09/12/2006 11:00PM

Hearing grand tales of poker while thinking of going all in

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LAS VEGAS - I am in Las Vegas for more than a quick weekend of playing horses and poker after Saratoga and Del Mar.

I am now looking at places to live, because as a free man - in the best sense of the word - I am going to live out a fantasy I have had for several years.

Vegas is the candy store for gamblers of all sizes, shapes, and inclinations.

Horseplayers are treated to comfortable seats, private desk space, free meals, and other comps not found at many American racetracks. Poker players have action 24-7, and there is a never-ending list of tournaments to consider.

A friend of mine, Eric Drache, encouraged my visit. He, too, came out here for an extended weekend - 36 years ago - and has lived in Vegas ever since. If you're involved in poker and do not know his name, you should. Among other things, Eric ran a poker room in the early 1980's at the Golden Nugget; ran another room with Doyle Brunson at the defunct Silver Bird Casino; and ran Steve Wynn's highly praised poker room at the Mirage in the early 1990's. Beyond that, Drache was director of the World Series of Poker for 16 years, from its fourth year in 1973, after Jack Binion listened to Drache's criticism of the tournament's lack of organization in 1972 and challenged Eric to run it.

Drache, a high-quality seven-card stud player who has a pair of second-place finishes in the world series' Seven Card Stud Championship, saw the popularity of hold 'em overtaking his favorite game and was responsible for setting the expanding tournament schedule, devising blind structures, hiring and firing dealers and floor people, developing a world series brochure, and otherwise helping the public relations department promote the tourney into a TV-worthy national event. Even more important, Drache saw the potential in satellite tournaments - "partly by accident," he said, when he offered 10 players involved in a $1,000 cash game to play a "freeze out" tourney for a $10,000 paid seat in the world series.

"It gave players who didn't have $10K a chance to get into the tourney," Drache pointed out. From that beginning, satellite tourneys helped build the world series year by year.

Earlier this week. Drache took me around sections of Vegas that used to dominate the town and reminisced about some of the most unusual poker hands he has witnessed as a tournament director and more recently as executive consultant with his partner, Mori Eskandani, for many of the poker shows we see on the major TV networks.

Drache vividly recalls Brunson's two consecutive world series titles in 1976 and '77 earned with identical 10-2, off-suit hole cards.

"He made a full house both times," Drache said. "In '76, he was playing heads up against Jesse Alto for the title. The flop came A-J-10; Jesse was slow playing A-J. Doyle then made two pair on the turn when the deuce fell, and the money all went in. Doyle was clearly behind but made a full house on the river to win bracelet No. 1.

"In 1977, the flop came 5-8-10, and Gary 'Bones' Berland flopped 8's and 5's, giving him the lead. But a deuce fell on the turn this time, too, giving Doyle [a higher-ranking] two pair, and he didn't even need the full house he got on the river."

Doyle told Drache later that he was going to play with almost anything trying to steal the blinds.

"That was Doyle," he said. "Aggressive and fearless, especially when he could smell victory."

In perhaps the most unusual outcome in world series history, Drache cited 1984 when Jack Straus bet about $25,000 midway through the tourney, thinking that was all he had left.

"He didn't say 'all in,' " Drache recalled. "Luckily for him. His opponent called, believing Jack was, in fact, all in."

After Straus lost that pot, a $500 chip was found partly hidden under a napkin, which gave him the chair to continue.

"Jack went on to double, triple, and quadruple his stack to get back in the game and eventually won the title," Drache said. "At the time, I thought what he did was like a baseball player getting up in the bottom of the ninth with two out and an 0-2 count with his team trailing 10-0 and an obvious third strike being called a ball. No one would take notice until four or five runs crossed the plate - as they didn't until Jack had his $25,000 back."

More recently, while consulting for the TV show "High Stakes Poker," a game featuring large sums of real money and many of the best players in the world, Drache recalled the popular Daniel Negreanu flopping a set of sixes against Gus Hansen's three fives.

"Gus was not only lucky to catch the only card in the deck to win," Eric said, "he was also lucky enough to have almost $300,000 in front of him which Daniel had to cover. The actual pot size was about $575,000!"

On another episode of "High Stakes Poker", Drache said the producer announced, "Just three more hands before we shut down for the night." But after three lackluster hands, he announced, "Let's have one more."

Said Drache: "Normally, players will only play the nuts in this situation, and this was no exception. Sammy Farha looked down at K-K and Barry Greenstein A-A. After the third bet and the inevitable all-in raise by Barry, Sammy joked, 'This must be a cooler.' He finally called and continued joking as he flopped the third king and beat Barry out of a $360,000 pot in real money.

"I thought it was ironic," Drache continued. "Barry had to fly to Illinois immediately after this hand to give a speech to college students about getting your education before trying to learn poker and deal with its ups and downs."

Sage advice, I thought, while thinking about signing a lease for a Vegas condo.