The 5 Biggest Home Games in Poker

4 years ago
The Biggest Home Games in Poker
01 Jun

May seems to be the month for reporting on interesting home games - the ones which see famous celebrities, millionaire businessmen, and high stakes pros gather for the kind of poker nights which happen only in our dreams.

After Phil Hellmuth proved that having 14 WSOP bracelets doesn’t guarantee you won’t go bust on any given Tuesday evening, and Willie Nelson shared his legendary ‘cash and hash' Monday night Hawaiian specials, I thought I’d give you a rundown of the biggest and best in the history of home games.

Bilzerian’s Billionaire Game?

Dan Bilzerian may be the King of Instagram according to his followers, but he is also the King of self promotion and therefore everything he says ought to be taken with just a pinch of salt.

There’s no denying he is a mega-rich guy with a lifestyle of women, guns, and private jets which make him ‘the ultimate male’ in many eyes, but did he really win $50million in private cash games in just a year?

Well, if you look at some of the opposition, I guess it’s possible – with Spider-Man actor Tobey Maguire (of whom more later), film director Nick Cassavetes,, and the popstar turned action movie hero Mark Wahlberg counted among the regulars at his old LA games.

Mixing with the likes of hedge-fund manager Bill Perkins, it might just be that the reported stakes of $10million buy-ins and betting $1million Bugatti’s instead of money are true. If you mix it with his reported ‘loose-aggressive’ playing style, and the fact he is likely better-versed in poker than many of his opponents, then $50million in a year becomes just about believable.

With his own private Gulfstream jet, he isn’t really tied down to just his own home games though – jetting around to various $million games and tournaments, in between times living his ridiculous lifestyle. According to GQ magazine:

In one moment of madness, he flipped a coin for $2.3m (£1.4m) of chips... And lost.”

Not everyone is convinced by the billionaire playboy tag, however, with poker player and writer Jonathan Grotenstein stating:

Does he have $100m? No, I don't think he has access to that kind of money. He plays poker at really, really high stakes, but he's not playing in the top games with guys like Tom Dwan, or going to Macau, where million-dollar pots are won and lost all the time.”

The LA-based author of poker books ‘All-in' and ‘Ship it Holla Bollas’ added:

I think Dan is more about using poker as part of an image that he's trying to create, and I think there are a lot of people out there who will lend him a private jet, or let him test drive a ridiculous car."

And the question about Bilzerian’s finances, of course, gets murkier when you look into his father’s criminal background – with many believing he funds his excesses with the trust-fund proceeds of ill-gotten gains.

Perhaps Bilzerian’s answer to a different question, "Oh well, good thing I'm rich and I don't give a fuck," might be appropriate here too, given his clear desire to be in the media limelight at every turn.

Whatever the source of the Bilzerian gold, it seems that the nosebleed home games he frequents won’t dry up anytime soon, but it’s a pretty exclusive bunch of guys around that particular table, so best start saving up now if you want to join them!

Molly’s Game

As I reported recently, one of the biggest games in poker history is about to be turned into a movie, with Idris Elba tipped to join Jessica Chastain in the lead roles – which should be easy money for the stars as the original home game the movie is based on was a hotbed of Hollywood’s highest paid stars.

Although the poker game was originally Tobey Maguire’s, (of Spider-Man fame) it was made famous when it was taken over by Molly Bloom, an aspiring actress-cum-waitress who eventually became the biggest ‘facilitator’ of high-stakes action in the poker scene.

Bloom arranged high-stakes games involving the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck and a host of other massive names, with multi-millionaire gangsters and businessmen mixing with the stars in Bloom’s ‘anything goes’ games, which eventually drew the attention of the FBI.

As the blurb for her book states on Amazon:

Molly staged her games in palatial suites with beautiful views and exquisite amenities. She flew privately, dined at exclusive restaurants, hobnobbed with the heads of Hollywood studios, was courted by handsome leading men, and was privy to the world’s most delicious gossip, until it all came crashing down around her."

2006 Main Event winner Jamie Gold allegedly lost a massive chunk of his $12million bankroll in the game, and Bloom described in the blockbuster book how Spider-Man actor Maguire was one of the worst behaved people involved.

Although it started out as a $100/200 blinds game, the eventual stakes were much higher – some sources stating that $50K buy-ins and $500/1000 games were the norm shortly before the FBI busted Bloom and ended the Hollywood-filled home game for good.

Describing the game, fellow founder Houston Curtis enthused:

Molly Bloom was a smart, sweet, ambitious girl, who worked very hard to organize what had to be one of the biggest, most star-studded weekly poker games of all time. For a few brief hours, once, sometimes twice a week, high up in a beautiful 5-star hotel suite, a series of regular (yet anything but regular) players left everything else in their lives at the door, and had an experience that very few people in the world ever get to have.”

Exactly which, if any, of the game’s star players will appear or be depicted in the Sorkin-directed movie is unknown, but many poker players are keen to see just how crazy the home game looks on the big screen.

Johnny Carson’s Boys

30 years as host of the Tonight Show brought comedian and actor Johnny Carson into contact with a slew of Hollywood producers, directors, and comedians, and provided the perfect crowd to make up a monthly food and cards night.

Although played at movie producer and agent, Dan Melnick’s, house, Carson was the driving force behind the home game which counted Chevy Chase, Neil Simon, Steve Martin, and Carl Reiner among its regulars.

It became known as the Gourmet Poker Group as the players would be treated to world-class dinners when they took a break from the cards. The game itself was described as “low on stakes, high on humour” by Melnick, the man behind movies such as Roxanne, Steve Martin’s take on the tale of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Another of the regulars in the Hollywood Hills home of Melnick was Martin Short, who appeared alongside Steve Martin and Chevy Chase as ‘The Three Amigos’, and despite the generally small stakes he admitted to having lost $1,800 in just five minutes in his first game against his “idol” Carson, before inadvertently spitting mashed potato onto Carson’s hand during the break!

Now defunct, the host Carson having passed away in 2005, it has often been said that all the players had to be approved by Carson before being allowed to play, and even after Carson’s retirement from The Tonight Show and other entertainment activities in 1992, he continued to turn up for his favorite game with his favorite friends.

Macau Millionaires

It would be impossible to talk about private poker games and not head off to the far east where the gambling mecca of Macau has hosted some of the biggest and best games in poker legend.

Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan, Phil Ivey, and Johnny Chan have been among the regulars of the poker big boys who have won and lost millions against the Chinese, Hong Kong,s and Malaysian business moguls who frequent the casino home games.

Although originally held at the Starworld Casino, last year saw the grand opening of the Poker King Club in the Venetian Hotel and Casino – president Winifred Yu moving the big game into the Phoenix Hall, where according to Chad Holloway:

Players will be treated to USB chargers at the table, adjustable plush seating, around the clock food and beverage service, table-side dining, and multiple television screens throughout the room.”

Now, if you thought it was hard to get a seat at some of the other home games I’ve mentioned, spare a thought for the WSOP champions who have to sometimes spend weeks holed up in nearby hotel rooms, eagerly awaiting the phone call summoning them to an empty seat.

In the game, organised for the most part by billionaire Malaysian businessman Richard Yong and alleged Triad-related match-fixer Paul Phua, the ‘locals’ are quite choosy about who they lose money to – and if you do get a seat and start being a nit waiting for a big hand to take down the big pots, you’re unlikely to be there for long. Action, as always, is the name of the game in Macau!

The stakes are phenomenally high as are the swings, with blinds of 10K/20K in Hong Kong dollars (about $1300/2600 US) quite common, and often higher. Tales of Dwan losing $4million in a session have circulated, with his MIA status often related to owing a huge chunk to the Triads whose job it is to enforce debts.

As well as Dwan, Ivey, and Chan, the game has seen the likes of Cirque du Soleil’s billionaire founder Guy Laliberte and English poker star Sam Trickett sitting down with the Chinese money-men, but this is a game of big stakes and big rumors, so what actually takes place behind closed doors in Macau private games is hard to know for sure.

The Porn King’s Hustle

There are few people who have lived as colourful a life as Larry Flynt, and fewer still who can boast of a home game which includes the likes of Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey, Barry Greenstein, and Ted Forrest among its players.

The founder of Hustler magazine and the porn empire it spawned was shot by a sniper back in the 70’s after featuring an interracial scene in his magazine, but even the enforced wheelchair and multiple operations he endured afterwards, not to mention his numerous legal battles, haven't dampened his life-long enthusiasm for the game of poker.

After Flynt bought out the old El Dorado Club in Gardena, California, and turned it into the Hustler Casino, ‘Larry’s Game,’ as it has become known over the years, moved there from his actual home. It is unusual in many respects, not least of which is the $4,000/$8,000 stakes Seven-Card Stud format.

Added to this is the reported $500 fine for turning up late for the game – money which was put towards feeding the table of hungry players! – and the fact that players generally had to dress in their warmest clothes possible as Flynt’s injuries, pain, and medication required low room temperatures to keep him comfortable.

Quite who ruled the game over the years is unclear, with Flynt himself starting out as a ‘big whale’ but apparently learning the ropes of 7-card stud well enough to become a winner in later years.

Flynt, with a reported fortune of $400million, wouldn’t have been troubled by a long run of losses, but according to Pokerlistings:

Old-school pro David Oppenheim once lost $1.8 million in the Flynt game so it’s not for the faint of heart.”

So, five of the biggest home games you’re ever likely to encounter. Feel free to add in your own ‘perfect home game’ ideas in the comments section below. Game, stakes, who you would invite, where you’d host it? Let us know!

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Andrew from Edinburgh, Scotland, is a professional journalist, international-titled chess master, and avid poker player.Read more


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