- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

LAS VEGAS — It is the last bastion of the Wild West. However, the biggest poker game in the world isn’t taking place in some smoke-filled back room with guns on the table and whiskey flowing.

No, this high stakes game, which can make or break a man — or woman — takes place in a well-lit ballroom. There is no smoking and the drink of choice is bottled water. The only guns visible are the ones on display in the casino. They were once owned by the man who started this gathering as a publicity stunt 33 years ago.

The World Series of Poker — a legendary card contest that draws cowboys and computer nerds, gangsters and gardeners — is open to anyone who willing to pony up $10,000, sit at a table at Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel and Casino and gamble until, after five days, there is only one man — or woman — remaining with all the chips.

“This is special for any poker player,” said Chris Ferguson, the 2000 World Series winner, but who did not finish in the money this week. “There are not many events where anyone can enter and compete for the World Championship. Not just anyone can enter in the Masters or the NBA Finals. Here anyone can, but they have to put their money where their mouth is. They have to put up $10,000.”

It was special for Ferguson, one of the most successful poker players in the world. The tall, thin long-haired poker star, known as “Jesus” in poker circles, took home $1.5million when he was the last man standing three years ago.

The game is “No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em.” Players get two cards face down to use with the dealers’ five common cards, which are turned over in three stages of betting.

All around Benny’s Bullpen — the poker area at the casino — men and women sit quietly at tables. Meanwhile, the sound of chips being dropped, played with and shuffled, fills the air.

The players — this year a record 839 entered from 44 states and 27 countries — put up small fortunes to buy into the game while others are fortunate enough to win a smaller tournament and earn a seat in the five-day event. They study their cards and their opponents, many of whom wear sunglasses so that their eyes will not betray their hands. They aren’t dressed like Las Vegas high rollers, in fact many are dressed like your average college student — jeans and T-shirts or shorts. Some stick with the Wild West motif and wear cowboy hats while others don baseball caps.

“Everyone tries to dress poor,” said Howard Schwartz, owner of the Gambler’s Book Shop.

But the clothes cannot hide the man once he sits down at the table. “You can tell the type of personality a person has by the way they play poker,” Schwartz said. “To control your own fate is an attraction. You’re not against the house. You are against other players, and that is a challenge that people like. It is the individualism that you find in poker.”

And the money. The last person standing after today’s final game will pocket $2.5million and have a place in poker history.


“This is the one event that can make you or break you for life,” said Phil Hellmuth, the 1989 World Series winner. He said once, when he was a child, a psychic told him he would be famous and great “at something” although poker was never mentioned. “You win that and you’re a world champion the rest of your life, not to mention the money and the prestige. This is what we live for in poker.”

Hellmuth finished 27th this week and took home $45,000.

The World Series of Poker actually began on April15 and continued through last Sunday. There were daily smaller events, some of which can bring $400,000 and a gold bracelet to the winner, all leading up to the five-day championship event that began Monday. By the end of the first day 394 players remained and by the third day it was 143. Yesterday, the final nine sat down and played until one remained.

Ferguson and Hellmuth are among the best and most well-known players in the world. They are among the top five in career money winners in the World Series event — Hellmuth has hauled in $2.8million and Ferguson $2.1million. They play in other tournaments year-round and have made millions of dollars more. Ferguson is a consultant for gaming companies. Hellmuth just published a book called “Play Poker Like the Pros.”

However, one doesn’t have to be some kind of poker legend to win this event. Sometimes you can be a short MIT computer geek from Brooklyn, N.Y., who comes out of nowhere and draws a full house to beat a flush in the final hand at the final table, like last year’s winner Robert Varkonyi. He took home $2million.

“You have to have skill,” said Varkonyi, who played a handful of smaller tournaments for a few years. “You have to have guts. And you have to have luck. The luck part you can’t control. Lady Luck can make you or can crush you. You can be the best player in the world, and in a tournament especially, you’re not going to have a chance unless you grind out your advantage. If I make it into the money this year, I’ll be ecstatic.”

Varkonyi was less than ecstatic after he “busted out” after the first day. The reigning champion was just another “loser” wandering around Binion’s.

Now he is looking for a job. The former project manager used to build computer trading systems, but he took a six-month sabbatical in February of 2001. He went back to work on Sept.10, and was out of a job again a day later after the attacks on the World Trade Center. He lined up another job and was expected to start on May28, 2002, but that changed after he won the World Series of Poker and $2million on May24.

“I called them and said this might not be the best time for me to start a new job,” he said. “As it turned out, I would have been laid off a month later.”

Varkonyi has time for a job now after losing his seat at the prime table, for all the world to see on ESPN. The network will broadcast the tournament at a later date.


Television exposure is a measure of how far the tournament has come. The World Series of Poker started when a group of hustlers were brought together at a table in 1970 by legendary casino owner Benny Binion.

Binion, along with the likes of mobster Bugsy Siegel, was one of the founding fathers of Las Vegas. Binion was a tough Texan who came to Nevada in 1946 after being run out of his state after making his money bootlegging and gambling. He also was a murder suspect seven times and was charged with two of them. He claimed self defense for one and the other he was convicted. He was sentenced to just two years in prison with that time suspended.

Binion found a home in Las Vegas, where he bought into a casino called the Las Vegas Club. Then he built a casino called the Westerner and, in 1951, purchased the Eldorado Club and renamed it the Horseshoe Casino. The colorful cowboy turned the hotel into a magnet for gamblers. They were attracted by Binion’s high limit games and promotional style — he once put $1million on display in a glass booth in the casino.

Binion was friends with some legendary gamblers — Johnny Moss, Treetop Strauss, Pugsy Pearson, Doyle Brunson, Titanic Thompson, Minnesota Fats and a tall, lanky hustler from Amarillo by the name of Thomas Austin Preston Jr., otherwise known as Amarillo Slim. In 1970, Binion invited them to his Horseshoe Casino to play together in one tournament he called the World Series of Poker.

For the most part, the first World Series of Poker was the same group of players who got together over the years and played their normal high stakes game. However, this time Binion tried to turn it into an event, but the tournament drew little attention that first year. The following year, Binion, at the urging of a Los Angeles Times reporter and the recommendation of Amarillo Slim, established a winner-take-all tournament.

“I came up with this freeze-out, and it took off,” Slim said last week. “It’s unreal how big this has become. Last year we had 632. I know because I put $6,320,000 in dollar bills on the end of the table.”

Slim, who won in 1972 and took home $60,000, has played in every World Series of Poker tournament.

“It used to be there really weren’t about 10 of us in the world who could really play,” he said. “Now all those young guys can play. They learned how from books and computers, and we learned how from the school of hard knocks. I don’t resent it. The more of them that learn to play, the better the business for me, because I treat them like stepchildren.”

Not quite. Slim finished out of the money this week, although he runs so many side bets, it’s hard to determine exactly how he did. None of the young bucks measure up to the 6-foot-4, 170-pound Slim, who, according to legend and lore:

• Beat Willie Nelson in dominoes for $300,000.

• Beat Minnesota Fats in pool using a broom.

• Beat Evel Knievel in golf with a carpenter’s hammer.

He has been kidnapped by Colombian drug lords, played poker with presidents (Nixon and Johnson), and once beat Bobby Riggs in pingpong using a frying pan.

Slim, 74, who has a book out called “Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People,” claims he is not a hustler. “I never go looking for a sucker,” he said. “I look for a champion and make a sucker out of him.”


Slim has been a fixture and one of the main attractions at the World Series of Poker, but things got strange after Benny Binion died in 1989.

Operation of the casino fell to Benny’s two sons, Jack and Ted, and his two daughters, Becky and Brenda. Ted was almost as controversial and colorful as his old man. He was arrested several times on drug charges and reports had him connected to organized crime. Becky gained control over the casino in July 1998 and two months later, Ted was dead from an overdose of heroin and Xanax. A stripper named Sandra Murphy, Ted’s girlfriend, was charged with murder as was Murphy’s boyfriend Rick Tabish. In 2000 they were convicted of poisoning Ted Binion. It was quite a bizarre backdrop as the World Series of Poker took place at the casino that year.

Binion’s Horseshoe Casino and Hotel can stand on its own as a peculiar place. It is located in downtown Las Vegas, a long way from the Strip and the newer luxurious casinos like Ceasars Palace and Bellagio. Binion’s is surrounded by other old casinos, pawn shops, souvenir stores and places where they sell deep fried Twinkies for 99 cents. For the most part, though, this is a part of Las Vegas many visitors never see. And yet, every May, Binion’s takes center stage for the World Series of Poker.


And once again, Binion’s is the place where dreams begin — and end.

Last year, Washington lawyer Russell Rosenblum nearly fulfilled his. Just six years after he began playing somewhat regularly in Atlantic City, Rosenblum entered his first World Series last year and reached the final table. He finished sixth, winning $150,000.

“I bought a Ferrari 360, a lot of fun,” he said. “I had a deal with my wife before I came out to the Series last year. I had looked at the car but couldn’t justify buying it. She said, ‘You play in those poker tournaments, if you win the money playing poker, go buy the car.’ … The car costs $153,000.”

Unfortunately, like Varkonyi, Rosenblum busted out on the first day.

“I never really got going today,” he said. “I started out with $10,000 in chips, and after about an hour and a half I was down to about $5,000 in chips. I moved it back to about $8,000 in chips, and then an aggressive player busted me out. My reading ability is the best part of my game, and I actually read him and figured that two aces was the only hand that could beat me. But I thought there was enough of a chance that he didn’t have two aces, and this was my chance to double up in the tournament, so I called, and he did have two aces and busted me. I was right and paid dearly for not listening to myself.”

Rosenblum was disappointed, but if you can believe this, he said he felt worse last year. “You don’t ever know if you’ll ever get to that final table again,” he said.

Anyone who gets to that final table has an opportunity to earn the title as best poker player in the world and take a place with the likes of Amarillo Slim. And for a real estate lawyer from Washington, or a computer analyst from Brooklyn, that’s as close as they’ll ever get to being a gambling legend.

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