Mention "high-stakes poker" and most people conjure up visions of legendary, million dollar tournaments on TV, such as the World Series of Poker or the World Poker Tour.
But in Las Vegas, high-stakes cash games are commonplace at upscale casinos such as Bellagio, Mirage, Caesars Palace and Wynn Las Vegas.
Although these games are conducted away from the bright lights of TV coverage and outside of public view, the stakes are often just as high and the action equally intense as any World Series final table.
Earlier this year, in what is considered the largest head-to-head cash game of all time, self-made billionaire banker Andy Beal matched $20 million against a coalition of professional poker players that included Phil Ivey, Jennifer Harman, Todd Brunson and Ted Forrest.
During the month of February, Beal played against a revolving roster of top poker pros in head-to-head games of Texas hold’em, which featured minimum table stakes of $30,000-$60,000 and $50,000-$100,000.
The average pot size per hand was well over $300,000, with the largest pot at $1.9 million. Wins and losses ran as high as $10 million in a single day, and one session featured two $8 million swings.
Anyone who has followed the career of Andy Beal knows this game was simply the latest (and largest) in a series for Beal. It all started in 2001 when Beal, the publicity-shy owner of one of the most profitable banks in Texas, became interested in poker.
On six occasions between 2001 and 2004, Beal played heads-up against members of the poker coalition. Although the pros won most of those matches, Beal developed into a world-class high-stakes poker player, who once won $5.5 million in five days and on another occasion won $12 million in one day.
This year, the match against the pros was a roller coaster ride from the start, marked by large financial swings in either direction.
Nevertheless, after about two weeks, Beal won most of the coalition’s $10 million bankroll.
But the pros weren’t ready to throw in the towel; they dusted themselves off and took a needed break to play in the L.A. Poker Classic tournament.
When Beal returned to Wynn Las Vegas for the third week of action, he was met by a new challenger, Phil Ivey.
Ivey, one of the top pros in the country, is known for his aggressive style of play and was once voted "most feared player" by readers of a national poker magazine.
On the first day of action, Ivey used his intense and intimidating style to win about $2 million from Beal.
The next day, Ivey again had the better of it, recovering $4.6 million in less than eight hours of competition.
On the third and final day, Beal jumped out to a nice start, taking about $2 million in pots after three hours of play.
But after a short noon break, Ivey kicked his play into high gear and got on a run that never ended. Observers said that Beal repeatedly delved into his stack for chips and that Ivey had reversed the earlier deficit and was rapidly knocking down pot after monster pot.
In fact, in less than hour, Ivey had recovered his initial losses and won and additional $10 million.
Overall, the coalition had recouped its original $10 million loss and earned another $6.5 million through Ivey’s efforts.
When the dust settled, Beal complimented members of the coalition on their sportsmanship and announced he would be heading home to Texas.
It is even rumored that Beal said he wouldn’t be playing any more high stakes poker.
At least not until the next time he visits Wynn Las Vegas with another suitcase full of cash.