Poker has always been a game of chance and skill that has managed to entice people from all walks of life—everyone from wealthy businessmen to back-alley hustlers—to its tables.
Endless American folk tales discuss cowboys and Wild West bandits battling it out in high-stakes games that eventually led to shoot outs and drunken bar brawls. Or gangsters in suits with guns on their laps, playing for keeps and drinking bathtub swill in wood-paneled, leather-sofa’d, smoke-filled cardrooms in New York City and Chicago. We’ve heard it all.
Of course, as the game advances and times change, poker and the way we play it does, too. Today’s high-dollar tournaments typically take place in massive multi-million dollar casinos, in wide-open halls and convention centers, or, if you were lucky enough to compete in the recent PokerStars Championship Bahamas, you got to hang out in the Caribbean.
We got a front row seat to all the action at the inaugural championship, and of the over 98 tournaments occurring throughout the 8-day event (no, seriously), we were lucky enough to catch a few massive pieces of action as they happened. Here’s what it’s like behind the scenes at a high-stakes poker game.
The PokerStars Championship Bahamas was held in the famous Atlantis Paradise Island hotel and resort. To get to the actual tournament room and players lounge meant walking down a long corridor (several, really), passing by smiling groups of swimsuit-clad tourists, several themed bars, a massive and ornately decorated lobby, a loud and raucous casino floor, and entire corridors of high-end boutiques.
It was a beautiful place, and right off the bat, we knew this wasn’t going to be a typical poker tournament.
However, the minute we hit the floor of the tournament room, it became apparent that this place wasn’t about décor; it was about fierce competition, high stakes, and big money. By all definitions of the word, the room was simply average. Navy and gold carpeting, white plaster walls, tiled ceilings with green accents and lighting displays that’d probably be more at-home at a high-end sushi joint than in a convention hall.
Then again, who really gives a shit about the color of the drapes? We were there for the action, and the setup was impressive. Table upon table upon table, all packed with players trying to battle their way to the front of the pack and to the massive pots of gold at the end of every rainbow.
One, the Super High Roller Tournament, had a pot of over $1.6 million for a first place clinch. The Main Event tournament, which had over 735 entrants, had a total prize pool of $3.3 million, with first place snagging a cool $480k, and second taking home $353k. Another, the $50k Single Re-Entry, cashed out over $969k to the winner, and there were literal dozens of other tournaments for the discerning card-hound to get after.
One of the weirdest and most beautiful things about poker is that it’s accessible to anyone and everyone. In the Bahamas, we saw everything from $330 buy-ins to $100k buy-ins, and everyone was playing together in the same room.
To say it was “a little chaotic” is being generous. Then again, to the people involved—the PokerStars staff, the organizers and dealers, and even the players—it seemed to work together perfectly.
The Main Event tournament, which carried a $5k buy-in and garnered hands-down the most entrants, was the talk of the tournament and attracted people from all over—seriously, all over. At one point, we found ourselves seated right next to former New England Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour as he watched his buddy Jason Koon go heads up for the Super High Roller purse. At another point, Kevin Hart made the room his bitch (and by “made the room his bitch,” we mean busted out—twice). Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul also played a good round in the Main Event, busting out just before the cash bubble.
Of course, between those celebrities was an entire lineup of the world’s best poker players—Chris Moneymaker, Daniel Negreanu, Jason Somerville, and many others contended for big cash purses.
Putting it lightly, it was peculiar being in a room with all those different people, not knowing if the person next to you worked a 9 to 5, or whether they were Saudi royalty. But again, that’s what makes it all so alluring.
Watching the big sharks go after each other and systematically dismantle each other’s chip stacks was mesmerizing. And don’t get us wrong, there were plenty of “oh shit” moments, where someone would push the pot or go all-in, and someone else would call, and then someone would bust out.
In fact, at one point in the Super High Roller tournament, we left for 15 minutes, and by the time we got back, two people had managed to bust out. That’s just the way poker is—sometimes things travel along at a snail’s pace, and sometimes it’s a high-speed train wreck.
There are so many subtle nuances involved with poker that it’s mind-boggling to even consider them.
Nevertheless, we loved every minute of it.
When the tournaments first begin, everyone is super casual and relaxed. Players laugh, joke, and get to know (or become re-familiarized with) one another. In fact, there’s an entire fleet of beautiful masseuses running around, chairs in hand, massaging players feeling the stress of high stakes poker. No, we shit you not—it’s a thing.
But as moves start getting made, chips start getting lost, and the herd thins a little bit, the mood in the room starts changing. It grows intense and competitive, if not a little… dangerous? Because poker is where liars go to capitalize on their natural born talents, people make intentionally apathetic small talk. There’s an inherent air of distrust.
That was perhaps the most fascinating thing. When not on the table flopping through hands, these were some of the most compassionate and outwardly friendly people you could ever hope to encounter. They talk about family, life, progress, and practice, and there’s truly a sense of community among them.
But when the chips come out and the cards go down, it’s a whole different story.
When Jason Koon eventually did bust out Charlie Carrel for the win—after taking him for two or three consecutive hands for something like, half a million per hand—it was as though a weight was lifted from the room. Carrel teased Koon with a king off the flop, pointing to it and saying, “I’ve got one of those!” And when Koon went all in and showed a queen and an eight (to give him two pair), that was it.
And you could just feel that both players were a little grateful. Koon banked a cool $1.6 million, and Carrel certainly didn’t walk away empty handed (he took home something like $1.19 million). Both players remained mostly calm and collected, while everyone on the side waited in eager anticipation. At the end of the day, however, the best player of the day won. That’s just how poker goes, sometimes.