Commentary

It all began at the Mayfair Club

Updated: February 2, 2011, 7:57 AM ET
By Gary Wise | Special to ESPN.com

For talent to translate into results, its possessor must learn how to wield it. Regardless of the activity, it's inevitable that the more one interacts with the genius and wisdom of others, the more those facets are going to rub off. That byproduct comes with exposure to those who have already figured out those tricks or, at least, others who have figured out other puzzle pieces.

Poker used to be a game where knowledge was power that was not to be shared. There was no table-side chatting about how a hand had played out; there were no Web forums where players asked and answered poker questions earnestly. There was you, plus the cards and the hands you'd played before this one, along with the lessons you'd learned hard in your journey to this moment. At the Mayfair Club in New York, things were different. It was a place where mutual respect for games and their players led to many-headed analysis before such things were the norm.

[+] EnlargeMayfair
Stephanie MooreSix Mayfair Club regulars -- (left to right) Jay Heimowitz, Howard Lederer, Mickey Appleman, Dan Harrington, Steve Zolotow and Mike Shichtman -- were brought together for an episode of "Poker After Dark."

That seems the most likely explanation for how the players of the Mayfair gained their edge. Late in 2010, a spotlight was shone on this small place with a small piece of poker history when two of its alumni, Erik Seidel and Dan Harrington, were inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. Both men agreed that they wouldn't have found enshrinement if their paths hadn't passed through the Mayfair.

A decades-long gaming institution, the Mayfair found poker only in its final two decades.

"Initially, the Mayfair was purely a bridge club," recalled longtime member Steve Zolotow. "People played a little rummy, but it was mostly a bridge club. The guy who ran it was Harry Fishbein, kind of a crazy, funny guy. By the time I really started playing there, though, Al Roth was running it. He was a superstar bridge theorist. If you could imagine Mike Matusow or Phil Hellmuth as a bridge player, that was Al Roth."

Roth was a magnet for the finest bridge minds in the world, including longtime partner Tobias Stone and a scrawny kid named Stu Ungar. It was Stone who first brought backgammon to the club, bringing with it a new wave of gamers with new skill sets. Amongst them was Paul Magriel, the world's foremost 'gammon expert at the time, who showed an unabashed willingness to share his thoughts on any situation. With that kind of openness available at the Mayfair from the leading players of multiple games, its denizens moved to a new level. For the next decade, the 'gammon players took what their bridge counterparts taught them and, armed also with Magriel's superior mathematical understanding of his game, dominated the world's tournament scene. With intellectual exchange as the root of such a successful culture, the stage was set for the Mayfair denizens to explore their next challenge: poker.

Depending on who you ask, it was either Seidel or Zolotow who introduced poker to the Mayfair. Regardless of the origins, it's agreed upon that it started with small, heads-up matches using backgammon pieces for chips and that it was quickly embraced. Roth, not a fan of the game, tolerated it, and the Mayfair's entrance fee was the same regardless of the purveyor's game of choice.

Once poker became a regular activity, the Mayfair players attacked it as they would any other game.

"Many of us came from many backgrounds," Zolotow remembered. "If you saw poker in the movies, it was about cheating and outmaneuvering. At the Mayfair, we practiced high ethical standards. If cheating was a part of your background, you'd be told the purity of the game was so important to us."

With that code in place, they started to dissect the game. They'd gather at 2 in the afternoon, play until 2 in the morning, and then go for drinks and discuss the day's action with enthusiasm and intellect. Seidel, Harrington, Zolotow, Howard Lederer, Jason Lester, Jay Heimowitz … these were only some of the names known to today's poker generation who found their poker educations in this manner.

"It was an amazing place," Lederer reminisced. "I wouldn't be the person I am without it. I was a $5/$10 limit hold 'em player playing private games in New York and having modest success. Someone told me I should give Mayfair a try and a whole world opened up to me. It was chock-full of world champion bridge and 'gammon players and a bunch of very smart, successful Wall Street people. Driven, rigorous guys who had a way of approaching various activities with the objectivity you need to be world-class at something. I'd never been exposed to that. Now, all these people were then looking at a new game and applying the things that had made them successful in other endeavors. That was an amazing thing. I think we were all incredibly fortunate to be there."

In addition to the learning culture, the environment in the club provided inspiration. "The thing about the Mayfair is that it was a world into which you could disappear," said Brian Koppelman, a Mayfair regular. "Once you were at the table, you wouldn't look up again until it was morning. It felt like walking into a Martin Scorcese movie. It was a New York that you always thought, but could never prove, existed -- and you walked in and found the proof. It's 100 percent true that without the Mayfair, there wouldn't have been a 'Rounders.' The Chesterfield is the Mayfair."

Koppelman was so inspired that he used the Mayfair as inspiration in co-writing "Rounders," a film some credit with being a major step in poker's pop-cultural evolution. He goes so far as to say the Mayfair was the inspiration for the film's Chesterfield club. Some of the denizens, however, don't feel the movie version did the Mayfair justice.

"'Rounders' did and it didn't represent the Mayfair," reasoned Ingrid Weber, the inspiration for the film's Petra character.

Weber was hired to run the club after Roth sold to poker enthusiast and businessman Mike Shichtman. "Brian and I are friends, and I understand the need to make it seedier and more interesting in that way on the screen. If everything in movies was depicted as is, we'd all fall asleep. The Mayfair was cleaner and classier than the Chesterfield. If the Mayfair consisted of the type of players who were stereotypes, I wouldn't have lasted a week. It was the stimulating people who kept me interested."

Despite its long run and historical connections with the city, the Mayfair was closed down in 2000 thanks in large part to new policies introduced by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. With many of the poker celebrity mainstays already having moved on to Las Vegas, the remaining members of the Mayfair community were left without a home and New York was left without a rich piece of its history. Poker clubs have popped up since, but none of them match the Mayfair for pedigree, history or culture.

The Mayfair inspired "Rounders," it gave Stu Ungar his start and it produced some of poker's biggest stars. More than that though, it provided a blueprint for success in poker through cooperation in the pooling of resources. The pros who got their start there recognize that their sums exceed the part they brought to the table. It's that truth that made it a part of poker history.

Gary Wise has contributed to ESPN.com since 2007. He is well-studied in the history of poker and presents a unique tableside view of the goings-on in the poker community. Google author profile

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