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True Tales From A Hollywood Poker Hustler: Ben Affleck Goes To School

A Night At The Poker Table With Antonio Esfandiari, Amir Vahedi, Huck Seed, and Gabe Thaler

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New Card Player columnist Houston Curtis is the author of Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist, the incredible true story overlooked in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. Read his introductory column here.

Ben Affleck and Gabe ThalerOf all the big celebrities I’ve had the good fortune of hanging out with at the poker table, Ben Affleck has to have been one of the kindest, most generous, down to earth A-Listers I have ever met. I would end up playing with Ben many times in big private games over the years and can tell you, he’s a formidable opponent who plays to win. But everyone has to start somewhere, and I was fortunate enough to be there the night Ben learned firsthand what it’s like to go head-to-head with a true professional poker player.

The place was Hollywood Park… where I had cut my teeth playing in cash games since the early 90s. The game was pot-limit hold’em, and it was the biggest game spread in the room at the time. Pot-limit had been a great earner for me before no-limit cash games became popular in licensed cardrooms. I got to learn from a great roster of regulars who played there every week including online poker executive Dan Goldman and his wife, poker pro Sharon Goldman, as well as Nick Delio, who at the time had to be the winningest player in the game.

For years the game had been hosted by local grinder legend Ron Pailet. It started out business as usual until Ron whispered in my ear to let me know that Affleck was on his way to the game and was being accompanied by the late Amir Vahedi.

Well, it didn’t take long for word to spread because in the next half hour I found myself sitting at the table with not only Ben Affleck and Amir, but in walked cash pro Gabe Thaler, Antonio Esfandiari (who hadn’t even won his first WPT yet) and WSOP main event champion Huck Seed.

The blinds quickly got bumped from the normal $5-$5 to $10-$20, which was a pretty big game to be happening at Hollywood Park during an off night with no major tournament anywhere in site. To me, this made one thing very clear. Movie stars were definitely good for business.

I ended up sitting to the right of Amir, who was chewing on an unlit cigar like the one he made famous from the 2003 WSOP tournament coverage on ESPN. Ben was in seat one, then Gabe, Antonio, and Huck.

Out of the gate the game was hot! Money was splashing around right away and Affleck had no problem mixing it up with anyone at the table. He actually got me to lay down a big hand early in the game and scooped a nice pot after hitting a flush on the turn. Ben’s sincere smile, the way he laughed, and the sound of his faded Boston accent seemed to ingratiate him to everyone at the table. Before long, the game felt like it might as well have been a group of guys who had known each other all their lives hooting, hollering, and having a great time as if we were all working stiffs just happy to have a night off from the daily grind. What a beautiful little illusion, I thought.

I know the pros showed up because they had all heard Ben would play big. But I don’t think they were particularly interested in felting him. On the contrary, they knew he was the draw and that the moment Ben decided to leave, the game would whittle back down to its normal blinds and everyone but the regulars would slowly start cashing out. Fortunately for us all, Ben was truly enjoying himself and wasn’t planning on leaving anytime soon.

I had tried to avoid the pros for the most part, and played a locked-down version of my game most of the night, but after an hour at the table I got involved in a big pot with none other than Huck Seed. I didn’t play a lot of tournaments back then (still don’t), but I sure as hell knew who Huck Seed was. And despite the fact that Antonio would go on to be one of the biggest money winners in professional poker history and that Amir would go on to be voted tournament player of the year by this very magazine, aside from Ben, Huck had to be the most famous guy at the table that night.

After a few limpers, I looked down at pocket nines and bet the pot. Amir folded, Affleck called, Gabe and Antonio folded and then Huck raised the pot causing insta-folds around the table until it got back to me. I wanted to raise and find out where I was at but decided to flat call because I still had Affleck’s action behind me and there was no telling what he might do. Ben folded and it was me and Huck head up with him acting first on the flop.

The flop came A-K-2 rainbow and Huck decided to bet the pot. Sure, I probably should have mucked it but I was having fun. It was exciting sitting across the table from movie stars and gold bracelet winners! So I said screw it and reraised the pot all-in with my measly pair of nines, even though the board was showing two over cards. And who knows? Maybe Huck has jacks and will be disciplined enough to fold.

Huck went into the tank for a bit, looked at me, showed me two queens and then mucked it! I felt like Matt Damon in Rounders during the scene with Johnny Chan. But before Huck could ask me if I had him, I tossed my hand into the muck as the chips were being sent my way. My cards hit a stack of chips and bounced face up revealing my hand. Huck put his head in his hand and just smiled. It was game on!

I had never met Huck Seed before that night, nor seen him after until about a year later when I found myself in the men’s room at the Bike for one of the Legends of Poker events in 2004. Huck saunters up to the urinal next to mine and there we are doing our business. I was about to zip it up and head for the sink when I hear him say (almost under his breath), “I should’ve busted you with those queens.” I just looked at him, smiled, and told him I was flattered that he remembered me!

I think seeing Huck in the men’s room that day brought me good luck because I went on to win the entire event beating Scotty Nguyen head up at the final table that year.

Anyway, back to Hollywood Park. After my hand with Huck, the game started to get a little more aggressive and some of the lesser players started getting felted fast. It didn’t take long before the biggest pot of the night would have everyone standing around like rail birds during a final table.

Ben raises preflop, gets reraised by Gabe Thaler, and then calls. Now for those of you who don’t know or remember, Gabe, at this time, was probably one of the fiercest cash game no-limit players around. He would hit up all the major tournaments just waiting for big pros to bust out so he could win the remainder of their bankroll in the side games and send them home broke. I loved Gabe’s style and always learned a lot from watching him play, but tonight he would saving his big lesson for Mr. Affleck.

Out comes a seven-high flop. At this point Ben pushed his chair back and stood up. Just seeing him standing there caused foot traffic all over the floor. I remember one of the servers almost pushed her food tray right into the table of a $10-$20 limit game that was happening next to us causing someone’s teriyaki chicken to spill all over a dealer’s lap.

By this time, our game had been roped off, which just drew even more attention to it, and the rail birds were approaching rapidly to see if they could get a glimpse of Ben in action. All eyes were on Affleck as he looked down at Gabe and said, “How bout we just make this one hand no-limit?”

Now remember, this was a pot-limit game so changing it to no-limit after the flop was unprecedented, especially in a licensed casino. But before a floor man could intervene, Gabe looked at Ben and politely asked, “Is that a legitimate offer sir?” Affleck, cracked a grin and said, “Absolutely!”

Gabe called. Ben showed pocket tens, Gabe turned over pocket queens and busted Ben for every last cent he had on him. It was a great hand to witness and an even greater lesson for Ben, one that I’m sure he remembers to this day.

The only thing even half as interesting from that night as Ben’s arrival and ultimate felting by Gabe was seeing some of the wealthy weekend players who were totally green to poker sitting in the game just so they could say they played with a celebrity. Which brings me to the second part of this column. If you are interested in protecting yourself from a would-be poker hustle, then keep reading!

In the game that night there was a poker newbie attorney who sat down close to myself and Vahedi. And while all eyes were on Ben, Amir spent a lot of time buddying up to this guy who had seen him play on ESPN. Before I knew it, Amir convinced him to do that old sucker side bet where he picked three cards and if one of those three cards hit the flop, he got paid a hundred bucks, but if he missed, he would have to pay our new attorney friend a hundred bucks. Never one to stand in the way of somebody trying to make a living, I didn’t say a word and just watched as this guy dumped hundred-dollar chips to Amir all night long amidst everything else that was going on.

Now, what Amir was doing certainly wasn’t cheating. Hell, we’ve all done it or had it done to us at one point in our poker education right? But while it wasn’t cheating, many people would consider it a legitimate “hustle.” Given the fact that the guy never had a chance in the long run because the odds were stacked too far in Amir’s favor. At least Amir chose to hustle a wealthy white collar attorney, a guy who lies for a living, instead of some poor sap who was playing on borrowed bread and hoping to win his rent money.

Just watching this guy pay Amir all night long reminded me of a private game that I was hired to deal about three years prior. It was a game out in Huntington Beach and the guy who ran it was named Benji. Benji was an executive for the entertainment company I was working for and I was a lowly runner. Knowing that I liked cards, Benji offered me $50 to come deal for the whole night. Fifty bucks was an insult considering the big winner usually walked away with about $5,000 to $10,000, but I needed the money so I agreed.

In no time, I saw Benji using the exact same hustle as Amir had been using, but he was doing it to his friends. Some of them were my friends too! They were all guys from our office who felt Benji was too important to say no to. So even though these guys didn’t make much more money that I did at the time, they were willing to risk it to sit with this guy because he might be able to green light one of their projects or give them a promotion.

The poor bastard who could afford to lose the least, ends up losing the most that night due to Benji’s sucker side bet. So at the end of the night, I decided I was going to get back at him. The game had already broke and everyone was just standing around except for me and my buddy, the tape vault manager. I was playing a little side game with my buddy who at that point was the big loser for the night. It was only a matter of time before Benji, cocktail in hand, asked what we were playing.

I told him that the average person has a poor memory and that If I cut the deck to four different piles showing four different cards most people can’t name all four cards after seeing them only once. I then demonstrated by cutting four piles face up, letting my friend see them, and then I turned the top card on each pile over and one at a time he had to name each card after they were all face down.

My buddy got three out of four right but when he got the fourth card incorrect, Benji shouted, “You idiot! No wonder you lost so much money tonight how in the hell did you get that wrong.” That was my buddy’s cue and he executed it beautifully despite me being worried he would screw it up. He told Benji it was a lot harder than it looked and then bet him everything Benij had won for the night that he couldn’t get all four cards right twice in a row.

Benji thought about it for a minute and told him he would take the bet if he only had to do it once. That’s when I stepped in and said… “Well, to make it fair, if you get two cards wrong you should have to pay an extra grand.” To which Benji happily agreed.

I shuffled the deck and let Benji cut each pile and place them face up on the table. After the fourth pile was cut, he got one last glance, and then I turned over all four cards from the piles face down one at a time and asked him to start naming them. He got the first card wrong out of the gate and my friend burst out laughing and clapping because he had just gone from being the biggest loser of the night to the biggest winner. That’s when I reminded him that he still needed to get the rest of them right or else Benji would lose another thousand dollars. Benji got the second and third card correct but, of course, the fourth card was incorrect and me and my pal ended up doing the Robin Hood victory dance all the way home with more money than either of us made in a month.

Now I know that using deception with a deck of playing cards to win money is wrong and that’s why I now consult with clients around the globe to help them spot such tactics. But when you think about it, is what I did any more wrong than Benji bullying his underling co-workers into a card game, having them play at stakes they couldn’t afford and then taking further advantage of their novice by proposing a prop bet that gives him an unfair advantage?

Perhaps that is a question worthy of discussion in a future column. But for now, all you need to know is that if someone ever asks you to bet whether or not you can remember four cards that have been cut into four face up piles from a deck… don’t accept the bet, because it’s a scam!

I later turned this hustle into an actual magic trick where I change all four cards from each pile into four aces right before your eyes. If you would like to learn both the card hustle (for entertainment purposes only of course) and the magic trick it’s called Holy Crap Aces and is available on my website. Check out an example of the trick below.

See you next time for more Hollywood poker tales and card cheating protection tips! Until then, good luck at the tables, and stay sharp!

Houston Curtis Houston Curtis, founder of KardSharp.com and author of Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist has lived a successful double life as both a producer and card mechanic for nearly 30 years. His credits include executive producing gambling related TV shows such as The Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS, The Aruba Poker Classic on GSN and pioneering the poker instructional DVD genre with titles featuring poker champion Phil Hellmuth.

Barred for life from Las Vegas Golden Nugget for “excessive winning” at blackjack, Houston is one of the world’s most successful card mechanics and sleight-of-hand artists of the modern era. Curtis, who rarely plays in tournaments, won a 2004 Legends of Poker no-limit hold’em championship event besting Scotty Nguyen heads-up at the final table before going on to co-found the elite Hollywood poker ring that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-nominated film Molly’s Game.

Curtis resides in Phoenix, Arizona where in addition to running a production company and independent record label, he is also a private gaming/casino protection consultant to clients across the globe seeking insight into master level card cheating tactics via advanced sleight-of-hand technique. To reach Houston for a speaking engagement, consulting or production services send email to stacked@Kardsharp.com.

All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Card Player.

 
 
 
 

Comments

Wade12
6 months ago

Awesome read. Thanks.

 
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