One expensive drop in the bucket.

How to Win $20 Million at Poker

James McManus is the author of "Positively Fifth Street" and "Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker." He has written about the game for the New York Times, Harper's, the New Yorker, Foreign Policy, Esquire and Grantland. He teaches writing and literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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More than 40 people have paid $1 million apiece to play in an unusual poker tournament this weekend. Its buy-in is 100 times that of the Main Event at the World Series of Poker. Its first prize could approach $20 million. And all but a handful of players will lose every dime.

The second biennial Big One for One Drop tournament is poker's premier philanthropic event. And with its compelling mix of resourceful pro players and outlandishly wealthy amateurs, it's increasingly becoming the de facto world championship of No-Limit Hold'em.

The tournament benefits the One Drop Foundation, a charity that helps provide clean water to drought-stricken countries, by donating 11.1 percent of each buy-in. The foundation was started in 2007 by Guy Laliberte, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, who organizes and plays in the tournaments.

Most poker competitions have top-heavy prize structures, but paying out only 88.9 percent of the buy-ins means that this one is not an especially good value, no matter how worthy the cause. Some of the businessmen playing are flush enough to lose a million bucks without blinking. (And even if they lack the experience the pros have, savvy entrepreneurs competing without fear can be formidable opponents, especially if the cards fall their way.)

But most pros can't risk such a huge chunk of their working capital in a single high-variance event, even one offering life-changing prize money. So nearly all of them have sought out backers, friends and other investors to put up $5,000 or more for a piece of the action. One player, Isaac Haxton, made an offer on Twitter to sell action at a 1.09 markup, so a 1 percent piece of him costs $10,900, the minimum he'll accept. Greg Merson, the 2012 Main Event champion, was selling shares "at face value." Daniel Negreanu, the reigning player of the year, was offering up to half his action at an undisclosed rate.

Roughly two-thirds of the field will be pros making similar deals. Among the most prominent is Antonio Esfandiari, the Tehran-born American who took down the $18 million first prize in 2012. The bespectacled magician, poker wizard and ladies' man called the victory "better than sex, that's for sure." It's easy to see how Esfandiari -- a charismatic young man who donated some of his prize money, as well as his labor, to a One Drop project in El Salvador -- has become the game's leading ambassador.

Another, Brooklyn's Vanessa Selbst, is the first and only woman to enter the Big One, as well as the first to reach No. 1 on the Global Poker Index. The Yale Law School grad accomplished that feat by winning her third World Series bracelet on May 30. She'll be gunning for her fourth on Sunday. If she finishes first, she'll become the game's all-time leading money-winner, having conquered in less than a decade a mind-sport dominated by men since it evolved two centuries ago on Mississippi riverboats, when women were banned from most card parlors.

A couple of the players are hybrids, such as former pro Bobby Baldwin, who won the 1977 Main Event but lately spends most of his time working as a casino executive. Even if "The Owl" hadn't finished seventh in the inaugural Big One, no one would've doubted the man could still play. David Einhorn, who runs Greenlight Capital Inc., is another pro-caliber businessman. When he finished 18th in the 2006 Main Event, he donated every dime of his $659,730 prize to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. He finished third in the previous Big One and gave all $4.35 million to City Year.

Three players have chosen to enter incognito, including one identified on as "Anonymous Asian Businessman." That may be Richard Yong or Paul Phua, both regulars in the nosebleed-stakes game at the Poker King Club in Macau, where seven-figure pots -- not games or buy-ins, but individual pots -- are common and one reportedly came to $13.75 million. Other Poker King players, including Tom "durrrr" Dwan, Johnny "The Orient Express" Chan, and Laliberte himself, have flown one day east for the Big One.

Most have presumably transferred their $1 million electronically, though Jean-Robert "Broke Living" Bellande, whose nickname suggests his penchant for immoderate swings of solvency, used bricks of cash he'd reportedly been lugging around in a gym bag. Born in New York, Bellande is the son of French-speaking Haitian immigrants who raised him mostly in Asia, making the 6'6" former "Survivor" contestant arguably the Big One's most representative player. Or its least.

By late Monday night, unless Esfandiari can pull off a startling repeat (Ladbrokes Plc has him at 22:1), we'll have a new heavyweight no-limit champ. And poker -- a canny trickster's contest that has made Americans nervous for 200 years -- should have an improved smell and aura. Because millions of gallons of water for drinking and irrigation will flow to the people who need it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James McManus at

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at