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“The game exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.” — Walter Matthau

The man in the driveway finishes his cigarette and kicks the butt. It’s an unseasonably cool night on a leafy, sleepy side street in Northwest Washington. The sun hangs low. It’s early evening, the time when nearby families might be sitting down to dinner. But not here. The man disappears into a dark garage, slides between a narrow doorway, passes through a darkened foyer, and walks into the basement. Awaiting him are three tables anchored by dealers hired for the evening. Each table will have nine players. And each player will start with $3,000 in chips. Kenneth Adams brushes over the rules of the house, orchestrating each point, using his hands with the precision of a conductor. All eyes are on him, including those of Stu Unger, arguably the greatest Texas hold ‘em player ever, who looks on from a black-and-white photo hanging on a maroon-colored wall. (Proverbially, Unger died young, broke, and broken.) THE DEAL The cards are dealt and social Darwinism begins. The murmur of ESPN from the corner television recedes further in the background. Everyone has a ritual. Some talk to other players. Some wear shades. Some listen to music, donning white buds from their iPod, screening out all distractions. Their ages vary. All are tied to Adams, in one way or another, and are vying for the opportunity to play more, which dovetails nicely with why this group is here. It’s not for money. They don’t need the money. It’s for kicks. That’s not to say real money is not at stake. This is no impromptu grad school poker night. Tonight’s winner of what is commonly referred to as a satellite competition will have his $10,000 entry fee paid for this summer’s World Series of Poker Main Event (the sport’s Super Bowl). With more than 3,000 people expected to pay to play, that tournament is as democratic as it is hard to win. So winning tonight means the opportunity to do Las Vegas: rub elbows with hold ‘em heavyweights and play for a few million bucks (or, instead, be unceremoniously dismissed within a few hours). And then there are the bragging rights, not an insignificant prize in a room packed with Washington r�sum�s and Washington egos. The room’s walls are adorned with plaques detailing Adams’ and his poker buddies’ rankings in various tournaments. There are enough hot dogs, jalapeno poppers, and other munchies to feed the group until the next morning — literally. Once the annual Vegas satellite game is finished, the monthly cash game will start. House rules say no more cards after 8 a.m. That’s 13 1/2 hours from now. “If I didn’t established a strict time there’s no telling when people would play ’til,” says Adams. The buy-in for a shot at Vegas glory is $500, and once the game starts, players have the minimum $20 bet posted automatically. Still, some seem to take it more seriously than others. Supreme Court upstart Thomas Goldstein, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, saunters in a few minutes late. Garbed in a muted pink-striped seersucker suit that wouldn’t look out of place on a dealer at the Flamingo in Vegas, he elicits raised eyebrows, cheers, and jeers. Harvey Pitt, the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, barely looks up. He’s ready to play, though he won’t stay as long as he’d like to this evening. Across from him, Lyles Carr, vice president of the McCormick Group, chuckles. But that is, more or less, the last enjoyable moment of his tournament. Hold ‘em is referred to as the Cadillac of poker, and this version, no limit, has the biggest swings. At any moment a player can risk all his chips. A hand starts with each player receiving two hole cards. A round of betting follows. Then three communal cards are shown (the flop). This is repeated twice more (fourth and fifth street), and each time a round of betting follows until there are five communal cards. The players combine those common cards with their two hole cards to make the best five-card hand. The game has been moving along for 15 minutes when Adams is dealt an ace of clubs and a three of clubs. Good cards — not great, but certainly usable. He elects to call a modest pre-flop raise by Barry Scanlon, a senior vice president at James Lee Witt Associates. One other player calls. Everyone else folds. “Here’s the thing: If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half-hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”

— Mike McDermott, “Rounders”

Adams, a partner at Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky, came close to quoting that line verbatim while talking cards in his office a few days before the satellite game. “The great ones, they just know, within a few minutes, exactly the kind of player you are,” Adams says, smiling, his typical exuberance ratcheted up a notch. “Pretty quickly they know the cards in your hand. It’s an unbelievable sense.” Adams has been playing Texas hold ‘em for 20 years — well ahead of the pop-culture curve. Now 60 and having built his antitrust plaintiffs practice on high-reward cases (he won $2 billion in settlements for 153 corporations that were felled by an international price-fixing conspiracy), Adams is scaling back his office hours and focusing on his two loves: family and hold ‘em. “I now fit work in around other things, where I used to fit other things around work,” he says. “But my wife’s biggest fear is that I’ll spend too much of my time with poker.” Those poker hours will include playing around the D.C. area, logging into online tournaments to keep sharp, and, most important, entering several professional tournaments, located across the country. He’ll do this intent on winning — and with the entry fees paid by a consortium of partners at Dickstein, who’ve backed him with $50,000. Adams’ professional poker playing started around the same time the sport caught fire. Only a few years ago poker tables were stereotyped as a harbor for vaudevillian characters with monikers that served as middle names. Think Edward Norton as Lester “Worm” Murphy in “Rounders.” But now hold ‘em is mainstream, readily played by nursing-home shut-ins, coeds on their iBook in between classes, and middle-aged D.C. lawyers who seek a competitive outlet. “It’s sort of like an isometric exercise for the brain,” says Barry Fleishman, a partner at Dickstein and a regular at Adams’ monthly games. “There aren’t many things that can take you away from the job, but because your focus is so intense, you walk away refreshed.” As with anything this centrifugal, Adams can recall, vividly, the moment he became hooked. It was 1985 and he and his family were vacationing in Alaska. While he was in a souvenir shop, scanning a wall flush with the owner’s personal photos, one stuck out. It was of two men at a card table, one of whom was the owner of the shop, Perry Green. The other was Stu Unger. Adams asked about the photo. Solemnly, Green brought him into the back of his shop and showed him the same picture, but this time on the cover of a book, written by A. Alvarez, titled The Biggest Game in Town. Green signed the book, handing it over on the condition that Adams give it a read. THE FLOP With his ace and three, Adams is one of three players remaining in the hand before the flop (three communal cards). It comes, and Adams isn’t able to pair either of his cards. But two clubs in the flop offer a flush draw. He raises $600. That is enough to persuade Scanlon to cut his losses and run. The bet moves to one of the youngest players in the room, Paul DeGarabedian — an unknown, a friend of a friend, and in this room full of hotshots, frankly, a nobody. A potential piker? A fish? The kid has a choice to make. He’s paired up the middle community card, a 10. It gives him a decent hand but an unenviable decision: Does he stay in? At another table, Isaac Shapiro, associate director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is enjoying himself, having distributed many of the table’s chips to his own stack. The good times don’t last long, though. Same for Hale Hawbecker, an official at the Interior Department’s Ethics Office. Like most of the players, he would later robotically push away from the table, resembling an ambulatory patient on the way to a session with Nurse Ratched. That’s the preferred losing behavior here. Rarely, if ever, in Adams’ games does someone lose his cool and let loose a stream of profanities. It’s mainly the culture, but it also may be the very large man hired to guard the door. The kid is clearly in a quandary. He wants to call but isn’t sure. He taps his index finger on his cards. He stares at his chips for help. He slumps and calls. He’s staying in. “There are few things that are so unpardonably neglected in our country as poker.”

— Mark Twain

Shortly after returning from Alaska, Adams was reading books such as Poker for Dummies and organizing games with friends. He knew it was time for a pilgrimage. In 1988 he took his first trip to Las Vegas. He bopped around the Mirage and made friends with the old-timers and locals. Through the ’90s he learned the risk-reward lessons poker dishes out unforgivingly, taking lumps, knowing that losing was part of getting better. While shuffling out to Vegas, Adams encountered and played against many of the game’s famous names, occasionally reporting scenes for Card Player magazine and, later, CBS Sports. “It’s pure meritocracy,” says Adams of his affinity. “How you speak, appear, how educated you are has a tremendous effect on how people perceive you in the world of Washington. Succeeding at poker is completely different.” Professionally, Adams has routinely built a law practice only to tear it down after five to seven years and go in another direction. “Once I think I have something figured out, I lose interest,” he says. But after two decades, that hasn’t happened with hold ‘em. “You aren’t going to master the game. There are so many factors to consider.” It’s often been said that poker is war disguised as sport. And each confrontation depends on who is shooting back. “Strategy changes depending on your skill level and on the other players at the table,” says Adams. “Advanced players play the other players’ cards. They don’t worry as much about their own.” In that anecdote, he sees hold ‘em through the same calculating lens that he views his practice. “Every hand is a negotiation. As a lawyer, you can be in a case that turns not on the strength of your case but on how well you know the weakness of the opponent’s case,” says Adams. “At our firm we take risks,” he says. “But I don’t view it as gambling. We didn’t invest $10 million on the Exxon case to lose [a reference to the firm's representation of Alaskans injured by the Exxon Valdez oil spill; Adams won, pending the appeal]. We thought it had a high risk-reward ratio.” (That phrase, risk-reward ratio, is a theme found in The Biggest Game in Town.) THE TURN At Adams’ table, the fourth card (commonly called the turn card) comes. It offers no help to the kid or Adams. The kid takes a moment, then checks his bet. Adams doesn’t hesitate; he raises. This time he bets all his chips. All-in. Fidgeting, the kid swallows hard and glances down at his cards. Barely lifting them from the green baize tabletop, he uses both hands to prevent those around him from taking pleasure in his dilemma. He pulls at his striped Polo shirt, adjusts his glasses. On most other nights, in other situations, he’s assured. That’s true for everyone here. But tonight, 26 of them will be going home thinking about how they failed. (Since many are lawyers — and poker players — the easy money is on each over-obsessing.) The kid is unsure. And in hold ‘em there’s nothing worse than feeling beaten, because then you become beaten. Adams sits with a casual confidence. He’s making small talk. The words don’t matter as long as the message is loud and clear. Everything is downright copacetic. His chips are on the table. He waits. Across the room, Leiv Blad, the D.C. managing partner at Clifford Chance, is wading through a muddling game. The cards just aren’t coming. The same fate awaits David Israelite, the former deputy chief of staff to ex-Attorney General John Ashcroft and now the president and CEO of the National Music Publishers Association, who stands out from the crowd with his �ber-European, form-fitting black dress shirt, designer jeans, and black loafers. And the kid sits, thinking. Still thinking. “Yeah, well, sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”

— Luke Jackson, “Cool Hand Luke”

“My partners are my partners beyond the firm,” says Adams. “So I threw out this half-joking idea for a business investment they could all join.” That investment was to bankroll his entry into professional poker tournaments, which he first entered in 2001. Adams sent out the proposal in the spring of 2005 and was surprised to receive several commitments. He was pledged $15,000. The idea was simple. Based on the stake, each partner would be returned the same percentage of winnings at the end of the year — assuming, of course, there were any. By having backers, Adams mitigates his own financial risk while facing better competition. Better players play in more expensive tournaments. “As a player, you have to have incremental goals,” he says. “I used to want to hold my own, then finish in the money. Now I want to win an event. “Playing for friends who’ve invested is great fun because they’re cheering you on,” he continues. “But it also makes you think about their financial interests.” Poker tournaments don’t pay until most of the field is eliminated. Making a profit isn’t easy. But by the end of the year, Adams placed in the money in several events, including a second-place finish at Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut, which brought him an $87,000 payday. And at the end of 2005 his backers were rewarded with a 180 percent return on their investment, he says. Adams started playing professionally in 2001 and estimates he netted around $20,000 in his first three years; 2005 was his best year — by a lot. So at the beginning of this year, Adams sent out the same e-mail. This time the response was better. He now has that $50,000 to budget throughout the summer and fall. “The larger investment means I can play in more tournaments and tournaments with a higher buy-in. Instead of entering $3,000 events, I can do $10,000,” says Adams. Kirk Pasich, a partner in Dickstein’s L.A. office, says that beyond it being enjoyable to support a friend and read Adams’ account of the action in daily e-mails, there’s a symbolic impetus for investing. “This struck me as the personification of the firm’s entrepreneurial spirit,” he says. “If you were looking at this from the outside, you might think it’s risky. But not when you know Ken. That’s true for how our firm approaches risk and entrepreneurial opportunities, and that’s why so many partners have invested.” THE CALL Adams is still smiling and talking, unconcerned. The kid, concerned, is noodling two things: My hand is good but not great, and my opponent is a very good player who must have something. So why call? Of course, Adams knows this too — I know what you know, and so you don’t know. At another table, Goldstein has yet to enter into a pot. That changes quickly. Admittedly a novice, he is smiled on by the poker gods throughout the night. Early on he does his best to stick around. Then, escaping the laws of probability on several hands, he finds himself finishing second (first place and the trip to Vegas go to a friend of Adams’, Mitch King from Delaware). King’s run includes knocking out third-place finisher Washingtonian national editor Kim Eisler, who loses after, fittingly, a cruel king emerges on fifth street. Eisler also announces his intention to bet on Brother Derek in the Preakness. An unlucky weekend. But then, luck never gives, it only lends, goes the proverb. Sixty full seconds have passed, none of them offering help to the young guy. The rest of his tablemates are feigning ambivalence, pretending to consider other things while the hand plays out. But they are watching closely. One of the favorites may be done for the night. Knocked out by a no-name. Knocked out in the first 15 minutes. It’s Georgetown playing Princeton all over again. But it’s never close. The cards don’t matter. They are a conduit to an opponent’s psyche. Adams is in the kid’s head — and he’s finished. The kid leans back, slides low in his chair, exhales, and flicks his wrist. El foldo. He tosses in the winning hand.


Nathan Carlile can be contacted at [email protected].

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