Monday, February 10, 2014

Barry Bonds wants to kill me, too

In my post called "Armadillo Tim and the Threat of Death," I mentioned in the last line that Tim's death threat wasn't my only one. My second death threat, oddly enough, was from someone I'd never met until that moment.

In 2005, PokerStars held its first land-based World Poker Tour event at the Atlantis Resort & Casino in the Bahamas (for more on that event, a three-part story starts here and a related story is here). Just after we concluded negotiations with Atlantis and signed a contract, I got a call from a guy named Pete, who had been hired by Michael Jordan to run his annual Michael Jordan Charity Golf Tournament. This event had been held at Atlantis a number of times - in fact, there's an incredible suite at Atlantis that's informally called the Michael Jordan Suite (officially called the Bridge Suite).

Pete was clearly OK with the golf part of his responsibilities. However, Jordan had just called him to ask if he could organize a celebrity poker tournament as part of the golf event. Pete called Atlantis, they gave him my number, he called me, and there I was talking to a guy who wanted us to create a poker tournament for Michael Jordan and 100 of his favorite sports legend and celebrity friends. My life, already possessed of a surreal edge, was taking on entirely new dimensions.

We got the formalities out of the way quickly - of course we could do the event, and we'd be happy to provide tables, dealers, chips, cards, floor staff and anything else they needed. Pete mentioned to me that many of the players would have little, or even zero, poker experience. We decided that, in addition to the normal dealer and floor staff, we'd also provide coaches for each table. Any player could ask a coach for help or advice at any time during the tournament. We had plenty of staff on hand qualified to do this - in fact, we had staff begging for this assignment, even though it paid nothing except for a few extra days at Atlantis.

The event started with the most elaborate cocktail party I've ever seen. Gorgeous Bahamian women in skimpy outfits carried trays of Cuban cigars; anyone who chose to smoke one also got a one-cigar crystal ashtray, cutter and lighter. The caviar bar featured half-kilo tins of Beluga caviar (for perspective, one of those goes for about $3,500). There was a beautifully-done Grey Goose ice sculpture, about six feet tall, with channels bored through it; if you chose a Grey Goose shot, they poured it through the sculpture and it emerged so cold that it had an oily consistency. The sushi bar served up martini glasses filled with a decadent yellowtail/toro appetizer.

I don't remember all the celebrities I saw that night, but it was pretty staggering. Off the top of my head, I remember Dennis Rodman, Roger Clements, Julius Erving, Wayne Gretzky, Damon Wayans, Scotty Pippen, Dennis Haysbert, Vanessa Williams, Alan Thicke, Vivika A. Fox, Bryant Gumbel, Mario Lemieux, Carson Daly and Barry Bonds. We'll come back to Barry in a minute.

The tournament started with lots of fanfare and much less confusion than I expected. There were a few fun and entertaining moments, especially as liquor continued to fuel essentially clueless celebrity poker players. Two of my favorites both involved Sharon - the first was her meeting her hero, Wayne Gretzky, just before the tournament, which is the only time before or since that Sharon was speechless. 

The second was at the table she was coaching. Dennis Rodman was at the table, drinking heavily and playing recklessly despite Sharon's attempts to rein him in. At one point, he called her over and asked her advice. She suggested he fold. Rodman said, "But I really want to move all in!" She stood firm, saying, "Your hand sucks." He stood up, towering almost exactly a foot over her. Sharon said, "I don't care how tall you are, your hand still sucks." The table all laughed and applauded, and for the record, Rodman folded. I was fortunate enough to witness this one first-hand.

A few minutes after the Rodman hand, I was watching the action at my table when I noticed Barry Bonds reach into Alan Thicke's stack (Thicke had just won a pot) and take some chips. I didn't say anything at that moment - I wasn't sure I had seen what I thought I had seen  - but I called Mike Ward, our tournament director, over to watch. A few minutes later, Thicke, who by this time was nearly catatonically drunk, won another pot and Bonds took more chips from his stack. I turned to Mike, about to suggest that I intervene.

"This is for fun and for charity," Mike said. "We should allow a lot of leeway." I didn't like it, but also didn't want to create a scene, so I let this one pass, also.

About ten minutes later, Bonds and Thicke got involved in a pot, and Thicke, one of the massive chip leaders, moved all in. Bonds thought about it for just a minute and then called. As we had done for all all-ins, we announced the action and got the pot right (rather than just leaving chips in front of players, as is often done in tournaments). Thicke had Bonds covered by a lot. The cards ran out, Thicke won the pot and Bonds was eliminated.

Or so we thought.

As I watched, Bonds reached into Thicke's stack once again and took quite a few chips. This time I wasn't about to let it pass.

"I didn't say anything the last few times you did that, but this time, you were eliminated from the tournament. You will need to return those chips."

There was a long silence. The dealer, who had started dealing the next hand, stopped and looked up at me for direction. "Deal around him," I said.

"Where are my cards?" Bonds asked in a too-loud voice.

"You've been dealt out. And you need to return the chips you took from Mr. Thicke."

The players all had their cards, blinds had been posted, but no one moved. The players were waiting to see how this was going to play out. Me too.

Mike Ward came and stood next to me. Unbidden, one of the many beefy security guards stood on my other side. It hadn't occurred to me that I might need him, but I was silently grateful.

Bonds looked at the table, then up at me, smiled a beatific smile and said, "I've killed people for less than that." And just sat there.

The moment stretched out for hours. It was probably thirty seconds. Then, Bonds slowly stood up and walked away.

And there it was - my second death threat.

I can't say I've ever been a big fan of Barry Bonds (although I thought his dad was terrific). But I do owe him a debt - not that many poker executives get not just one, but two death threats in a single career.

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