- Steve Rosenbloom, ESPN Poker Club
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The setting is the Arena Football League celebrity poker table, and among the players with chips are Mike Ditka and Phil Hellmuth -- Da Coach and Da Poker Brat. This ought to be good.
Hellmuth looks down to find pocket queens. With cheerleaders looking over his shoulder, Ditka draws pocket kings.
"I'm all-in,'' Ditka says.
"Bluffing, coach?'' Hellmuth asks.
Ditka smirks, and then the cheerleaders go into a routine with the chant, "Pocket kings! Pocket kings! Go, kings!''
Hellmuth mucks his cards as he says, "Thanks, ladies.''
"Don't you girls have a game to go to?'' Ditka asks with no little disgust.
The scene is one of a series of commercials featuring Hellmuth and big names from the Arena League to promote the sport and its Arena Bowl championship game in Las Vegas in June.
Another spot features Ditka, a co-owner of the Arena League's Chicago Rush, and Hellmuth starting an argument, with Ron Jaworski, who has a piece of the Philadelphia team, dressed as a referee and throwing a flag on the table to penalize Ditka. Naturally, Ditka starts getting into it with Jaworski, who throws out Ditka, and for poker fans, the wonderful irony is that it's the Poker Brat who calmly ends the commercial by asking for security because it was another player who was throwing a fit.
"He's a hell of a guy to hang around with,'' Ditka says of Hellmuth. "He's a nice guy, for one thing.''
But wait. That's not what Ditka thought when he first watched Hellmuth's act on television -- the interpretative dance that usually sends chairs flying when he's not dressing down a player, something the coach of the Super Bowl champion 1985 Bears knows a thing or two about.
"I thought he was an [expletive],'' the erstwhile Mt. Ditka said of the still-active Mt. Hellmuth. "But after you meet him, he isn't. It's all an act. It's a little thing he does. It's how he plays the game.''
Ditka knows about playing games, too. Gambling is certainly not a foreign concept. He's a spokesman for the Majestic Star Casinos in Indiana and he has been known to unwrap his bankroll at blackjack, craps, gin and golf.
Now, though, Da Coach is playing da game that a lot of the planet is playing.
"We play up here once a week,'' Ditka says as he devours the better part of a cow upstairs in his Chicago restaurant, Iron Mike's. "It's a nice little game.
"I play with my buddies. We throw in $500 and have eight guys. That's $4,000. The winner gets $3,000 and the second guy gets $1,000. It's a good game. These guys know what they're doing. We've played a couple of times, and I've done pretty well. I ended up second and won once.''
Hmmm, can you admit running a poker game in your joint without fear of getting busted?
"Tell them we're running a prostitution ring up here, too,'' Ditka cracks. "Hey, if that's the best that people in this town have to do -- worry about somebody playing a card game -- there's no money on the table.''
The attraction of hold'em for Ditka is the attraction it has been for the crush of new players all over.
"Anybody -- anybody -- can play,'' Ditka says. "You don't have to go to school to play. You don't have to have anything to play. Anybody can play. That's why people related to Fridge [William 'The Refrigerator' Perry]. Every overweight person in America related to Fridge because if he can do it, I can do it. That's what you think when you watch those guys.''
But that's not the case at all, and Ditka knows it.
"I'll be damned if I can get an idea of what they're doing because I haven't gotten to the next stage of 'What does he have?' and 'What can I make him think I have?''' Ditka says. "I'm more like an open book.''
Could've guessed that. I mean, what kind of poker face could the former screaming, swearing, clipboard-breaking coach actually have?
"Here's what I do,'' Ditka says, lowering his voice, leaning in and creating the fear of Full-Metal Mike in your face. "I tell them, 'Don't screw around; I got it.' I do that all the time. I tell them, 'Don't go there, because I got it.' And I do that when I don't have a hand.''
Ditka's recent education in hold'em has taught him a couple things.
"The worst thing in that game is to have the second-best hand,'' Ditka says. "Because if you have a bad hand, you're not playing it. If you have the second-best hand, you're going to get beat. That's it. And you may go broke.''
The other thing Ditka has learned is the power of the all-in move.
"The all-in bet is an amazing thing,'' he says. "I've seen guys you can't figure out. They'll go all-in and they've got something. Or they go all-in and they've got nothing and they bluff you out of the pot because you know if your hand's not that strong, you won't play it. You might have a pair of 10s and that might the winner, but you ain't going against an all-in bet.''
OK, Coach, so if anybody -- anybody -- can play, what about you playing in the World Series of Poker main event?
"Once they know you're a novice, the players come out of the wall,'' Ditka says. "They drop down on you.''
Turns out, Ditka has other ideas for poker.
"They wanted me to host a poker party with retired athletes -- Hall of Fame and otherwise, Hollywood actors, that kind of stuff,'' he says. "They talked about talking about sports while we're playing poker. It ain't going to happen. Nobody would do it. We're not going to talk football and baseball while we're playing poker. Forget about it.
"So, I said, 'You want to do something? Get eight, 10 tables with eight guys each -- celebrities, athletes, retired guys, musicians -- and play down to a championship table. You'll get the sponsorship for it. You'll get the TV for it. I'm talking about Johnny Bench, Dan Marino, whoever. You come down to a final table and run that for eight or 10 weeks on ESPN or Fox Sports Net, and you're going to have a hell of a show. You're going to get sponsorship. I think Wynn wants to do it. That's what I want to do. The winner gets a bunch, and you do it for charity.''
Of course, you don't have to do it for charity. What about these big names putting up their own cash? We're talking about competitors, after all. I mean, you can't be a Hall-of-Famer without being one.
"I would put up my own money,'' Ditka says. "If the buy-in was $10,000, I'd buy in for $10,000.''
You'd have to find a lot of celebrities who think they can play, and for one, Marino has no poker chops.
"Yeah,'' Ditka says with a smirk, "but he's got a lot of money.''
Sounds like Ditka is about to drop down on Marino.
Steve Rosenbloom's book "The Best Hand I Ever Played" is available at bookstores everywhere. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he is also author of a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. To leave Steve some feedback or ask him a question for his column, check out his mailbag.
2dKevin Van Valkenburg