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April 16, 2014

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World Series of Poker shows new breed of poker pros

Popularity of game has led to legit card players popping up from all lines of work

Image

Steve Marcus

Darvin Moon, left, a 45-year-old logger from Maryland, holds up the arm of Joe Cada, a 21-year old Internet poker whiz kid from Michigan, after losing to Cada at the World Series of Poker on Nov. 10 at the Rio. Cada won $8.5 million.

Joe Cada wins WSOP

Joe Cada celebrates after winning the 2009 World Series of Poker at The Rio. Launch slideshow »

The thumbnail sketches of the two ultimate survivors at last week’s World Series of Poker final table were familiar to anyone who follows the game.

The heads-up clash pitted an Internet poker whiz kid (Joe Cada, the eventual champion) against a self-described rank amateur (runner-up Darvin Moon).

Poker players from both categories have achieved plenty of well-documented success in major tournaments.

It’s a separate archetype, though, that in recent years has drawn the attention of poker veteran Billy Baxter, for decades a respected Las Vegas professional gambler.

“The game is dominated by a new breed of poker player,” Baxter said during the windup of this year’s World Series of Poker at the Rio. “One thing I have noticed is that some of the most successful people in the world in other lines of business now become poker players.

“You see people who made a fortune in the business world and they say, ‘Now I want to play poker.’ They look at it as a great challenge.”

Certainly wealthy individuals from other fields have always tried their hand at high-stakes poker.

Poker pros used to commonly call them “producers” — though Baxter believes that somewhat derogatory term might not be accurate in characterizing members of this “new breed,” who study the finer points of the game relentlessly and have the results to show for it.

At this year’s World Series final table, two of the nine competitors — Antoine Saout and Jeff Shulman — were officially considered semiprofessionals.

Two of the three amateurs at the table, however, could belong to the category of player described by Baxter: Steven Begleiter, a principal at a private equity firm in New York City; and Kevin Schaffel, who has been playing poker for 40 years and recently closed a business he owned and operated for 30 years.

“Poker really is like a second life for many of them,” said Baxter, who has won seven World Series tournament championship bracelets. “It’s another example of how poker has finally arrived after so many years of being seen as a seedy, backroom activity.”

And even in the age of Internet poker, with high-stakes action available 24 hours a day online, “hometown champions” — as they have always been called — still make their way to Las Vegas to try to match their skills against high-rolling professionals.

It’s a trend that has continued unabated virtually since the inception of poker in the city, according to Doyle Brunson, who has won 10 World Series bracelets.

“People who want to gamble and who can afford it, they’re kind of the nucleus of the high-stakes games,” Brunson said. “Then there’s always the hometown champion who wants to come in and take a shot. Every town’s got a champion and they like to test themselves.”

How do those hometown champs fare in the big cash games with Las Vegas professionals?

“Sometimes they stick,” Brunson said, “and sometimes they don’t.”

Jack Binion, who popularized the World Series of Poker and became one of the most influential figures in tournament poker history, said the game’s cerebral and egalitarian qualities will drive its continued growth.

“The way I look at it, if you’re not out there on the golf course every day breaking par, then you know you have no chance against the best professional golfers out there,” Binion said. “Players see poker as a different kind of endeavor because it’s a mental game rather than a physical game.

“It’s viewed as a game where everybody’s got a chance.”

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