Ben Mezrich and the Boys of Poker
By Ben Mezrich
photography by melissa mahoney
|CENTER: Omar Amirane and Joshua Golden|
Which is why the endurance of our regular poker game seems spectacular.
Avery Poker, as it has become known over the years because many of the early games took place at an apartment at 1 Avery Place, actually began on the basketball court in The Sports Club/LA. Three guys—a Bob, a Bruce and a Matt—had started a small, regular poker tourney, when they overheard some other guys talking during a break in a pickup basketball game. The guys weren’t talking basketball; they were talking cards—not poker, actually, but blackjack. It turned out one of those guys was Jeff Ma, the MIT kid I had written about in Bringing Down the House, who, under the guise of Kevin Lewis, among other noms de plume, had taken the Vegas casinos for many millions of dollars. Although the movie adaptation, 21, wasn’t out yet, Jeff had already become a bit of a Boston institution because the book was everywhere, and just like his character in the second half of the movie, Jeff was the kind of person it was hard to ignore. Bob, Bruce and Matt invited Jeff and a few of his MIT card counting buddies to join their game, and Avery Poker was born.
Over the years, The Sports Club/LA became a feeding ground for the growing poker game; by the time Jeff Ma invited me to one of the games, there were a good 20 or 30 guys on the e-mail list that went out on a nearly weekly basis—usually when a girlfriend was out of town. The first time I was invited, I was more than a little nervous. It wasn’t a high-stakes game—just a $60 buy-in with a top prize usually around a few hundred dollars—but it was intimidating walking into a room full of guys I didn’t know. To top it all off, most of them had met each other at the gym or on the basketball court, so they were pretty much all bigger than me. Since high school, I’ve always had a deep suspicion of any guy over six feet tall (four years of getting stuffed inside a variety of lockers, trash bins and janitor closets because I weighed 85 pounds and have never caught or hit a ball thrown in my general direction in my entire life will do that). But then, psychologists will tell you that we spend much of our adult lives trying to relive high school in better fashion than we did the first time through—so here was a chance to hang out with the guys who would have beaten me silly 20 years ago.
I’d learned how to play poker as a kid, usually with M&M’s instead of chips. While writing Bringing Down the House, I’d been swept up in the game of blackjack, but that is a very different game than poker—it’s all about the numbers, the math. If you can count cards, you can have as much as a two-percent advantage—per hand—over the house. Poker is different: You don’t play against the house, you play against the other players. Poker is a mix of math and skill. The ability to read the other players at the table can often trump the statistical power of any given hand. Great card counters often make great poker players, but it’s certainly not a given. And I’m far from a good card counter; my math skills are passable at best, and when I traveled with Jeff and his cohorts on the MIT blackjack team, I was much better at strapping banded stacks of hundred-dollar bills underneath my clothes than keeping track of the running count.
So that first poker tournament at 1 Avery Place was like a new awakening for me, and the game itself was a real boiler—it came down to the very last hand. Some time after midnight, my eyes bleary and burning from trying to keep track of the cards and the chips, a thickly sweet scent of cigar smoke, cheap wine and spilled beer infiltrating the blasts of Freon-tinged air spitting out of the overtaxed air conditioning system, I was doing my best not to be distracted by one muscle-bound player who, after nearly turning over the table because of a bad beat, was now standing behind me grumbling about my lucky run of cards.
“You lucked out, Mezrich. You only had a four-percent chance of getting that queen on the river. You definitely should not have stayed in that hand.”
He was right, of course; I had gotten lucky. I had no idea the odds against my hand working out, but that was poker—sometimes you just got lucky. Beads of sweat erupted across my forehead. I was heads up against one remaining player—coincidentally, the host of that week’s game, a hedge fund impresario who wouldn’t give a damn about the $500 pot, but would certainly enjoy blowing me out of the water.