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The Prime-Timing OF Texas Hold 'em That's right, Jack--get yourself in a high-stakes poker tournament, be a TV star and rake in a bundle of money. It's all right there on the table

Sept. 22, 2003
Sept. 22, 2003

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Sept. 22, 2003

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The Prime-Timing OF Texas Hold 'em That's right, Jack--get yourself in a high-stakes poker tournament, be a TV star and rake in a bundle of money. It's all right there on the table

T.J. Cloutier, one of the last real road gamblers, stands up
suddenly and reaches across the felt to shake hands. He is done
in again, another bad beat in a never-ending series. Not so bad
as at the 2000 World Series, when a 9 showed up on the river and
commenced a slide in which he lost more than $1 million in prize
money on fifth-street pulls. But bad. This time, with only three
players left at the Bicycle Casino's Legends of Poker tournament
in Los Angeles, he had pocket jacks to the Dot Com Kid's 7s, and
all-in--his chips pushed into one confident pile--he watches as
the young millionaire, a 10-to-1 underdog, nailed a third seven
on the turn.

This is an article from the Sept. 22, 2003 issue Original Layout

"That's poker," Cloutier says, walking away, though by the look
of his clenched jaw he doesn't seem terribly convinced of the
game's justice at the moment. Ever since he left the Texas oil
fields in the 1970s (he was a tight end in the CFL before that)
to make his living in the back rooms of crawfish parlors and
dance halls--"fading the white line," as he pursued games through
the South--he's accepted the contract that says his wit and nerve
can be voided at any time by a 7 on fourth street. But over and
over?

The Dot Com Kid, the impeccably dressed Paul Phillips, now has
only tournament veteran Mel Judah to contend with for a
first-place prize of $579,375. This is big money, even for a
31-year-old who cashed out at the peak of the Internet mania--he
joined Go2Net in 1996 as a tech guy, then made a bundle in a 2000
merger--and retired to a life of cards in Las Vegas. No fading
the white line for him. Phillips didn't mean to retire strictly
to a life of cards, but these deep-money tournaments, swelled by
an explosion of "stationary targets," as Phillips politely calls
the amateurs, has made it unlikely he will ever take up golf, as
he keeps promising. For a $5,000 buy-in and three days of
concentration here in L.A., he is well on his way toward another
million.

But everybody's getting rich these days at no-limit Texas Hold
'em, in which each player makes his best poker hand from any
combination of his two down (or hole, or pocket) cards and the
five communal cards turned faceup--three coming at once (the
flop), followed by the turn (or fourth street) and the river
(fifth street). Any player can bet all his chips at any time.
T.J., for all his recent bad luck, is still getting rich,
pocketing a third-place prize of $146,775. It's been a long time
since he says he had to worry about "keeping the cheat off me" in
rough-and-tumble joints. He once heard about a rich game in Baton
Rouge, found it and inquired of the bouncer (through a
speakeasy-style peephole) whether he could pass safely through
this door again if he happened to win. "You know," the bouncer
said thoughtfully, as if nobody had ever had the sense to ask
that before, "you might try another game."

Now he can play in above-board tournaments made squeaky-clean by
state-licensed casinos, online gambling sites and television
exposure. Mainly television exposure. The World Series of Poker
on ESPN is partly responsible for the boom, but that's only an
annual event. The hot new programming is the World Poker Tour, a
kind of reality TV on the Travel Channel that's turned 13 casino
stops from Los Angeles to Costa Rica into two-hour Greek
tragedies. Thanks to color commentators, card cams that reveal
the hole cards to the audience, and pop-up graphics showing the
players' odds--not to mention the pornographic presentation of
the cash, spilled onto the green felt like a money shot--man's
outlandish hubris is on full display.

He's going all-in with rags! He's bullying a short-stack
scaredy-cat! He's limping into the pot with American Airlines!
(That's a pair of aces to you, Mr. Dead Money.) Every bluff is
now revealed as the product of untold computations, every
bullying all-in raise seen for the science that it is, the
arithmetic of incomplete knowledge. Unless, of course, it's just
a bad guess.

The show, which has put the Travel Channel on the map in a way
that World's Best Bathrooms never did (it's the network's biggest
ratings winner for a series by far, with five million viewers a
week), has become a cult favorite, a kind of Trading Spaces for
people with cards. Not only does viewership increase from the
first hour to the second, but it also increases from show to
show--even when they're repeats. The shows that are in reruns
this fall are getting bigger ratings than the taped telecast of
the inaugural WPT Championship in Las Vegas did last June. By a
lot.

And they're fueling a huge poker boom, especially on the
Internet. WPT commentator Mike Sexton says business at
PartyPoker.com, his online employer, has tripled since the tour
went on the air. Pokerpulse.com tells at any given time how many
players are online and how much money they're wagering. The
Internet offers novices a chance to sample poker with no-money
games and micromoney games (as well as $15-$30 limit games for
the new breed of virtual road gambler--be careful out there),
which in turn develops a new customer base for the
bricks-and-mortars. The Bicycle Casino tournament was dying two
years ago, with 35 people buying in at $5,000. And since the
World Poker Tour? More than 300 people ponied up $5,000 to enter
this year.

There are still live games out there, where shadowy figures are
redistributing $500,000 pots, but these tournaments are beginning
to field entrepreneurs more than outlaws. The Unabomber, the
adamantly mysterious Phil Laak, who made this final table,
trademark hooded sweatshirt and all, calls them actionauts: "You
know, guys who drop in from outer space, juice it up with their
game theory, some kind of edge."

Phil Hellmuth Jr., the poker bad boy who won a World Series title
at age 24, is one of 40 or so WPT regulars. His celebrity is such
that he talks of becoming a "brand" with multiple "income
streams." Even when he was "cash poor" as recently as April, he
recalls that while the mounting bills did "seem annoying," he had
little concern about his ability to bound back. And why should
he? Hellmuth's book, Play Poker like the Pros (one of about a
thousand books that are available on the subject), has 100,000
copies in print, and he's about to sign a six-figure contract to
write a second. He was offered $750,000 to do an infomercial but
walked away from it. He cashes in on online
poker--"telecommuting," he says. He can make $10,000 at Poker
Nites, the card player's equivalent of a card-signing show. There
are cruises. Magazine columns. You name it.

Right now in L.A., in the climactic moments of a September
tournament that won't air until next year, Phillips is staring
across those bundles of cash at the 56-year-old Judah,
imperturbable and impenetrable behind his shades. A former Vidal
Sassoon hairdresser from London who later turned his talents to
import-export and other enterprises, Judah has the Kid slightly
spooked. For one thing, Phillips, who had emerged as the
seemingly uncatchable chip leader (he had $657,000 in chips to
Cloutier's $323,000 and Judah's $143,500 when the final table was
seated), has been making some mistakes in this last hour of play.
That last call, when he ousted T.J.? "That's not going to look so
good on TV," he says later. "I survived, but I totally misread
his hand."

There were some other plays, he allowed, that weren't likely to
reveal omniscience, yet here he sat, with $901,000 in chips in
front of him. Judah, who had been down to as little as $32,000 in
chips, had audaciously gone all-in four times in a comeback that
left him with $645,000 for heads-up play against Dot Com.

As he stares down Judah, it occurs to Phillips that the
difference between first and second, $285,825, is a lot of money
to be playing heads-up for. While WPT crew members scurry about
the set (it's a TV show, remember) to get ready for taping the
climactic match, he hustles Judah over to a dark corner, where
they invite Chris Ferguson, the 2000 World Series champ who is in
attendance, along for the consult.

Ferguson, who is tall and bearded, with shoulder-length black
hair flowing beneath his black cowboy hat, is in this case the
bazooka being brought in to shoot a mosquito. He has a Ph.D. in
artificial intelligence from UCLA (he's devised numerous computer
programs to school himself in Hold 'em) and is the resident
game-theory expert, besides being a 1992 swing-dance champion.
Judah and Phillips want him to do some arithmetic.

Ferguson scribbles on some scrap paper and decides, based on
their chip totals, how to divide the combined prize money for
first and second place. Judah and Phillips shake, happy to
finesse their fate even a little bit. "I just want the [winner's]
seat at the championship," Phillips says, referring to the
automatic entry and waiver of the $25,000 buy-in fee at the
season-ending WPT Championship in Las Vegas next April.

This sort of deal is sometimes, but by no means always, done in
poker. Certainly T.J. would not have struck a bargain. WPT
founder and CEO Steve Lipscomb is not happy to find out about it
and promises to forbid it in the future. But there is no longer
$285,825 riding on the flip of a card.

Of course, any normal person would agree: Judah and Phillips are
doing the sensible thing. Poker seems to be nothing more than a
form of God's mischief, everybody's belief in math or telepathy
or game theory just an invitation to disaster. The treachery of
these probabilities, which allow an Internet player like Chris
Moneymaker, an accountant from Spring Hill, Tenn., who never sat
at a live table in his life, to win the last World Series and
$2.5 million, is daunting. ("Running a toothpick into a
lumberyard," as Amarillo Slim would say.) You want to protect
yourself from the sickening thud of the bad beat when you can.

And, anyway, look what happens.

Judah, who has moved back into the chip lead, holds a 9-7 to
Phillips's jack-deuce. These are not dynamite starting hands. But
the cards are beside the point; Hold 'em, particularly on the
final table, is basically a game of chicken. So Phillips, hoping
to shake Judah down, pushes $90,000 in chips into the pot. All he
can hope for is a miracle on the flop, or that Judah suffers a
failure of nerve or, better yet, a rush of common sense.

But Judah notices something in the way Phillips shovels the chips
forth. The bet is a weak one to begin with and does not signal a
strong hand. But more than that there was ... what? A tell. "No,
not a tell," says Judah, too prim and dapper to resort to
vernacular. "A behavior pattern. I knew he didn't have a hand." A
tell. He calls Phillips's bet.

Let destiny do its dirty work now. The flop turns up ace-6-3.
Their hands are still garbage. But here comes a 5 on the turn.
Wow! Do you wonder at the gambler's absolute conviction that even
the slightest risk deserves reward? Both players, free rolling
with God's money, are inching toward inside straights, simply
because they were arrogant enough to insist on a little cosmic
opportunity.

Of course there is still the matter of that one card to connect
them, and what are the.... The dealer flips over a 4.

Judah pushes his chips all-in, and Phillips, after enduring a
silent thrombosis or two, responds in kind. The tournament thus
chides anyone who would dare hope to become a "brand" or develop
an "income stream" on such whimsy as Texas Hold 'em. The players'
hole cards are turned over. No calculation, by Chris Ferguson or
anyone else, could have ensured this result. Two inside
straights, drawn from rags, with all that cash bundled up on the
green felt! Risk is rewarded; let that be a lesson to you.

It takes a few seconds to comprehend what has happened, except
that it was highly unlikely and tremendously satisfying to anyone
who lusts after chance. But then it sinks in, and you can see it
in the crimson flushing cheeks of the Dot Com Kid. Judah's 7-high
straight, as improbable as it is, breaks his 6-high. There is
pandemonium, naturally, not so much that a winner has been
produced but that drama has been so majestically delivered.
Phillips stares at the table just for a second, both amazed and
amused by God's idea of mischief, then reaches across the felt to
shake Judah's hand. As anyone might have told him, of course,
that's poker.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA POKER FACE The televised tournaments have made stars of players like Ferguson, a UCLA Ph.D. in artificial intelligence.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA BIG TIME Thanks to the TV-backed tour, Cloutier (center, maroon shirt) has been able to trade dingy dives for bright lights.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA GLAD HAND Having struck a deal on the side, Judah (right) and Phillips both walked away from the showdown in the chips.

That last call? "That's NOT GOING TO LOOK SO GOOD ON TV,"
Phillips said. "I survived, but I totally misread his hand."

Judah notices something in the way Phillips shovels the chips. "I
knew HE DIDN'T HAVE A HAND," Judah says.