EPT12 Prague: The alien life on Planet Super High Roller

December 09, 2015

If you have any chance of objectively watching what’s happening on the stage under three unfiltered spotlights, you have to accept an uncomfortable reality:

This is not real life.

In front of you sit a few dozen men. A few look like big children. A couple could be your grandpa. They are impassive. Most of them appear they have contracted a terminal case of boredom, as if they were being forced to watch a replay of an old ball game they knew ended in an unsatisfying tie.

They look like real people. At breakfast today, one of the men ate two hardboiled eggs, a banana, and small omelet. Another has a photo of himself and his child on the lock-screen of his phone. Another is bedecked in sports paraphernalia. They could be your neighbors, your baristas, or your own children.

But this is not real life.

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What’s happening here is something like metaphysics, a concept you loosely understand but only insomuch as that it is something other people truly comprehend while you go about making sure you have paid your electric bill and checked the expiration date on your milk.

Put another way, this is not your real life. This is the life of people who are willing to withdraw €50,000 from their bank accounts and trade that cash for a small stack of poker chips. The vast majority of them will lose those chips and receive nothing in return but a couple of days of sedentary mental gymnastics.

And if you look closely enough, you will think to yourself, “These people don’t care about the money. I’m not sure they care about anything at all!”

You could be forgiven for thinking that, because, while the big cans overhead may burn like Hollywood spotlights, these men don’t care about being famous. They don’t have agents and publicists sitting in the wings. One, once asked to sit for a television interview, weighed the idea against getting an extra hour of sleep.

“My investors don’t care,” he said with the kind of emotion he’d reserve for a petulant child, “if I am on TV.”

They are not here to put on a show. They are not here to support a cause. They are not here to promote anything. They are here because, no matter how much it seems like they don’t, they do care about the money. If they are like you in any meaningful way at all, it’s that they have a job to do, and when they are on the job, they can’t afford to care about anything else. Not you. Not the media. Not the crush of wannabes all around them.

The difference is–the thing that makes these people nothing like you at all–is that every time they go to work, they are risking the price of a good car or a down payment on a home to play a game against the best of the best, the richest of the rich, and the people who get out of bed to care about a game with ruthless singularity. The difference is that they are not guaranteed a paycheck. The difference, as far as you, Joe Six Pack, and Amy House Wine are concerned, is that they don’t care if you are concerned.

These are the Super High Rollers.

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It’s a made-up term, a piece of hastily-conceived branding, and a label that would probably make the players themselves yawn with indifference. They are Super High Rollers because they play bigger than High Rollers. It’s like what happened with 7-11’s Big Gulp. At 32 ounces, it was once the biggest drink you could buy at the iconic American convenience store. Later, when big wasn’t big enough, 7-11 introduced the 44-ounce Super Big Gulp. In an act of unprecedented temerity, the marketing mavens at 7-11 HQ looked diabetes square in the face and declared it was time for the Double Gulp, a 64-ounce monument to American excess.

This, by and large, is what happened when poker got too big for its britches.

In another day and time, people who live in the real world shuddered at the reckless and imprudent nature of a poker game that cost $10,000 to enter.

“Who in his right mind,” the pearl-clutching public cried, “would risk ten thousand dollars on a card game?”

These are the same people who never saw the Double Gulp coming.

In the post-Moneymaker era when poker tournament fields climbed from a few hundred players to up to several thousand per event, it was possible to play a $10,000 tournament every few weeks. For people who played the game for a living, ponying up the $10,000 became as exciting as the McRib coming back to McDonald’s.

Within a few years, with televised poker drawing players and sponsors from all over the globe, the players of distinction gathered like moths over a sodium light when tournament directors began to host $25,000 buy-in events. Still, like the Super Big Gulp, $25,000 wasn’t going to be ostentatious enough.

The Australians were the first to take the buy-in to $100,000. In 2006, the first six-figure buy-in event drew ten players at the Aussie Millions. It began a decade of excess and exclusivity that even today makes the square world stare, rapt by the spectacle, bemused at a perceived indifference to the value of money.

For a time, the seats filled with a fascinating menagerie. At one table, you could find an old pro who made his millions the hard way, a hedge fund manager who might as well have been playing for matchsticks, and a young grinder trying to parlay his brand new poker championship into something bigger. Across the way there would be a couple of happy-go-lucky businessmen from Macau, the kind who could rent out entire hotel floors if it suited them.

It was a heady time, one awash with the kind of tension befitting such high stakes. Simply entering the tournament made a player a celebrity, and more than a few played the role with mirth.

This part–this time of ridiculous excess and careless disregard for money–almost made sense when looked at through a wide lens. It combined the human fascination with the lifestyles of the rich and famous with the still-booming televised poker industry. It was Housewives of Beverly Hills meets Who Wants to to be a Millionaire meets Survivor. It was Gilligan’s Island if all the characters had Thurston Howell’s bankroll.

At the same time, it was none of those things. In a game with so much at stake, attrition is a sharp-toothed nightmare, and by and by, those ill-suited for high stakes shark-fighting began to vanish. They gave Skipper a viking funeral. Gilligan ran off with Mary Ann. When it was done, it left us to watch the Professor and Thurston Howell play heads-up.

For reasons that people like us will never understand, the disappearance of the easy marks didn’t end the ridiculously high-stakes tournaments. These days, it’s harder to find a McRib than it is to find a Super High Roller event. It’s even harder to find a sucker in the game.

What no real-life people understand is–no matter how much the poker companies or TV people think they are driving the Super High Roller bus–the money is the only reason the players show up in the first place, and if they are going to take time out of their day to work, they might as well play the biggest game in town.

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Do they look scared?

So, it’s Prague in December. A time of Christmas markets, mulled wine, and schnapps to ward off Jack Frost. If you’re looking for festivity, look outside, and for the love of St. Nick, don’t look up on the stage at the European Poker Tour Prague Super High Roller.

This is no made-for-TV Christmas special. This is no reality show. This is something a doctor should check for a pulse. Everyone on the stage under the lights has divested himself of €50,000. Of the 46 people who sat down, only eight of them will make any money. The winner will bank more than €800,000. If you can find a man who looks like he cares, you, too, should win a prize.

There is no polite way to put it: on its face, it’s a tedious thing to observe. Even the most monumental moments, the kind that sends a man walking glumly from the room with no more chips, elicits little more than a low hum that sounds like a hard drive whirring in its case. The walking dead mumbles, “Good hand, Igor,” and shuffles away, resigned to the fact that, like the Earth’s rotation around the sun, there was no way to change the path his pocket tens took when facing pocket jacks.

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Igor Kurganov

Make no mistake, there is something interesting happening. Among the Super High Roller players, the collective IQ is something from science fiction. What spins in their heads is important and advanced but no easier to understand than quantum physics as applied to the human experience. Observers would love to wrap their heads around it, but it’s all happening in an inaccessible human vacuum, and there is no reality show producer storyboarding this, so good luck following the plot.

It’s the world’s most expensive entertainment program, and only the characters in it know what they hell is happening. Sort of like a David Lynch movie with less-relatable characters.

If it’s no longer easy entertainment, if it’s now only a game meant to enrich its players, it leaves one asking, “Who, pray tell, are these guys?”

While there is no single career arc of a Super High Roller, there is a profile that a behavioral analyst could build without much difficulty.

Today’s Super High Roller is young by real-world standards, if not a millennial then not too much older. With a few exceptions (notably Team PokerStars Pro Vanessa Selbst), the Super High Roller is male, a fulltime traveling poker pro, and almost always smarter than everyone in the room–and it doesn’t matter which room it is. As you might expect, they have little patience for dogmatic thinking and they will not suffer fools. Finally, while many have had help along the way, they are self-made men who have come up from the ranks of low rollers and made their bones among the best in the game. While they came from a world we know, they are aliens living among us, and they are in charge.

If you had to pick a poster boy for the Super High Rollers, you could make a good case for Steve O’Dwyer. Since beginning his live poker career eight years ago, O’Dwyer has won more than $11 million in poker tournaments. He’s 25th on the all-time poker money list and one of the USA’s Top 20 winningest players in history. In the last 13 months, he’s booked two Super High Roller victories in addition to the countless other events in which he’s cashed. He’s a workhorse who plays often all over the world, and he goes out of his way to avoid the trappings of fame and riches. While O’Dwyer is not the only one with Super High Roller success, he is certainly fit to stand as the small community’s representative to whatever intergalactic congress governs the rich and hyper-intelligent.

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Steve O’Dwyer

While O’Dwyer is content (and prefers) to let his results speak for themselves, he has not been shy about admitting he is not always playing on his own dime. O’Dwyer has people who rightly believe in his talent enough to put their money behind him. While no one on TV will ever have any reason to know, O’Dwyer also represents another truth about Super High Rollers: a good many of the players who sit down have not paid for their whole buy-in.

There are more than a few ways these players get in without personally putting up the full investment. Individual players have a backer or backers who pay some or all of their entry fees. Other Super High Rollers have formed syndicates (some well-organized, some less formal) to pool buy-ins and share winnings. Many players also trade small percentages of each other’s winnings to help reduce the variance of tournament poker. It keeps the game going and keeps the players in the game. How often does it happen? Only the players know, and they don’t have any incentive or obligation to say. Remember, the majority of them aren’t here for anybody but their investors and themselves.

While their numbers rarely grow, these people who don’t ask to be heroes inspire others of their alien breed. Dominik Nitsche is a ready example.

Six years ago, Nitsche was an 18-year-old German high school student who was trying to decide if he wanted to put off going to college for a few years to try out life as a poker pro. He still hadn’t decided what he wanted to do when he won more than $300,000 on the Latin American Poker Tour. Today he has more than $3 million in earnings, a World Poker Tour title, and three World Series of Poker bracelets. In 2009, he was reticent and almost bored by the idea of getting interviewed about one of the biggest wins in Latin American history. It wouldn’t be too many years before he took that attitude to the Super High Roller tables where he fits in perfectly. If we have to ask why, we wouldn’t understand the answer.


Dominik Nitsche

So, why then, in the face of such unabashed indifference, do any of us care? Why spend the time and effort to chronicle what is essentially a private game playing out on a pubic stage?

That question is harder to answer.

In just a few hours, the EPT Prague €50,000 Super High Roller will be down to the final table of eight players, and it’s very likely O’Dwyer will be among those players as they fight for a title. They won’t care if you watch. The winner may not even want to take the time to have himself photographed with the trophy. That’s not what you’d expect from someone who just won €800,000.

Over the past couple of decades, regular folks have become conditioned to expect their spectacles and celebrity to be writ large. Heroes weren’t content being simple heroes. They followed a sort of Dennis Rodman model that took talent and put a ring in its nose to make it more interesting. Before too many years, everyone staring at his TV expected everything to be bigger and scream, “I’m interesting!” Before long, things didn’t even have to be interesting anymore, as long as they were loud. Celebrity became easy, and it became disposable. The masses followed suit, and suddenly everybody was so loud that nobody could figure out what was interesting and what wasn’t. Just keep screaming, and the last one with a voice wins.

It’s become a world in which nuance and talent can be easy to overlook. By the standards of modern television, watching eight geniuses mentally eviscerate each other in robotic silence is not going to win any Emmy awards. And maybe that’s okay.

Because, while the Super High Roller may not be a game for a mass market televised audience, for people who truly love the game and how it’s played, these big money players are purveyors of high art. You can say what you will about whether they owe the game and its fans anything. It’s possible you might find their performances sort of boring and antithetical to the nature of the game you have come to expect. That’s fair, too, but in the end you can rest assured the J.D. Salingers and Thomas Pynchons of poker don’t give the first damn, because they are going to get paid regardless of what you think. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

And that may just make the Super High Roller the most interesting game in town.

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is the PokerStars Head of Blogging.



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