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High-Stakes Poker Pro Jeremy Ausmus: Private Games Are "Killing The Poker Dream"

Jeremy Ausmus And Chad Power Weigh In On Pros And Cons Of Private Games In Public Casinos


The World Series of Poker is less than a month away. Everybody hears about the massive tournament scores each summer, but getting that many poker players into one city with numerous poker rooms is also a recipe for high-stakes cash games.

But even for those pros with huge bankrolls spending their summer in Las Vegas, many of these games won’t be accessible. An ongoing trend for many of the biggest games in Las Vegas is that they are being held in public casinos, but are being treated very much like a private poker game.

Simply put, for some pros, their action is not welcome.

According to 2012 November Niner and high-stakes cash game player Jeremy Ausmus, these games are a huge detriment to the poker community. The Las Vegas resident says that players who ‘run the game’ are allowed to control who sits down, which cuts off players from achieving success at the game’s highest limits.

“At Aria, they don’t have to have a list. They can lock up seats. I had someone who went to play one the other day and it was four-handed,” said Ausmus. “He wanted to play and they told him ‘You can’t play.’ Then two more people came and they basically said ‘Yeah, they can play.’ I heard that Wynn has a similar thing.”

Unfortunately for Ausmus, the law isn’t on his side.

Scott Burnham, a professor at Gonzaga University School of Law and Card Player columnist, said casinos are allowed to run lists for poker games however they please.

“As far as I know, there are no regulations on how a cardroom maintains a list,” said Burnham. “It would, of course, have to conform to other general regulations, including anti-discrimination laws. If the Elks were having their convention in town, for example, I see no reason why a cardroom could not spread a game that is restricted to Elks. This is discrimination, but discrimination is only illegal when there is a prohibited basis for discriminations such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.”

Jeremy AusmusIn the case laid out by Ausmus, the discrimination taking place is based on skill. The players in control of the game do not want the better players coming into the game and hurting their win-rate.

According to Burnham, there is legal precedent already in place, depending on where you are in the country.

“This is probably analogous to the question of whether the casino has the right to exclude blackjack card counters,” said Burnham. “In most jurisdictions, including Nevada, a property owner has the right to exclude any person as long as the exclusion is not on a prohibited basis. In New Jersey, however, in a case involving the famous card counter Ken Uston, the [New Jersey] Supreme Court held that in the absence of specific regulations addressing the matter, the casino could only exclude patrons if they were disruptive."

Burnham also noted that Louisiana recently enacted a law that would prohibit a casino from excluding patrons from gambling based on skill level.

Good For The Game?

As long as the practices that Ausmus described are taking place in Nevada, casinos aren’t acting illegally. But whether or not it’s legal is irrelevant to whether or not it’s good for poker.

Chad Power, who is most well-known for his deep run in the 2015 WSOP main event, runs one of the high-stakes private games in his home state of Maryland. He hosts the game at MGM National Harbor and is a strong proponent of the private game practice.

Unlike what Ausmus described in Vegas, however, Power doesn’t have nearly the type of control over the list that organizers at Aria do.

“You can basically start any game with a number of people,” said Power. “Let’s say I want to play $100-$200 [no-limit hold’em], which is the game we generally play. I can come in with eight or nine people and we’ll all get a seat in the game. If there is a list with one or two people on it, we’re essentially jumping them because that game is clearly not going to go. They will be at the top of the list for our game.”

The fact that those players that were already on the list get skipped rubs Ausmus the wrong way. Ausmus, who plays cash games mostly at Bellagio, applauds the poker room for the way that they operate their high-stakes games.

“Most casinos aren’t on board with this,” said Ausmus of the private game practice. “Bellagio really isn’t. They want to support people that are there playing every day. If they try and start a bigger game, the people playing the biggest game have first dibs on it.”

Chad PowerPower claims that the biggest no-limit hold’em cash game that runs at MGM National Harbor has blinds of $10-$25. If he didn’t organize this game and bring the players in, it just wouldn’t run. And sometimes it’s even bigger than $100-$200.

“The last game I brought in, we played $100-$200-$400-$800. That game is never going unless I organize it,” said Power. “We’ve played $1,000-$2,000 before.”

Even Ausmus, one of the most outspoken critics of private games, agrees that if the game is so massive it wouldn’t run otherwise, it won’t have a negative effect on the poker community.

“There’s also a couple different animals here. One is like a big game that wouldn’t have went anyway. Those I don’t see hurting the poker community when something like that goes,” said Ausmus.

That’s what appears to be going on in Power’s game in Maryland. The game is just so big that it wouldn’t run without Power putting in the effort to get people to play. He said that he’s even had people fly in from Argentina to play in his game.

What Ausmus sees happening in Las Vegas is that one private game spawns another. It becomes a common practice at stakes that would run without any organization. Players who control the game will go around the strip and cherry pick the players that they want to play against. They invite them to their private game where they can keep the money away from some of the more talented players.

“Those guys weren’t going to go play around town anyway,” said Ausmus of the nosebleed private games. “But once that started, someone made a smaller game, and then a smaller game, to feed those games. It’s one thing if they were pulling in people that nobody had ever seen, but they are pulling all these other players from around town that are in the general player pool. It’s where the money in poker comes from and they take them all to that game and the rest of the poker community is shut out.”

That’s what happened to Ausmus’ aforementioned friend, who has been shut out of a $50-$100 no-limit hold’em cash game.

“He knows every single person in the game,” said Ausmus about the lineup in that game. “That used to be the game that he played in every single day at Bellagio. They basically picked out who they wanted from that game and control that game.”

Different Ecosystems

Ausmus at the WSOPIf the practice continues, Ausmus’ outlook for live poker is bleak. In the dystopian poker future he laid out, there would be two different ecosystems. One for public games and one for private games, and the public games would inevitably be tougher. He doesn’t see those players as having a realistic shot of prospering.

“It basically kills the poker dream,” said Ausmus. “It’s going to kill live poker. The mid-stakes are going to be dead because there’s not going to be any money to be made. Those players are going to go play lower, at like the $5-$10 level, and then those games get way tougher. Someone else is going to start a private game and steal more players.”

According to Power, his game isn’t stealing anybody from other games or casinos. Like most people that are creating private games, Power is more focused on networking and creating a fun atmosphere to gamble in.

“Just like playing [game theory optimal] or reading people, networking is a skill I’ve actually come to the realization that it was way more valuable,” said Power. “Playing a certain style that is looser and less profitable in a normal game. It’s actually better to play a worse style and network harder than it is to just try and play perfect poker. So I just worked harder on networking.”

There’s no question that poker is less popular now than it was during the peak of the Moneymaker boom. With fewer new players making their way into the poker room, the main goal of private game organizers is to make the game more social and fun, as opposed to slow and robotic.

“There will be no money in the pot and they will take eight seconds to make a very easy decision,” said Power about most pros in a non-private cash game. “You can’t do stuff like that and expect people to want to play with you. It used to be that people had no choice and now there are people like me and others in Vegas that are giving people a choice. We’re not poaching people. We’re just giving them another option.”

He uses his private games as a way to solve that problem of boring games.

Power in the WSOP main event“I’ve had people literally lose six-figures and say to me, ‘Hey man, thanks for the invite. I had a great time.’ You’re not getting that when the same player loses $10,000 in a $10-$25 game,” said Power.

It’s likely the private game is more fun, especially when the host of the game is admittedly not playing as well as he possibly could. But what is the cost of gaining access to them?

“When other players want to get in the game, they have to give something up,” said Ausmus. “Maybe it’s a piece of themselves, or they bring a player. That’s what is happening a lot.”

Do those shut out of the game have a right to gripe about it? Not in Power’s opinion.

“They don’t play the style I play, they don’t make the relationships that I do, they don’t invest in the networking that I do. There’s really no reason for them to get a starting seat in these games, but they’ll complain anyway because they want to play,” said Power. “And they feel entitled to play in the game because they are allowed to play in other games.”

What a lot of players may not realize is that the organizers of the private games wish they didn’t have to create them.

“It’s a pain in the butt to organize these games,” said Power. “I would love to just walk in and play in a good game. But the players today don’t get that. They play a certain style, they are robotic, they are extremely slow. Bad players don’t just come in and win anymore. They are going to sit down at a table full of pros and it’s not fun to play.”

Where Power and Ausmus do agree is that it does create two separate poker ecosystems. The public game route will indeed become much tougher. It’s just that Power doesn’t feel a responsibility to the rest of the poker world to sacrifice his own bottom line.

“It’s not a team game,” he said. “I’m not playing poker for the good of other pros. They are more than welcome to do the same thing. You have to adapt.”