Many visitors and locals in Las Vegas are enamored with the idea of “poker celebrities.” People that, 10 years ago, wouldn’t have stuck out in a poker room let alone anywhere else. Those days are long gone, and now it’s common to see various well-known players posing for pictures, signing autographs and even kissing babies.
Though many have mixed opinions on this, I have no problem admitting playing alongside Chris Moneymaker one night at South Point was indeed a memorable experience, and to boot, he was as nice as could be. Poker “celebrity sightings” are rather commonplace in Las Vegas and some casinos have taken it a step further and hired well-known celebrities to help promote their poker rooms.
During the World Series of Poker, the poker celebrities are obviously seen at the hosting venue, which for the past few years has been the Rio. The rest of the year, however, the celebrity sightings vary and are often spread throughout the Strip and beyond.
Though historically the Mirage was the den of the high-stakes pros, that room has since adjusted to modern times, and the Mecca of high stakes celebrity players is largely confined to Bellagio and Aria. The Bellagio, for the longest time, has hosted the Big Game, which was usually a limit mixed game with limits as large as $4K-$8K (often with a $100K cap per hand). Common celebrities seen in this game are Doyle Brunson, Sam Farha, Barry Greenstein, Eli Elezra, Daniel Negreanu and David Benyamine. A smaller, but dedicated high-stakes game has been spread frequently at Aria. Jean Robert Bellande hosts this game, which is usually $300-$600 and sports the likes of Patrik Antonius, Phil Hellmuth and Ben Lamb.
Recently, a dedicated group of slightly lesser known celebrities have been frequenting the M Resort because of an arrangement Karina Jett has made to host a $100 H.O.R.S.E. tournament every Tuesday. This tournament often gets 40-60 players and celebs such as Gavin Smith, Chip Jett, Mark Gregorich and David Plastik.
It’s common to see well-knowns playing $2-$4 limit or $1-$2 NLHE, for any number of reasons. Often, these games can be a lot of fun because of the action high-stakes players can bring to a game that’s below their skill level. Antonio Esfandiari is known to occasionally sit in a $1-$3 NLHE game just for entertainment. Scotty Nguyen pops into the Harrah’s poker room on occasion since it has a larger-than-life photograph of him on the wall. Orel Hershiser may not be best known as a poker player, but the Vegas local can often be seen playing $2-$5 NLHE at his local casino, the Red Rock Resort in Summerlin (a high end community on the west side of Las Vegas).
The idea of a “Poker Ambassador” for a specific room is not a new concept. Most of these hired players help promote a room by hosting special tournaments where they’ll be playing, or playing in a cash game (usually at nosebleed levels), and allowing the visiting players to watch. One of the first rooms to publicly do this was the Wynn poker room in 2005. Negreanu came on board and offered to play anyone heads-up for up to $500K. In his contract was a stipulation that he confine his cash-game play to the Wynn, which eventually resulted in the relationship parting ways.
There was a time when Michael “Grinder” Mizrachi was the ambassador of the Planet Hollywood poker room, and as recently as December, the tradition continues with 2006 World Series of Poker champion Jamie Gold, being hired as ambassador of the Tropicana’s new room.
Gold is taking it a step further by not insisting on playing only high limits. He’s often seen playing $2-$5 or $1-$2 NLHE. He has facilitated the creation of special rules such as straddling from any position, running it twice and the allowance of table talk when heads-up.
When you decide to play poker in Las Vegas, you’ll have many opportunities to see and play alongside those same players you see on TV. Just remember they are people like everyone else, and common courtesy should be used when approaching for a photo or autograph request. Good luck!
— Michael Hamai (a.k.a LasVegasMichael) resides in Las Vegas and is content manager and editor of AllVegasPoker.com. You can follow him on Twitter @LasVegasMichael or email him at Michael@AllVegasPoker.com.