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Book excerpt

Posted: Thursday June 23, 2005 3:44PM; Updated: Wednesday June 29, 2005 5:10PM
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"Are you sure that's right? Ten-and-twenty thousand?"

"Yeah," the floorman answered, unemotional. "That's what they're playing."


Ted struggled to clear his head as he drove toward the Bellagio. His palms had gone cold and clammy.

Am I going to play? Am I going to play? I don't know if I'm going to play.

But in Ted's heart, he knew the answer. He was a gambler, and this was the gamble of a lifetime. It didn't matter that Ted had no idea who was playing in the game. It didn't matter that the consensus among poker players was that Texas Hold 'Em was not Ted's strongest game. (None of the three World Series championships he won in 1993 had been in hold 'em, and he had largely given up playing in tournaments after that.) No one would challenge that he was one of the best Seven Card Stud and Seven Card Stud Hi/Lo players in the world, but the rap on Ted was that hold 'em was just not his game. He disagreed with this assessment, but never made it a point to argue. He was not confrontational, except at the poker table, and having opponents underestimate him was rare and welcome.

This was more action than Ted had ever seen before, and he craved action. The creeping doubts were merely the functioning of a highly developed brain. The heart, however, was that of a gambler.

He pulled the Lincoln into the South Garage, rode the elevator up to the casino, strode the short distance across the Starting Line bar, past the opening to the sports and race book, and into the poker room. Once in the room, he made a beeline for the cashier's cage.

On weekends and evenings, the room's thirty tables were filled and aisle space was nearly nonexistent. Between the narrow passageways and the traffic of players, cocktail waitresses, chiprunners, dealers on shift change, floorpeople, and supervisors, walking from one end of the small room to another could take several minutes and violated all tenets of personal space.

The high-stakes players usually didn't subject themselves to the stop-and-frisk of the room's main thoroughfares. The highlimit area was located in the back left corner of the poker room, up two steps. Three entrances serviced these five tables: one on the left, by the cashier's cage; one accessed through the middle of the poker room; and one on the right, accessed via a ramp from the sports book. The area upstairs was less crowded, received more attention from casino personnel, and offered easy access to an exit and the restrooms in the sports book and the cashier's cage.

As Ted asked for his safe deposit box, he stole a glance at Table Seven, the upstairs table closest to the cashier's cage, where two men played Texas Hold 'Em in silence. David "Chip" Reese sat in Seat Four (meaning four seats to the left of the dealer, who sits in the middle of one of the long sides of the table). Chip Reese was considered by many to be the best all-around poker player in the world, taking on all comers in all forms of poker (along with gin rummy and backgammon) for over twenty-five years. Reese, chunky, still blond, still boyish at fifty, spent a summer in Las Vegas between Dartmouth and Harvard Law School. He never made it to Harvard. Forrest did not recognize the man sitting in Seat Two. He looked to be in his mid-forties, tall, heavyset, neat dark hair, a white dress shirt. A businessman.

A businessman with a lot of money. The only chips on the table were white, with blue and red markings on the edges. The players called these flags, and they were $5,000 denomination chips. Forrest estimated that each man had a million dollars in chips.

His brain was still not committed to play as he examined the contents of his box. There were some loose chips of different denominations, but the main contents lay in a clear plastic fivecolumn chip rack. One hundred flags: $500,000. Despite winning over $2 million at the poker tables in ten weeks, between money taken out for investments, taxes, living expenses, staking other players (bankrolling them for a share of the profits), money on deposit at California casinos, and irregular but occasionally substantial donations at the craps tables, this was the money Ted Forrest had to play poker.

His heart was pounding, as if to drown out any remaining doubts. He had just enough money-his entire bankroll-to buy into the biggest poker game of his life and be at a significant disadvantage in chips.

Five hundred thousand dollars sounded like a lot of money, but it wasn't. When it came out of the box, it was income. You could buy things with it, invest it, even give it away. Then, it was a lot of money. While it was in the box, however, it was working capital, and even mom-and-pop operators would tell you that a half-million dollars was not much working capital for a capitalintensive business.

Poker is the most capital-intensive business in the world. Like banking or securities trading, the commodity is money. But while technology and innovations like margins and interbank lending have supplanted the need for physical cash in the financial world, monetary transactions in the poker world have a medieval flair. Although pros are forever loaning, borrowing, staking, and trading pieces (exchanging with another player a percentage share in each other's results), their ability to compete is closely related to what they have in the box.

David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth, two expert poker players and writers with strong backgrounds in mathematics, have written on several occasions about capital requirements for professional poker players. To overcome the roller coaster of short-term fluctuations, an excellent player needs to have a bankroll equal to about 300 upper-limit bets in his regular game. A player of Ted Forrest's ability could have theoretically gotten by with less, but his regular game ranged between $400-$800 and $2,000-$4,000, with as much time as possible spent at the higher limits. In addition, many of his most frequent opponents were themselves among the best players in the world.

If Ted lost this money, he would be broke. "Broke" means something entirely different in poker than anywhere else. Poker players are gamblers and they train themselves to make the proper plays, regardless of whether those plays actually work out. Every great poker player has run through their playing bankroll, most of them many times. Going broke is both a rite of passage and a badge of honor, a reminder that they live life on the edge. Most of the highest-stakes players, through their years of success, have deliberately kept themselves undercapitalized, because they have been aggressive about trying to shelter as much money from poker as possible, buying property, starting businesses, and investing in the stock market. Of course, they obtained and maintained those assets by keeping their bankroll intact.