A master hand dealing with the hand dealt him

Poker: Greg Raymer has made his mark at the poker table, but away from it is where he made his most calculated move

July 06, 2005|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,SUN STAFF

For millions of TV viewers who have watched the countless reruns of last year's World Series of Poker main event, winner Greg Raymer is frozen in time wearing his trademark novelty sunglasses and gleefully holding aloft a fistful of bundled cash - part of a $5 million payday.

Not surprisingly, as a result of that improbable victory, the life of the unassuming 40-year-old Connecticut patent attorney changed. But it also was nearly ended.

One night in December, after playing poker at the ritzy Bellagio in Las Vegas and looking forward to competing in a televised tournament the next day, Raymer found himself staring down a gun barrel as two holdup men demanded his money. He had $150,000 in casino chips on him.

"The gun was really big, so big that I thought it was fake," Raymer said as he headed to this year's World Series in Las Vegas, where the marquee event starts tomorrow. "We're talking Dirty Harry-style; it was that big."

The bandits accosted him as he was about to enter his hotel room at the Bellagio, but the 300-pound Raymer managed to push everyone back into the hallway and started yelling for help.

That's when the gun came out and Raymer knew his assailants wanted him inside his hotel room - the worst possible turn of events, the poker champ figured. The robbers could have him tied up, he could have gotten a good look at their faces, and they might've decided they would have to kill him.

So instead of capitulating, he fought back, yelling, flailing, knocking the bad guys around and chasing them off. Caught on casino surveillance cameras, the two eventually were arrested in California and now await legal proceedings in Las Vegas.

The choice to resist, Raymer said, was similar to deciding whether to fold, call or raise in a high-stakes poker game.

"Regardless of whether they were bluffing or were willing to shoot me," he said, "I was more likely to live if I yell and fight than if I give up and go into the room."

That substantial scare aside, the past year has been heady stuff for Raymer, including a string of appearances around the world representing PokerStars.com, the Internet card room where he won his seat in the No-limit Texas Hold'em World Championship last year.

Nicknamed "Fossilman" because of his hobby of collecting and selling rocks, Raymer finished third in the British Poker Open, winning about $50,000, and placed 33rd in the World Poker Tour Championship at the Bellagio, where he pocketed more than $47,000.

At last year's World Series, he won the main event by crushing the opposition with solid play and a run of exceptionally good fortune. Whenever a hand could have gone either way, the cards always seemed to fall in Raymer's favor.

"Greg has a lot of heart," said Mike Sexton, the color analyst on televised World Poker Tour events and an expert player. "He's not afraid to move his chips around, meaning he's an aggressive bettor.

"He's fearless. If you raise him, Greg could quite easily come over the top," Sexton added referring to a re-raise, "and not always with terrific cards. ... And unlike some other players, he doesn't have a big ego. He's very down-to-earth."

Raymer begins the defense of his World Series title having already made a final table in one preliminary event last month - a no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament with a $1,500 buy-in and more than 2,000 entrants - in which he placed sixth and won $119,000. The World Series of Poker is actually a collection of 45 tournaments of various styles and buy-ins that began June 2. The main event is expected to draw more than 6,000 players and is scheduled to run until about July 16.

Raymer has been at the 2005 World Series from opening day, a contrast from last year when, as a lawyer for Pfizer, he squeezed in a trip to Vegas during vacation.

He turned in his resignation less than a week after winning the poker championship to work for PokerStars.com, a role that has taken him to London; Paris; Dublin, Ireland; Oslo, Norway; Copenhagen, Denmark; Stockholm, Sweden; and Monte Carlo, Monaco.

In the United States, he can't order a burger and fries at a fast-food counter without being recognized - a celebrity he takes with equanimity. "It doesn't bother me and it doesn't stroke my ego," he said.

But the married father of an 8-year-old girl said he's tiring of the travel.

His goal, Raymer said, would be to seal his poker stature with a few more World Series of Poker gold bracelets - a coveted trophy given to the winner of any World Series event. Then, he hopes to make more of his livelihood away from the playing table, teaching seminars and marketing poker-related products and books.

It's the same type of analytical thinking that may have saved his life in the Bellagio hallway.

"One of the main mental traits I've noticed about all great poker players is speed of thought," Raymer said. "In that case, I went through all the factors very quickly and made my decision what to do - and I was lucky. Just like in the World Series."

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