John Morgan is a wealthy man. He owns the largest stake in Minnesota's Canterbury Park Casino, he's the CEO of Winmark Corporation -- he has a few dimes to rub together. "One million doesn't get my butterflies going," Morgan told me, not boasting, just explaining. "I'm 71 years old. I'd never spend that money anyway in my lifetime."
The suggestion is that he wouldn't spend the $18.3 million he'd take home should he win this tournament either, which begs the questions why he's playing at all. Yes, there's the charity aspect, and his friendship with Guy Laliberte, but I thought the best part of his answer was this:
"It's a bucket-list item for me."
I mean really, this is why it's nice to have money, isn't it? After a certain point, it's not about necessity, really. It's just about having the freedom to do just about anything you want to. Guy Laliberte once paid his way into space. John Morgan paid a whole lot less to play with the best in the world.
As the throngs gathered before the tournament, I watched a lot of the media swarming poker's stars, but I have to admit that talking to the pros didn't interest me all that much. There's obviously something to be said about playing higher stakes than is customary and all that, but if you're going to live vicariously for this tournament, the businessmen are the ones to shadow. Morgan agreed with an assessment I made that this tournament is like playing baseball with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. The businessmen are having the time of their lives as the pros are dealing with pressures right now that none of us really want to deal with. … Unless there's $18.3 million available to be won and even if they're not playing with money that's entirely their own.
In making a point of talking with the businessmen, I spoke with Morgan, Bobby Baldwin, Bill Perkins, Brandon Steven, David Einhorn and Chamath Palihapitiya. The more of them I spoke to, the more I realized that the vast majority of them are good poker players. I mean, competitive at WSOP good. Baldwin's a world champ, Steven finished 10th in the main event two years ago, Einhorn and Palihapitiya have deep runs in the main as well. These guys can play. They're not as good as the Phil Ivey's of the world, but going back to that Willie Mays analogy, there's a big difference and these guys know it.
"I'm definitely an amateur," Einhorn said with a smile. "I have fun with it and it's a funny game. It's not like tennis. I could play tennis every week and I could train and go out, play Roger Federer, and I probably wouldn't get a point off him in three sets. Here, I can sit with these guys and see how it goes. It's a strange game. Funny things happen."
They do, especially when there's this much on the line. At the first break on Day 1, I spoke with a couple of the pros. Daniel Negreanu mentioned that a pot he lost to Paul Phua felt just like any other pot he'd have lost in big tournament play. Nick Schulman admitted that this at least felt a little different, but the stakes are still small. Once the stacks are truly at risk every hand, the pressure's going to be on the pros. For the businessmen, however, it just won't matter. They're having the time of their lives.
It really is all business
While canvassing the businessmen, I was interested to hear their thoughts about whether the size of the buy-in would affect the pros in the form of added pressure.
Bill Perkins: "I think backing lessens the load, but they're responsible for someone else's money. I trade for a living. I deal with other people's money, and I am more concerned when working with other people's money than my own. Ten times more. When it's someone else's capital, I'm far less experimental and speculative. I don't know how floaty these guys are going to get with other people's money. Is it as bad as if it was their own million and their whole net was on the line? No, but that pressure is real."
Bobby Baldwin: "I think they're going to be plenty uncomfortable and whether you have been staked or have pieced yourself out to a consortium of people, it doesn't make a difference. You still have the money in front of you. There's only one of you and there's only one stack. There's going to be a lot of pressure on the professional players, much more than ever before. Much more than in the main event where it's $10,000 to enter. One million dollars is pretty serious and I think the professionals will feel more pressure in this tournament than any other tournament."John Morgan: "I don't think many of them will be frightened by the stakes. I don't think this is scared money for them. They might be cautious early on, but it won't change their play later at all." Brandon Steven: "The deal is, you're nervous until you sit down. Once you do, the chips just have different values and you play poker. It's just poker. Yeah, you think about the money, but the evaluations are the same."
Five Missing Names
We know who is here and we're going to focus on them for the next few days, but I couldn't help but wonder about some of the names who no-showed the Big One for One Drop. After all, if you were going to rank the top 30 tournament no-limit hold 'em players in the world, there would be at least a few professionals playing in One Drop who wouldn't make the list. Keeping in mind that it's generally recognized that most of the pros in the event have financial backing, which means we're making skill assessments and not financial ones. Here are five guys who I'm surprised we're not seeing, with a few thoughts on why they're being mentioned here:John Juanda: Think about Juanda's recent record just for no-limit hold 'em tournament play. He finished third in a $100,000 WPT high roller event in May, had a second-place finish in September 2010 at EPT London and in 2008 he won the WSOP Europe main event. He followed that win up with another $600,000 score a week later. Juanda has been one of poker's most consistent pros for the past decade regardless of the game, but his hold 'em results certainly hold up to scrutiny. It has been suggested that Juanda actually managed to raise the backing for this event only to arrive at the cage too late. In doing so he missed a phenomenal opportunity. Isaac Haxton: If you're looking for a no-limit hold 'em tournament specialist, this is your guy. Haxton already has four no-limit hold 'em cashes at the 2012 WSOP. He was at the final table in the 2010 WSOP's special $25,000 event and finished second in the WSOP's 40th anniversary $40,000 event. I mean, reading that, I want to have backed the guy myself. I'm a little confused as to why backers weren't climbing over one another for a piece. Daniel Cates: The argument against Cates is that, while he's a hold 'em specialist, his talents are better used elsewhere. He's an online guy in a live game world, a cash game specialist in a tournament environment, a heads-up specialist who'd be looking at eight-handed play. Even mindful of all that, though, the 22-year-old thrived this year in the PartyPoker Premier League, taking home $300,000 in non-heads-up play. He's an enormous talent, but perhaps he needed another year of live seasoning under his belt. Patrik Antonius: This may be the biggest omission of them all. Barry Greenstein has repeatedly referred to Patrik as the best player in the world without a WSOP bracelet, a condition likely more attributable to his preference to play cash games at the Bellagio than enter a $1,500 WSOP event. Again, like Cates, cash games are a key and Patrik enjoys a mixed game too, but he has done as much high-stakes no-limit television than anyone not named Phil Ivey or Daniel Negreanu, and has the successful track record to back that time up. Viktor Blom: Blom was actually rumored to be playing. He's still an enigma, even after coming out from behind his "Isuldur1" online persona, and he won the Super High Roller event at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure this year. He has locked horns with Ivey and Dwan countless times. It would have been fun to see him do so here on the biggest stage he'll ever find. Honorable mention: Brian Hastings (apparently turned away at the cage), Shaun Deeb (intentionally lost Saturday's $25,000-entry satellite in order to take the $1,000,000 cash second prize), Vanessa Selbst, Chris Moorman, Justin Bonomo, Scotty Nguyen, Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson.
• Justin Smith was the first player eliminated. "BoostedJ" called an all-in on the river from amateur Frederique Banjout while holding a straight. Banjout had hit the runner-runner flush. That hand left Smith with just 30,000 chips at the end of Level 2. Brian Rast finished him off soon afterward.
• Baldwin said two other things of interest: (1) He felt that at least two amateurs would make the final table, and (2) he said that as prestige goes, he'd rather win One Drop than the main event.
• Morgan was unimpressed that odds-makers reportedly made him 100-1 to win a 48-player tournament.