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A Glimpse Inside the World of High Stakes Poker

Players Push the Limits to New Heights in Cash Games All Over the Globe

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Todd BrunsonA few years ago, Todd Brunson watched one of the most recognized pros in the industry come close to the depths of poker despair by nearly wiping out his entire bankroll in one session. Down nearly $1.4 million in a high-stakes mixed game, he put in his last $50,000 during deuce-to-seven triple-draw still drawing to a 7-low against 8-6. Fate was kind. A 7 hit the board, which started a rush that took his stack back to upwards of $2 million.

“Afterwards, he was laughing and said, ‘You guys have no idea how lucky that was. That was all the money I had in the world. I didn’t know where I was going to get any more money. I was already thinking about who I might be able to borrow from,’” said Brunson with a chuckle. “If that 7 didn’t come, who knows, we may never have heard from him again.”

Take a look around at any high stakes poker game. You’ll see a few seasoned pros like Brunson, seemingly at ease, despite the enormous stakes, and looking to pick on some equitable prey. Others are amateurs, playing with money earned from a day job. Then, there are the risk-takers, the gamblers, and the players who live and die in the moment, willing to put it all on the line for the next card.

Bricks of cash and large-denomination chips line the outside of the table, with the highest stacks indicating those who are either out-flopping or outplaying their opponents. Each pot passed by the dealer could easily be worth a Mercedes, or even a picture-perfect two-story dream home with a white picket fence. Chances are, one of these games is going on right now in one of America’s largest gaming destinations, places that have capitalized on the growing popularity of poker and the players’ needs to up the ante.

Capital City

Bobby's RoomIt’s no surprise that Las Vegas, known as the “Gambling Capital of the World,” would serve as host to the biggest cash games ever played. The richest game of all time was between billionaire banker Andy Beal and “The Corporation,” a group of players who combined bankrolls to play heads-up limit hold’em with blinds as high as $100,000-$200,000. To put that into perspective, the most popular cash game in Las Vegas is $1-$2 no-limit hold’em.

That famous game was held at Bellagio, which is now home to the legendary Bobby’s Room. This is the place to find the highest stakes cash games around. Tourists and poker fans can walk into the Bellagio poker room and peer through the stained glass windows of the exclusive enclosed room. If they look closely, they may be able to catch a glimpse of Barry Greenstein, Doyle Brunson, Ted Forrest, Minh Ly, or any of the many world renowned pros who are always eager and willing to put up a six- or even seven-digit buy-in. There will also be a few unrecognizable players, such as business people, like Beal, who can only get their thrills competing in the toughest and highest game in town.

But for Todd Brunson, poker is about the money, and if there is a high-stakes cash game going on in Vegas, he’s in it. The most common high-stakes cash game he plays is a $2,000-$4,000 mixed game wherein all games are played. So, not only do these players have to be proficient in all variations of poker, they must also have character and self-control in order to be successful, according to Todd.

“Someone with poker abilities overall and a lot of discipline makes a good high-stakes cash player. You also have to know when to quit. You see a lot of people come and go because they just don’t have what it takes,” said Brunson. “A lot of people in the big game have talent, and they are all really good players, but some of them will sit there and just lose $2 million or $3 million in one day, and I basically never do that. If I lose a certain amount, I’ll just quit. And, on the flip side of that, if I’m winning, I’ll stay there for a long time and try to maximize my win.”The Venetian

Although Bellagio has dominated the high-stakes poker scene for the past few years, it isn’t the only big boy on the block anymore. Since the Venetian opened its poker room with a private high-stakes salon in the back, the Big Game has been splitting time between the two world-class venues.

“The Salon was built to accommodate the high-limit players and offer them a degree of privacy and the ability to relax,” said the Venetian’s director of poker room operations, Kathy Raymond. “If they want to have a three-course meal with filet mignon, absolutely they can do it. The butlers come in and serve it. Anything they want within our ability to accommodate, we definitely do.”

Everything from $50-$100 no-limit hold’em up to $4,000-$8,000 limit mixed games play in this room, and if the head of LFP, Larry Flynt, most well known for producing Hustler Magazine, is in town, they will be playing strictly seven-card stud eight-or-better for the highest stakes available. Should passersby peek through the hardwood sliding doors on a night when Flynt is playing, they see players like Phil Ivey and John Hennigan with piles of green $5,000 chips.

Though he frequents Las Vegas, Flynt doesn’t have to leave his Hustler Casino’s hometown to find high-stakes action.

Big City, Big Game

Kenny TranLocated in a city where people match cars with outfits, it’s easy to see why the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles attracts big games.

“We have established a reputation for where the action is,” said High-Stakes Cash Game Host Jerry Stensrud. “People fly in from all over the world to play the high-stakes games here. The Commerce just kind of dominates here in California. If you want to small stakes, you can go to the other two casinos in the area, but if you want to play high, this is where all of the games are.”

When discussing the biggest cash games in L.A., there is hardly ever a conversation without mentioning Kenny Tran.

“There is just so much money in Los Angeles,” said Tran. “I play at the Commerce and in private home games. It is always a mix of celebrities and business people playing high.”

At the Commerce, the big game is spread about once a month. It is a $200-$400 no-limit hold’em cash game with $500 on the button and a $100,000 buy-in. For anyone who is saving up to buy a cool new game console, just think, these guys are playing with a PlayStation 3 as a big blind. Ouch.

According to Stensrud, there were only two pros in thThe Commercee last $100,000 buy-in game the Commerce ran. A theme common among L.A. players is anonymity. Movie stars’ transitions to the poker tables are made easier by the fact that they are used to wearing sunglasses and hats. Until the paparazzi turns into the “pokerazzi,” the identity of these players is kept very private. Not only is it a rule by the poker staff at the Commerce, it is also an unwritten rule among the pros that play with the celebrities.

The Commerce’s other high-stakes cash games include $1,000-$2,000 B.E.O.T. combo — which is badugi, seven-card stud eight-or-better, Omaha, and deuce-to-seven triple-draw — as well as a $100-$200 no-limit hold’em cash game with a buy-in of $20,000. Along with Tran, Bobby Hoff is also a regular in these games. Respected by other industry professionals, Dan Harrington is devoting space to him in his new book. Both Tran and Hoff were recently featured in a new section in Card Player magazine called Capture the Flag, wherein the world’s best cash players give insight into high-stakes games.

DurinBobby Hoffg high-profile tournaments, poker pros from around the world fly in, and since the Commerce is willing to spread any game based on interest, it is unpredictable what kind of cash game is liable to break out. The World Poker Tour L.A. Poker Classic $10,000 buy-in main event began on Saturday, and it attracted 665 players, including many of the regulars in the Big Game. Whether they busted out or just didn’t get in enough poker during the event, players like Layne Flack, Chau Giang, Greg Mueller, and J.C. Tran traded punches in a $200-$400 badugi game Sunday night.

Despite having major tournament success this summer at the World Series of Poker, where Tran finished fifth in the $50,000 buy-in H.O.R.S.E. event and 16th in the main event, he says that he would always rather play cash games. Even though the LAPC came to his home casino, Tran wasn’t there. He was invited to fly to Hawaii for a private cash game.

The private games are where Tran says there is the most money to be won. In these exclusive home games, he plays anywhere from $100-$200 no-limit hold’em all the way up to $1,000-$2,000 no-limit hold’em.

Like Brunson, Tran agrees that the best high-stakes cash game players are proven over time.

“Poker is long term. You see a lot upcoming online kids play high stakes. They are good, but come back and see if they are still playing 10 or 15 years from now,” said Tran.

Coast to CoastNick Frangos

Before moving across the country to L.A. in search of bigger games, Tran made his living in Atlantic City. The high-stakes scene does not play as big as in Las Vegas or at the Commerce, but is certainly not far behind.

Atlantic City is home to the famous Trump Taj Mahal and Borgata casinos, where a large majority of the high-stakes action takes place on the weekends. No-limit games up to $25-$50 are common, as well as $200-$400 limit games.

The Borgata also offers a $300-$600 mixed game which most frequently is played as half Omaha eight-or-better and half seven-card stud eight-or-better. Pros who frequent these games when in town are Cyndy Violette, David Williams, and Nick Schulman. Poker pro Nick Frangos resides in Atlantic City just minutes away from the Borgata, where he is a high-stakes regular.

“I think the games are considerably softer here. There are fewer pros, and the pros are less aggressive than out west. Out west, even the bad players are aggressive; it is aThe Borgata different element. The games are just more passive here.”

The high-limit room opened with six tables in 2003 but has expanded to 18. The entire 85-table room has seen enormous growth in the last year, especially in the areas of high-limit stud and Omaha.

“I see our high-stakes cash games continuing to increase in the future. I see new faces all of the time. We cater to the players to make them comfortable at the Borgata,” said Mabel Louie of the Borgata poker room.

The Taj Mahal also hosted a special $1 million cash game during the 2007 Executive Poker Tour. Playing the $100,000 minimum buy-in cash game were pros Ted Forrest, Kenny Tran, Bill Chen, Rhett Butler, and Lee Childs.

Worldwide Phenomenon

While many believe that the U.S. is the place of poker’s origin, no one argues that it has become a global craze. Poker is popping up in all corners of the world, and high-stakes cash games are soon following.

The buzz about Macau becoming the “New Gambling Capital of the World” began long before the Asia Pacific Poker Tour invaded China, but since then, poker has been quickly gaining popularity. Since the country approved Texas hold’em in casinos earlier this month, Grand Lisboa Casino was the first to offer the game. The Galaxy Star World Hotel and Casino also offers poker on innovative electronic tables made by PokerTek. Since Macau is the only contender to Las Vegas in terms of gaming revenue, it seems that high-stakes poker games are inevitable.

Europe’s transition into high-stakes cash games was made public when the television show called Million Dollar Cash Game premiered in 2006. It took place on the top floor of the Fifty Casino, which is located in the heart of London. The blinds were €300-€600 with a €100 ante and €100,000 minimum buy-in (approximately $200,000). Europeans Roland de Wolfe and Marc Goodwin competed, as well as American players Mike Matusow and Howard Lederer. This was the biggest game ever held in the UK.

Poker’s popularity is also reaching Russia. The Moscow Millions event at the Kosmos Casino only attracted 52 players, but many of those entrants were pros. Tony G won the event and donated the $205,000 to charity. He has also blogged about playing $500-$1,000 pot-limit Omaha in Moscow, where the pots were often $250,000 or higher.

As tournament poker becomes an even stronger global phenomenon, these high-stakes cash games are going to be appearing wherever there are poker players who desire to sit in the biggest games in the world. As for the rising stakes, well — there’s no limit.

Remember to check out the Capture the Flag section in every issue of Card Player magazine.