I was pleased to see emails pour in from Card Player readers after my last column (Vol. 34 Issue 3: How I Got Banned For Life From The Golden Nugget.) I’d like to thank you all for your great feedback, praise, and questions. I was also happy to see that thousands of readers also watched the video supplement featuring Las Vegas super host Steve Cyr, who gave some great tips on how to get treated like a high roller on a budget.
Since you all seemed to enjoy both the column and the video, I thought I would try and one up it with another true tale, this time about my sun run during the 2004 World Series of Poker. When you are done reading, check out my full, uncensored interview with casino host Steve Cyr, who shares great gambling stories featuring names you might recognize such as John Elway, Larry Flynt, and Michael Jordan.
I had booked a room at The Golden Nugget during the main event week of the World Series of Poker. At the time I had no idea this trip to The Nugget would play an integral role in them eventually banning me for excessive winning (see previous column.) In fact, if The Mirage would have banned me early on for excessive losing, it might have saved me at least a million over the years.
For those of you too young to have been there, 2004 was a very exciting year for poker. Chris Moneymaker was returning to defend his championship win and poker was becoming bigger than ever! It was also a historic event because it was the last year for the WSOP to be held at Binion’s Horseshoe before it moved over to the Rio.
Shortly after arriving, I ran into a bunch of my old friends from the pot-limit game I used to play in at Hollywood Park Casino in Los Angeles. It was a fun mix of players, including poker executive Dan Goldman who was working for PokerStars at the time, but is now the Chief Marketing Officer at Virtue Poker. There was also Dan’s wife, poker pro Sharon Goldman, cash game pro Nick DiLeo, these two grinder cats both also named Danny, and my friend Betsy Superfon, who was also known as ‘Betsy Superphone’ because she pioneered the 1-900 sex hotline industry.
We all hung out by a bar in the casino commenting on the incredible energy and vibe that was going on in Vegas during that time. Antonio Esfandiari stopped by and chatted with us for a bit, Gus Hansen and Jennifer Harman were playing in a high-stakes cash game nearby, and everyone seemed thrilled to be there. Eager to get some cards in the air, I said my goodbyes and then darted off to the handicapped room I had requested, (because it was closest to the elevators.)
It didn’t take long for me to dump my bags, splash some water on my face, and head down to the gaming floor. I had planned on playing poker, but on my way over to the board I just couldn’t help but to sit down at a blackjack table to play a few hands. Betsy sat with me to play cheerleader. I started out betting $500 a hand and made it through a double deck up a couple grand.
I was about to quit when Betsy goaded me by saying, “Houston, you never leave a table when you’re on a heater! Sit your ass back down and play.” Not being one to argue, I took the entire $2000 profit and bet it on one hand. I figured if I lost it, at least Betsy would feel bad and offer to buy me dinner. But I didn’t lose! Instead, I hit a blackjack, with the dealer pushing me a beautiful, white $5,000 flag.
Seeing as how this was the first time, I had ever been pushed a flag by the dealer, I took it as a sign of good things to come. Without hesitation, I stuck to Betsy’s advice and decided to play the rush. I pressed my bet up to $5,000. At that point in my life, $5,000 dollars was the biggest single bet I had ever made.
The dealer gave me two sevens and was showing a five. I looked at Betsy with a smile and split the sevens. I now had $10,000 on the table and had just doubled what was previously the largest single bet I had ever made. As right out of a dream, the dealer peeled off two fours, giving me an 11 on both hands!
This hand was getting crazy big, but I knew I had to stick to my guns and get my money in while I had the best of it. I had to double down, but I ran out of cash, so I asked the pit boss if they would wait while I went to grab some cash from my safe. I was being rated for my play, but had yet to establish a credit line. He looked at the table, saw how much money I had out there and said, “Sure, we’ll wait for you.”
Betsy kept my seat warm as I raced to the room to get my money. On my way back I ran into another buddy who had just gotten in from Los Angeles, and after telling him about the sweat I was currently dealing with, he followed me to the table to see the outcome. By the time I had returned, there was a small crowd gathered around, but they would have to wait a bit longer while the dealer counted out a wrap of $10,000 in c-notes, placing them on the table one at a time. When he was finally finished, he asked me how I would like it… and I told him to just put two more flags on the table.
The moment of truth was finally upon me. I had $20,000 on the table, almost my entire bankroll for the trip. If I lost, I wouldn’t have even had the cash on hand to buy into the main event. The dealer dealt me the double downs, placing an eight on the first one and a six on the second. Two frigging rags!
I thought for sure I was about to go dead ass broke. Then he dealt himself string of baby cards, finally busting with 22. I could finally breathe again.
I was about to get up and leave and once more Betsy said, “No, no! Sit your ass down and play your rush like a man!” As messed up as it sounds, it seemed like sage wisdom at the time, so I obliged. Another 45 minutes later, and I was up $150,000!
The bad thing about winning six figures in Vegas on the first day of a week-long trip is that there is a lot of temptation to deal with all around you. But I wasn’t worrying about it. Instead, I embraced the action and thought to myself, ‘F**k it. I’m like Richard Dreyfuss. Let it ride!’
That evening I decided to skip dinner and went across the street to Binion’s in search of a cash game. It was like walking into a gathering of the members of the Poker Hall of Fame. I could see Amarillo Slim chatting with Doyle Brunson. TJ Cloutier was firmly planted at the craps table as usual, and Johnny Chan walked right past me on his way to the poker room.
I decided to follow him in and get my name on the board. There were probably more cash games at Binion’s that year than there had been in over two decades. Anyone who was anyone in poker was there. I remember hearing over the loudspeaker someone saying, “Sam Grizzle is here, and he’s put out an open challenge. Sam will play anyone any game of poker for any amount they choose!” I just smiled. The energy was electric.
I sat down at a $10-$20 no-limit cash game and found myself up over $20,000 in about an hour. I cashed out to go buy into the main event, but then spotted a single table sit-n-go satellite for $1,000. I decided to take a shot.
You know the famous poker saying inspired by Jack Strauss of “a chip and a chair?” Well, that was me about 10 minutes into the sit-n-go. I was literally down to my very last chip. I tossed it in the pot and stood up ready to leave, but instead doubled up. Three double ups later, and I was back in the chip lead and knocking the last two guys out in the same hand for the win. I had K-K they both had Q-Q! I was running so hot, I even started entertaining the thought that maybe I could even win the main event.
The dream didn’t last long. I was playing sharp and running so hot that I could already see myself at the finish line, but not even 30 minutes in, seat 5 pushed all in on me. I was in the big blind and looked down at two kings, and snap called. He had Q-Q, but unlike the satellite, this time my opponent drew out to a straight on the river and busted me before my seat was even warm.
As I was shaking hands with the table, Phil Hellmuth was just walking in to take his seat, asking everyone how many blinds he had missed. My WSOP dream was over for the time being. So, I did what many have done after busting out in record time. I began to drink heavily!
I started with a Jack and Coke and added a shot at Binion’s before making my way back to the bar at the Golden Nugget. Three or four drinks later, I found myself sitting alone at the blackjack table with my entire bankroll in front of me. By the lunch break, I had managed to dwindle my $175,000 all the way down to just seven grand! Yes… I had lost my damn mind!
That’s when my friend Betsy wandered by the table. She was on break and asked how I was doing. When she saw what had happened, she just looked at me and said, “Houston, I’m skipping lunch and I’m going to sit here with you until you get it all back!” Betsy must have been carrying a lucky charm with her that year, because after she sat down, I hit a blackjack. Then another. Then I pressed my bet up to the table max of $15,000 per hand. Before her break was over there was a giant crowd around the blackjack table and I was up an astonishing $275,000.
Talk about a comeback! My friend Chris “The Armenian Express” Grigorian even rallied a bunch of poker players together to help me cash out in $10,000 increments so I didn’t have to sweat the W9. I ended up hitching a ride home with a buddy who had cashed in the main event, and bought my wife a brand-new Mercedes to commemorate the win.
If only all my trips to Las Vegas were as successful. Until next time, remember, stay sharp. Stay Kardsharp!
Check out the debut episode of the Stay Sharp Podcast below!
Houston Curtis, founder of KardSharp.com and author of Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist has lived a successful double life as both a producer and high stakes poker player for nearly 30 years. His credits include executive producing gambling-related TV shows such as The Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS, The Aruba Poker Classic on GSN and pioneering the poker instructional DVD genre with titles featuring poker legend Phil Hellmuth.
Barred for life from Las Vegas Golden Nugget for “excessive winning” at blackjack, Houston is one of the world’s most successful card mechanics and sleight-of-hand artists of the modern era. Curtis, who rarely plays in tournaments, won a 2004 Legends of Poker no-limit hold’em championship event besting Scotty Nguyen heads-up at the final table before going on to co-found the elite Hollywood poker ring that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-nominated film Molly’s Game.
Curtis now resides in Columbia, Missouri while maintaining offices in Los Angeles, and Phoenix, Arizona. In addition to running a production company and independent record label, Curtis also consults as a poker protection expert to clients across the globe seeking insight into master level card cheating tactics via advanced sleight-of-hand technique. In addition, Houston is now available for in-person and online speaking engagements, private sleight-of-hand instruction, and a variety of media creation/production services. Houston can be contacted directly at email@example.com.