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History of Poker

The Andy Game - Part II

by James McManus |  Published: Nov 25, 2008


After dozens of sessions over the course of three and a half years, the Table 1 pros, sometimes known as the Corporation, were between $20 million and $26 million in the black against the Texas billionaire. As far as bragging rights were concerned, did it make more sense to think of these matches as one long game, with the net result the only fair measure of victory, or was it reasonable to call Beal's final session a win when it counted the most?

However we answer this question, everyone agreed that Beal had acquitted himself with honor against the most talented tag team of poker studs ever assembled. Almost to a person, his opponents liked him as a man, respected his heads-up limit hold'em skill, and relished the money he contributed to their bankrolls. Few if any would concede that Beal had an edge over him or her, even those he had consistently beaten for millions of dollars.

Beginning in June 2004, the negotiation between Andy and Doyle about the location and stakes of the next match, or even whether there would be a next match, became its own kind of poker game. He repeatedly told the pros he had retired from serious poker, though he also invited them to play one final session in Dallas. He had, after all, traveled to their home court more than a dozen times, and he was ready to satisfy whatever concerns they had about decks, dealers, rules, and security. "If not, then God bless 'em," he said. The series, in other words, would be over.

After conferring for a couple of weeks, Doyle's team declined his invitation. They had already added millions to their bankrolls, so they weren't feeling much pressure to travel. And why press their luck, especially with an eight-figure variance and a marginal advantage in skill?

In July, however, Jennifer Harman insisted that she and a few other teammates still had a viable edge. "I'd go down and play Andy myself if my bankroll could handle it," she told me. Much more important, Jennifer looked like a new human being. Clear-eyed and pink-cheeked, her short white blouse revealed the fresh scar where her cousin's kidney had been implanted on May 24. "I feel great," she said, and she looked it. "I'm gonna talk to Doyle again, see if we can get this show on the road."

Todd Brunson felt differently. "Wiring $20 million to Dallas would trigger an IRS audit for sure. It might involve 10 or 15 people putting up a couple million apiece, but you gotta have a name on the transfer, so it looks like one person is moving that amount." And $20 million in cash was far too bulky to carry on a plane. They also might get cheated when playing outside a licensed casino, though no one in the Corporation was suggesting that Andy himself was dishonest. Todd simply noted that "the game could get busted by Dallas police on some technicality," since poker was illegal in Texas.

Andy countered by saying they could "just play for chips" and settle up with real money later; Beal Bank would handle the transfer.

In September, he published an open letter in Card Player addressed to Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Todd Brunson, Jennifer Harman, Howard Lederer, Chau Giang, Barry Greenstein, Ted Forrest, Gus Hansen, Lee Salem, John Hennigan, Ming La, Lyle Berman, Phil Ivey, Johnny Chan, and Hamid Dastmalchi. He began by complaining about a story in the New York Daily News, calling some of the quotes in it "an unfair mischaracterization" of the matches. "No mention was made that I won more than $10 million in the largest game ever played, $100,000-$200,000 limit hold'em, on May 12 and 13, 2004. No mention was made of the fact that most of the above-mentioned professional players have substantial overall individual net losses after having played many hours against me. I concede that I am a net overall loser in the Bellagio games, although the extent of my losses is often exaggerated and mischaracterized. These stories have become like fishermen's tales, in which the fish is always getting bigger every time the story is told. I spent four years learning the game from the best. Does it surprise anyone that I was an overall net loser during that period?"

Addressing Doyle directly, he wrote: "Now, you want to reduce the stakes and refuse to continue to play at the previous betting limits. Does it surprise anyone that I have little interest in traveling to play in smaller games? My interest has always been the intellectual challenge of competing with the best, in games in which the amount bet is material to the people involved. I have played the best in the largest game ever played, and I won. I had a great time and a wonderful experience, but I have little interest in continuing to play the game, because of the time commitment and travel required to maintain excellence. Call me naïve (I've been called worse), but I believe that I am the favorite in a heads-up limit high-stakes game against most of you. For the record, I challenge you to put up or shut up about your 'professional play.' Come to Dallas and play me for four hours a day and I will play until one of us runs out of money or cries uncle. If your play is so great and your wins have been as large as you claim, you should have plenty of bankroll and be jumping at the chance to come and play another $100,000-$200,000 game and win a lot more money. I should add that you can bring your own independent dealers and your own cards, and can play in a different location of your choice every day if you wish. You should provide a slate of any six or more of the above players and I will pick from your slate who plays. Observers should be free to attend in order to record exactly what happens at this game, so it won't turn into another fisherman's story. My money says you will decline, and that says it all. If you accept, the resulting game will say it all. Either way, I will get to stop reading fishermen's stories." In a P.S., he added: "This challenge is for now (starting September 2004), not weeks, months, or years from now."

In the next issue of Card Player, Doyle spoke up for his teammates in a letter to Andy. "I'm very surprised at the hostile tone in which you wrote this open letter to us. It doesn't reflect the true character of the man all of us have learned to respect and admire. While I haven't talked to everyone concerned in this, I believe I speak for most. First, I would like to apologize for any 'fishermen's tales' that have been told. … As far as your challenge goes, we concede that you have more money than all of us put together. So, why would we want to get into a $100,000-$200,000 game in which we would be underfunded?" Instead, he made a four-point proposal. "1. We will raise a $40 million bankroll and post it along with yours. … 2. We will play $30,000-$60,000. If either side loses half of its post-up money, it can raise the stakes to $50,000-$100,000. … 3. We will choose who plays and when. 4. We prefer to play in Vegas, the gambling capital of the world. Most of us live here, and what would we do in Dallas when we weren't playing? This is negotiable. The first three points aren't." He concluded with friendly riposte: "Andy, I'm chuckling as I write this closing paragraph. If Bill Gates came to Dallas and wanted to flip coins for $100 million per flip for four hours a day until one of you ran out of money or cried uncle, would you do it? My money says you would decline. Respectfully, Doyle Brunson."

Gabe Kaplan, smiling and shaking his head at the published back-and-forth, quipped that a $100 million showdown involving some of the toughest poker players in history had somehow devolved into "an essay-writing contest."

Doyle's coin-flip reference and counterproposal made clear that the variance in a $100,000-$200,000 game was too high for the modest edge even his best players might enjoy, and that, in any case, they all considered Andy a much more formidable opponent now than he had been in 2001. His third point raised the specter of Howard returning to action, which Andy almost certainly would have opposed. Yet if Andy truly relished "the intellectual challenge of competing with the best," he might have to face Howard again.

Another question was, which side had so far been luckier? "Andy played good enough to win" was Chip Reese's opinion. "The truth of the matter is that he probably played unlucky to get behind as much as he did. He didn't even play that bad in the beginning, and he could have easily won." Ted Forrest admitted, "The luck has probably broken in our favor." Andy, to his credit, refused to make excuses for his early losses. "Playing 40 or 50 hours, 1,400 or 1,500 hands in a session," he told me, "is enough of a universe that luck isn't much of a factor." But he didn't agree with Doyle that the series of matches amounted to one long poker game. He preferred to think of each match as a separate contest. And he was quick to point out that not only was the trend in his favor, but in the game in which the stakes were the highest, he won.

Meanwhile, Danny Payne, head of the Texas Savings & Loan Department, phoned a Beal Bank official to voice concern about the boss's poker habit. "We normally don't interfere with someone's private life," Payne told The Wall Street Journal. "But there is some concern about public perceptions in this case, and we shared that."

A few of Andy's friends also hoped he would stay retired from poker. The Journal said some of them "see him as banking's eternal teenager: strong-willed, rambunctious and defiant of industry traditions. In a series of interviews, Mr. Beal railed against mainstream banking as stodgy and lethargic. 'If people say I'm doing something crazy,' he said, 'that's usually a good sign.'"

Even so, the temptation to keep playing in the world's biggest poker game proved to be overwhelming. "All right, Doyle," Andy wrote in another open letter to Card Player, "I accept your challenge that we play a $40 million each freeze-out with one modification and several clarifications that follow." Before listing them, he aired a few more complaints about fisherman stories. "I just read the draft version of a new book [The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King] that repeats many of these stories, and this book even has Chip Reese claiming poker wins that absolutely never occurred. While my win of our two-day biggest game is reasonably accurately described, the win is materially diminished by ancillary stories that your side was hampered by players being tired or sick or drunk or whatever. Imagine that: little ol' me against all of you in our biggest game ever and you're supposedly unable to find players who are ready to play. So, I guess I can't really beat you guys even when I really beat you guys?" After admitting, "I have an ego, too," he insisted again that he was "an overall net winner against a majority of the [Corporation's] players (to be fair, I again acknowledge that my losses to a minority of the above-listed players exceed my wins from the majority). It seems that every story has as many different versions as there were people involved, and the most repeated, exciting, and exaggerated version becomes accepted as the truth. Fortunately, having multiple sources repeat the same story doesn't make the story true. So, let's play a new game that is bigger and better, and we can document exactly what happens. Hopefully, over time this well-documented new game will overshadow the fisherman stories from the old games."

After a few more ground rules and scheduling details were negotiated, Andy arrived at the newly opened Wynn Las Vegas on Feb. 1, 2006. As Barry Shulman put it in Card Player: "Andy is back, and he has given ground on all fronts, [agreeing] to Doyle's basic requests – those being the sum total ($40 million from each side) and the stakes ($30,000-$60,000, conditionally climbing to $100,000-$200,000). Surprisingly, he even agreed that Doyle could pick his group, but Andy wants any player picked to play until he wins or loses exactly $8 million."

After all the Sturm und Drang over an $80 million freezeout, the parties had agreed to simply play straight heads-up poker with relatively modest limits (for them) of $50,000-$100,000. Just across the hall from the in-house Ferrari dealership, in a roped-off section of the Wynn's plush wood-and-leather high-stakes area, Andy proceeded to lose a very modest $3.2 million to Todd, Jennifer, David Grey, and Ted Forrest over the course of five days, with Ted's win on Feb. 3 constituting the bulk of their profits. And the next thing anyone knew, Andy was headed back to Dallas. Craig Singer of Beal Bank, speaking on his boss's behalf, issued a statement: "Andy is done with poker for good." That was it?

Todd took the opportunity to remind the 2+2 Forum that Andy had quit poker a few times already. "He is very eccentric and he may be back to Vegas tomorrow, or we may never see him again. Who knows?"

With the over-under on how long Andy would stay away fixed at six months, he startled most of the pros by returning to the Wynn in less than a week – and immediately went on a heater. On Feb. 12, he won $4.9 million from Jennifer, $1.2 million from Todd on the 13th, and $3.9 million from Ted over the following two days, for a profit of $10 million.

The only nonparticipant at the table during these matches was Michael Craig, who reported not only the boardcards and pot sizes, but said that the Corporation's bankroll would need to be replenished. Doyle declared that the match would continue only if the stakes were reduced to $30,000-$60,000 and they could use any player they wanted. When Andy asked for a list of possible names, they gave him four: David Oppenheim, David Benyamine, and Erik Sagstrom – three tough young pros from Los Angeles, Paris, and Gothenburg, Sweden, respectively, all of whom specialized in heads-up cash games – along with Phil Ivey.

Andy agreed to these terms and wasn't particularly worried when, just after 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21, his opponent turned out to be Ivey. Craig reported that, beginning with limits of $30,000-$60,000, Ivey "raised 21 of 24 hands on his button." In other words, when he had the advantage of acting last. "Every time he raised, he would lead out on the next bet." Andy's plan was to counterpunch only when he had decent holecards. On his 25th button hand, Ivey raised and Beal called. "After a flop of K-K-3, Beal check-raised Ivey's bet but Ivey responded by reraising." When a 4 appeared on the turn, Andy checked, Phil bet, Andy raised, and Phil folded. No one besides Andy knows whether he had a king, a full house, or just chutzpah.

Phil kept it on auto-raise, though, which inflated the pots he won when he actually hit a flop. Raising with K-7, for example, he got Andy to check-raise a flop of 7-7-3, and then to bet the turn. A few hands later, Phil won a $540,000 pot with A-Q after catching a queen on the turn.

Back on his heels only briefly, Andy decided to fight fire with fire. Toward the end of their session, after Phil made his usual button raise, Andy check-raised the flop of J-8-4. Phil reraised, Andy called. After a 10 on the turn, Andy check-raised again and Phil mucked, conceding a $420,000 pot. By the time they stopped for the night, Phil's lead had shrunk to $1.96 million.

As their match resumed on Wednesday at 9:45 a.m., both men seemed content to spar for a while, with several hands beginning without preflop raises. On one of them, the flop came out J-8-2 with two hearts. Phil bet, Andy called. When another deuce came on the turn, Phil bet again, Andy raised, and Phil reraised. "The river card was the jack of clubs," Craig reports. "Phil bet and Andy, after thinking for a long time, raised. Ivey, too, took a long time to think about it, riffling eight chips – the amount of a reraise – and looking at Beal, hard, before conceding the $600,000 pot." From this and other indications, it was going to be Andy's day – until a few hands later, when Andy called Phil down all the way on a board of 10-10-2-10-7 and Phil showed him quads.

Four hours into the slugfest, the heavyweights were just about even on the only judge's scorecard that mattered. But over the next two hours, Phil kept the heat on and, as Craig comments, "As if he needed it, he also started getting lucky." By 4:20, Phil was up $3.125 million. When Andy said he was ready to stop for the day, Phil (with his teammates' permission) offered to raise the stakes. "I believe in giving a guy a chance to get even," he said.

Resuming the next afternoon at $50,000-$100,000, Andy built a lead of 16 big bets. Craig provides a telling example of their banter, if that's the right word for it, at this critical stage of the match. "If I lose today," said Phil, "I'll go to school and work for you."

"You can actually make more money on Wall Street than playing poker."

"I know," said Phil. "I just never got into that."

"We could always use smart people on our team. But now I have to stop talking. Otherwise I'll lose millions of dollars." Having said that, Andy put his headphones back on.

Phil smiled, cocked his head, and said, "That was my plan."

It was right around then that Phil won a $1.6 million pot with fives full of kings. A few hands later, he made quads when Andy filled up, stretching his lead another $1.1 million. The pattern was set. To Craig, "it seemed Phil Ivey caught every possible break in the last two hours." Forced to play catch-up, Andy got more and more reckless. The backbreaker came when he was able to take charge with pocket kings against Phil's measly Q-3 and a board of Q-5-2-6, but a trey on the river gave Phil yet another monster pot.

And then it got worse for the Texan. In a single 27-minute stretch, Andy lost 40 more bets. When it was over just before 5 o'clock, Phil was up $9.8 million. Refusing to complain about all the miracle cards his rival had hit, Andy shook his hand and said, "Good job, Phil. I'm heading back to Dallas."

Having finished his 12-day visit stuck $8.1 million, Andy told Michael Craig, "I really feel like I snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. I just feel embarrassed that I stayed too long and got stupid on the last afternoon." But his "biggest mistake," he said, "was coming to Vegas in the first place. When I was ahead, I should have made them come to Dallas." And he wondered aloud whether Phil would ever agree to that.

Meanwhile, the Table 1 pros have moved about 40 feet over into the Bellagio's posh new high-stakes area. Called Bobby's Room after the CEO of MGM Mirage, 1978 World Champion Bobby Baldwin, it features a Leroy Neiman painting of several of the team's members hanging above the table they play on. Most of the cranberries they won from Andy Beal are either in their lock boxes behind the cashier's cage or invested in real estate. That they have plenty of flags and $1,000 yellow chips left over can be seen through the frosted-glass walls as their mixed game continues, usually for stakes of $4,000-$8,000. Unless and until Mr. Beal returns to action, this is by far the biggest game in town – or the world.

The fact remains that no combination of friends, family members, journalists, banking regulators, or poker pros has been able to predict what Andy Beal will do next, at least as far as poker is concerned. From year to year and sometimes from week to week, Andy often doesn't seem to know the answer himself.

A closely related question is, why play these matches at all? For poker pros like Ivey, the answer is clear: to make money. But as Andy asked rhetorically in his letter to Card Player before the games at the Wynn, "Isn't there a much better use for the time and money? My first thought is the old quote about why people climb mountains or parachute from airplanes: 'Anyone capable of even asking such a question could never possibly understand the answer.' But my second thought is to attempt to explain. It will be fun and exciting, and it will demonstrate that an amateur can take on the pros over a long-lasting game and either put up a real battle or win the war. It also seems more humane than the dueling pistol matches of the old days, where men defended their honor by taking 20 paces, turning, and shooting: I can defend my version of the fisherman stories without anyone getting shot. And to anyone actually asking the 'better use of time and money' question, the best answer of all is: approximately $15 million of the spoils will go to the largest charity in the world, the U.S. government, in the form of income taxes."

Putting aside the tax implications, Howard Lederer says, "It was a thrill to be a part of those matches. You really felt like each and every session was 'historic' when we played him."

A few of Howard's teammates felt that way, too. So did Andy. But when pressed for the umpteenth time about whether he has really retired from poker for good, he shook his head, nodded, and said, "You just don't keep climbing Mount Everest."


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