jr. are among the few from the pre-Internet era to have turned themselves into high-tech cottage industries with their own Web sites, churning out “how-to” guides, hosting tournaments online, running pricey Vegas boot camps for students of the game, even lecturing at the venerable Oxford Union.

Where once it was a seedy, disreputable pursuit peopled by shifty characters, poker is now not just respectable but fashionable, even chic, with many showbiz names on both sides of the Atlantic showing off their supposed skills on television, some right alongside you in cardrooms. Numerous Hollywood players range from James Woods to Tobey “Spider-Man” Maguire, both of whom played in the 2005 WSOP, as did pro golfer Rocco Mediate. Actress Jennifer Tilly won the women’s title, with Mimi Rogers also performing strongly in various events. Ben Affleck has won a major tournament; he and his pal Matt Damon head the growing list of the Hollywood community turning to poker as relaxation, even an alternative lifestyle. Other members of the Hollywood poker set include Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Black, Heather Graham, David Schwimmer, and Martin Sheen. A recent British celebrity tournament at the Palm Beach Casino in London featured Ryder Cup golfer Sam Torrance, footballer Teddy Sheringham, actor Michael Greco, and snooker players Jimmy White, Mark Williams, and Ken Doherty. Their fellow player Steve Davis did well enough to make it into the money at the main event of the 2006 World Series.

At the movies poker is now sufficiently fashionable for James Bond himself (in the rugged new shape of Daniel Craig) to prefer it to baccarat in his 2006 caper Casino Royale. John Dahl’s 1998 movie Rounders also played a significant role in promoting poker and popularizing its best-known variant, No Limit Texas Hold ‘em. At the time of this writing, there are several more major Hollywood poker movies in production. Tune in to America’s Travel Channel, Fox, Bravo, or ESPN, even occasionally NBC, or the UK’s Challenge TV, Player, the Poker Channel, Pokerzone, or several other cable and occasionally terrestrial channels any night of the week, and you’ll find an array of poker shows, from coverage of the WSOP via the globe-trotting World Poker Tour and European Poker Tour to British homegrown fare like the gangsteresque East End Poker Den or celebrity Late Night Poker.

After launching on the UK’s Channel 4 in 1999, Late Night Poker astonished its Cardiff-based production company by attracting all of a million viewers in the wee hours of Saturday nights-to-Sunday mornings. The secret of its success was the glass panel revealing the players’ hole cards via below-table cameras, enabling the TV audience to join in the cut and thrust of the game. These were the forerunners of the “lipstick camera,” or “pocket cam,” since used by the World Poker Tour and all other televised tournaments.

Late Night Poker’s third series in 2000 was launched with a “celebrity” special that has since spawned countless imitators. The seven players who started with £1,000 each were the actor and writer Stephen Fry, novelist Martin Amis, playwright and screenwriter Patrick Marber, TV comic Ricky Gervais, journalist and TV presenter Victoria Coren, and writers (of books about, among many other things, poker) Al Alvarez, and, yes, Anthony Holden.

These last two were the final men standing, with a pair of sixes proving enough for your correspondent to beat his old pal Alvarez, the Crony and dedicatee of Big Deal, to the £7,000 up for grabs. Like I always say, if you’re going to win a tournament, try to do it on television. Al remains a constant presence in this sequel, while my three sons — too young, last time around, to enter a casino — join sundry poker writers in taking on the collective role of traveling cronies. The Moll remains the Moll, still popping up all over the place, leaving only a small “m” (in print, anyway) for the various other molls who have passed through my life since we went our separate ways.

It was Alvarez who wrote the first really elegant literary treatise on poker and its World Series, a collection of articles for the New Yorker magazine that became a book entitled The Biggest Game in Town, published in 1983. Seminal poker texts, from Herbert O. Yardley’s classic The Education of a Poker Player to the book that improved more people’s games than any other, two-time world champion Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson’s Super/System, heralded today’s voluminous library of memoirs, biographies of great players, and manuals on just about every variation and subdetail of the game.

Maybe you’ve read one or more of those books. More likely, you’ve caught the poker bug from the game’s compelling coverage on television. So here comes one of the first poker home truths this book has to offer the tempted: poker is nothing like it looks on television. A one- or two-hour TV edit of a much longer contest is clearly going to zero in on the big hands — the largest pots, the moment the celebrities get knocked out, those hands where the center of chip gravity shifts decisively. These benchmark hands come up all too rarely in real life.

The final table (nine players) of the 2005 World Series, for instance, wound up running for a record fourteen hours before Joe Hachem finally won through. By the time that hard-fought, grueling marathon was shown on the box, it had been edited down to two TV hours, or some hundred minutes. Each program showed maybe a dozen hands of the scores actually dealt as the players circled warily around one another, jockeying for position while fighting to stay alive. This slow, cumulative gathering of knowledge about opponents, far more than those dramatic all-in hands, is the true essence of poker.

Poker is a game of constantly changing moods and rhythms. It can, in other words — often should — be boring. But there are worse ways to be bored and countless things you can do while you are. Poker requires, as much as aggression or a poker face, infinite patience. Where bridge is a card game on which you can bet, poker is a game of wagering played with cards. It is a game less of luck or chance or even cards than of people and, above all, situations, for which you simply have to wait. The right one may take its time coming, but it will. As usual, Shakespeare said it first: “The readiness is all.”

While you’re waiting, there’s plenty of fun to be had: joshing with the other players, watching and noting their styles of play, calculating your next move — when to hold ‘em, as the Kenny Rogers song runs, when to fold ‘em — or simply retreating into your own private, above-it-all shell. Yes, it’s true what they say about poker: it takes a moment to learn, and a lifetime to master.

As I was about to find out. All over again.