Dispatches from the Creation Wars

A Book Review

I just finished reading The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King, by Michael Craig. If you have any interest in poker at all, I highly recommend that you get this book. I devoured it in about 24 hours and enjoyed every moment of it. Having read many of the gossipy reports about this series of games over the last few years, I was happy to get the real story in a great deal more detail than I’d gotten before. It’s the story of a remarkable series of poker games that took place between a billionaire banker named Andy Beal and a collection of the best poker players in the world.

One of the things in the book that I was totally unaware of is that Andy Beal was born in my hometown of Lansing, Michigan. He started several businesses by the time he was out of high school and eventually ended up in a major real estate deal that took him to Texas. Eventually he started the Beal Bank, which made him a billionaire. He’s also a math genius, with a major math problem, the Beal Conundrum, named after him. When he first showed up in Vegas to take on the pros in 2001, the rumor mill in the poker world exploded. This book clears up many of those rumors and shows what was going on behind the scenes as the pros risked virtually their entire collective net worth in an attempt to enrich themselves against this wealthy amateur.


Beal first began playing in an 80/160 game (a game where the minimum bet was $80 and the maximum bet was $160) at the Bellagio, then moved to the largest game going at the moment, a 400/800 game. The legendary “Big Game” at table one was not going at the time as the top pros were playing elsewhere. That game at the time played at limits as high as 2000/4000, but at those stakes it was only an occasional game. He was playing against Mike Laing and Todd Brunson and doing pretty well, but he wanted to play for higher stakes.

Brunson said he’d be happy to play him for higher stakes, but wasn’t quite prepared when Beal told him what he meant by higher: 10,000/20,000. That was higher than any game ever played at the Bellagio, higher than any cash game ever played as far as anyone knows. Brunson told him that if he came by tomorrow afternoon, he’d try to round up some players who wanted to play at that level. The cell phones of the top players in the world began buzzing immediately. Word that a fabulously rich amateur player wanted to play for huge stakes was like tossing a bloody steak into the water; the sharks immediately began to circle.

The next day, Beal was sitting at table one playing 1000/2000 with a collection of the best cash-game players in the world – Doyle Brunson, Chau Giang, Jennifer Harman, Todd Brunson, John Hennigan and Chip Reese. Beal kept insisting on pushing the stakes higher and higher until they reached 4000/8000, and he actually won over $100,000 on that first impromptu trip. It would be just a small beginning to what ended up being the most remarkable series of matches in the history of the game.

Though Beal had done well, he knew it was mostly because of luck. He was getting good cards and it was only a short couple of days. But his interest was piqued and his competitive fires were stoked. When he got home to Dallas he told his assistant to order the 15 best selling poker books on Amazon and he read them all. Concerned that the top pros could easily work against him, he decided that the best strategy was to play heads up against only one at a time so there was no collusion possible. The problem was that the casino wouldn’t allow it. Under Nevada Gaming Commission rules, they could not prevent players from sitting down at a table if there’s an open seat.

Beal pleaded with the higher ups at the Bellagio, but they told him that there was no legal way they could require that only two players play at a table. So he turned to Doyle Brunson, who came up with a way to do it. There were only so many players with the bankroll to play at those stakes, less than 20. He canvassed them and got them to agree to pool their bankrolls and play a series of heads up matches against Beal. If all those players would agree not to sit down in the game, Beal could have his heads up matches.

The first group consisted of Brunson, Chip Reese, Jennifer Harman, Howard Lederer, Chau Giang, David Grey and John Hennigan. They agreed to put together a one million dollar bankroll and they would play a freezeout for it (play until one player has the full $2 million on the table) at stakes of 10,000/20,000. Chip Reese would be the first player to take him on. The problem was that one of the pros who certainly would have wanted in on the arrangement, Ted Forrest, had been out of town and Brunson was unable to contact him.

Forrest was driving back to Las Vegas from LA, where he had been playing poker, and he called the Bellagio poker room, as he always did, to see if there was a big enough game going to pique his interest. When the high stakes brush told him that the highest game going was 10,000/20,000, he thought he’d misheard it. But no, that was the game, and Forrest drove straight to the Bellagio, got $500,000 out of his safe deposit box and sat down at the table with Reese and Beal. And he promptly won over $1 million, all of it from Beal.

After Forrest got home, he got a call from Doyle explaining that they had an arrangement and asking if he wanted in on it. He certainly did. Beal, meanwhile, wanted a rematch with Forrest the next afternoon, heads up. And he wanted to double the stakes to 20,000/40,000. Forrest was more than happy to up the ante and the next day he took another $2 million from Beal. Afer that, Beal wanted to play against Jennifer Harman, who took another million dollars from him. Next he tried his luck with Howard Lederer, who promptly took another million from him in less than 3 hours. Beal decided it was time to go home.

He wouldn’t be gone long.Three weeks later, he was back at the Bellagio, sitting at table one and playing a full table game of 4000/8000. The waiting list filled in as players like Johnny Chan and Barry Greenstein flew in from LA just to take a shot at Beal’s money. He pushed the stakes as high as 10,000/20,000, the largest full table game ever played. Beal broke even in that game, but it convinced him that if he was going to beat the pros, the best chance was in heads up matches. He headed back to Dallas intent on improving his game and coming back for more. It would be 9 months before that happened.

When he returned, in December of 2001, he was much improved. In fact, he beat a succession of the top players one after another over the course of 4 days, taking millions from Harman, Brunson, Giang, Hennigan and Forrest. At one point, Doyle told Beal that they were broke and he should go back to Texas. Beal wanted to keep playing, so Brunson told him he’d try and get something together for the next day. The plan was to get another $1.5 million together and have Howard Lederer play Beal.

Beal woke up early and went down to the poker room, where Ted Forrest and Chau Giang had been up all night playing. Forrest looked like hell and had been up for over 24 hours, but he agreed to play Beal with the group’s money, and even agreed to double the stakes to 20,000/40,000. And he promptly won back $3.4 million of the group’s money before handing it over to Lederer in exhaustion. That left the group still about $2 million behind for the week. Lederer proceeded to continue that streak and before the day was done, Beal had given back all of their money plus some. In a day and a half, the pros went from $5.5 million down to a small profit. Beal left town again, this time telling Chip Reese that he was done with poker.

He wasn’t done. He came back to Vegas at least 3 more times, and each time he had a substantial lead over the pros and had them no the ropes only to see them come back from the brink of disaster. The stakes kept going up. At one point they were playing a staggering 100,000/200,000. The last time he was in Vegas was actually after the book was written, but Craig describes what happened in a forum post here. This was in February of this year.

Beal had the pros playing as low as 30,000/60,000 and as high as 50,000/100,000, and he had their entire $10 million bankroll. They had to scramble to come up with more money to keep playing and they put Phil Ivey into the game. Over the course of 3 days, Ivey won $16.6 million from Beal for a tidy profit of over $6 million. After the game, Beal announced, again, that he was done with poker forever. I don’t believe him and I bet the pros don’t either.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book. There are so many behind the scenes details about the players and the personalities, and a lot of great stories that demonstrate the kind of pathology required to gamble at those kinds of stakes and keep your sanity. Well worth reading for anyone who likes poker and unusual people.

Comments

  1. #1 Kenneth Fair
    October 23, 2006

    It’s the Beal Conjecture, by the way.

  2. #2 Jeff Hebert
    October 23, 2006

    I’ve been thinking of picking this up for a while now, thanks for the reminder Ed. I went out at lunch and bought a copy, can’t wait to tuck into it.