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Maxim Casino: From Geeks to Gangsters

Justin Bonomo
Age: 24
Tournament earnings: $2.42 million

Steve O’Dwyer
Age: 28
Tournament earnings: $506,750

Scott Seiver
Age: 24
Tournament earnings: $2.1 million

Isaac Haxton
Age: 24
Tournament earnings: $2.6 million

 

Dinner’s finished, and Isaac Haxton, Justin Bonomo, and six of their fellow millionaire friends—the poker galaxy’s brightest young stars—are pounding bottles of vintage Tignanello wine at Circo, a $100-per-plate Italian restaurant in the Bellagio, and peering at me with eerie intensity. Their current wager is on how many contacts I can store on my cell phone, and there’s a grand on the table. They bid on the answer auction style—“One hundred contacts,” “Two hundred,” “Two-fifty”—while I stare at my wine glass and, as instructed, try not to tip my hand.

The game is called LoddenThinks, in honor of a Norwegian, somewhat perpetually drunken acquaintance of theirs named Johnny Lodden. When everyone’s together at a meal or out drinking, they’ll pepper someone—a waitress, a stranger, a reporter from Maxim—with questions: How many security cameras are there at the Mirage? What’s the total cost of all the liquor behind the bar? The actual answer doesn’t matter, only what the Lodden-on-the-spot thinks the answer is. They all crank out bids, and when the last one’s placed, everyone puts their money on the over or the under.

Tonight I’m the Lodden. I’ve spent the past hour under their watchful scrutiny, trying to guess the value of a rotating sculpture hanging from the ceiling, the current temperature in Bangkok, and how many women President Obama has slept with while they place outrageous stakes on what my answers might be.

The bidding on my phone contacts has climbed to 600 before Bonomo calls out, “Under!” Their friend and fellow player, Scott Seiver does, too. The rest of the guys bet the over. Then it’s the moment of truth. “How many? How many?” cries their pal Steve O’Dwyer.

“It’s an old-school cellie,” I say, holding it up for display. “It only allows me to store 500 names.” There’s a crescendo of shouts, grumbles, and taunts as Bonomo and Seiver collect their winnings.
“I already love you, Davy,” says Seiver, the jolliest of the bunch, who’s often mistaken for Seth Rogen. “Pay me, bitches!”

The waiter drops off the check—it’s $2,070.44. “Pass ’em over, fellas,” says Dave Williams. At 30 he’s the posse’s cagey vet. He collects credit cards from everyone, and I pass him my card, assuming we’ll split the bill nine ways. It’s not to be. After playfully dogging me for rocking a Discover card—“Hey, is that the Gold one?”—the guys explain the rules of restaurant roulette: After every meal, all the credit cards are shuffled under the table, and then, one by one, positions are called out (“third from the top”). If your card is drawn, you’re off the hook. Last card pays the bill. Everyone grins at me, curious to see if I’m going to play. With their messy, stringy hair and wrinkled, ill-fitting dress shirts, they look more like a crew you might see late-night at a Denny’s during Comic-Con dithering over who ordered the extra root beer rather than Vegas high rollers letting it ride on a two-grand tab.

I’m in and instantly begin to reconsider, but it’s too late: Williams is shuffling the credit cards while a loose belt squeals in my mind’s engine block: Please, God, shit, oh fuck, please pick my card! A position is called, and Williams holds the card high, smiles at me, and says, “Here you go, man,” handing over my Discover, and I slump back in my chair, finally exhaling.

Last card standing is Haxton’s Platinum Visa. Haxton, 24, who bears an uncanny resemblance in look and erudite friendliness to Harry Potter, doesn’t flinch as he grabs his plastic and slides it into the leather-bound check folder and passes ’round the last bottle of wine.

Before we leave the restaurant, the waiter sidles over and explains that a 20 percent tip was automatically added because of the size of our party and that Haxton has, in effect, double-tipped, netting the waiter $800. Haxton waves him off. “No, we’re good, man. I meant to,” he says. “Great service.” Together we head for the parking garage, making our way through the Bellagio’s packed, rowdy main-floor acreage—bells ringing, quarters plinking, waitresses delivering rum-and-Cokes and Heinekens. If the guys were basketball stars, they’d be mobbed, but no fans ask for pictures and no girls rush over, phone numbers in hand; in fact, girls don’t even notice them. They are the most successful gamblers in the room yet draped in an aura of anonymity. They could be a debate team from Earlham College or coworkers at an Internet start-up in St. Paul. They fade into the background.

 

Haxton, Bonomo, and all the members of their crew occupy the million-dollar condos in a trio of luxury high-rises called Panorama Towers, which overlook the entire Las Vegas Strip. The Towers have become a sort of Hogwarts School for young poker stars, and it’s hard to kick it on one of their penthouse balconies with a tumbler of aged Pappy Van Winkle’s bourbon in your hand, gazing down at the Strip’s neon glitz, without feeling like you own this fucking city. But a decade ago, before any of these guys drove Bentleys or dropped two grand on dinner or bet thousands of dollars on how many women I think President Obama has slept with, each of them was in a dark, dank basement in Dallas, suburban D.C., or upstate New York, crouched with a pack of other awkward middle-schoolers, playing the game Magic: The Gathering.

Played with a set of collectible cards, Magic is essentially a math-heavy poker game with a Dungeons & Dragons flavor, and in the late ’90s its combination of fantasy-speak, strategic bluffing, and hardcore algorithms attracted, let’s say, a particular brand of teenage outcast with a competitive streak. In recent years several top Magic players have graduated to poker and are making bank. Haxton and Bonomo are this world’s rock stars, icons of the geek-to-gangster movement.

Haxton has dark hair and thick-rimmed Clark Kent glasses, and when you ask him a question he says “yes” instead of “yeah.” A Magic star in his hometown of Syracuse, he was bitten by the poker bug as a freshman at Brown. By his junior year he was clocking seven hours a day online or at the casinos. In the summer before his senior year, he sat down his parents and told them he was taking a year off to play online and tournament poker full-time; his goal was to make a million dollars in 12 months. He did it in three.

How do you spend your days if you’re 24 years old and making buckets of cake playing poker? The morning after our dinner at Circo, Haxton sleeps in till 11, sips tea with his girlfriend, Zoe, whom he met at Brown, reads 50 pages of a Michael Pollan book, and zips to the gym downstairs for a workout with his personal trainer. Finally, midafternoon, he settles into his desk chair, powers up his computer and its two massive flat-screen monitors, logs on, and gets to work.

While the boys do play the big-stakes table tournaments you see on TV, the bulk of their earnings are ground out, day after day, on smaller-pot games online. This afternoon Haxton plays nine to 12 $25/$50 no-limit poker tables at once and keeps a few other windows open to trade instant messages with Bonomo and Seiver and track their games as well. Even if you’ve kicked up dust online or at a few poker tournaments yourself, it’s still dizzying to follow Haxton’s action—cards scurry across the virtual tables, stacks of chips build and deplete, and pots of 20 to 30 grand lurch to life in minutes and vanish with a click. Haxton leans forward in his chair, sweeping and thumbing his joystick-style mouse. He chortles to himself, frowns, grins, and pumps up the music in his headphones—Hot Chip, then Dead Kennedys, then Eminem.

A message pops up from Bonomo; he’s spotted a whale (a civilian player with deep pockets) at a $100/$200 table. Haxton follows him to a $500/$1,000 table—these are the highest stakes you’ll see in online No-Limit Hold ’Em, with pots topping $60K regularly. Some whales have game, but they don’t have the world-class skills to win regularly against pros of Haxton’s caliber. Haxton plays under the screen name LuvTheWNBA, chosen specifically to sound amateur and loutish and prevent spooking whales. Still, poker is a game of chance, and on any given day a great player can lose to a good player, and this looks to be one of those days. Within an hour Haxton is down 40 grand, and his opponent has the wisdom to split while the going’s good.

 

Meanwhile, in Panorama’s North Tower , Bonomo is gearing up to fend off some more poker adversaries of his own. While many of his friends are shaped like either Laurel or Hardy, Bonomo’s got an athletic build, and the gel he adds to spike up his sandy-colored hair gives him the look of a snowboarder. Something to know about Bonomo: He dreams of being immortal—not immortalized by name, but actually immortal, like a vampire. Other things to know: Bonomo grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, spent one semester majoring in math at University of Maryland, and, like Haxton, dropped out to pursue a poker career; he’s won $2.4 million in tournaments in the three years since. He says he’s “a total dork” but has dated several of the hottest girls in the poker universe: His current girlfriend, Heather, is a sweet, young, blonde model who loves electronic music and rocks the kind of floppy, stuffed-animal backpack you see on teenage ravers. Bonomo’s never won a World Series of Poker bracelet (Seiver has one) and casually downplays its significance, though his friends say he badly wants one. It is, after all, the championship ring of poker. Last year he gave 7-1 odds that someone from Panorama Towers would win a WSOP bracelet, risking about $100,000; a neighbor of his came through with two bracelets, and Bonomo won big.

Bonomo fires up a half-dozen mid-stakes $25/$50 games online. He has a teacher’s patience: As he calmly banks thousands upon thousands of dollars, he explains tiny morsels of game strategy to me—“Poker is less about psychology than you’d think and more about math”—and even takes a half-hour break from playing to chime in on some threads on his favorite online-poker forums. Bonomo has established a reputation as one of the brightest minds in poker, and most of Panorama’s top-notch players regularly seek out his advice.

He opens a window with one of Haxton’s high-stakes games and watches his friend play live. Haxton, Bonomo, and Seiver all have a piece of each other’s action and work as a syndicate to hedge their wins and losses. Bonomo might lose 50 grand one day, but if Seiver’s up 70, they all come out ahead. The strategy is working. The three collectively have racked up more than $7.1 million.

 

By 8 p.m. Bonomo is trading IM’s with Haxton and Seiver about poker strategy and game theory, and it’s not long before they burst through his door to hash things out in person. The three of them crunch numbers, laugh at the idiosyncratic play of some of their online opponents, and hotly debate what the best course of action would have been for a standout hand Bonomo played in a live tournament two weeks before. “Chess has been around for centuries,” Bonomo explains. “Its strategies are complicated but have largely been solved. Poker, though, is a brand-new game. It’s billions of times more complex. We’re just starting to figure out how it works.”

Before long it’s time for dinner. The crew assembles, and they all head for a new Korean barbecue joint. At dinner Seiver reports 80 grand in losses for the day, while Bonomo’s up 30. There’s some drinking, then a few rounds of LoddenThinks, and finally some discussion of what to do for the rest of the night. It’s a Friday, and there are a few options on the table: Some friends are headed over to the Spearmint Rhino, Vegas’ swankiest strip joint; a VIP room is available to them at a club at the Venetian; also, apparently, the Situation (from Jersey Shore) is in town and hoping to play cards with them at the poker room of the Bellagio.

Drinking and partying the night away with the reality-TV star of the moment holds a modest allure, but poker can be boring when you’re playing at a single table with rookies, and ultimately the idea of playing board games back at Bonomo’s apartment has greater appeal. Who needs the Situation when you’ve got Catch Phrase? At Haxton’s we sip beer and whiskey, smoke doobies, and play board games until 5 a.m. It’s like college, except the dorm rooms are the size of Uday and Qusay Hussein’s palaces.

Seiver and I slap hands after our team wins a round, and I wonder: How can he be so upbeat after losing $80K in a single afternoon? Haxton explains: “It’s not about winning money; it’s about winning the game. We’ll come out on top. We always do.” The more time I spend with them, the more it starts to make sense to me: These guys are gamers, not gamblers. They never play slots or blackjack; they’d rather play Cranium.

The drive to win contests of skill and intellect started back in middle school, when Haxton was the longhaired outcast and Bonomo was the kid with severe acne who ached to fit in. You remember these kinds of guys: They were the bully bait; they read the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and got stuffed into lockers. While they struggled in gym class and couldn’t find girls to take to the prom, Haxton and Bonomo each discovered that in the world of games they were king, that here brain power determines hierarchy. “Playing Magic, I was in control,” says Bonomo. “I loved playing, and I was good at it.”

The next night we’re out with the whole crew at Moon, a nightclub at the Palms, 55 stories above the city. The guys are on the balcony downing tequila shots and telling tales of their friend Vivek Rajkumar, who, like many of their crew, is a poker genius who’s won millions yet is clueless about the everyday, which makes him an unpredictable Lodden. Haxton once asked Rajkumar, “At what temperature do you cook a frozen pizza?” Rajkumar: “A hundred degrees?” The memory of it sparks huge, raucous laughter, drawing the flirty eyes of a few hot drunk girls in miniskirts up to there, but the guys are oblivious. They start another LoddenThinks and are deep in gaming mode.

 

On my last day in vegas, Haxton and I head outside of town to Red Rock State Park to climb Turtlehead Peak. Haxton admits it’s his first nature trip since the eighth grade, and when we pull into the trailhead lot, he sifts through 12 bottles (yes, 12) of sunblock that Zoe packed in his bag. The climb’s a rigorous ascent, but Haxton’s work in the gym is paying off, and he leads the way.

Hiking along the ridgeline, Haxton’s explaining to me how quickly the game of poker evolves. Today the game is No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em. But in the past few days an online variation called Rush Poker has been sweeping the poker sites. It works like this: Instead of sitting at the same virtual table for hours with the same opponents, you’re with hundreds of players, and as soon as you fold a hand, you’re instantly dealt a new one at another table. Haxton and Bonomo are calling it “poker crack.” “The game will keep changing,” says Haxton, “but with Justin [Bonomo] and Scott [Seiver] and the rest of our guys, we’ll always be ready for battle, whether online or at tournaments. Figuring it out is the fun part.”

At last, close to dusk, we reach Turtlehead’s summit. To one side, a series of staggered, red, snow-covered peaks; to the other, the green-brown carpet of the Las Vegas Valley, lit at its far edge by the Strip’s neon glow, like a child’s fanciful toy forgotten in the far reaches of the backyard on a late summer evening. The spires of Panorama Towers poke high above the fray, and beyond, the cool sands of the Mojave Desert stretch toward California’s mountains.

Haxton pops a handful of wasabi nuts into his mouth and soaks in the scenery, suddenly reflective, like a prince admiring the kingdom he’ll one day inherit. “I wonder how far you can see from up here,” he says. “I mean, how many miles away are those peaks? Hey, that’s a good LoddenThinks.”

We sit in silence as the sky turns orange, then purple. A look of calm determination has shaded Haxton’s face. Who knew all those long, strange nights flipping Magic cards in his friends’ basements back in Syracuse would one day lead to this? Sometimes in life, justice is rapturously served.

Somewhere far below, surely, at one of the Strip’s seedier casinos, Haxton’s high school tormentors are crapping out on slot machines or at the roulette table and hoping they can squeeze a few twenties out of the ATM to hit a buffet. Meanwhile, a nerd millionaire gazes out from the mountaintop and contemplates the future. If poker crack is what’s in store for Vegas, Haxton will soon be its Nino Brown. The fun is just beginning.

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