There are many different styles of games here that qualify as "high stakes," the lowest of which being No-Limit or Pot-Limit games with blinds of $25/$50. In terms of Limit games, the high stakes cut-off is $50/$100. This may sound high in comparison to the games most of us are comfortable playing, but let me assure you, $50/$100 is chump change compared to the real ones.
Just a few days ago I had the pleasure of watching an authentic high stakes game. It was only three-handed but I would estimate that there was close to $200,000 on the table in chips and cash. Barry Greenstein, Eli Elezra and Gus Hansen were the three players, and it stayed three-handed the entire time I was there. Not because it was a poker-celebrity exclusive game but simply because not many people have the courage, or the bankroll, to go toe-to-toe with these three with the limits at $4,000/$8,000. This is the highest game that's spread at the WSOP, but I would wager that it's not even close to the highest limit these players have gotten involved in.
This was a mixed game with the form of poker being played changing every time the dealer button made a full circuit of the table. Everything from Razz to Hold'em to Draw was possible, and it says a lot about these players' all-around knowledge of poker that they put that much money on the line in such a dynamic game. Despite being a gifted card player, Gus Hansen left this particular table down about $50,000.
Tony Shelton, the high stakes supervisor, has been working for Binion's Casino for the last 28 years and you can bet that he's seen it all. He filled me in on the most popular styles of poker that are played at the high limits.
Chinese poker is a game that's played for large sums of money. I saw Barry Greenstein going heads-up with another player in a game of Chinese. I was unable to find out what the stakes were, but suffice to say each player had a few substantial towers of $5,000 denomination chips. Chinese is a 13-card game where each player tries to put together the best three poker hands from their 13 cards. Two five-card hands and one three-card hand decides the payouts.
Another lesser known form of poker is Badugi. Also known as Padooki, this is a triple-draw game where the betting structure is the same as traditional poker. However, instead of a five-card hand, Badugi hands only have four cards. It's similar to Lowball in that the lowest cards have the highest ranking. Also, to evaluate your hand you must throw away any suited cards as well as any paired cards, this will leave you with a hand with anywhere from one to four cards. The more cards you have in your hand, the higher it's ranked, for example a four card hand beats a three card hand and so on. The best possible hand would be Ace-2-3-4 with all four suits covered. Shelton assured me that this is a game played at the highest limits.
Shelton also commented that many of the best poker players at the Rio tonight will not be entering in any of the tournaments. Preferring to keep a low profile, it's far more profitable for these cash game specialists to remain unknown. Tony likened this to the fact that some of the best golfers in the world will never be seen on the PGA Tour. Playing for cash and avoiding the strings attached to celebrity status is much more appealing to many.
It seems to me that the stakes of the game you're playing really are relative to the size of your bankroll. $4,000/$8,000 may seem astronomical to most people, but if you're working with millions of dollars, the relative size is actually similar to someone who works for minimum wage playing $4/$8. In spite of this, it's a hell of a lot more exciting watching Barry Greenstein rake in a pot of $75,000 than it is to see Joe Schmoe collecting a measly $75.