A recent charity tournament on PokerStars raised $1 million for various worthy causes, including $500,000 for our charity partner CARE International. The tournament’s line-up was among the most star-studded ever assembled, with David Schwimmer, Liam Payne, Aaron Paul, Teri Hatcher, Lisa Kudrow, Amy Schumer, Neymar Jr., Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Don Cheadle and Macauley Culkin, among many others, all taking to the virtual felt.
In April, a similar charity poker game drew another raft of publicity, and generated another seven-figure amount for Feeding America, a non-profit that runs food banks in the United States. This time, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Tom Brady, Adam Sandler, Sarah Silverman, Cheryl Hines, Adam Levine, Jason Bateman, Jon Hamm, Tobey Maguire, Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith were among the celebrities who played, as poker again came to the aid of a very worthwhile cause.
The long list of celebrities showing an interest in poker raises another question: where do these people usually play? All of the familiar faces seemed perfectly capable players, yet we don’t tend to see them on the normal calendar of live poker events. The answer, quite obviously, is that they play in private home games — a refuge for poker players of all bankrolls and abilities, but particularly useful for A-list stars. They might want to play for the kind of stakes that mean something to them, but where they aren’t preyed upon by professionals taking all of the money and sapping the fun out of the game.
A lot of these private poker games are precisely that: private. We know nothing at all about them. But every now and then, details of a celebrity poker game seep into the mainstream and we hear all the tantalising details. Here’s a look at five of the most intriguing high-stakes private games, including who plays in them, what they cost, and why they are so fascinating.
Hollywood’s A-List — AKA Molly’s Game
Even before there was a lid-lifting book and a film, there was a lot of chatter about an exclusive Hollywood poker game featuring a clutch of A-list stars. All of Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio were thought to play in it, and the stakes were such that you couldn’t have even dreamt about sitting down without a regular paycheck of around $15 million per movie.
After Molly Bloom told all in her memoir, which became the basis of Aaron Sorkin’s movie Molly’s Game, some of the key details were sketched in: the game originated in the West Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room, before Bloom branched out and set up her own venue. The buy-in started at around $10,000, but soon grew to around $250,000. And Bloom says she once saw a player lose $100 million in a single night.
As for the players, well, Maguire is consistently mentioned as being the most reliable regular, and in many reports is named as the original host — even if his attitude towards staff and opponents reportedly leaves a lot to be desired. Both Affleck and DiCaprio were confirmed as sitting in, with fellow actors Matt Damon and Macaulay Culkin, rap singer Nelly and the Olsen twins also among occasional participants. The sports stars Pete Sampras and Alex Rodriguez also reportedly visited after the game also set up in New York, though whether they actually played is not confirmed. There’s also a long list of hedge-fund managers, sports teams owners and entertainment moguls who brought their chunky financial heft to the game.
There’s a major obstacle in front of anyone attempting to score an invitation to the game these days: it doesn’t exist anymore. Bloom had her assets frozen by the FBI and the game collapsed. However, the desire to play poker rarely evaporates, so maybe it’s worth tapping up Maguire next time you see him at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and asking him where he plays his cards these days…
Triton Poker cash games
For the best part of a decade, rumours swirled around the poker world of huge underground games frequented by a bunch of shady Asian gamblers. The games reportedly accounted for the extended absence from the mainstream tables of the likes of Tom “durrr” Dwan and Phil Ivey, who had supposedly become seduced by the riches on offer to highly skilled players — particularly those prepared to endure eye-watering swings and idiosyncratic etiquette rules. Though many of the most outlandish yarns are probably embellished, it’s certainly true that there’s a voracious appetite for high-stakes poker among a number of Asia-based businessmen and pros.
In recent years, they have become a good degree more visible too, thanks mainly to Triton Poker, a company co-founded by the Malaysian businessmen Paul Phua and Richard Yong. Prior to the current lockdown, the games were taking place across the world, alongside a super high roller tournament tour, which visited South Korea, Montenegro, London and the Philippines, with other destinations in the pipeline. When the tournament tables were packed away at the end of the day, the cash-game chips came out. Phua and Yong often led the action themselves, playing for stakes in the local equivalent of something like $3,000-$6,000. Short-deck hold’em was often the game of choice, and the table usually featured a decent number of businessmen with a smattering of pros. Dwan is indeed often among them, as is Mikita Badziakouski, Jason Koon, Rui Cao, Andrew Robl and Ike Haxton.
Pots of several hundred thousand dollars are commonplace — in televised play, Koon won a pot of more than €2 million against Elton Tsang; Dwan lost one of more than $2.3 million against Phua — but there are persistent rumours of even bigger games taking place, once these well-publicised streamed games have wrapped.
The NetJets Poker Invitational
When you sign up as a customer of NetJets, you’re already entering an exclusive club. You become the kind of person who has a share in a private charter jet, for whom air travel is more about rocking back in a padded leather chair with a whiskey than remembering to take a bottle of water out of a rucksack and putting your laptop in a separate tray please. NetJet membership also comes with an unusual perk: a buy-in to an annual poker tournament, hosted by Warren Buffett in Las Vegas, and named, predictably enough, the NetJets Poker Invitational.
Designed as a networking event, and with around 250 players each year, it’s primarily business cards changing hands rather than cash. But sponsors reportedly put around $2.5 million worth of prizes up for final table players, ranging from sports cars to hotel stays and six-figure gift certificates. According to reports, Bill Gates, Tom Brady, Matt Damon and George Lucas have all played, though the majority of participants are stars of the board rooms rather than the tabloids.
Forbes writer Randall Lane once secured a seat and revealed a few details of the event, including the fact that each table has one player on whose head is placed a $5,000 bounty. Basketball star Vince Carter was the most recognisable player donning a black armband to indicate that he was a bounty. Lane’s other opponents included a pharmaceutical entrepreneur, a New York private equity executive, a wealth manager, the son of a former New Jersey governor who ran Goldman Sachs, and a former Yahoo president and Berkshire Hathaway board member. Phil Gordon provided running commentary (it was 2012) and Jerry Seinfeld then took to the stage for a run through of a few gags.
Technically, this tournament is open to anybody — so long as you sign up for NetJets, whose membership options, according to Forbes in 2017, start at $550,000 and go up to $4.4 million.
Silicon Valley cash game
It’s difficult to keep track of the biggest hitters of the tech industry, with companies starting up, booming, floating and busting as rapidly as poker players from a hyper turbo tournament. It means that it’s pretty difficult to keep track of who’s even playing poker in Silicon Valley from one month to the next, let alone hosting the big games. That said, there’s bound to be someone. Over the years, the business and poker press have both repeatedly reported on games in the Valley, with California-based players such as David Einhorn and Roger Sippl also appearing in more traditional poker settings.
In 2008, an article in Wired recommended that young entrepreneurs take up poker if they want to meet venture capitalists, citing the story of Zach Coelius, who set up Triggit after schmoozing angel investors at a poker game. “If you wanted to, you could go to a poker game every night of the week,” Coelius said.
In 2014, Business Insider placed the game in the home of Chamath Palihapitiya, an early Facebook executive turned venture capitalist, who is founder and CEO of a company named Social+Capital. Stakes were described as “relatively modest”, but featured players whose portfolios were anything but. Business Insider described an interest in poker from all of David Sacks, the founder of Yammer, Jason Calacanis, who sold his start-up Weblogs, Inc. to Time Warner for $25 million, Dave Goldberg, the CEO of Survey Monkey, and Mark Pincus, a co-founder of Zynga.
The one pro who pops up repeatedly in talk of Silicon Valley poker is Phil Hellmuth. The 15-time WSOP bracelet winner and Palo Alto resident is a suitably big enough shark for the recreational players to aim to hook.
Bill Perkins’ private game
Poker’s gossip mill went into overdrive last month when the Super High Roller regular Bill Perkins alleged on Twitter that he had been the victim of cheating. For a variety of reasons, Perkins omitted almost all of the salient details, except to say that the alleged cheating took place in a regular private game in which the stakes were phenomenally high.
It makes sense, of course, that one of poker’s most passionate participants, who also happens to be among America’s richest men, plays in a super high stakes private game among like-minded, similarly skilled and equivalently-wealthy opponents. (The alleged cheating appears to have occurred after the game moved to an unregulated app following the Covid-19 lockdown, and pros apparently took over at least one account.) We don’t have nearly enough information to know what’s true and what’s not, nor to wade in on the morality of anything, but we can definitely show a voyeuristic interest in the game Perkins regularly plays. It is likely to be among the biggest on the planet. Various slivers of information slipped out during discussions, including the fact that poker’s most notorious braggart Dan Bilzerian is a fellow participant.
Though it’s nigh on impossible to test the veracity of any of Bilzerian’s claims, the Instagram star says he has won multiple millions playing poker, including $10.8 million in one night. Meanwhile Perkins confirmed that the stakes were so high that even someone as wealthy as him felt the sting, and even Bilzerian, whose entire persona depends on a laissez faire devil-may-care immunity to poker’s swings, was similarly unwilling to laugh it off. It follows that Perkins’ game, assuming it restarts, must be a whale-filled whopper.