Every holiday season, I head back with my family to Wisconsin (Madison and Milwaukee) to celebrate with my parents, my brothers and sisters and their families. We come from northern California, Minneapolis, New York, Austria and Italy. It is a special time for the Hellmuth family, and it has been our custom for more than 20 years. Along with my family tradition comes another tradition: The Wisconsin pot limit hold ’em home game with my friends. The blinds are $5-$5, and the buy-in is $1,000, with $500 re-buys. The game plays bigger than it sounds, and we allow $10, $20, $40 and $80 “straddles.”
A straddle is a voluntary blind that allows the person who places the extra blind to raise it up when the action comes back to him. A straddle makes no sense at all as a winning play. But it does promote extra action, and it also doubles the size of the game. Of course, when you’re losing a lot of money, doubling the size of the game can be useful. It may make you an even bigger loser, but it gives you a better chance to get even.
I’ll tell the story the way I always tell it. At one memorable World Series of Poker tournament in 2003, Freddy Deeb and Marcel Luske bluffed me a combined total of 17 times. They laughed at me, then they laughed some more, but I gave them credit. They truly had outplayed me many times that day. But those were all border skirmishes (small pots). My plan was to win the war, not all the battles. When I hit the final table that day, I was the chip leader. I know what you’re thinking: How could Phil let Deeb and Luske bluff him 17 times and still be holding the chip lead? Since I let them win so many of the small pots, they were confident they could outplay me all day long. Finally, when I did have the goods, I picked off a Luske bluff to double up. In one stroke, I won back all the money he had bluffed from me.
Though the rest of the world hates to be outplayed and bluffed, I don’t much mind, for two reasons. First, I’m looking to put my chips into the pot when I’m super-strong, and because this doesn’t happen very often, I’m forced to fold a lot of hands while waiting for the strong ones. Second, by folding a number of hands, I give the other players the illusion that I’m a “weak player,” someone who folds a lot, someone who can be bluffed. Then, when I do have the hand I’ve been waiting for, I check to my now empowered opponents, who take their usual “I can bluff Phil out of the pot” stance and make their big bluffs. But this time I called them down and hauled in a huge pot.
On Sunday, Dec. 9, Godsmack’s lead singer, Sully Erna, entered a $500 buy-in satellite tournament at the Bellagio for the $5,000 buy-in event on Monday. Erna was looking for action, and the board (waiting list) for the no-limit side games was just too long, so he hopped into the satellite, and won it, which gained him entry into the big tournament the next day. If you’re not sure who Erna is, Godsmack’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” is all over the radio, and may be No. 1 by the time you read this article. At the end of day one, with 15 remaining players, Erna had the chip lead. By the time I received a text from him on day two, he was the chip leader at the final table, and first place was more than $500,000.
I had worked with Erna for three days the week before — Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — on my new reality program called the “Best Damn Poker Show,” as I drafted him for “Team Hellmuth.” Although Erna is a skilled poker player, he never had any formal training or lessons. Somehow, he never had read a book or watched a DVD on how to play no-limit hold ’em. During “Best Damn Poker Show,” I had the chance to watch Erna’s hole cards from the booth over the course of several hours.
On Nov. 27, at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, Layne Flack entered the opening event — a $1,500 buy-in, no-limit, hold-’em tournament with 472 players — of the Bellagio’s Five Diamond Poker Tournament.
Throughout the day, Flack text-messaged me that he had the chip lead. By 9 p.m. (the tournament started at noon), he text-messaged: “I still have the chip lead. Wire to wire, baby.” At 10 p.m., with the average chip stack at $27,000, Flack still had the lead with $160,000 in chips. That’s when Flack finally surrendered the chip lead over the course of two big pots.
With the blinds at $500 to $1,000, and a $200 ante, Nick Binger made it $3,600 to go with A-J. Flack, sitting in the big blind with Qs-8s, called $2,600 more. The flop was Q-8-2, and both players checked. On the turn, the 10d came off, and Flack led out for $9,000. Binger studied for a long time, then moved all-in for around $30,000 total. Flack called him quickly, and Binger needed a nine or a king on the last card to complete a straight — and the river didn’t disappoint him as a king came off.
“High Stakes Poker” on Game Show Network is a one-hour television program that is basically a high-stakes, no-limit Hold ’em cash game, where the minimum buy-in is $100,000. We shot 12 episodes of “HSP” over three days. On Day 2, the players were: Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu, Jennifer Harman, Sammy Farha, Bob Safai, Eli Elezra, Brandon Adams, Jamie Gold, and, of course, yours truly.
With the blinds at $300-$600, we had two noteworthy pots come up. But before I begin telling the tale of these two hands, I should add that almost every pot had the “live $1,200” blind on it, which means that the player to the left of the blinds voluntarily put up $1,200 as a third blind, and that that player then retained the option of raising it up. A “live blind” — sometimes referred to as a “straddle” — doubles the size of the game. It is often employed by someone losing a lot of money who’s hoping to get lucky and win a big pot.
Last Monday night, I was watching an episode of “High Stakes Poker” on the Game Show Network. This was a special session where the buy-in was $500,000, and they encouraged the players to bring pounds of cash to the table. Can you imagine the $50,000 “bricks of cash” (five $10,000 packets of $100 bills, all wrapped together) piled high in front of each player? It was quite a sight to behold. And can you imagine the size of some of the pots? After all, more than one player bought in for $1 million.
Let’s just say this: It was a good day to get lucky.
We shot “HSP” over three days, filming three eight-hour sessions. Each session was turned into four one-hour television shows, and three days of filming turned into 12 episodes of “High Stakes Poker.” Personally, I played the first two days — when the buy-in was $100,000 — but I skipped the $500,000 buy-in, even though I was up $300,000 after the first two days of play. Risking $500,000 in one hand seems a little bit crazy — even to a guy like me.