Who’s the best poker-playing primate?

Jul 25, 2006 4:32 AM

"Why don’t we find a trained chimpanzee that can play hold’em and we’ll match him against one of the big name pros?"

The television programming executives in the room nod enthusiastically and respond as one: "Perfect, but who?"

Brows furrow and there are a few moments of thought as they give the question their best efforts.

"How about Phil Hellmuth?" someone suggests.

"Perfect," everyone else in the room responds in unison.

The scene may not have played out this way, but the idea it embodies did occur as ESPN executives sought to add more pizzazz to their World Series of Poker coverage.

A source familiar with what occurred but who spoke only with the promise of anonymity says it was brought to the attention of ESPN officials that there was a trained chimpanzee in the Las Vegas area, a chimp that had been trained to play no limit hold’em.

What the chimp had been trained to do, so it seems, is shove all his poker chips into the pot whenever a hand was dealt.

But let’s not quibble over meaningless details.

So how were they going to get all this on film in a way that would add some sizzle to the ratings?

How about bringing the chimp over to the Rio and setting up the match there?

But, my source says, this notion was quickly nixed by Rio officials who worried that even the best-trained chimp might develop some kind of personality disorder if suddenly plopped down in the middle of thousands of poker players who are not necessarily known for their own stability.

Okay, so a crew would head out to the chimp’s home, or whatever it’s called where the animals reside.

Which is what they did.

The chimps are allowed at least limited freedom in the vicinity of their home. It was when the ESPN crew and a female producer arrived at the compound and climbed out of their vehicle, that a female chimp eyed the female producer and, well, all hell broke loose.

"The chimp attacked her," said the source. "It was just this one female chimp."

But why?

"Maybe it was a matter of one female getting jealous of another. Who knows?" the source shrugged.

The good news is that the ESPN photographer did not lose his cool. He kept his camera running, filming the mayhem from start to finish.

The result was some footage that the network reportedly hopes it will be able to air after everyone who is part of the decision-making process has a chance to think the whole thing through and get a look at a rough cut.

As the producer fled to her vehicle, the chimp was joined by others who heaved an assortment of loose tools at the vehicle — a saw, hammers and so forth. One of the chimps is said to have even turned a high-pressure hose on the truck.

Order was eventually restored and the producer was described as "shaken but all right" after being taken to a hospital where she was treated for a bite and a bruise.

Hellmuth was not present at the time of the attack, but that didn’t stop the jokes, like the one from a poker pro who laughed, "Sounds as though the chimp has a temperament just like Hellmuth!"