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A Peek Into Bobby's Room

by Marco Traniello |  Published: Aug 01, 2006

Phil Ivey
Phil Ivey

Jennifer Harman
Jennifer Harman

Before I met my wife, Jennifer Harman – one of the top poker players in the world – I knew little to nothing about poker. I was fascinated by the game and spent countless hours watching Jennifer play in the "big game" against the likes of Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese.

My poker career started several months ago during the World Series of Poker. Five and a half years ago when I met the woman who would later become my wife while I was on vacation in Las Vegas, I never dreamed that I would one day be playing in the WSOP myself!

When I met her, I always thought of her profession as weird. It was before the explosion of poker on TV, at a time when being a professional poker player wasn't thought of as highly as it is today. Back then, you were "an investor," or "self-employed." As for Jennifer, she never hid what she did from me; she was very proud of her accomplishments and comfortable with her career choice.

Frankly, this new lifestyle fascinated me. The freedom that comes with being a poker player was the epitome of the "American dream" to me.

After a few years of sitting behind her in the "big game," I decided that I wanted to give poker a try for myself.

While most poker rooms have a high-limit section, the one at Bellagio is the pinnacle of high-limit poker, where the world's best play in a special section called "Bobby's Room" (named after Bobby Baldwin, CEO of Mirage Resorts and also a world champion poker player himself).

Every cash-game player in the world dreams of playing in that room. It's akin to a baseball player wanting to don the pinstripes at Yankee Stadium, or an actor hoping to get his big break on Broadway.

The room is filled with the who's who of the poker world: Future legends like Gus Hansen and Phil Ivey can be found there on a regular basis, sharpening their skills.

The game isn't no-limit hold'em as you see on TV; it's a mix of games that changes every eight or 10 hands, depending on what the players agree upon. Anything from hold'em, Omaha eight-or-better, seven-card stud, razz, or even deuce-to-seven triple-draw are usually part of the mix.

Depending on who's in town, the limits usually vary from $2,000-$4,000 to $4,000-$8,000. When players like Sammy Farha or Lyle Berman are in town, you can bet that the game will be $4,000-$8,000! In fact, you'll also see more games added to the mix: pot-limit Omaha, no-limit hold'em, and even no-limit deuce-to-seven single-draw lowball. When those games are added, they play with a cap on the betting of $100,000, meaning a player can lose "only" the maximum of $100,000 on any given hand.

You don't see a whole lot of turnover in the big game; it's generally the same cast of characters: regulars like Chip Reese, Doyle Brunson, Chau Giang, Jennifer Harman, Phil Ivey, Eli Elezra, and a mix of other players, including Johnny Chan, Gus Hansen, David Benyamine, David Grey, Allen Cunningham, Ted Forrest, Todd Brunson, Barry Greenstein, Minh Ly, Ralph Perry, and, more recently, another great player and close friend, Daniel Negreanu, who is back playing after terminating his exclusive deal as poker ambassador at Wynn Las Vegas.

With a lineup like that, it's difficult to understand how anybody can make money. But even the greatest players in the world go through rough streaks, and it's at that moment that the others pounce on them like a school of piranhas.

For example, let's say that two very good players have been playing for the last 36 hours and one of them is stuck a lot. The game now could become very profitable, since it's difficult to play your A-game on no sleep! You'll miss bets, and pay off bets that you wouldn't if you were fresh. In a game like this, that is potentially the difference between winning and losing.

It's surreal looking at the faces of the people who are watching the game for the first time from behind the glass. They are both in awe and sometimes in shock, watching millions of dollars change hands among some of the players they idolize from watching them on television.

Sometimes a complete stranger will sit down in the big game for the excitement and the challenge of facing off against the best. I've been watching – or "sweating," as we call it – the big game for the last five years, and after the explosion of poker on TV, we are seeing complete strangers, or "drop-ins," on a much more regular basis.

A guy who can afford it can play with the superstars of the game and, unlike other sports, could actually win! Not in the long run, of course, but on any given night, he could bluff Doyle Brunson or "school" Phil Ivey.

It is such an exciting world, and you just never know what's going to happen each night. Some nights, an Alex "A-Rod" Rodriguez will show up, and other nights, a Hollywood movie star will make an appearance.

The life of a high-stakes poker player is unique, and I will be letting you in on this very private game through my eyes – or more accurately, my words – in this column. spade