Ben Mezrich and the Boys of Poker

By Ben Mezrich
photography by melissa mahoney
October 10, 2011 | Home Page

9 - Ben Mezrich and the Boys of Poker
Ben Mezrich deals a hand in his Back Bay man cave

The bright-red symbols flash like fireworks the instant I lift the cards from the table, and the sight of them sets a burst of pure adrenalin coursing through my veins; it’s something primal and beautiful, wired right into the nervous system—a hypothalamic reaction that probably harkens all the way back to some Neanderthal hunter-gatherer instinct, vestigial and also really counter-productive; the last thing you need when you see a pair of cards like these is a blast of chemicals sweeping through the logic centers of your brain. Then again, I suspect even a Neanderthal would know what to do with the pair of aces now hanging from my trembling fingers. In Texas Hold-Em, it’s a killer hand, no matter how you play it.

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Sam Berger

I look across the table at the faces of the other players and their varying metropolises of colored chips. A few of the chip towers are intimidating, a few about the same as my own. But the truth is, the chips don’t really matter. This isn’t Vegas, and I don’t have a duffel bag full of cash tucked beneath my chair. This isn’t some late-night research jaunt for a book—although there are, indeed, at least two MIT kids at the table who have probably seen the interior of a dreaded casino “back room” more than once. This isn’t Vegas; this is a one-bedroom apartment in the Back Bay with Red Sox paraphernalia adorning the walls and empty wine and beer bottles stacking up along the kitchen counter. There are no pit bosses, cocktail waitresses or casino security goons—just nine friends at a table, a microwave oven with a digital display to keep track of the blinds, and a pile of twenty-dollar bills. It’s what we call a “regular game,” a uniquely American pastime, and we’ve been gathering together to play cards in similar apartments on a nearly weekly schedule for more than five years. The longevity of our game is probably not unique, but the makeup of our poker family is distinct; a somewhat amorphous cross section of guys spanning an age range of early 20s to early 50s, with jobs ranging from the highly professional to the sporadically unemployed, from u?ber-wealthy Web entrepreneurs and hedge fund magicians to actually homeless, struggling actors and jacks-of-no-trades. And yet somehow it all works; the game continues, one week bleeding into the next, even as our lives expand and contract, through engagements, breakups, marriages, even babies. The game remains a constant. Maybe the only constant, as real and true and predictable as the sudden thrill of the revealed aces in my hands.

Despite the books I’ve written, I’m no card expert—far from it. My wife, who is at the far corner of the table (the only girl in our group, not for lack of trying) has actually won more recently than I, utilizing her take-no-prisoners, fiercely aggressive betting style; quite simply, she bets like a Valkyrie, riding into every hand like her cards are a flaming sword, rather than what they usually are, barely suited connectors—and yet somehow, sometimes, it works. Myself, I’m an expert at placing third, which is to say, I don’t play to win. I play because this is my salon; I’ve never been accused of being a particularly literary author, and I’d be lost in some dark, smoky basement bar on the Left Bank of Paris, trying to trade bon mots with beret-wearing poets or scruffy artistes in leather motorcycle jackets. But here, at a makeshift card table in Boston, surrounded by guys wearing baseball hats and sweatshirts, I am at home.

The truth is, men don’t usually make friends after college. We might collect acquaintances, find similar souls to watch sporting events with or trade party invitations, but we’re pretty much finished acquiring friends by the time we’re legal to drink. It’s not that we don’t like having friends; it’s just that we take the world in stages, and it’s up to our first 20 years to accumulate the core friendships that will bolster us through the following decades. Our 20s are then free for what often devolves into an almost Arthurian quest for sex, then on to our 30s, sex giving way to a vastly more adult search for money, or at least a means to that end. In our 40s, we divide our time between food, children and television—but making real, lasting connections with other guys? It’s not something we expect, and when it happens, it can come as quite a shock.

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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.

Two cards remained and I had about 16 outs, but I was beginning to regret my decision to go all in with my suited ace-10.

“I think you’ve got nothing,” my opponent said, grinning behind his cards. He was trying to get a read, so I didn’t respond. He hadn’t played against me before, which was a huge advantage for me, because he didn’t know what my tells were. I could only hope he didn’t notice my hands shaking as the turn card fell.

An ace! My odds had changed. I now had two pair, because there was also a 10 on the board. It came down to the last card, which ended up another 10. I had a boat—a full house— and that was it: my first game, my first win.

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Tonya Mezrich and Jeff Glassman

I actually won the following two weeks—not by any use of skill, just by the way the cards were falling—and I was hooked. They say there is nothing worse for an addictive personality than winning a hand of cards, but this wasn’t about money or even my slight gambling addiction. This was about a group of guys that came together from different walks of life, a social setting that has evolved as we, the players, have shifted through a half-decade of adult life.

From the MIT card shark who went on to sell a company to Yahoo!, write his own book and get married, to the youngest in the group, who has started his own restaurant—twice!—it’s as eclectic a group of Bostonians as you’d ever hope to find. We have our share of successful lawyers, doctors and real estate magnates, but also a real variety of characters. One of the players was once known around town as the original “cougar hunter,” a struggling actor who lived out of a suitcase while bedding an array of paramours, to sometimes disastrous results. Another, a lawyer turned broker, was voted the “Best Body” in Boston by a local glossy. Another is a second-generation poker addict—his father plays in one of the most prestigious regular games on Martha’s Vineyard, involving big names like Larry David, John Henry and Ted Danson. At least three of our number—a major local nightclub owner, a bigtime personal injury attorney and a hedge fund partner—have played in the World Series of Poker, two of them making it into the money rounds. But even more interesting than the careers around the table is the other way life has intruded into the game: A sharing process, involving every phase of life, from first dates to engagements to weddings—over the years, it’s all come across that table, along with the seemingly infinite stream of cards.

There have been catastrophes as well. Lost jobs, ruined relationships, divorces, financial destruction—year after year, the ups and downs of life as a group of 30- to eventually 40-year-old mostly single guys came together. A few incidents certainly stand out. There was the night that one of the guys heavily sat down at the table, tossing a crumpled piece of paper to the felt. It was a devastating letter from a girl he’d recently broken up with that he’d been carrying around for at least a week—really, the kind of letter you only hear about in e-mail chains. All I remember about the letter is that it ended with the prediction that the guy “would die alone and miserable,” but it was truly like she’d taken a literary chainsaw to his psyche. He was so affected by the letter that he couldn’t put it down, and the evening shifted from a poker game to a psychological bull session, as a group of half-drunk, over-muscled guys tried to cheer up the former Back Bay Don Juan.

But it isn’t always hugs and kisses. At another game, after a bit of back-and-forth jibing turned ugly, one player threw himself over the table, grabbing another player in a choke hold. It took three rather large guys to break things up before anyone ended up in the hospital. A few weeks later, two of our players were nearly kicked out of The Sports Club/LA for instigating trouble on the basketball court. At least three of our number have been arrested on various charges over the years. Two have sold Internet companies for many millions of dollars. And still, the game continues. Traveling from apartment to apartment, week after week, and once in a while, even going on the road. The most memorable trip was certainly Vegas, ostensibly for a bachelor party for one of our troupe, but really to play more poker. The one we call Big Red had set us up in a penthouse suite at the Hard Rock, which is exactly as insane as it sounds. A working bowling alley, at least two full-time DJs, a pair of butlers, a 20-person hot tub, countless bedrooms, a full bar with bartender, a dance floor. Big Red himself is a trip: Having sold an Internet company out of his MIT dorm room at 18 for a couple of hundred million, he’s gone on to start many companies; he’s also transformed himself into one of the biggest high rollers in Vegas. I’ve seen Big Red rack up bar tabs at the Hard Rock nearing six figures, the Cristal running like a waterfall. He’s a living party, and also a genius, probably best defined by the quote he slung at me when I first met him: “Some people go to strip clubs to watch a dancer take her clothes off as she swings around the pole. I’m trying to calculate her center of gravity.” But when he visits our weekly game, he’s just another guy at the table, wondering what to do with a pair of fours or an inside straight draw.

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Robb D’Ambruos

Even so, when I see Big Red sitting at our regular game, I will always picture him back in Vegas, wandering onto the set of the movie 21 in the middle of filming. He’d been drinking for 48 straight hours, so he didn’t notice all the lights and cameras and crew standing around the roped-off area of the Red Rock Casino—or, for that matter, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess sitting at the fake blackjack table. He’d simply seen some cards and some girls who looked like cocktail waitresses, so he’d assumed it was fine to saunter past the ropes and take a seat right between Jim and Kevin. Then he tried to order a drink.

The director, stunned, took a full 30 seconds to scream “Cut!” Then he and I joined Big Red at the table to explain to him that this was, in fact, a movie set, and not a real blackjack table. He only grinned back at us: “Does that mean I’m not going to get that drink?”

After nearly screwing up a major Hollywood movie, Big Red owed me—and thus our regular game was in Vegas for the weekend, mostly on Big Red’s dime.

Late the second night of the weekend, about 10 of our group found ourselves in the poker room at the Bellagio. We couldn’t all fit at one table, so three of us sat down with a group of strangers and the cards started to fall. To my surprise, my very first hand gave me a full house on the flop—and I won a big stack. My second hand I drew a flush, winning again, easily. And then my third hand: a pair of kings. It was an almost impossible series of draws, and the whole table was now looking at me. One kid asked one of us what I did for a living; when he was told I’d written the book about the MIT card players, he glared at me and exclaimed: “I’m not playing with him!” He tossed his cards down on the table and stormed away, followed by the rest of the strangers, leaving just me and my two buddies from Boston, who were, by now, laughing out loud. They knew the truth, that I was a passable poker player at best, who had drawn three lucky hands. But then again, they’d been playing with me in our regular game for half a decade.

It was as good an illustration as I could have asked for: Poker isn’t always about poker, and as the table cleared, I could only laugh with my friends because a few days later I knew I’d be back in Boston, retelling the story at our regular game. And maybe, if I was lucky, I’d be telling the story while I looked down at a pair of bright red aces…

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