Last November I flew east across the Atlantic with my country’s line of succession up for grabs for the first time since 1789. Boards had convened to determine whether chads were dimpled or pregnant, noodged or, in some cases, eaten. The supreme courts of Florida and, yes, the U.S., were gearing up to decree which ballots should count and which shouldn’t. The only good news was that no Apache helicopters or machete-brandishing teenagers had entered the fray, as of yet.
After a five-hour layover at Heathrow I got on a ManxAir propeller plane and chugged back up over Wales and across the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man, home to cliffs, beaches, sheep, Fletcher Christian, the TT motorcycle races and, now, the Sbobet Poker Million, which Ladbroke Casinos was trumpeting as “The World’s Biggest Poker Tournament Ever!” Britons will wager on just about anything: cards, horses, football, novels short-listed for the Booker Prize, candidates for the Oxford Poetry Chair or the American presidency. Once I reach the Hilton in Douglas, where the tournament is taking place, I hear that the line has become 6-5 Gore over Bush, although few poker players I talk to are taking either candidate all that seriously. The GORE BUSH and SORE LOSERMAN placards parading across CNN and the British tabloids have further diminished what was left of their dignity, even as Gore disputes Florida tallies and Jim Baker’s minions sue for recounts in states narrowly won by the Vice-President. [Guardian 11/16] The lead in New Mexico has already changed hands three times, with one recount putting Gore ahead by four votes, a photon-thin margin made all the more eerie by the statute decreeing that, should the final tally end in a tie, the winner would be decided by a mutually agreed upon game of chance.
No-Limit Texas Hold’em, anyone? God may play dice with the universe, in spite of Einstein’s last hope, but in America the really serious gamblers, scorning democratic or metaphysical crapshoots, play poker. As electoral tie-breaker it has to be preferable to letting William “Lurch” Rehnquist, Tony “The Ant” Scalia, Clarence “Pubic Hair” Thomas, et al, tip the scales. Certainly it isn’t difficult to picture George W. folding a suited king-jack under pressure before the flop, failing to understand what a huge favorite it is in a two-handed matchup, nor to imagine Al Gore piously huffing and nattering about reverse implied pot odds, this as Ralph Nader deals the Vice-President more deuces and sevens from the bottom of an unshuffled deck.
No-limit Texas Hold’em, as it happens, is the game we’ll be playing on Man, if not in Dade County or New Mexico. The inaugural Poker Million, with its £1 million first prize, has attracted a contingent of American poker studs, forty-three strong, including four former world champions: Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, who won the title back in `72, Johnny Chan (`87, `88), Russ Hamilton (`94), and Phil “The Poker Brat” Hellmuth, who won it in `89, when he was barely 24. England’s Mansour Matloubi (`91) and Ireland’s Noel Furlong (`99) are also on hand, as is reigning champ Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, who resides in LA. To hype the event, several British tabloids have splashed Ferguson’s visage across their pages. With his three-foot-long chestnut locks, full beard, and genuinely Jesusesque features, he is almost absurdly photogenic, especially in his poker regalia: Black Stallion cowboy hat adorned with silver medallions, convex wraparound sunglasses in whose reflection the action on the table is regularly exploited by photographers. He effortlessly crossbreeds poker’s traditional badass cowboy image with its more cerebral, non-violent component. In person, however, the badass dimension is belied by Ferguson’s gentle, intelligent demeanor. He wears the shades not to look like Richard Petty, but because he’d doesn’t feel comfortable scrutinizing people close up. Already a successful stock trader, Ferguson won the world championship at Binion’s World Series of Poker last May just a few months after receiving his PhD in computer science and artificial intelligence at UCLA, but on the publicity questionnaire he gave his occupation as “student.”
Also on hand is T.J. Cloutier, the man Chris squeaked past at the WSOP final table. Author of the seminal Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold’em and winner of over fifty major poker events, Cloutier is considered by many to be the greatest living no-limit player. Other touring pros who’ve made the two (in some cases, three or four) flights are Howard Lederer, Ted Forrest, Layne Flack, Daniel Negreanu, and tall, pensive Eric Seidel, runner-up to Chan in `88. (Eric’s the poor guy in Rounders getting trapped by Chan’s straight on the flop.) Almost as dangerous are world-class players like Richard Tatalovich, Gary Lent, Jack Fox, Dewey Weum and J.J. Bortner, all of whom also have day jobs.
The biggest disappointment is that only two American women have shown up: Bortner, who flew in from San Francisco with her mother and sister; and Melissa Hayden, with several tour victories already notched on the pearl-gray handle of her Derringer. But Linda Johnson, we hear, is hosting a tournament in Costa Rica, Jen Harman dog-sitting in Vegas, Annie Duke home in Montana nursing her four-month-old daughter. It’s too bad for us and the Million.
But why would any woman or man fly 6,000 miles to play poker? One answer, as always, is money. The Isle of Man is both a tax-free zone and the only place in Britain where it’s legal for casinos to advertise. Another reason to come is prestige. Over the summer a panel of fifteen top touring pros was asked to rank the fifty most important tournaments on the circuit. Not surprisingly, all fifteen rated the main event at Binion’s World Series of Poker to be No. 1, giving it a perfect aggregate score of 15. (Twenty of their next highest thirty, in fact, were preliminary WSOP events.) But the second most prestigious event, with a tally of 34, turned out to be the Ladbroke Million, at which card one had yet to be dealt. Ignoring the Million’s zero degree of heritage in favor of its first prize guaranteed to rival the $1.5 million Ferguson took home from Binion’s, the panelists revealed their foremost criterion. Money, after all, is the language of poker, just as points are the language of ball sports, fire and produce the language of cuisine, velocity the language of racing.
Nowhere does money talk more eloquently, with greater or more precise impact, or as part of a longer tradition, than at the Big One at Binion’s World Series. It was inaugurated in 1969, when Benny Binion invited eight of his high-rolling cronies to compete among themselves then vote for the best all-around player–the only known instance of poker players resorting to a ballot box to divine who’d prevailed. The winner, Johnny Moss, received a small trophy and whatever money he’d earned at the table. The current freeze-out structure, which continues until one player wins all the chips–no checks and balances here–was instated in `71, and Moss won again, this time taking home $30,000. The next year’s winner, Amarillo Slim Preston, won $80,000, wrote a book and went on the talk-show circuit, boosting exponentially the public’s interest in tournament poker. By the time Doyle Brunson became the second repeat champion in `77, first prize had quadrupled to $340,000. From `91 until last year, first paid an even $1 million, with entries and total prize money steadily climbing as well. The 2000 championship event drew a record 512 entries, and awarded $5.12 million in spoils.
That scale and tradition is what Ladbroke and Sky Sports are hoping to tap and cash in on. By crossbreeding the four-day, no-limit format of the Big One with the under-the-table cameras of Britain’s wildly popular Late Night Poker, they may finally bring to poker some audience share and the lucrative sponsorships that go with it. The final table of the Million, we hear, will be broadcast live on Sunday to 300 million households in 140 countries, then rebroadcast in the U.S. on Thanksgiving evening.
I’ll be watching, of course, but where exactly does an art school poetry teacher like me get off challenging the likes of T.J., the Brat, Slim and Jesus? Well, for one thing, I already have. Last spring I wangled an assignment to cover the WSOP for Harper’s Magazine, but I’d be damned if I was gonna do it from the sidelines. Hilariously steep odds said I’d only embarrass myself by paying $1000 to enter one of the $10,000 winner-take-all satellites (one-table tournaments designed to fiscally democratize the competition), and that I’d have no chance at all against the pros who dominate the actual tournament. But like every poker player on earth, I would have given a digit and maybe a testicle for a chance to sit down in the Big One. I’d been playing poker for forty years, everything from penny-ante home games to $80-160 hold’em at the Bellagio, but never in a no-limit tournament. Virtually memorizing Brunson’s and Cloutier’s strategy books helped make up for my opponents’ years of tournament experience, not to mention their raw poker talent. Somehow I managed to win my first satellite then survived four days of no-limit freezeout to finish fifth, winning $247,760.
It helps to be obsessed by the game. At home, I religiously turn lights on then off as I move in the dark from one part of our house to another. My wife, Jennifer, and I have spirited debates about whether to cough up $2.99 for a pay-per-view movie. I make sure the faucet handle points toward Cold before rinsing a sippy cup; otherwise our water heater might burn an extra hundred-and-twelfth of a cent’s worth of natural gas. Yet seldom do I hesitate to sit down to a poker game in which thousand-dollar losses and wins are routine.
My competitive urges used to be satisfied playing baseball, golf, tennis and basketball, and by rooting for the Bears, Bulls, White Sox, Blackhawks, and whoever was playing the Cubs. I often spent fifteen hours a week watching Bulls games alone, and several more gloating over their exploits on ESPN, local TV, and the sports pages of three or four newspapers. Why? Because the sociobiological legacy of our days as hunter-gatherers causes levels of testosterone, the primary hormone of both male and female desire, to rise by as much as third when the local team does well. He shoots, he scores! And later that night, so do we. A winning team not only raises morale, it literally helps populate the tribe that supports it. Nine months after France won the World Cup in 1998, the French birth rate jumped [55% for three weeks], and two of my own children were conceived during the Bulls’ second run. But when Jordan, Pippen and Jackson, the consummate surrogate warriors, got run out of town by Reinsdorf and Krause, I suddenly had, at age 48, an extra 25 hours a week to work off competitive steam and raise my testosterone level. Playing poker did both, and provided a further incentive: instead of hacking about with my fellow tennis or golf mediocrities, I found I could take on the studs of the poker world in their Grand Slam events. A subtler factor, I think, is that the rhythms of baseball, my best sport from thirty years ago, readily transfer to the poker table. Both games are contested nine-handed but place huge premiums on patience and individual accomplishment. Probabilities dominate tactics. On both offense and defense, you spend most of your time waiting and strategizing, but once in every nine chances or so you really do have to come through.
Bottom line? As the genetic heir to eons of hunter-gatherers, I still need to take risks while proving my acumen. I’m sometimes embarrassed by my poker obsession–addiction, according to Jennifer–but I’m not gonna stop playing poker any sooner than I’ll stop writing poems, a habit that’s much more expensive. I also save money by practicing against smart computers. In December 1999, …