Sunday, February 18, 2007

Golden Rule

(This is an article I wrote for the December issue of Malibu Magazine.)

This was almost another cliché Cinderella story borne on card-table felt: Total unknown gets hooked on poker; enters the World Series of Poker for the first time; has an unfathomable run of cards and wins $2.5 million, $5 million, $7.5 million or, in Jamie Gold’s case, $12 million. The Malibu man and entertainment executive even added a heart-warming touch when he pledged during the tournament to use the money to make his father, who has Lou Gehrig’s Disease, as comfortable as possible. “I’m so lucky. I’ve had the greatest parents, and to be able to give back to them is the ultimate win,” Gold told ESPN during the tournament, which ended Aug. 10.

But the fairly tale faded in a flash. For the first time since the World Series was inundated with amateurs four years ago and practically became a $10,000-a-ticket lottery, people were saying far worse things about the world champ than that he just got lucky.

First, the gossip website Defamer claimed the former talent agent had padded his Hollywood resume. “Lies, lies, lies,” according to a post by Defamer Special Correspondent on Onetime Agents Who May Have Bluffed About Their Client Lists. “He was an ASSISTANT, and then a very very junior agent at a small agency in the early 1990's who MIGHT have taken messages from some of these people, before forwarding them to their real agent. He is a classic Hollywood liar - other people's successes become his own, and his own failures become somebody else's. He has always had a pathological relationship with the truth … which makes him ideal for poker.”

Gold’s former colleagues vouched for his experience and success, and, though openly annoyed, he brushed it off. “It is so funny to me that somebody would think that after winning the tournament that I would then go and rewrite history,” he said. “What do I have to prove to anybody? I could just be the champion of poker. Why do I need to say I even had a life before that?”

But 11 days after the $12 million win, Gold encountered a far bigger problem – a $6 million problem.

A struggling TV producer named Crispin Leyser sued Gold in Nevada for half of the massive poker prize. The two had met in Las Vegas in early August through Leyser’s wife and had begun talking shop. (Gold had recently become head of production for a new boutique studio, and Leyser had some reality TV ideas to sell – for instance, “Mrs. Robinson,” a dating show where older women would seduce younger men).

At some point, the lawsuit claims, Gold told Leyser that, a Costa Rican-based gambling site, had offered to buy Gold’s seat into the World Series if he got celebrities to wear Bodog gear during the tournament. He offered to split his winnings if Leyser secured a few Hollywood stars, the lawsuit claims, which he did in the form of Matthew Lillard and Dax Shepard.

But then Gold won, and he refused to transfer $6 million to Leyser. The poker world buzzed with gossip that Gold couldn’t play by gamblers’ rules regarding verbal agreements – generally good as gold (little “g”). It appeared legal exoneration might not be enough to spare the world champ a leper’s treatment.

“The operative words here, of course, are ‘as a matter of law,’” the blog Wicked Poker Chops remarked in response to a comment Gold’s lawyer gave The New York Times. “Because if it was ‘as a matter of Jamie’s word,’ or ‘as a matter of principle,’ or ‘as a matter of not f---ing with poker’s longstanding tradition of handshake deals,’ then Crispin Leyser would likely have his half, and we’d be able to watch the Main Event on ESPN with at least some sense of enjoyment and a modicum of respect for Jamie Gold’s confident table talk and spectacular big stack play (and yes, his fortunate flops).”

Then in early November, Gold’s attorney filed a response, arguing Leyser wasn’t entitled to any of the $12 million purse. No surprise. The shocker was this: Gold had promised Leyser a share of the winnings.

“I’m not worried. I always do the right thing – and I’m doing the right thing in this situation,” Gold told me in late September, when I met him in the lobby of the Sofitel Hotel, across from the Beverly Center.

Other than those words, Gold didn’t want to talk about his legal problems. He had just returned from Johnny Chan’s invitational tournament in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where he finished 17 out of 163 pros. He wore blue jeans, a tan, untucked dress shirt and a black Bodog cap that read “Play Hard.”

Gold planned to remain at the Sofitel for a week. Afraid to return to Malibu after winning the World Series, he spent at least six weeks hotel hopping around Los Angeles. “I was getting a little too much attention. There is no problem now,” Gold said. “I wasn’t worried: Things were happening. When people are lurking outside my home and banging down the door at five a.m. and taking pictures like paparazzi, taking pictures of my ex-girlfriend when she is driving out of our place.”

His safety concerns began during the tournament when a friend warned Gold to watch his back; instead he asked Bodog to hire two burly bodyguards to stand by while he played. “I was the only thing in the way of everyone winning $12 million,” Gold told me. “Think about the Tonya Harding situation – and poker players are not known to be the most secure, stable community.”

He’s still adjusting to the new attention, albeit mostly benign or even enjoyable. People who see him (baseball stars past, Reggie Jackson, and present, Alex Rodriguez, to name a few) are excited to meet him, and every amateur poker player he crosses wants to beat him. The night before our interview, Gold threw the first pitch at a Dodgers game. And daily he had been taking calls from media outlets big (USA Today, The New York Times, CNBC) and small (a Jewish student newspaper). Twice he made the cover of Card Player magazine. “I don’t remember a day without interviews or appearances, and it doesn’t seem it is going to slow down,” he said.

Now 37, Gold grew up in Paramus, N.J. He was fond of magic, good at tennis and participated in Olympics of the Mind. “He was really superior in math,” his mother, Jane, said. “His teacher would complain that he didn’t know the steps to getting math, but that his mind just worked like a computer and he would get the answers.” Along with the family’s intelligence came an interest in card playing. Jane Gold’s father was a masterful gin rummy player, and her son learned to count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-jack-queen-king-ace. “He was like a prodigy,” said cousin Dr. Glenn Eisen, a gastroenterologist. Gold claimed that at his mother’s urging he took the PSAT in fifth grade. He told me he scored in the 1200s and told he got a 13 something – compared to the average Pepperdine freshman’s 1240 as a high school upperclassman.

Gold’s childhood dream, though, was not to be a gambler but a Hollywood agent. Throughout college at the State University of New York at Albany, he interned for J. Michael Bloom, a high-profile New York agent, and he moved to L.A. three days after graduating. Within a year he was a full agent for Harter Manning Woo, soon representing the likes of Felicity Huffman, James Gandolfini and Jimmy Fallon. He became friends with his clients, and Fallon slept on Gold’s couch in Malibu for six months.

Gold had arrived beachside in 1993, two years after moving west. Cruising PCH with his college fraternity president, Gold saw a “for rent” sign where Coastline Drive hits the beach. “And I’ve never left,” Gold said of the two-bedroom townhouse with a 40-foot balcony perfect for watching the sunset.

Early this year, when it seemed time for a career change, Gold went into TV development as president of production for BuzzNation, a small firm completing the yet-to-be-purchased “Hottest Mom in America.” But before that, he had set out to become a part-time poker pro. He began at the $200 no-limit tables at Commerce Casino, then moved up to the $400 and $600 tables, and notched a few tournament wins in L.A., including a $54,000 payout at the Bicycle Casino in spring 2005. Before going to Las Vegas for the World Series, he was part of a weekly home game in Beverly Hills with a $10,000 buy-in – hardly an excuse for beer and peanuts with the boys.

“I took it really serious. I was playing 30 to 40 hours a week. Every moment I was awake basically that I wasn’t working I was playing poker,” he said.

Along the way, Gold got some help from Johnny Chan, the poker pro known as the “Orient Express,” who won back-to-back World Series titles in 1987 and 1988. In exchange for Gold working with Chan to develop a poker TV show that never caught on, Chan helped refine Gold’s poker chops. “He’s smart. He’s got a killer instinct. And he wants to win every tournament that he plays,” said Chan, who has called Gold the “Malibu Express.”

A more fitting nickname during the World Series would have been “Gold Rush.” Down early to half the $10,000 in chips he started with, Gold went on a tear, accumulating more than $100,000 by the end of Day 1 and taking the tournament lead at the end of Day 3, something he didn’t lose for the final seven days of the Texas hold ‘em main event.

Chan was there throughout the last hand, acting like a boxing manager. After Gold would play a hand, particularly after winning, he would return to the rail to boast to Chan and get some encouragement. “From the third day on. I treated those chips like my chips and I told him what needed to be done,” Chan said.

But etiquette was something Chan may have neglected to share. In addition to his hyper-confident table-talk, common of younger poker players, World Series commentators at times criticized Gold for trying to negotiate deals with his opponents. On one occasion late in the tournament, Gold raised the bet pre-flop with ace-jack and his buddy, Lee Kort, called with queen of diamonds and jack of hearts; the flop came four-jack-seven, all diamonds, giving Gold the best hand and Kort a flush draw. Kort acted first and moved all-in. Gold moaned, “Oh Lee, come on man. I’ve got top-top,” meaning he had top pair with the best kicker. Kort responded: “Me too.” Gold called the all-in bet thinking they had the same hand and would chop the pot, pardoning Kort for at least one more hand. Gold looked mortified when he saw he was about to knock his friend out of the tournament. “You said top-top. I wouldn’t have called you,” Gold said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I thought you said we were chop-chop.”

Gold joined the final table Day 10 with $26.65 million in chips, almost 50 percent more than his nearest opponent. At 10:52 that morning, according to Leyser’s lawsuit, Gold left Leyser a message about the prize money. “Hey, it’s Jamie. Thank you for your message. I slept pretty well, so we should be fine. … I promise you – you can keep this recording on my word – there’s no possible way you’re not going to get your half … after taxes … You’ve trusted me the whole way, you can trust me a little bit more. I promise you there’s no way anybody will go anywhere with your money.”

Sixteen hours later, after Gold had pummeled his opponents hand after hand, he and his ex-girlfriend mugged for the camera in front of a cool $12 million. Entering the picture with their arms around them were Crispin Leyser and his wife, Jules – no doubt wanting a photo with the mound of cash they believed was half theirs.

But now, determining who deserves what is an order for Clark County District Court. In Gold’s response seeking dismissal of Leyser’s lawsuit and the release of the $6 million being held by the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, Gold claims, through proof of his contract with Bodog, that he was not obligated to secure celebrities for his sponsor. He only offered to share his winnings with Leyser because he felt sorry for his new friend, who had told Gold he was going to lose his house in Los Angeles and another home in his native Britain. After Gold took the chip lead, Leyser began hounding him and pressuring him to sign a contract about their agreement, which Gold denied. On the last day of the tournament, the harassment had pushed Gold to a breaking point, so he left Leyser the message about getting “half … after taxes.” But even half of $12 million minus Uncle Sam’s was not enough for the eagerly rich Leyser, who insisted on $6 million and no less. Once Leyser filed the lawsuit, Gold decided, according to his legal response, that he didn’t want to give a non-obligatory “gift” to such an ungrateful chum.

For Gold, it remains to be seen if those talent agent skills that have been so valuable on the poker felt – the ability to read his opponents, to protect his assets, to bluff, to befriend and bisect – could prove golden yet again.

“Sometimes the best plays I have ever made are plays where I have lost the hand but I’ve just lost the minimum,” Gold told me, explaining his poker intuition. “Sometimes it’s not how much you win when you win but how little you lose when you lose. I think that is the mark of a great player.”

Well, maybe he’ll settle.