03/23/2006 12:00AM

Banker's high-stakes games create buzz


There seems to be a major poker tournament taking place in this town every week. And if not a major one, then there's a made-for-TV event with top pros or one of those celeb-fests.

Poker is hot, but there's just not the same buzz now that these tournaments have become a dime a dozen. There was one poker game, however, that was the exception. It was held last month and people actually took notice, but you won't be seeing it on TV.

You might recall last June when I reviewed a book by Michael Craig called "The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King," which detailed billionaire Texas banker Andy Beal and his heads-up battles with the top poker pros between 2001 and 2004 at the Bellagio. It was dubbed "The Big Game," and it was the talk of the town whenever Beal was around. They played Texas hold 'em starting with limits of $10,000/$20,000 and going as high as $100,000/$200,000. And this wasn't like tournament poker where the chips are basically just a way of keeping score - this was cold, hard cash.

Well, Beal returned to town in February, this time at the Wynn Las Vegas, and the buzz was back.

"Having gotten to know all the principals and trusted by both sides, I knew Beal wanted to play again and the pros certainly wanted to play, so I acted as a mediator," said Craig.

His original book was written mostly from recollections of the participants, but this time Craig was given a close-up seat.

His account - this time titled "The Banker, the Boss, the Junkman & the Warrior Queen" - is the cover story in the April issue of Bluff magazine, which hit newsstands and poker rooms this past Monday. The editors joke that Craig is paid by the word, which would mean the joke's on them as the 15,000-word epic covers 20 pages with very few pictures or graphics as Craig keeps score but also details the psychological ups and downs of this high-stakes battle.

"I went with Bluff magazine not only because they paid me fairly," Craig said, "but more importantly because they agreed with me that this was history and needed to be documented as such. These are games that people will still be talking about years from now, just like the famous match between Johnny Moss and Nick 'The Greek' Dandalos."

From Feb. 1-5, Beal played the rotating team of pros, including Todd Brunson, Jennifer Harman, and Ted Forrest, for more than 2,000 hands, with the pros coming out ahead $3.2 million. The game broke up for a few days as some pros had to go to Los Angeles for a World Poker Tour event, and resumed on Feb. 6-10 when Beal won $10 million to go up $6.8 million, according to Craig.

That's where the magazine story ends, with both sides not knowing if the other will continue. I hate watching a TV show and really getting into it and then getting to the end and seeing "To be continued . . ." So, I should warn any readers that Craig's story concludes, "To be continued?" Sure enough, there was more poker to be played, and the May issue of Bluff will include Craig's account of how the pros sent Phil Ivey to take on Beal with blinds of $50,000/$100,000, and Ivey won $16.6 million for the pros.

But I don't feel bad about spoiling the ending, if it is indeed the ending. The beauty is in the details, and it's a fun read for anyone interested in poker.

Amateur crowned 'King of Vegas'

Texas hold 'em, though for much lower stakes, was the game played during the championship match of the SpikeTV reality show "King of Vegas," which aired its finale Tuesday.

Alan Borman, 26, a producer of radio and TV commercials from Detroit, walked away with the $1 million winner-take-all prize in the show, which aired the past 10 weeks. Borman outlasted 11 others and was among the amateurs that were often dismissed by the pros in the contest. The pros included Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, David Williams, and Evelyn Ng. But in the end, in the final "death match" to determine the champion, Borman took out Jerry Goldberg, 83, of Las Vegas. The finale will be replayed at 3 a.m. Sunday.

Sports book notes

The Nextel Cup circuit moves to Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee this Sunday for the Ford City 500. Station Casinos has Kevin Harvick as the 7-1 favorite with Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch all at 8-1.

* There are no major boxing matches this weekend or next, but there's an impressive lineup over the next few months. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is a -500 favorite over Zab Judah on April 8, Wladimir Klitschko is a -220 favorite over Chris Byrd on April 22, Oscar De La Hoya returns to the ring and is a -350 favorite over Ricardo Mayorga on May 6 (not so coincidentally the day after Cinco de Mayo), Antonio Tarver is a -200 favorite in his rematch vs. Bernard Hopkins on June 10, and Winky Wright is a slight -130 favorite over Jermain Taylor on June 17.

* Also looking ahead, even though Tiger Woods was the 4-1 favorite in this weekend's the Players Championship at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., most people are looking ahead to the Masters on April 6-9, where Woods is the 11-4 favorite at the Las Vegas Hilton. The Hilton also has odds on whether Woods will win any major this year at 5-9, and if you want to predict exactly how many he wins you can get zero majors at 3-2, one major at 5-4, two majors at 3-1, three majors at 15-1, and a grand slam at 40-1. The Hilton also has odds on other golfers to win a major, as well as the money-list champ (Tiger is 2-7).

NCAA bonus coverage at drf.com

* Saturday's regional finals in the NCAA tournament weren't determined by Thursday's deadline for Saturday's print editions, so my selections for Saturday's and Sunday's games will be available at drf.com. I'll be picking both games each day against the spread, with write-ups on my top play.