I have read a lot of poker books, some how-to-do-it and some how-they-did-it.
Of the former, Doyle Brunson’s “SuperSystem” is rightly considered the bible of poker, covering every aspect of the game, with chapters written not only by the game’s living legend, but also by some of the best new pros (Jennifer Harman’s chapter on limit hold’em is a must-read for any serious player).
Until this weekend, the best how-they-did-it book was “Positively Fifth Street,” the book James McManus wrote about his unlikely run all the way to the final table of the 2000 World Series of Poker.
My new favorite is Michael Craig’s “The Professor, The Banker, and the Suicide King.” It’s the story of the richest poker game of all time, in which the top Las Vegas pros took turns playing heads-up games against a Texas banking billionaire named Andy Beal. I had heard part of this legend around the poker tables at the Bellagio over the last few years — stories of huge pots over a million dollars each — but the truth is even bigger than that.
Craig tells the story as he heard it from the people who were there, including Brunson, Harman, Howard Lederer, Ted Forrest, Chip Reese, Todd Brunson, Barry Greenstein, and others. He also got Beal to open up about why he took them on, how he trained himself to get better at strategy while eliminating any possible tells, and what happened when he pushed the stakes up until they were ultimately playing limits of $100,000/$200,000 for bankrolls in the range of ten million dollars.
In doing so, he reveals what it’s like to be one of the best poker pros in the world, at a level your average player can’t begin to comprehend. One of the things he writes about is Table One, the table in the Bellagio poker room that has for years been home to the highest-stakes games in the world (with the exception of the games Andy Beal played, which took place right next to it at Table Seven).
Last month, I was in Vegas for a weekend and, although I played mostly at the Mirage, went over to the Bellagio one night to play. It was in the midst of a huge two-week tournament which culminated in another WPT event, so the room was packed, and many big names were in town. I wasn’t interested in the tournament, preferring the cash games, but since I had to wait for a seat, I looked around at the changes they’d made in the room since I was last there in January.
They had added at least a dozen tables and built a special new room in the middle of the poker room, just for the high-stakes pros to play in. This was the new home of Table One. I walked by and glanced through the glass doors to see Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, Jennifer Harman, and Chau Giang seated behind massive stacks of chips in denominations I didn’t recognize.
When I finally sat down at a table where the stakes were more to my level, I asked the dealer whether she’d ever dealt at Table One. She said everyone in the room rotates through every table, so they had all dealt to the pros, who played a rotation of various games, from hold’em to stud to stud hi/lo to Omaha to triple-draw lowball. She refused to tell me what the stakes were, but someone else at the table said it was usually $1,000/$2,000 at a minimum, and occasionally four times that.
I asked if she liked dealing to the pros, and she told me that what makes it difficult isn’t the amount of money they’re betting on the hand — it’s the side bets. For instance, if there are four players, they’ll each take one suit (clubs, spades, diamonds, hearts), and whichever suit flops on the board, that player would win the proposition bet for a predetermined amount of money. Sometimes they’d bet each other $10,000 on who would end up with lowest hole card. These aren’t just poker players, they’re gamblers who love and need the action to relieve the boredom of playing and concentrating on the game for hour after hour.
What makes this tough on the dealer is that often, a player would fold their hand, but keep the cards because of the side bet. Then, they would toss these $10,000 chips across the table to each other to pay off the bet, and it would be up to the dealer to keep the real pot straight and organized for whoever was still in the hand while all this side action was going on.
While other books get bogged down too much in poker history, Craig concentrates on the new era of poker, with the impact of television and the internet changing the dynamic of big-money tournaments and brick-and-mortar cardrooms, and the pros who have become household names because of that exposure.
Poker pros are known for making great reads — now Michael Craig has done the same. You may never have heard of Andy Beal, but if you have any interest in poker at all, you’ll want to know the story of his epic battles against the pros, “The Professor, The Banker, and the Suicide King.”