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Monday, May 10, 2004
Updated: May 11, 4:12 PM ET
When the bank bluffs

By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

All life is 6-5, against.
-- Nick the Greek

LAS VEGAS -- The late Nick the Greek was a degenerate gambler, for sure. He also said, "The best thing is winning a bet; the second best thing is losing a bet." But he was not without wisdom. If the feeble first stirrings of my career as Page 2's high-stakes poker pro are any indication, all life is truly at least 6-5 against.

The worst came early on. In my first tournament at Binion's legendary Horseshoe Casino -- a $225 buy-in, super-satellite, no-limit event with about 200 entrants (the top 8-to-10 finishers would win free seats in the $10,000 World Championship event with a first prize of about $3 million) -- I was sitting with one lonely chip in front of me when management decided to break up our table. They sent the survivors to fill out other tables where various players had been busted. Since everybody but me would be moving along to their new tables with 10-to-100 chips each, the potential for embarrassment was already great.

Moreover, to make matters worse, the Horseshoe has a rule that you cannot just pick up your chips -- or chip, in my case -- and move to another table. No, you have to use a rack, which has room for 100 chips.

So I looked pretty amateurish showing up at my new table with one lousy chip, which was rattling around in a plastic slotted rack the size of a small beer cooler. To make matters worse, I noticed that the empty seat at my new table would place me right next to Chip Jett, only one of the 25 best players in the world. At the same table sat Mel Judah, a former hairdresser from Australia who had recently won a $1 million-plus World Poker Tour event, patiently nursing a short stack until he could eliminate T.J. Cloutier, only the biggest tournament money-winner in history, and dot-com multi-millionaire Paul Philips, himself the recent winner of the second-most lucrative tournament in poker history.

As I attempted to slide into my seat while attracting as little attention as possible, my chip slid toward the edge of the rack. Before I could grab it -- I was also clutching my note pad, a pen, some PR handouts and other accoutrements of the journalist's trade -- it fell to the floor, bounced once or twice and landed under the chair of the startled Jett. Reaching down, he retrieved the chip, looked at my empty tray, and said, "What, they only gave you one rack to bring that pile over here?"

Have you ever heard Emo Phillips' classic stand-up routine about the definition of infinity? I'll paraphrase:

You're on the checkout line at a supermarket. There are 100 people in front of you at the only checkout counter that is open. They are all at least 80 years old, have four carts full of groceries, and are clutching hundreds of discount coupons apiece. It's the first day on the job for the checkout girl, and she doesn't speak any English. Add 15 minutes to that, and you've got "eternity."

Well, excuse me, but I estimated my chances of winning this tournament at about infinity-to-1. And, sure enough, after I pulled a couple of miracles out of my ... oh, never mind where ... to run my sad little stack up to about $800, I went all-in on a pair of threes before the flop. Judah picked me off with a pair of sixes that held up.

Nothing amazing about that -- pocket sixes will beat pocket threes more than 80 percent of the time. But did he have to take me down without even a sideways glance? (He was talking to a rather attractive onlooker, perhaps making elaborate dinner plans that would be paid for with my entry fee.) And I thought the great poker players were supposed to be distinguished by, among other things, their ability to let nothing at the poker table escape their notice. That's what the literature strongly suggests.

The one chip that did Jay Lovinger in.
I slunk (or is that slinked? or slank?) away unnoticed, blissfully unaware that things were about to go downhill. Fast.

The next day, I stopped at a Bank of America branch to cash a personal check from my bankroll account. Because it was a Fleet Bank account, I figured there would be no problem, since Bank of America owns Fleet. Silly me. Though any bank in the world can wire any amount of money to any other bank in the world in nano-seconds, Bank of America's computer system apparently is not hooked up with Fleet's computer system; and so the largest check they would cash was for $250. And they made that sound like it was some kind of personal favor just for me. Somehow, I failed to persuade the manager to whom I spoke that this was absurd.

Luckily, however, the Horseshoe was willing to cash a much larger check for me ... as long as TeleCheck guaranteed it. After a few anxious moments -- the address on my New York State driver's license does not match the address on my checks, because I just moved -- TeleCheck okayed the transaction.

And so, under the delusion that my checking account was in good standing with the almighty TeleCheck, I returned to the Horseshoe two days later, planning to enter my first major tourney -- a $1,500 buy-in, no-limit event -- by cashing a $2,000 check.

TeleCheck said no.

We tried a $1,000 check.

Again, TeleCheck said no.

A $500 check, perhaps?

TeleCheck would not be moved.

They sent back a "Code 3." Never heard of Code 3? Neither had I or anybody at the Horseshoe. But, as it turns out, a Code 3 says, in part, "TeleCheck has no negative information related to you in its files ... (however) your check has exceeded the maximum dollar amount, the maximum number of checks written (during) a certain time period, or otherwise falls beyond the parameters set by TeleCheck's decisioning system for acceptance (author's italics).

Yeah, I have no idea what it means, either. But when I called TeleCheck for an explanation, all I got was a recorded message that suggested I write them a letter if I had any problem with their service.

Unfortunately, my ATM card also has a daily limit, which was nowhere near enough to get me into the tournament in time. I could have taken a cash advance against my company credit card, but the interest rates would have made Shylock blush. And, if I tried to expense one of those babies, it would undoubtedly cause the entire Disney bookkeeping system to implode.

So, in desperation, I went to Nolan Dalla, the media director for the World Series of Poker, who is not only a very nice man but a poker player himself. I was sure he would be only too cognizant of the need for a high-stakes poker pro (such as myself) to actually possess some money. And, as I expected, he was most sympathetic to my plight.

Chip Jett
Chip Jett's hands look in no mood to give.
But he sadly explained that the Horseshoe had been purchased from the understanding Binions by the far-more-corporate Harrah's, and, "Jay, in the old days, I could have gone right down to the cage and gotten your check cashed; but I'm afraid I don't have any juice with the new people."

So here I was, a poker player without the one absolutely essential tool -- money -- and no obvious way to get any. (To fully appreciate my predicament, imagine Joe Horn without his cell phone or Hef without a nubile 20-year-old.) I searched my memory bank for someone, anyone, who might be convinced to wire me, say, $20,000. Quickly. The answer came back "none." How about my old pal Chip Jett, I thought? After all, we had shared an intimate moment of humiliation only days earlier. Seemed like a bit too much of a stretch.

In desperation, I threw myself on the mercy of the manager of one of the Horseshoe's cashier cages. I explained the whole deal -- the column, the book, the year I am supposed to spend as a high-stakes poker pro, the importance of getting off on the right foot, the fact that my checking account really has plenty of money in it, etc., etc., etc. He said nothing, and I have to admit that my story sounded fishy even to me. But when I finally sputtered to a conclusion, he said, "No problem. We'll check with your bank, see what the average balance is on your checking account and set up a line of credit. How much do you need?"

"Ten thousand?"

"Are you sure that's going to be enough?" he asked.

"Okay, make it twenty thousand," I said, feeling, for the first time since I'd arrived in Vegas, like a winner.

(It is interesting to note that the Horseshoe is able check the balance in my checking account, while the bank that actually "owns" the account cannot. When I mentioned this to my wife, she snorted and said, "Don't be na´ve. It's in the interests of the Horseshoe to get as much cash into your hands as they can. The bank doesn't care if you get access to your own money, because it does them no good." Well, duh.)

Whatever. I was back in action, and that's all we high-stakes poker pros really care about.

NEXT: My dinner with the Devilfish, and other brushes with poker greatness.

Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is filing weekly columns on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins.

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ATTENTION, IRS: HOW JAY IS MAKING OUT IN HIS NEW CAREER

Lost $1,125 the first day; lost $545 the second day. On the third day, I rested. Good move. On Day 4, I won $1,547. Won $117 the next day, won $1,740 on Day 6, then dropped $1,200 on the seventh day. Perhaps, like the Lord, I should have rested on that day.