“Jesus,” “The Godfather,” “No Home Jerome.”
They were all there, the best players on the planet, bidding for poker immortality on the Las Vegas strip. In the middle of the glitz and glamour at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino sat rookie Michael Blumenthal of Prairie Village, with eyes the size of silver dollars. This was the World Series of Poker, and the lawyer felt like a minnow in a tank full of sharks.
Blumenthal earned his seat by winning the inaugural Big Slick poker tournament in Kansas City in 2010. Homegrown celebrities Rob Riggle, Paul Rudd and Jason Sudeikis started the tournament — which returns this weekend — as a benefit for Children’s Mercy Hospital. Once again, the winner will receive cash and a seat at the World Series of Poker’s main event on July 7, valued at $10,000.
“When you’re sitting there it’s surreal,” Blumenthal said. “Behind me was Phil Gordon, author of poker books and a commentator on TV. Three tables from where I was sitting was Doyle Brunson, regarded as ‘The Godfather of Poker.’ … And a few tables down was Phil Ivey (nicknamed ‘The Tiger Woods of Poker’ and ‘No Home Jerome’), widely regarded as the best poker player in the world.” Blumenthal also snapped a picture of long-haired Chris Ferguson, known in poker circles as “Jesus.”
“It’s huge beyond comprehension,” he said. “For a poker player it’s a bucket-list event. It would be like a golfer getting to play in the Masters.”
Blumenthal was this close to winning again last year, until Brian White of Overland Park snagged victory and the trip to Vegas.
“I was in disbelief for awhile,” White said. “Honestly, when you get there the event is enormous.”
White has continued to play poker six to eight hours a week and is coming back this weekend to defend his Big Slick title.
And Blumenthal? He is folding his cards for now.
“I actually have played very little poker since then because things got so busy at work,” he said. Instead of immersing himself in the world of poker, Blumenthal has been consumed by a large case in the world of business. Besides, this year’s tournament falls on the same day as a family commitment.
But if he never plays another hand, he’s had his share of poker glory.
“Winning that first year and being the runner-up the second year made me a mini-celebrity,” Blumenthal said.
“One of the people who played that second year was Grant Hinkle. And he kept saying how ‘sick’ it was that I had done so well. That’s a high compliment coming from such a distinguished poker player. Both he and his brother from Overland Park have won more than a million dollars in poker winnings, so that’s a tremendous compliment.”
White is impressive in a different way. He learned to play poker only about six years ago. He played with friends and didn’t do too well.
“Right then I set a goal for myself to get to the World Series of Poker,” said White, who is married but doesn’t have kids yet.
His friends told him was nuts. He didn’t respond. Instead, he began playing in free poker tournaments at local bars and clubs, and he let his actions do the talking. He finished sixth in the Big Slick tournament in 2010 and won it all the next year.
“I learn quickly,” said White, 50, a project manager for Motorola who installs public safety communications systems. “I’m pretty good at math, and I read a dozen books on poker.”
He donated several thousand of his winnings to Children’s Mercy and flew to Las Vegas, leaving his doubting friends dumbstruck.
The World Series of Poker did not disappoint.
“The announcing, the TV cameras, the way they hype it up and all the famous people. I think Ray Romano and Brad Garrett were there to kick it off. It takes a lot of discipline to figure out how you’re going to survive. And five or six days playing poker 12 hours a day is a lot of surviving!”
If you make it that far. White lasted about five hours.
He has analyzed his mistakes and is itching to get back.
“There are two hands that stand out for me that I played wrong,” he said. “I went too far with a pair of sevens, and then I went too far with two pair. That’s an OK hand, but you can’t put a lot of money in it.”
In the last year White has been playing poker at local casinos a couple of times a week. At Big Slick, he plans to win his way back into the big tournament.
“I’d be much better positioned this year,” he said.
Besides the actual games, Blumenthal said, he had a great time at the previous two Big Slick tournaments seeing old friends.
“I knew Paul Rudd from college,” he said. “He was two years behind me (at the University of Kansas) and we were both in the Sigma Nu fraternity. I didn’t know Rob Riggle, but I knew his sister, Julie McKee, fairly well. Julie is a sorority sister of my wife and also does employment law.”
Blumenthal, 44, started playing poker in earnest about 10 years ago. Before winning Big Slick, he had won a smaller poker tournament at the Ameristar Casino, pocketing $1,500.
The married father of two only entered Big Slick in 2010 after being prodded by a friend — Dean Newton, head of sales and marketing for Delta Dental of Kansas — who offered him the $500 seat his company had bought.
“He said I was the best poker player he knew,” Blumenthal said. The only thing he asked was for Blumenthal to donate some money to Children’s Mercy if he won.
In 2010 Blumenthal donated the full $3,500 in travel expenses that he won to Children’s Mercy. Last year, while he didn’t win the Big Slick tournament, he “chopped the pot” (ended the game early and split the winnings) with White, netting around $13,000. He donated half of that to Children’s Mercy, too.
And at the World Series of Poker? He did well — at least for awhile.
“I actually was ahead of the average chip count at the dinner break,” he said. “And then I took a big hit and lost a lot to somebody who got lucky.”
If he had played a little more conservatively, he said, he would have advanced.
“I didn’t want to have to hang around for three more days with a short stack,” he said. “As my oldest daughter always says, ‘Go big or go home!’ ”
He went home.
Now he keeps a photo album of his experiences on his coffee table.
Will he enter the Big Slick tournament again?
“I used to play a lot, he said. “But it’s one of those things you have to do a lot to be good at. And I just don’t have the time.”
To reach James A. Fussell call 816-234-4460 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.