Poker is a game that’s enjoyed by people from all walks of life. The rich and famous, the blue collar and everyone in between.
Ben Affleck, Bill Gates, Tobey Maguire, Nelly, Jennifer Tilly, Michael Phelps, Alex Rodriguez, Russell Westbrook, Paul Pierce, Sergio Garcia, Rafael Nadal, Ronaldo and Neymar are just a small sample of the notable figures who have been known to enjoy a turn on the felt.
There’s a secret world to poker, however, as some of the biggest games don’t take place at a casino or even a poker club. Some of the richest poker games in the world actually take place in the privacy of homes or hotel rooms where the ultra-rich trade pots that are worth cars or even houses to mere mortals.
Sometimes it's not even about the money. It's about the famous faces who sit down at the table away from the prying eyes of a public casino.
The Silicon Valley (And Phil Hellmuth) Special
Players: Phil Hellmuth, Chamath Palihapitiya, Zynga Founder Mark Pincus, Yammer Founder David Sacks, Jason Calacanis, Golden State Warrior David Lee.
Stakes: Likely around $100/$200 No-Limit Hold’em. Hellmuth said he lost $32k to David Lee in one session. Jason Calacanis also said he plays in a $10k buy-in game.
Location: The Bay Area
Current state: Still running
What’s known: This Bay Area home game is home to some of the most famous tech moguls. It’s basically the Silicon Valley elite with guys behind major companies like Facebook, Zynga and Mahalo all taking a seat. In addition there are a few notable sports stars who have played in the game such as the NBA's David Lee.
There isn’t a ton known about this game but Phil Hellmuth, who gets to play in the game thanks to his friendship with former Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya, occasionally talks about it on Twitter.
Sound like a soft game? Not really. They’re all geniuses remember?
“They're so sharp,” Phil Hellmuth told PokerListings in 2014. “I've played with these guys in the private game for three years and after three years I'm basically losing money and I was like, 'What in the world is going on here?' because I've been crushing everyone in Hold'em my whole life.”
Tobey Maguire's (Molly’s) Game
Players: Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nick Cassavetes, Jamie Gold, Rick Salomon, Phil Ivey, Matt Damon,
Stakes: Extremely high. The game was initially $100/$200 but players were eventually buying in for $50,000+ so it was likely $500/$1,000.
Location: The VIP section of the Viper Room, Hotels
Current state: Defunct. The game moved to New York but was eventually shut down.
What’s known: Arguably the most famous celebrity poker game ever held Tobey’s game was recently featured in a tell-all book by the game’s facilitator Molly Bloom. If you want the full scoop on the game you should definitely check out Molly's Game.
Tobey Maguire originally hosted the game but Bloom essentially eventually took it over. The game included some actual Hollywood heavy hitters like Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio as well as the occasional pro.
Bloom called Maguire the worst tipper, best player and worst loser while generally praising Affleck and Damon for their courtesy at the tables.
Interestingly 2006 World Champ Jamie Gold, who won $12m at the WSOP, allegedly nearly lost his entire bankroll in the game.
Another fun fact: The poker scene at the start of Ocean’s 11 seemed eerily similar to Tobey’s game (it took place in the back of a club, featured numerous celebs including Tobey Maguire look-alike Topher Grace). There’s no official word if it was actually inspired by it.
Johnny Carson’s Game
Players: Johnny Carson, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short, Carl Reiner and Neil Simon.
Stakes: Relatively low but Martin Short says he lost $1,800 in 15 minutes once.
Location: Hollywood Hills
Current state: Defunct, although Steve Martin allegedly still plays poker
What’s known: It’s been established through various interviews and specials that Johnny Carson played a monthly poker game at film producer Daniel Melnick’s house in the Hollywood Hills that often had comedy heavyweights stopping by to play.
According to reports all the players had to be approved by Carson before they were allowed to play. Even after Carson left showbiz in 1992 he continued to play in the game and by all accounts it was was one of his favorite pastimes.
It wasn’t just the poker that brought people to the game. There was also a world-class dinner that all players got to enjoy when the game was on break.
Starworld’s Poker King Club
Players: Richard Yong, Paul Phua, Winfred Yu, Tom Dwan, Andrew Robl, Phil Ivey, Guy Laliberte, Sam Trickett and Johnny Chan.
Stakes: Extremely high. HKD$10,000/HKD$20,000 is common.
Current state: Unknown
What’s known: OK, this isn’t technically a home game since it takes place at Star World Casino in Macau but it’s so exclusive and secretive it might as well be.
To get in the game you need to know someone and many American pros, even WSOP Main Event champs, have been turned away in the past.
The game is mainly run by billionaire Malaysian businessmen Richard Yong and Paul Phua. Giving action is prized above all else.
Information on the game is scarce but there have been a few nuggets that have been passed along over the years. Multi-million dollar swings are common and noted pro Tom Dwan allegedly lost more than $4 million during a trip to Macau.
The game is made up mostly of wealthy Chinese players, according to most reports.
It’s also been rumored that foreign players have to pay back 20% of their winnings to the casino.
Larry Flynt’s Game
Players: Larry Flynt, Jerry Buss, Phil Ivey, Barry Greenstein, Phil Hellmuth, Ted Forrest, Gabe Kaplan, David Oppenheim,
Stakes: $4,000/$8,000 Seven-Card Stud
Location: Hollywood Hills Home or the Hustler Casino in LA
Current state: Unknown
What’s known: Often referred to as the biggest Seven-Card Stud Game in the world “Larry’s Game” has attracted some of the biggest pros in the world.
Being a Seven-Card Stud Game, rather than No-Limit Hold’em, it tends to attract a specific player who is usually a bit older or hails from the East Coast where Stud is king.
Flynt used to joke that he supported many of the big-name pros and their families thanks to his penchant for losing huge sums in the game but in later years he apparently developed a real skill at the game and was actually one of the regular winners.
Old-school pro David Oppenheim once lost $1.8 million in the Flynt game so it’s not for the faint of heart.
Like most home games Larry’s Game had a few unique features:
1. Flynt fined players $500 if they were late. That cash went towards a meal for the entire table.
2. Due to his injuries Flynt kept the thermostat in his place extremely low. Players were known to wear scarves and thermal underwear to the game.
Willie Nelson’s Home Game
Players: Willie Nelson, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Woody Harrelson, a bag of weed
Location: Willie Nelson’s house in Maui
Current state: Ongoing
What's known: The fabled Willie Nelson home game reportedly takes place every Monday at his house in the town of Pai’a on the north shore of Maui.
Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson and Woody Harrelson are just a few of the notable celebrities who have participated in the game while taking in the breathtaking ocean views from Nelson’s house.
Nelson says they just play poker and smoke weed, which pretty much sounds like a stoner's ultimate dream.
Not much is known about the game but it sounds more casual and it’s unlikely the stakes are all that high.
Note: The photo above is a screen capture of an epic painting of the game by John Woodruff that Owen Wilson showed off on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Dan Bilzerian’s Private Games
Players: Dan Bilzerian, ultra rich businessmen, celebs
Stakes: Insanely high. Bilzerian once bought in for $10m.
Current state: Unknown
What's known: You can’t do an article like this without mentioning the private games that Dan Bilzerian plays although there isn’t just one of them.
Instagram’s Most Interesting Man in the World reportedly won $50 million in a 12-month span just by playing in various private games, which means the stakes are simply astronomical.
Reports about the games are sketchy to say the least but Bilzerian every now and then leaks information through Twitter.
To give you an idea about the takes Bilzerian played with Tobey Maguire once but said most of the celebrities like Ben Affleck etc. can’t afford the stakes he plays.
One of the most infamous stories about these games was a particular opponent who only bet “cars or planes.” According to Bilzerian it worked out to:
- Betting a Mercedes = $100k bet
- Betting a Ferrari = $300k bet
- Betting a Bugatti = $1m bet
Yeah, that sounds like a pretty sick game.