Dr. Jerry Buss- Poker Aficionado
When I first met Jerry in late 1987 or 1988, I had already been friendly with his partner, Frank Mariani for several months. As I introduced myself in a poker game as a friend of Frank’s, he smiled warmly and said, “Well, any friend of Frank’s is a friend of mine.” Over the next 25 years, I witnessed a very close friendship and business relationship. I learned a lot of one from the other as well as about the Lakers and other business ventures.
Fortunately for Laker fans, it was Jerry’s competitive nature that fueled his passion not only for poker but more importantly 10 NBA Championships. He could handle losing on the green felt but he hated losing on the hardwood court. One night after a big loss at the Bicycle Casino, he seemed rather disgusted. I had been playing in a private game at Gabe Kaplan’s house in Beverly Hills, so I suggested to Jerry that I could arrange a very live game which in poker parlance meant a game with very bad players. He reflected as he rarely responds spontaneously, on my suggestion and said, “You know, I have all the money that I need. I’m not playing for the money. What difference would it make if I beat a bunch of bad players? I want to play against the best.”
So Jerry did just that. He played against the best in many interesting locations and situations. I found the conference room in the Forum in Inglewood to be the coolest place to play. This was the home of the NBA Champion LA Lakers with future Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy and here we were playing poker and drinking rum and cokes with its owner, Jerry Buss after games albeit occasionally. What could be cooler than that for a young player? In August of 1996, the conference room and Jerry was host to Larry Flynt’s return to poker. The game was 7 card stud as that was the only game Larry played and it would develop into the “Larry Game” that would be the largest poker game played on a regular basis in L.A for 4 years. That in itself is a story in its own right. We even played in the Dr. Jerry Buss Chairman of the Board Room at the Staples Center one night after a Laker game. It was such an exclusive bar that on one occasion, I saw John Cusack not able to get in because he didn’t have a pass. It was supposed to be one friendly $5k freeze out which was over in 40 minutes but Jerry’s competitiveness took us into many more matches until 5 am.
Jerry may have liked poker but he loved tournaments. Occasionally he would get knocked out early and play in a cash game waiting for his female friends to get eliminated but more often than not he would go very deep. His best finish in a major tournament was 3rd in the WSOP 7 Card Stud event in 1991. More strangers would come up to tell Jerry that they had seen him when he finished 2nd to Layne Flack in the televised WPT Invitational in 2003 than for any other reason. He said the show had the highest ratings for any WPT show. Unfortunately, Jerry’s experience was with limit hold-em and this was no limit and Layne is a good tournament player.
Jerry played in several televised invitationals such as the “NBC Heads- up National Championship”, “High Stakes Poker”, and “Poker After Dark”.
Always a gentleman on the tables and to his dates and girlfriends, Jerry was a class act. If there is one game that he will always cherish it may be this one:
During one of the annual Lakers training camps in Hawaii, Jerry Buss invited Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, & me up to his suite at the Hilton Hawaiian Village for a “friendly” game of poker. This must have been in the early 90’s because Jerry later bought a beautiful place right on the water. Relishing tough competition, this game was right up Jerry’s alley with World Champions Phil & Johnny. I was no slouch at high limit hold-em either.
Phil is amicable as he drags this pot of $100 chips in the photo above. As the night progresses and the cards turned against Phil, a few of his reactions were very violent. He would scream and stand up slamming his chair loudly against the window directly behind him after taking a beat. I fully expected the window to shatter or at least send security knocking on our door. Short-handed hold-em is nothing but a game of beats so he did seem to be overreacting but then again, that’s Phil. Jerry was very polite and very patient and would just caution Phil from waking the girls that were sleeping in the bedroom. When the dust settled, Phil was the only loser and Jerry was the big winner at around $30k. Although it wasn’t his style to rub it in to Phil, I’m sure he must have called his best friend Frank Mariani the next day. I imagine an elated Jerry must have asked, “We played $300 & $600 last night in my suite. Who do you think was the big winner and who do you think was the only loser?” Frank would chuckle and say, “Well, Jerry, I know you were the big winner and Phil was the big loser.” That’s how well they knew each other.
What are notable about this photo are the Championships both current and those to come. Jerry Buss already had 5 NBA Championships at the time of this photo. He would go on to win 5 more and be the winningest owner in professional team sports among his accolades. Phil Hellmuth would go on to be the leading bracelet winner with 13 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Championships.
Johnny Chan is currently in 2nd place with 10 WSOP bracelets. In this gathering of superlatives and a poker industry that has expanded beyond anyone’s imagination at the time of this poker game, Johnny has a distinction that will never be equaled, the title of “Master”.
Once upon a time there was only the “Binion’s Horseshoe World Series of Poker Main Event”. They later added the “Hall of Fame Poker Tournament” in the fall. Johnny won the 1987 Main Event. He then won the Hall of Fame, followed by the 1988 Main Event and the subsequent Hall of Fame. In 1989, he lost to a newcomer named Phil Hellmuth to finish 2nd in the Main Event. That’s 4 consecutive championships and then a second. That in itself is a major feat but I give him the title of Master not only because of his incredible results but because of the skill that he had employed to win those tournaments. Of course, luck is a factor when you flop a straight and Eric Seidel flops top pair but Johnny had developed and played a very sophisticated game that was at another level at the time. When the norm with “tournament” players was to push in and race, Johnny played his game from the flop. He trapped his opponents rather than flip coins. We had traded 10% when he lost to Phil. I asked him why he had deviated from his usual game. He said, “I just got tired.” Now with the massive tournament fields, the large number of good tournament players and the minimal differential in their skill, it would be impossible for anyone to dominate the Championships as Johnny did in 1987-89.
Jerry Buss passed away on Feb. 18, 2013 after battling cancer for a year and a half. What is heart wrenching is not only his loss but the pain and suffering he had to endure and the loss of quality of life. Despite being a fierce competitor, he could not overcome the scourge of our highly advanced technological world even after over 40 years had passed since Richard Nixon declared the “War on Cancer”. The world has lost a great man and I feel very privileged to have been his friend.
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