Ed. Note: The original version of this two-part feature appeared as the cover story in Poker Digest. Ms. Eolis has added material on Lyle Berman’s experience at the 2002 WSOP and Berman’s “poker philosophy” for Pokerpages.com. The story is an adaptation of interviews and material that are part of a chapter in Ms. Eolis’ forthcoming book, Power Poker Dame.
With an unstoppable brain for business and a honed passion for poker, Lyle Berman, thrives on cutting edge projects and calculated gambles. Lyle thinks big. So, does Steve Lipscomb, the lawyer/businessman -turned television producer, who sidled up to the multimillionaire Chairman of Lakes Gaming, Inc (“LGI”), during the last World Series of Poker, to propose the idea of a poker tournament season on television.
Berman and Lipscomb team up
One year later, the introductory patter, has given birth to the World Poker Tour, LLC., a joint venture between Lakes Gaming Inc. (the gaming company that Lyle founded and took public) and Steve, the creative genius who has previously filmed the WSOP and the Party Poker Million tournaments for the Discovery and Travel channels, respectively. According to their unified voice, “the nation’s most popular card game is poised to become the next significant televised mainstream sport.
The “PGA” of Poker is coming
The World UFA Poker Tour will consist of 13 nationally televised poker events, filmed at prestigious casino sites. The WPT is projected to launch between the football and baseball seasons in 2003. Each show will be two hours each in a season of thirteen shows, run twice, for a total of twenty-six weeks. The tournaments consist of eleven “member” events, one $200,000 “free roll” event sponsored by the WPT and then the grand finale.
The $200,000 “free roll”
Each member casino sends one entrant of its choice and the WPT selects ten entrants of its choice for this event. And there is a kicker here- bigger than the Ace of Spades! This free roll tournament is also open to every WSOP Final Event World Champion and all inductees into the Binion’s Poker Hall of Fame. So expect to get roughed up here if you’d rather be lucky than good!
The $25,000 Buy-In grand finale
The tour begins fittingly in Las Vegas where big time poker tournaments were born, and the conclusion of the first season is expected to return there, full circle, for the grand finale- a $25,000 Buy-In No Limit Hold’em Championship. The final WPT event will feature the winner of each tournament on the tour (their entries are pre-paid off the top of each individual event’s total prize pool) and everyone else with the guts and the cash to ante up “ten dimes” for a chance to beat the twelve defending WPT Champions. Viewers (during the telecast, but not during the tournaments themselves) are sure to witness heart stopping bets, brilliant “calls” and “bad beats” through cameras that show the players’ hole cards while the hands are in progress.
The WPT 2002-2003 tentative production schedule
The casinos taking part during the first year’s televised tour are dispatching poker representatives to Las Vegas to formally accept their roles as “Charter Members of the World poker Tour. The casinos (including dates and locations, to the extent already determined) are listed below in the order in which their tournaments are expected to take place:
The WPT is SRO
With the exception of the World Series of Poker and the Trump Taj Mahal United States Poker Championship, the WPT has snared every major event in the United States. Taj Mahal Vice President Vince Mascio comments, straightforwardly, on his casino’s absence, “Our budget is set for the immediate future. We may take a look at this down the road and wish the WPT well in its venture.”
In addition to the longstanding major tournaments on American soil, the 2002 -2003 WPT schedule also includes a tournament in Costa Rica, and another in France as well as a tournament with on-line qualifiers that moves to the final table on a luxury cruise ship (in the Caribbean). Another event will feature a live final table (location yet to be determined) drawn from a sophisticated Internet poker room with an around the world client base.
The reception to the WPT’s marketing effort has astonished even the visionaries behind it. Mr. Lipscomb says, “I can’t believe the extraordinary response happened quite so fast with completion of agreements for our entire tour within six weeks from sending out the first contract.”
The WPT launch event
The WPT will be launched with a Media Event at the world-renowned Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas, NV on Sunday May 26th, at 5 PM. The posh cocktail reception/buffet and WPT Press Conference will take place in the Gauguin Conference Room, an aerobic five-minute walk from Bellagio’s lush conservatory and a museum that has featured Gauguin masterpieces in its collection; through July 24th, thirty eight precious works by Alexander Calder are on view.
The marketing foot remains on the peddle
The media event will be short on self-congratulatory remarks by CEO Lipscomb and lavish in appreciation of its charter members. Mr. Lipscomb crows that the WPT team is “awesome” (Audrey Kania, Senior Vice President, Robyn Moder Supervising Producer, Robert Cusolito producer) noting that this team is the underpinning of the phenomena of the new poker era that is about to unfold before your eyes. Canapés will be floated, wine and beer will flow and no doubt all but the smile-challenged will be photographed during the ninety-minute party, which according to Mr. Lipscomb will include a promotional tape on “how we take poker to the next level.” He continues, “The press event room will have blown up pictures and a 3D model of the set that will go to each tournament so that whenever you tune in, you see it and know you are at the WPT.”
A media tournament
The press conference will be followed by a $5,000 “free roll” Poker Tournament for each authorized member of the media, providing a shot at winning a piece of the $5000 prize pool for oneself or for the charity of his/her choice. The icing on the cake is the list of No Limit Hold’em tips that Lyle will tick off before the tournament gets under way-with powerful assists from fellow world champion poker players.
Mr. Lyle Berman is the force behind the WPT
Lakes Gaming, Inc. (“LGI”) has invested a hefty $3.500,000 in hard cash to get this tour rolling- with Lyle Berman in place as Chairman of both LGI and World Poker Tour, LLC (“WPT”) and Steve as President and CEO of WPT.
Lyle on Lyle begins
At the beginning of many hours of conversation, when I marvel at his company’s undertaking, Lyle (widely recognized in the poker world by his first name), quips, “I’ve done a little less well” than fellow Wharton Business School alumni gaming executives Donald Trump and Steve Wynne. But Mr.Trump’s skyscrapers and Mr. Wynn’s glitzy, groundbreaking hotel deals are hardly intimidating to this newest member of the illustrious Binion’s Poker Hall of Fame. In business, as in poker, Lyle is securely in the chips, and he regards his friends’ accomplishments as inspirational competition.
The early days
Born in 1941 in Minneapolis, MN, Lyle was the middle child between two sisters-one two years younger and one two years older than he is. Both of his parents are alive. Lyle says proudly, “I have good genes.” Good grades and good “testmanship” came easily to Lyle. He completed his elementary education in poker, and both grade school and high school in Minneapolis. The University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton Business School accepted his application and he eagerly accepted his placement there.
College poker proves risky
At Wharton, Lyle studied business by day, but there were also more than a few evenings that the poker wily youngster hosted card games at an apartment near the campus. As is wont to happen in a poker game when talented, players like Lyle are in it, more than a few students got their comeuppance, and at least one of them went for broke while Lyle was proving his mettle. His success at the poker table spelled a schooling crisis for Lyle, when he was among the players called into the dean’s office to explain his illegal gambling operation. Before escaping from the incident totally unscathed by a criminal record, Lyle first managed to get himself arrested, thrown out of school, and hauled into court to defend against the charges.
In a court appearance with fellow poker players, Lyle faced the judge, confidently. All charges were dismissed, but Wharton left no option to return. He took his punishment in stride, and showed little apparent remorse. So thought the University of Minnesota where Lyle retreated with a plea for admission to complete his college education. Initially, the school refused him, but the unflappable Lyle simply picked up stakes and parked himself in the army to learn a little more humility. He reapplied to the university, the second time around, demonstrating the required remorse. Lyle was admitted a few months later and obtained his college degree.
Lyle grows Grandpa’s business
Following his graduation from the University of Minnesota, Lyle plunged into the family business, going to work with his Dad in his grandfather’s lifelong labor of love, begun in 1899 as Berman Brothers Fur and Wool Company. In the early days, Grandpa traded furs and hides. Then in the 40’s, Lyle’s Dad and uncle transformed the business, “into a wholesale company for Indian and Western motif tourist stores -leather and related stuff. Late 60’s Hippies loved leather. So, we went retail.” The company was energized and invigorated by this move. Lyle pumped up the profits to sell the prosperous business to W. R. Grace, Inc. in 1978, continuing to run the company for the giant conglomerate until 1986 when he bought it back at ten times the selling price
Lyle climbs poker ladder fast
As his business successes mounted so did his passion for poker. In 1982, Lyle read Doyle Brunson’s book, Super System (known by Doyle’s legions of fans as the Poker Bible), he then set his sights on Las Vegas. Upon reaching the gambling paradise, he promptly played in his first tournament, a $100 Buy-In event (with re-buys) in which he knocked out then reigning WSOP Champion Tom McEvoy, shortly before going to the rail, himself.
Lyle chuckles at the memory, “I discovered I enjoyed losing $300 in the poker tournament more than I liked winning the $10,000 at the crap table a few minutes before I got to the poker table.” Then he recalls, with amusement, how he played in a one time only charity event in Aspen a couple of years later, only to run into the WSOP World Champion McEvoy, again. As in the first encounter, Lyle zoomed past McEvoy, this time straight into first place. Lyle was more thrilled to beat McEvoy than the whole rest of the field that left him as the last man standing. Since 1984 Lyle has played every WSOP and the famous side games that have run along side them over the years. Two years after his first poker volley in a public card room (1983), he took the blue ribbon and a pile of cash in the Pot Limit Omaha Tournament at Tom “Amarillo Slim” Preston’s Super Bowl of Poker, a one day tournament in which he held the same seat (was never moved to another table) for the entire proceedings.
Poker in the Golden 80’s
From the first of his jaunts to Las Vegas in 1983 to places like the Stardust, the Golden Nugget and the WSOP and through the Golden Eighties decade, Lyle was a middle limit (by his standards) “black chip” Pot Limit Omaha (PLO) and No Limit Hold’em (NLH) specialist in games that called for $25, $25, $50 blinds (three blinds including a small blind on the button were de rigueur in those days) and minimum Buy In-Ins of $2,000, Lyle, like most of the seasoned road warriors and alligator-shoed Texans brought out much bigger wads.
The player pool was a recurring fraternity (except for the inclusion of this reporter who more than occasionally enjoyed mixing it up with the boys) with the likes of Blackie Blackburn, Garland Walters, Roger Moore Chip Reese, Dewy Tomko, Doyle Brunson, Jack Keller Jay Heimowitz, Johnny Chan, Berry Johnston, and the late Mesrs. Stu Unger Seymour Leibowitz, Jack Strauss, and John “Austin Squatty” Jenkins, among those in regular attendance
The camaraderie of competitors transcended the games. Lyle made friends in the poker world, easily. High stakes player Chip Reese and WSOP Champions Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson, and Bobby Baldwin continue to be “playmates at the table and friends beyond the felt. And Jack Binion whose “invitational” No Limit Hold’em games were the rage during those years has remained friends as well.
Lyle knew a tough opponent when he saw one. Among his “bet the ranch on the turn of a card colleagues” he spotted extraordinary poker prowess. So beginning in the mid-eighties he was readily out there for his talented friends who could use an investor on their side-guys like Jack Keller, T.J. Cloutier, and the late Stu Ungar, all of whom have been honored at this year’s WSOP by commemorative chips for their achievement- each having the status of WSOP poker tournament millionaires.
Lake Tahoe is “the nuts!”
The prestige and fame of the WSOP notwithstanding, other tournaments have made their mark in the poker world; the one that Lyle remembers most fondly was Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker-more for the cash games than for the tournaments themselves. He recalls “the greatest games were in Lake Tahoe in the mid 80’s. The action was round the clock for two weeks straight because nobody lived in Lake Tahoe, then. There was nothing else to do except to amble from hotel room to poker room, especially during the 1987 whiteout, when the few poker players who ski had to give up the Heavenly slopes.
An aneurysm barely slows him down!
Lyle was among the skiers in the crowd. At the helm and firmly in control, his leather goods company was prospering when Lyle took off later in the winter for a Colorado ski vacation. In a catastrophic turn of happy days on the ski trails, Lyle found himself in a hospital with a brain aneurysm (a random event not connected to his favored pastime). For one month he lay in a Denver hospital recovering from delicate brain surgery. I visited Lyle at his (then) Lakeside home in Minneapolis, while he was recuperating. The courageous patient and businessman with determination that never quits had already returned to work from his den, ultimately negotiating the sale of the company once again in the fall of 1987. I asked him during that visit how he handled the fear of mortality. Without a moment’s hesitation he made himself crystal clear, “Throughout the ordeal, I never felt threatened with death, even when the full reality set in. I asked him the same question, today. He gave precisely the same answer, again, adding that he made his deal with Melville Shoes because they approached him with an offer he couldn’t refuse: “They put a lot of money on the table. My goal was to retire and see how I liked it. ”
During his so-called retirement he cashed in 5th place in the 1989 final event of the WSOP and went on to plunk down the Buy-In for the final event of the 1991 Binion’s Hall of Fame Tournament and won it. (In the late 80’s and early 90’s it was the second biggest tournament in the world with prestige to match.)
More poker championships Ma!
Lyle often says, “The best way to leave Vegas with a small fortune is to come with a large one.” But the three time WSOP bracelet winner in three different games (’89 Limit Omaha, ’92 NLH, ’94 NLDeuce to Seven) with three WSOP second place finishes to his credit has proven otherwise, for himself- not only with his enviable tournament performances but also by more than holding his own in his favorite high-stakes cash games.
The 2002 World Series of Poker
On May 20th Lyle was inducted into the prestigious Binion’s Poker Hall of Fame, the ultimate honor bestowed upon a champion poker player who has demonstrated so many extra-special “somethings” that he must be distinguished from the ever-growing list of short-term poker stars and even the perennially enduring lights of the game. The ceremony completed, Lyle then marched in a parade of 631 entrants into the final event of the WSOP. He lasted for four hours and went home for the day. He says that he’d like to be able to say that every time he goes broke on a hand “I went out with the other guy getting quads over my full house, but it doesn’t usually happen like that. Often I am willing to take much the worst of it because the money is not as critical to me.” As an afterthought, he says of his rapid exit that what binds good and bad players together in a tournament event is that either can get unlucky like he did in the just concluded final event of the WSOP. His last hand was a set. It got cracked by a flush! By nightfall he was back in the saddle, hammering the side games.
Lyle fixes to add to his considerable living with poker in mind!
Lyle is a Las Vegas resident these days, but don’t count on him ever becoming a fixture in the poker room. He warns, “Poker is a great pastime but not an easy way to make a living.” He only plays poker in his “spare time”, a rare commodity for a man with his far flung business interests, which these days prominently includes the World Poker Tour.