Larry Claxton Flynt Jr.
(Nov. 1, 1943- Feb. 10, 2021)
The Larry Game August 1996- June 2000
A real estate lady had sent Larry a prospect of the Eldorado Casino that was closed and up for sale. He reached out to Eric Drache who had been the World Series of Poker Director and the cardroom manager at the Golden Nugget and Mirage to run the place if he bought it. Eric said he was out of action. Larry said he would stake Eric if he could put together a game he could beat. The Laker owner Jerry Buss offered to host the game in his conference room at the Forum. The event that day was the Magic Johnson’s Midsummer Night’s Game, a charity game featuring various NBA stars. Of note, is that Mike Tyson attended the event.
Larry was already there and waiting in his wheelchair with 2 bodyguards. I remember Big Al, Gabe Kaplan, Johnny Chan, Eric Drache, Frank Mariani, and John Horne playing in the $400-$800 7 card stud game. The next 2 games were at the Peninsula in Beverly Hills, but the travel was difficult for Larry, so we started playing at his house.
It didn’t take long for Eric to get the game kicked up to $1000-2000 stud. When that got too slow, we agreed to play $1500-3000 for the 1st 6 hours. The final 2 hours was $2000-4000. The swings in the 2 hours of $2k-$4k were more significant than the 6 hours of $1.5k-$3k. If losing doesn’t hurt, then if doesn’t mean anything.
I doubt if there was another poker game where drawing for the seats was as significant. It determined one’s health and comfort for the night. Larry always sat in the middle directly across from the dealer. He would smoke this smelly cigar and keep it in an ashtray on his right. That was the “smoking” seat. That seat was so brutal that we eventually offered a $100k bet if he would stop smoking for a year. He won the bet, but it undoubtedly extended his life and ours. Larry had difficulty picking up his cards, so the player to his left had to look away to keep from seeing his hole cards. That was the “cheat” seat. That seat made it difficult for the player to focus on the game. On the far end seat, the air would blow directly on the player from the vent. The thermostat was set at 50* and the “cold” seat was assured of an even chillier night. I bought a polar suit and heated socks with batteries in case, I drew that seat. We would sneak over and raise the temperature, but Larry would start sweating at 60*. At least we would be warm for a few minutes. That ended when a lock box was put on the thermostat. After one freezing game, my body reacted against the cold outdoors and I started shaking uncontrollably.
In its 4 year run, many celebrities and personalities played. After over 400 games, Eric started going through who might have played the most. He asked Larry, “How many games did you miss?” with a smile. Larry thought about it and said he couldn’t remember missing any.
Very early in the course of the Larry Game, we went to Universal Studios for a private viewing of “The People vs. Larry Flynt” arranged by the director Milos Forman. As we were arriving, Ron Meyer, the President of Universal had just finished a screening with his staff. I knew Ron from the days he would play at the Regency where I hosted the high limit games in 1991. The movie received the Best Actor and Best Director nominations. Woody Harrelson’s performance was excellent as was the rest of the cast. I sat behind co-stars Courtney Love and Edward Norton at Larry’s wedding. Woody played poker with us a couple of times. He wasn’t very knowledgeable about stud, but he did some good acting of a poker player. If I did a poker movie, I would definitely cast him. Of course, Edward Norton later starred in “Rounders”.
Rumored to have poker games in the Governor’s Mansion, fellow Kentuckian John Y. Brown played a few times when in town. Charismatic, John was not a sucker at poker. He was polished and smooth, and I could see the politician in him. His former partner used to play poker in Las Vegas. John said that when Jerry signed Magic to a $1 million a year contract for 25 years, Harry Mangurian forced him to sell the Celtics because Jerry had ruined the league. John didn’t do too badly with Kentucky Fried Chicken though.
I had 1st played with Roger King in 1988 at the Bicycle Casino. He had relocated to the east coast, so I hadn’t played with him in years, but he and his brother Michael came and played one night: https://yoshnakano.com/the-rich-and-famous/.
Other celebrities that played regularly in the Larry Game were Gabe Kaplan, Ron Meyer, and John Horne.
Larry is a creature of habit and his annual vacation was to Aruba. He invited us to join him on his G-2. Flying in a private jet is an exalting experience. You drive right up to the plane and load your bags. When you land in a foreign country, there’s no customs to go through. The flight is smooth and relatively quiet. We only played poker only once in Aruba as Larry was preoccupied with his other gambling fixation-blackjack.
Larry did not want to waste a minute. When he went in for surgery, they put him on bedrest until he recovered. That was the “17 day Gurney Game”. He would be wheeled up to the end of the table on a gurney hooked up to an IV. Playing 17 consecutive days for 8 hours is both physically and mentally exhausting. I thought I had as much endurance as anyone, but I had to take 3 days off out of 17 due to exhaustion. Only Larry played more. Of course, he played all 17 days.
Larry does not lie. This is a detrimental characteristic for poker. It wasn’t in his nature to bluff. In fact, many times when he missed his draw, he would just push his hand into the muck. He did tell us some very salacious stories of the videos and photos he has in his vault as well as his own stories.
Buying the World Series of Poker
Doyle Brunson gave Larry Flynt 1000-1 on a thousand dollars that he would not win the Main Event. When Doyle was knocked out, he went downstairs for lunch. When he returned, he went into shock. Larry had amassed enough chips to make him one of the chip leaders. Doyle was in jeopardy of losing a million dollars. Doyle asked his best friend Jack Binion to review the surveillance tapes. It showed that Larry had been paying players double cash for their chips and many were selling. Jack had to tell Larry he was being expelled from the tournament and barred from the event permanently. Larry never forgave Doyle for being a “snitch” and a poor sport. I’m sure Doyle kicked himself repeatedly for trying to “steal” a thousand dollars.
The Hustler Casino
Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance
Larry’s business operating style was very straight forward. He would ask for a quote and after he received it, then ask if they could reduce it by 20%. Centerfolds for Playboy received $50,000. The Hustler Honey was paid $3500. The project for the Hustler Casino was awarded to a receptive but an inexperienced young couple. He enlisted Eric Drache and I to design the casino pro bono. We were told that there were five pillars in a circular design from the old Eldorado that could not be moved hence the circular design. Alan Isaacman, Larry’s attorney portrayed by Edward Norton in the movie was to be the licensee and wanted the center circle to be a smoking area with a retractable roof. We designed all the rooms and areas we would need for the casino. I hired Zaven “Z” Esmali to be the Asian games manager and to start hiring people. After almost a month, everything came to an embarrassing stop. The contractors had decided to move the casino to the front of the property. They had started construction and had discovered that there had been a gas station on that section of the property where there was a large septic tank. To remove it was going to delay the process for months and Larry refused to pay anyone. Larry wouldn’t budge so I paid Z $4000 out of my pocket since I had hired him. The game was happy because it would be extended for several more months.
Hustler Finally Opens
This was in July of 2000 at a cost of $34 million, far over budget. I had wanted to be the Asian games director, but Alan Isaacman was the licensee and realized I would not be able to qualify through the DOJ application. Larry gave me the rights to be the banker in the Asian section. Unlike Las Vegas casinos where they are the bank, in California house banking games are not legal. They contract out to another entity to do the banking in order to facilitate the action. At that time, the banking group did not require to be licensed. I formed an LLC and raised the capital needed to bank all the games in the Asian section 24/7.
On paper the business model is simple. Hire bankers and a supervisor sufficient for every shift. Your banker just has to make sure the payout is correct. At the end of the shift, record the wins and losses and the total reflects the net results from the action. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. In Las Vegas, the casinos have billions stolen every year despite having top of the line surveillance systems and procedures. In California, surveillance protects the casino and not the banking group directly. Of course, they try to detect cheating but it’s not easy. The banking group is the target from dishonest players, casino staff, and their own bankers. If you lose $100k in a night, that can be a normal fluctuation and can be overcome. What cannot be overcome is the money that was stolen or cheated. Once our best high limit pai gow dealer was caught stealing a $5k chip. The question is how much did she steal before she was caught? Puggy Pearson always told me to never be shocked by what a skeleton with flesh does. Here was another example. There was a dealer in Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio caught stealing a $1k chip in their $3k-6k mix games. He had been dealing there for over a year. It is estimated that he may have stolen over $200,000.
Despite the pitfalls, we managed profits most months and I was able to return dividends to my investors. During this time, I was aware of a dangerous shark swimming around. Network M was offering casinos marketing dollars to do the banking. Its owner John Parks was very sharp. They were banking the Hollywood Park Casino for $40k/month. They then did the banking at the Hawaiian Gardens for $2 million for one year. They finally reached Larry’s attention in April 2001. He told me they offered him $40k/month to do the banking. We had streamlined our operation releasing bankers when they weren’t needed and $40k/month was manageable. I figured we had a good run until then. Then at the end of the summer, a banker from Ocean’s 11 who had been clocking our operations offered Larry $80k/month. I tried it for September. My payroll was $120k/month and $80k to the casino meant my monthly nut was $200k. We won $200k for the month and broke even. There was a month that we had lost $300k and that would jeopardize liquidity. A nut of $200k was not worth the risk vs reward and I declined to continue. The Ocean’s 11 banker lost $500k in 3 months and went broke. During his clocking, he probably didn’t know that I had floor managers overlooking my operation to protect me.
I hadn’t been involved with the casino management in a business capacity but noticed they had problems with their general manager. In less than a year and a half, they were on their 3rd gm. That should have raised a red flag but when Larry asked me to be the high limit host, I accepted. I told him I had a family trip to Australia and a poker cruise already scheduled to which he said it was fine. Until then I had been playing at the Hustler only for Larry’s stud game. I needed a game to play so I started spreading a $200-400 HOE game (acronym for Hold-em, Omaha 8 or better, & 8 or better stud). When I returned from Australia after the New Year, Larry had me meet with him because he was having trouble with his current gm. I told him if he needed me to take over, I could but pointed out that he had to resolve his current situation.
The Card Player Cruise I went on was very interesting. It was a Party Poker tournament. I met Steve Lipscomb for the 1st time and Mike Sexton talked about the upcoming World Poker Tour. Also, of note is that they had taken in Mark Tenner as a partner with whom I had a previous nasty experience.
When I returned, Larry wanted me to take over as the gm asap. His former gm has been a friend of mine, but he blamed me for his job loss of which I had nothing to do with.
The casino business in LA is not complex. In the smaller games, the players go to the most convenient location or wherever the jackpot gets huge. The bigger games are fewer and games of destination. Since the number of players only shift around and does not expand, I would have to spread games of destination. Larry would be the primary draw. I initially hired Terry King to be the $75-150 stud host. She was involved in a serious car accident and I replaced her with Diane Nguyen because Barry Greenstein said he would stake her. Jean Robert Bellande was a whole different animal. As the $80-160 EO host, he created a lot of action, but his swings were large. I continued to spread the $200-400 HOE, but I mainly played in the $400-800 mix games. Considering our competitor Commerce Casino was the largest cardroom in the world, we held our own. They barred me for 17 years because they said I stole their players.
Larry was open-minded to anything to stimulate business. In the upstairs bar, we had a weekly bikini contest with each winner qualifying for the Finals. It packed the bar, but the players didn’t care for the noise. We held a roast for Larry at an event center at a nearby hotel. We also spread the 1st Grand Slam of Poker in the casino although we didn’t have a tournament area per se.
The biggest action in the casinos at that time was a young Hispanic kid called Budda. An opportunity came up for me to bring him to the Hustler. He wanted to cash a check from his partner. The check was for $495k. I asked Larry to advance him a marker for $100k and deposit the check into the casino cage until it cleared. I told him the risk would be minimal since we would make money from his action and the return could be great. Our Asian game were peaking at $45k and on slow nights it would be as low as $30k. When Budda played, the drop increased to $75k and a high of $125k. We had to pay our dealers a premium $25/hour due to his abusive manner. He kept the bankers on their toes as he played extremely fast and would take the benefit of any mistake. It’s a sick business.
In appreciation, Larry gave Budda a Lalique Crystal Vase worth about $17k. I was shocked but I knew Larry had gone through a phase of collecting antiques and art reflected in his house which resembled an antique shop. Budda kept a straight face, although I’m sure he was wondering what he would do with it.
I always assumed we were getting cheated when banking but as the gm, I saw to what extent. One time, a player came in and requested a private blackjack game. In one shoe, he won $150k and left. Our surveillance guy Steve was very sharp. He calls me up and shows the shoe from the card room being exchanged enroute to the table. The damage is done and alerting the banking group would only create a liability for the casino. Based on a previous experience with the Torrance D.A. pursuing criminal charges would also be a waste of time. Due to privacy laws, we can’t even say why we fired the floorman.
In another incident involving pai gow poker, the bank has the joker 7 consecutive hands. The cup holds 3 dice, and their total indicates which hand gets the bank. For the bank to land on the joker 7 consecutive hands the odds are enormous. Since the dice cannot be seen by the camera, Steve says the total doesn’t matter. The dealer, banker, and the players are all in cahoots with each other. All we can do is bar everyone and fire the dealer.
In Nevada, law enforcement protects their primary industry and prosecutes cheaters. They even criminally prosecute people that owe markers. We had a dealer try to take off a $15k jackpot. He brought in a set-up (2 decks with different backs) from his locker and gave it to a new chip runner to bring to the table. He didn’t scramble the cards, shuffle them, or cut the deck, and dealt out the winning hand of a straight flush over 4 of a kind. It was all on tape and I had security submit it to the local D.A. The D.A. said nothing was actually stolen and it would be difficult to prove intent. Brother! We couldn’t even put it in his file.
Several months later, he was dealing at the Bellagio and I told Susie Weitz who immediately had him terminated.
I doubt if I would have had my application approved by the DOJ but by December it was time to resign and move on.
Larry later bought the Normandie and renamed it the Lady Luck. After I left, the Larry Game became the Phil Ivey money tree. He staked many of the top stud players in the $4k-8k game. The biggest individual winner may have been Stephen Wolff. Both Larry Flynt and Stephen Wolff should be in the Poker Hall of Fame. Larry’s imprint in poker is sizable and he contributed to the success of many poker players. Stephen Wolff played consistently against the best world-class stud players in the biggest regular game with his own money and came out on top.