Steven Begleiter isn't the only Wall Streeter to have hit pay dirt at the poker tables in Las Vegas. But he might become the first to claim the game's biggest prize and in an odd way he owes it all to his former employer, the collapsed investment house Bear Stearns.
Begleiter, 47, earned his way to the final table for the World Series of Poker's Main Event beginning Nov. 7 at the Rio Hotel. To get there he had to outlast all but eight others in a field of 6,494 in play over the summer. He's already won nearly $1.3 million (as has each finalist) and is shooting for the top prize: an additional $7.2 million.
The man called "Begs" enters the final table with 29.9 million chips, which is third most. He'll be competing against plenty of pros seated around the table, including Phil Ivey (9.8 million chips), who many believe is the best poker player alive, and another accomplished pro, Jeff Shulman (19.6 million chips).
Some of the pros, anyway, are licking their chops at the prospect of facing Begleiter. "He'll call big raises and reraises with hands that no pro would play," says pro Phil Hellmuth, who is coaching Shulman. He calls Begleiter "a loose cannon" who could lose all of his chips to Shulman in a single hand. "At some point he's going to make a mistake."
"Phil Hellmuth has forgotten more about poker than I will ever know," says Begleiter. "So if he says I will make a big mistake I presume he is a heavy favorite to be right. But I guess I'll still show up and see what happens." Begleiter acknowledges the X-factor dimension he brings to the final table but says it could be his ace in the hole; his unpredictability helps make him a dangerous player.
Big-time poker has had its share of successful amateurs in recent years, some of them simple garage gamblers with a dream of getting in a high-stakes game and, when they finally do, riding good cards and tight play to a money finish. Indeed, the current chips leader in this event (with 58.9 million chips) is Darvin Moon, 45, an honest-to-god logger from Maryland.
But Begleiter represents a different sort of recreational player that is taking to the game in increasing numbers; players with a mathematical mind, focus, drive and a keen sense of risk honed in professions like academia, the law or finance. These hobbyist bounty hunters were bound to start showing up at the Main Event, where the game's popularity has pushed up the stakes nine-fold over the past decade a period that has seen folks with a knack for numbers, like math whiz Chris Ferguson and accountant Chris Moneymaker, claim mountainous paydays.
Event organizers don't track all the contestants' occupations. But they confirm a relatively high incidence in recent years of players possessing a finance background. Ari Kiev, a psychiatrist and securities-trading coach, says poker and Wall Street have a lot in common "in terms of trying to make high probability bets in an instant with insufficient information." Kiev says good poker players, like good traders, "have a strong desire for wins but have a tolerance for losses; they know how to recover from failure."
Two years ago Bob Slezak, the former chief financial officer of brokerage TD Ameritrade, finished 15th in the Main Event and a year earlier hedge-fund operator David Einhorn placed 18th. Bill Chen, an arbitrage expert at options-trading firm Susquehanna International Group, has won a couple of big-money tournaments and has been cited in at least one book for his "Chen formula" for winning at Texas Hold 'Em. Don't ask; Google it.
Now along comes Begleiter, an investment banker who has grabbed a coveted place in the "November Nine." He wouldn't be there if not for the implosion of his longtime employer Bear Stearns, where he headed corporate strategy and helped wind down the firm's business amid the financial panic of 2008. The demise of Bears Stearns marked the rise of Begs the poker player. After the firm was sold to JPMorgan in March of 2008, Begleiter was without work and looking for someplace to let off steam. "I decided what the heck," he recalls. "I'm going to play the Main Event."
He was knocked out that year short of winning money. "But I got hooked," he says. "There was no way I wasn't playing in '09, and that earlier experience really helped me this year." He has since joined the private-equity firm Flexpoint Ford as a partner, and has no plans to turn poker pro for many reasons, but not least because he feels it would take him away from his family (he has three children at home) and, he says, because he loves his job. But he does hope to play the main event every year, especially if he can get the $10,000 entry fee paid as he did this year by winning a local league in his hometown of Chappaqua, N.Y. (Disclosure: I am in that league.) Not only does winning the league earn him the entry fee; it gets him a guaranteed rooting section as well. The league winner must enter a high-stakes tournament and pay the league members 20% of any spoils.
Begleiter says his poker success, which includes a ninth-place finish in another World Poker Tour event last August, hasn't been about some special mastery of probabilities and risk. "There are plenty of people who are very good poker players who never worked on Wall Street and may have even dropped out of their community college," he says. To him, success is more about reading the opponent. He likens entering an all-in Hold 'Em showdown to a bidding war against some other investment firm trying to buy the same assets he wants to buy. You don't want to be the one to blink, or you'll lose. Says Begleiter: "When I'm good I'm processing everything that's going on around me and making good decisions under pressure." Wait a minute is he talking about banking or poker? You guessed it: both.