Poker ballers: It’s a rich man’s world

Forget about getting it quietly… ballers love money, they love spending it and then they love to show you what they bought afterwards. PokerPlayer paints the town red with some of poker’s biggest ‘players’

If you’re a poker player you can get rich quickly. It’s always been the case but it was reinforced in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker became the poster boy for the anybody-can-make-it-big generation. There was a new gold rush in town and online poker gave anyone over the age of 18 the tools to grab a piece. Suddenly there was a different type of player in town – monied and young, with no responsibilities to anybody or anything, except partying and flaunting their wealth. Forget the old poker motto, ‘Get it quietly,’ these players wanted to get it AND make as much noise as they could. Enter the baller…

Andrew Robl was just 17 years old when he watched Moneymaker win the World Series with his dad. Three years later, after dropping out of college, he was in the Bahamas at Paradise Poker’s Conquest of Paradise Island – the online room’s first brick- and-mortar event. He was with a group of friends who would become one of the first crews in poker (the ‘Ship It Holla Ballas’), containing some of the most successful players of all time – David ‘Raptor’ Benefield, Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan, Alec ‘Traheho’ Torelli, Alan ‘TheUsher’ Sass and Jonathan ‘FieryJustice’ Little. Only Little went on to min-cash the tournament, but these players knew how to make their own action.

Dwan put out $5,000 for anyone willing to jump into a tank full of sharks. A player with the online moniker sublime8700 took him up on his offer and lived to tell the tale $5,000 richer. At least for a few minutes. After getting durrrr to transfer it into his UltimateBet account, sublime8700 lost it all in a single hand with A-Q against – of all people – Mike Matusow and his pocket Twos. You couldn’t make it up…

Boobs, booze and Bentleys

Then the money really started flooding in. Sass finished second in a PLO event at the 2006 WSOP, winning $284,256 and, when asked by a reporter what he was going to do, he replied, ‘We’re going to the Rhino!’ – the Spearmint Rhino strip club in Las Vegas, still the baller establishment of choice. Sass and his crew went on to blow $40k on champagne and lap dances. 

Torelli remembers another debauched night at Candy Land, a party at the Palms Casino. ‘Imagine 1,000 girls dressed in sweets, and you’ll get a mental picture of what it was like. We paid $15,000 for a table loaded down with champagne, tequila and vodka and got seated next to Snoop Dogg and his posse.’ Not even Snoop Dogg was invited to the after party though, back at durrrr’s penthouse. ‘That was truly baller,’ remembers Torelli. ‘There were a bunch of girls from the strip club Sapphire, dressed in lingerie and just having the best time.’

Perhaps Torelli’s most infamous entry in the baller hall of fame though was the time he won $150k off an online opponent called Perkyshmerky. Torelli signed off with a simple ‘TYPerky’ rubdown, but followed it up by buying a car with his winnings, personalising the number plates to read the same and sending Perky a digital snap.

The Godfathers of baller

If Torelli, Dwan, et al were the first of a visible new generation of ballers, they had plenty of role models. Old-school rounder Amarillo Slim was one of the first poker players to flaunt it, with his ten-gallon cowboy hat adorned with an open-mouthed snake. But it was Stu Ungar who was perhaps the game’s first baller. Legend has it that when a bartender asked if he had any ID, he simply dropped $40k on the bar and asked, ‘What kind of underage kid carries around this kind of money?’

Fast forward to 2005 and players like Phil Ivey, Antonio Esfandiari and David Williams were the players the new breed looked up to. Williams, complete with diamond-encrusted toothpick and Rolls Royce, typified the flash lifestyle that most poker players wanted to emulate. Esfandiari, fresh off a $1.4m win at the 2004 LA Poker Classic, took things further, establishing a group called ‘Rocks and Rings’ dedicated to a hedonistic Vegas lifestyle.

‘I know all the club owners here and they treat me like a rock star,’ Esfandiari said in an interview with PokerPlayer back in 2006. ‘I never wait in line, I get bottle service, security guards, the best table in the house. Everything is taken care of. At Tao you’ll see me up on the moat, a raised stage where only girls are allowed to dance. I’m the one exception, and I can tell you that it’s pretty nice to be the only guy up there with a bunch of girls.’

Ivey – roundly acknowledged as the world’s best poker player – also craves action elsewhere, taking private jets to play craps and baccarat in casinos around the globe. Ivey isn’t your typical baller, but could turn it on when he thought it appropriate. One apocryphal tale saw Ivey enjoying dinner at the Wynn in Vegas when he was spotted by a group of businessmen and poker fans. They sent over a bottle of Cristal champagne. Ivey sent back five in return. They sent over 20. Ivey asked the waiter to hand over 200 bottles with a note: ‘And I won’t stop.’

Daniel Negreanu verified this story as true on his website, although he claims the amounts were slightly different. ‘Rich dude at club sends ten bottles of champagne over to Ivey’s table. Ivey sends back 20 bottles. Rich billionaire guy sends back 30 bottles. Ivey sends 40 bottles. Rich guy sends 50 bottles. Ivey sends 80 bottles. Rich guy quits. Everyone in the whole club has a bottle of champagne in their hand. The next day Ivey’s hosts at the casino call and say, “Ivey what did you do!!! You know we have to pay for all that!!!” He goes, “Oh well, I can play craps somewhere else…”’ Even when playing baller, Ivey seemingly had the good sense to do it on someone else’s tab.

RIP ballers

In 2010 a new online poker room was launched, which quickly signed up the game’s biggest ballers, including Antonio Esfandiari and Andrew Robl. Victory Poker quickly got a (bad) name for itself after a series of high profile stunts, including blowing up an RV in the desert and shooting Esfandiari with a handgun (he was wearing a bulletproof vest).

Times were about to change though. Poker’s Black Friday sounded the death knell for Victory Poker and instantly cut-off online poker to the US.  Coupled with a global recession, flaunting wealth suddenly didn’t seem as cool. The baller lifestyle instantly became synonymous with douchebaggery.

Of course, some ballers just grew up, such as Esfandiari. Despite his huge $18.3m win in the 2012 Big One for One Drop, you won’t find him ‘making it rain’ again (throwing money off a nightclub balcony), which he admits he did back in his baller past. ‘I hate to say this, and it hurts, but there was one time I made it rain. I did it with 1,000 $1 bills. It’s so stupid that the next day I was sick over it. Anybody who makes it rain is simply an idiot.’ Dwan is another of the game’s biggest stars whose baller days are behind him. These days he prefers to keep his business to himself. After tearing up the online game for years, Dwan moved into the live arena and was last heard of playing nosebleed stakes in Macau.

But there’s still one man flying the flag for the baller lifestyle – former Victory Poker co-founder Dan Bilzerian. If Bilzerian came to be known on the poker scene as the man who shot Esfandiari, his exploits on Instagram have catapulted him straight to the top of the baller hall of fame. Surrounded by guns and semi-naked women, and with over 5m followers and 6m likes on Facebook, Bilzerian lives the life that, seemingly, a hell of a lot of people still want. For Bilzerian, making it rain isn’t baller enough. This is a man who’s been photographed crowd surfing a club in an inflatable boat.

Estimated to be worth around $100m, no one really knows where he got his cash, although he’s the son of Paul Bilzerian, a disgraced former corporate raider, who was convicted of fraud in 1989 and is living in voluntary exile. Bilzerian claims that he won $50m playing poker last year, and was a regular in the high stakes games frequented by Hollywood stars like Tobey Maguire. However he got it though, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to run out any time soon, and while it lasts there will always be someone more baller than you.


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