Category: Las Vegas

Meet the killer who invented the World Series of Poker

Ah, autumn.

‘Tis the season for pumpkin picking and hot apple cider, for long drives through the color-shifting countryside, and for parking yourself in front of the TV for ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker’s Main Event.

Beginning September 28, the network serves up two weekly hours of WSOP programming through the beginning of November, at which point the final table—a.k.a. the November Nine—reconvenes for a slugfest which grosses each player a minimum of $700,000.

But how to fill those empty WSOP-less hours between Sundays? Well, duh, you could actually play poker. Or if you want to engage in a more edifying activity, you might curl up with “Blood Aces,” Doug J. Swanson’s superb, highly entertaining new biography of WSOP founder Benny Binion.

It’s got the feel of a classic. Meticulously researched and told with verve and a sly sense of "Blood Aces" coverhumor, it’s a genre-buster, a gambling saga that will appeal to fans of true crime, to casino denizens, and to anyone interested in a tasty slice of 20th century history.

If you’ve strolled along Fremont Street, Binion is a familiar name thanks to his Horseshoe Casino, a seedy relic from the 1950s. It’s widely known that Binion started the World Series of Poker at the Horseshoe, but I’m guessing that few players know the whole story of the man behind the casino. Swanson remedies that big time, painting a vivid portrait of the nicest man you’d ever want to kill you.

“Binion had long resembled a doughy rural-route cherub,” writes Swanson in the book’s Prologue, “at least until he wanted somebody dead, which happened with some frequency. Then his grin fell away and his darting blue eyes went hard. ‘No one in his right mind,’ the great poker player Doyle Brunson once said, ‘messed with Benny Binion.’”

The book follows Binion’s path from sickly child to horse trader to Dallas gambling kingpin to Vegas hotelier-casino operator. This path was unimpeded by the fact that he was semi-literate (he stalled out in second grade), that his arrest became a top priority of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and that he eventually was brought to justice for the crime of tax evasion and did time at Leavenworth, an event that Swanson chronicles with typical wryness:

‘Prison Doors Clank Shut on Benny Binion,’ said a front-page headline in the Nevada State Journal. ‘Interesting Career Interrupted by Uncle Sam.’ This proved that somewhere in Reno a copy editor had the gift of understatement.

By This image is part of University of Nevada at Las Vegas Special Collections on the World Series of Poker. Permission was given by David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research, to use any materials from this site in accordance with the GFDL. (http://gaming.unlv.edu/WSOP/Binionphoto.html) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Benny Binion and daughter Becky in front of the Horseshoe’s famous million-dollar display.
Described by Swanson as “a sort of Will Rogers of mobsters,” Binion was forced to flee from Texas to Nevada after his lucrative gambling operation in Dallas collapsed and the powers that be made it clear that his life was in jeopardy. By the time he arrived in Las Vegas, “The city had entered the public consciousness as a criminal wild game preserve—or, more aptly, an adult amusement park—with an unmatched collection of murderous rogues reborn as legitimate businessmen, free to roam the streets.”

He fit right in and thrived, rising to the status of respected civic leader. Eventually heart ailments slowed him down, but did nothing to squelch his… well, let’s call it spunkiness. To wit:

Although a nurse now accompanied him when he traveled, he still kept a .22 handgun in his pocket… because no one knew when an eighty-year-old man with a nurse at his side might encounter a gunfight.

By the time Binion cashed in his proverbial chips, he’d done a stint as an FBI informant (a tidbit that Swanson reveals for the first time) and had become a pillar of Vegas society thanks to his generous civic donations. Hell, they even erected a statue of the man.

Today the WSOP, which Binion kicked off in 1970 with just a handful of players, attracts thousands of players and is operated by Caesar’s Entertainment, as squeaky clean a gambling enterprise as Binion’s was dirty. In light of this revealing new overview of the WSOP’s genesis, will ESPN acknowledge the tourney’s unsavory roots? I’m betting they will. The story is just too damn compelling.

As Swanson writes, “There is simply no one who went from murderous street thug to domineering crime boss to revered businessman to civic treasure like Benny Binion. No one comes close.”

It’s a one-of-a-kind tale and–along with Positively Fifth Street, Cowboys Full, and The Biggest Game in Town–deserves a place on the shelf reserved for gambling books that, through sheer storytelling verve, transcend the limitations of their genre.

Casino Buffet

“Lost in Translation,” casino edition

"Pachinko parlour" by MichaelMaggs - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pachinko_parlour.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Pachinko_parlour.jpg
Paging Bill Murray… Photo by Michael Maggs, Wikimedia Commons.

Pachinko, anyone?

Turns out the Japanese game–which combines elements of pinball and roulette–is making a comeback. Hurray!

What? You didn’t realize that the game had been fading in popularity because of its ties to the yakuza and its lack of appeal to Japan’s young folk? Or that three-quarters of pachinko parlor owners are ethnic Koreans? Or that pachinko’s rebound is considered big news at The New York Times?

Well, get with it! Here’s a link to the recent Times article that will will turn you into a sparkling conversationalist the next time that the subject of pachinko comes up at a party.

Banking on lotteries

Who says lotteries are evil? Enterprising credit unions are actually using the lottery concept as a way to induce low-income families to sock away some dough. And it’s working!

I’m all for it, although I humbly suggest that we should draw the line when your local bank starts rolling out blackjack tables into the lobby.

The failure of persistence

“Energy and persistence,” said Ben Franklin, “conquer all things.”

All things apparently, except for the Mohegan Sun casino.

Despite his stick-to-it-iveness, Bruce Koloshi of Summit, NJ, just couldn’t make his card-marking scheme work.

It sounds clever enough. Kolshi used invisible ink to mark the cards in a casino game called Mississippi Stud and special contacts to view the markings.

Only problem was he’d been caught twice before, in Delaware and Louisiana, so the jig was pretty much up by the time he arrived in Connecticut with his bottle of magic ink. Security had his photo and… well, read about it here.

And thanks to my old buddy Don Elustando for bringing this story to my attention.

Monetizing “Nuts”?

Last post, I wrote about some of the odd search terms that have led readers to this site. “Human nuts being cold” struck a deep chord with a bunch of SCN fans, none more so than poker pal Matthew Douglas, who emailed me suggesting that I sell cozies to monetize visitors.

“Cold nuts?” Matthew wrote. “No problem: Doug’s stone cold nut cozies only $19.95.”

As you read this, a small factory in Beijing is ramping up production.

Poker genius or certified nutcase?

And finally, I am humiliated nauseated delighted and proud to introduce you to “Cigarillo” Sam Pitzkin, a poker player unlike any you’ve encountered. Today marks the day that Sam and I launch PitzkinPoker, a website filled with totally useless somewhat dangerous wacky cuckoo brilliant techniques that will in all likelihood change the way you look at the game.

So who is Sam Pitzkin?  He’s a man of astoundingly diverse interests: a brilliant poker player who writes haikus, an ex-convict who quotes Shakespeare at the Hold’em table, and a connoisseur of cheese who still finds time to make a positive mark in the community. His charitable organization, the Inner City Children’s Poker Fund, has helped literally dozens of kids escape the clutches of poverty.

Read more about this remarkable man at pitzkinpoker.com.

Objects in the Mirror, part two

They call it the World Series of Poker, but I’m thinking that might just be a misnomer.

To reach baseball’s World Series, players must slog their way through an interminable, yawn-inducing regular season (162 games) plus a couple of weeks of playoffs before they get a crack at the so-called World Championship.

To reach the World Series of Poker, simply buy a ticket to McCarran International Airport, catch a ride to the Rio, plunk down your cash, and you’re in.

And unlike MLB’s World Series, which is a best-of-seven contest, the WSOP is actually 65 separate events played over the course of seven weeks, with various games and buy-ins culminating in the ten-day No-Limit Hold’em Main Event, the one that costs $10,000 for a seat at the table, the one that will pay out $10 million to the winner when the final nine players reconvene in November.

By Gage Skidmore [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Aaron Paul was among the entrants in the 2014 Main Event.
At the WSOP, gender is not an issue. Neither is age, as long as you’re at least 21. Neither is nationality or skill. So essentially it’s more like the WCOP, the World Convention of Poker. You could be Stanford scholar or a paranoid, hygienically challenged old coot. You could be a celebrity: Aaron Paul, James Woods, Justin Henry and Ray Romano played this year. You could hail from Minsk, Athens, Tel-Aviv, or Matuyama City, Japan; a total of 87 countries were represented in the pool of 6,683 players who ponied up $10Gs for this year’s Main Event.

By the time I arrived at the Rio for my shot at a WSOP Side Event (which I’m capitalizing to make it seem more important that it actually was), 90% of those players had been bounced. Smarts and celebrityhood simply cannot protect you from those ever-escalating blinds.

The delegate from the fair state of Oregon will please step forward and be seated.

So while the 690-something remaining Main Event participants duked it out in the Amazon room, at 2:45pm I presented my entry slip and photo ID to the dealer at my assigned table, number 57, and took my place at seat four.

Psyched. Ready to compete against the other 538 entrants. “The Mental Game of Poker” had prepped me psychologically, and the Power Bar Triple Protein Threat that I’d consumed in my room at Bally’s and the Chocolate Caramel Fusion Bar in my pocket were going to keep me buzzing for awhile.

It’s 3pm: Let the game begin!

The contest progressed like this: 30-minute levels beginning at 25/50 blinds, with antes being added at level four. A 20-minute break every two hours.

At every poker table, there’s always a designated chatterbox and at table 57 those duties fell to the loudmouthed, Bronx-born general manager of a Houston car dealership. He wouldn’t shut up, perhaps because he was lubricating himself with tumbler after tumbler of vodka and pineapple juice. His playing style: Loosey-goosey, any two cards will do.

Then there was this lanky kid, an omnivore from Berlin, a terrible player with a charming German accent. While the Bronx guy was inhaling vodka, this kid was inhaling food. First there was the plate of salad and cheese that he forked into his mouth during and between hands. Then he disappeared and returned from the Poker Kitchen with a plastic tray bearing a large chunk of beef and a side of potatoes, which he proceeded to shovel down his gullet. Unfortunately for him, this fuel did nothing to improve the quality of his game. Soon he was hanging by a thread, prompting the sardonic old codger to my right to lean into me and whisper, “I bet he goes all in once he finishes that slab of meat.”

The final morsel was consumed, a final bet was made and he was gone.

Two hours later, it’s time for break number two, and I’m the one hanging by a thread. My chip stack has drastically shrunk. I have 20 minutes to figure this out. Out on the patio, in the hundred-degree heat, I take a shot at visualization: What’s the best possible situation for me at this point?

I picture pocket aces. I picture making a big raise. I picture everyone folding, except two players. I picture my aces holding up.

What the hell: If you’re going to dream the impossible dream, why not go all the way?

Inside, three hands later, I look down at my hole cards: Pocket aces. I make a big raise. Everyone folds except two players. I go all-in. My pocket aces win it and I triple up.

Tip of the hat to Shakti Gawain.

Finally, though, the clock wears down my stack to next-to-nada and I go all-in with ace-five off-suit and I’m trounced by a bigger ace. Six and a half hours into the tourney, I say “Good luck, everybody,” and take my Walk of Shame, not comforted by the fact that the vodka/pineapple-drunk car dealer from the Bronx has somehow managed to keep his seat longer than I.

Note to self: Next time get sloshed on pineapple-and-vodka. Maybe that’s the key to success in this game.

Casino buffet

WSOP’s Old Guy

By Sunday—day six of the Main Event—a quiet, church-like atmosphere prevailed; the Amazon Room had been transformed into the Cathedral of Poker. Pockets of light illuminated the remaining eight tables while spectators watched from the surrounding dimness.

There was some commotion, however, at the featured table where the oldest remaining player, Bill Cole, 72, of Murrieta, CA, was on a run of good luck. When his ace-king took down a huge pot against a youngster holding ace-queen, he leapt from his chair and shouted “Livin’ the dream!” and exchanged hugs with his small but vocal entourage.

You couldn’t help but root for the guy, but it wasn’t long before he shipped all his chips with ace-king of clubs (a reasonable move at that point) and lost to a pair of queens. It wasn’t a bad payday for the oldster: Finishing in 58th place, he took home $124,447.

Worst Bad Beat Ever?

This YouTube clip has been the buzz of the poker world, and for good reason. It occurred at WSOP’s Big One for One Drop, in which the buy-in was $1 million. Two players went E20Ci [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commonsall-in. Each held pocket aces. Statistically, this should have resulted in a chopped pot. But then there was that nasty heart on the river…

And you found me how?

The wonderful world of WordPress allows blog-keepers such as yours truly to monitor traffic. It also displays search terms, phrases that have led readers to Stone-Cold Nuts. Here are two recent examples, phrases that people typed into their search engines which, one click later, deposited them right here.

There’s this:

man won poker tournament of Adderall

And even better:

human nuts being cold

Speaking of nuts…

Overheard by my friend Zach Elwood at a Portland poker room: “I’m not impugning your manhood. I’m merely questioning your hand selection.”

Guest Post Numero Uno

I recently penned a guest post for YourPokerDealer.com in which I drew an analogy between the nuns of my youth and poker dealers. You can read it here: The Nun at the Table.