News & Politics

Know When to Hold ‘Em

Russell Rosenblum Is a Legal Prodigy, a Fast Talker, and the Best Poker Player in Washington. Here's What Happened When He Went to Vegas for the Whole Enchilada.

Russell rosenblum is on the phone in the living room of his new $1.5-million home in Bethesda. Above his mantel is a flat-screen television wider than the fireplace. He is deep in conversation with a Ferrari dealer, trying to decide whether to wait three years for a new blue Ferrari or pay more for a used one that he can get right away. An Acura and a Mercedes E430 sit in the driveway.

None of which is all that surprising for a successful Washington lawyer. But it is not the law that allows Rosenblum to live this way. He is only 32 years old and just two years out of American University's law school. While his contemporaries are grinding away as government lawyers or second-year associates at big law firms, Rosenblum has set up his own practice.

Being confined to an office with regular law-firm hours wouldn't have worked. Rosenblum has another distinction: He is the best high-stakes poker player in Washington.

The first time i knowingly met russell rosenblum was in a downstairs room of the Willard Hotel in 1996. Former US Attorney Eric Holder and onetime White House counsel Charles Ruff were sponsoring a poker tournament to benefit inner-city kids. While waiting for the tournament to start, Russell and I found ourselves looking familiar to each other.

Russell is one of those people who could be 17 or 50. He is five-foot-three with curly black hair, mischievous eyes, and a ruddy, cherubic face that intimates intelligence along with a certain puckishness.

Before Maryland Governor Parris Glendening shut down the legal charity poker games in Prince George's County in 1997, a lot of people in DC and Maryland knew one another by sight but not by name. The firehouses and VFW centers of Prince George's were magnets for thousands of people who enjoyed playing cards. They carried handles like Poker Dick, Metro, Racetrack Kenny, and Mr. U. The Prince George's poker scene was democracy in action, a mixing bowl of races, cultures, and classes. Some players were famous, like restaurateur Duke Zeibert. Others couldn't afford to buy one of Duke's crabcakes but always seemed to scrape together the $100 or $200 buy-in for chips that would get them into a game.

And that was just organized poker. On any given night, hundreds of others were playing in private homes and garages. One prominent Washington attorney used an apartment at the Watergate solely for a weekly game for himself and six other millionaires. In a city where negotiation and bluff are coins of the daytime realm, poker sometimes rules the night.

Some people think that playing cards for money is sinful. True enough that poker is a contest in which if you remove the element of betting, there is no game left. It is an endeavor in which brains, guts, and patience ultimately triumph over pretentiousness, weakness, and impatience. Warren Buffett, the poker-playing billionaire investor, has said that the accumulation of wealth is the movement of money from the impatient to the patient. In no activity is that more true than in poker.

It was from the prince george's poker milieu that I recognized Rosenblum. We both had played in a Saturday-afternoon tournament held for many years at the Laurel Boys & Girls Club. The tournament attracted more than 100 contestants each week. I won the last one before the cards stopped flying–legally–in Maryland.

It turned out that Rosenblum was younger than I might have guessed that night at the Willard–he was then 26. He was the son of Daniel Rosenblum, a commodities trader in Manhattan who had once been vice chairman of the Cocoa and Sugar Exchange. Both of Russell's parents were poker enthusiasts, and they taught him the basics of the game. By age eight he was taking down pots against his mother. It would be a few more years before he started beating his dad.

Growing up in a 56th Street apartment, Rosenblum showed an early entrepreneurial streak. By age 11 he had created his own private version of a lottery. At 12 he was a serious student of magic, performing tricks on the street and at birthday parties. He appeared on CBS's Captain Kangaroo show to do a 20-minute magic routine highlighted by a levitation trick.

When Rosenblum moved to Washington in 1988 to attend college, his mind was as much on making money as on academics. He started at George Washington University, then transferred to American. While fellow students were attending keg parties, he was selling cellular telephones. But he was best known around the dorms as a card player. When he could, he sneaked out to Prince George's to test the veterans who played the charity games. There he studied under some of the country's best card players, including former Justice Department lawyer Mike Capelletti, the nation's authority on the game "four-card Omaha," and Nolan Dalla, a former Turkish embassy attaché who writes for poker magazines.

Some of the players on that night in 1996 had come to the Willard to network–to find clients, make contacts. Not Rosenblum. He was trolling for bigger poker games: The Willard event put several hundred of the wealthiest card players in Washington in one room in one night.

A world-class schmoozer, Rosenblum struck up a conversation with Andrew Frey, a senior litigator at Mayer, Brown Rowe & Maw. Frey is one of the best-known attorneys in the country, a master of constitutional law who has argued many cases at the US Supreme Court. This did not intimidate Rosenblum, who wangled an invitation to Frey's Thursday-night game at the Watergate.

On the surface, the Lawyers' Game, as it was known, looked perfect for a smart kid like Rosenblum. But that didn't turn out to be the case. Too many odd rules, wild cards, and peculiar games made it almost impossible for skill to win out over luck. It was a fun evening with people who didn't care much about money, but it wasn't as easy to win as Rosenblum had hoped.

Through the Willard connection Rosenblum met Ken Adams, a star litigator at Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin & Oshinsky. Adams had become a devotee of poker during a family vacation to Alaska in 1985, when he walked into an Anchorage fur shop and encountered Perry Green, runner-up in the 1982 World Series of Poker. The two struck up a conversation, and Green gave Adams a copy of a book, The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez.

The book introduced Adams to Texas Hold 'Em, which in the 1980s and '90s began to surpass seven-card stud as the preeminent poker game in America. Hold 'Em became familiar to casual players through the movie Rounders, starring Matt Damon. Adams kept in touch with Green, and when Adams returned to Alaska in 1994 to try the Exxon Valdez oil-spill case, he began playing in Green's weekly Hold 'Em game.

There are big differences between stud and Hold 'Em. In seven-card stud, each player gets two cards down and one up for everyone to see. A round of betting occurs as each subsequent card is turned over in players' hands. Because so many cards are turned face-up, it is a game for mathematicians and numbers geeks.

In Texas Hold 'Em, only five cards in the 52-card deck are ever exposed. The rest are hidden. Each player receives two cards face-down. The first round of betting occurs without anyone's seeing any cards but their own. After the first round, three cards–called the flop–are turned face-up. There is another round of betting before the fourth card, known as the turn, is turned up, and another after the fifth and last common card, called the river, is exposed.

The best five-card hand combining either or both of the player's two hole cards with any of the five exposed cards is the winner.

Because so many cards are shared by all, the margin of victory in Texas Hold 'Em can be slim. If there are four cards of one suit on the flop by the end, a king of that suit might seem to be a very good card to complete a flush–unless another player has the ace of that suit, in which case you are sunk.

Hold 'Em is a bluffer's paradise. Instead of a game of math and odds, like stud, it is a contest of heart, guts, and intuition. Unlike stud, where the strongest hand exposed always bets first, in Hold 'Em there is a set clockwise pattern for going around the table. This makes Hold 'Em a game of strategy and position; hands that are strong early on can be weak when you are the last to bet instead of the first. Some have said aptly that Hold 'Em is to stud and draw poker what chess is to checkers.

It was in 1972 that "no limit" texas Hold 'Em became the poker game used to determine the world championship of poker at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. The first winner was poker legend Amarillo Slim. Over the years the overall event became known as the World Series of Poker. Even though the entry fee for the championship event has remained at $10,000 a person, the number of entrants has climbed to more than 600, creating a prize pool of $6 million. First prize is $2 million.

The World Series has become the signature event of the card-playing world, covered on television by ESPN. Internet sites post results hand by hand. At the final table, the millions of dollars in prize money are stacked for all to see, and the winner gets a gaudy bracelet reminiscent of the championship belts awarded to professional wrestlers.

Ken Adams played in the World Series of Poker in 1987 and later garnered an assignment analyzing the event for Cardplayer magazine. Back in Washington he became a regular at Frey's quirky Watergate game. But his heart was in Texas Hold 'Em. In 1998, after a trip back from Binion's, he decided to start a Texas Hold 'Em night.

The founding of the Adams game was made necessary by Glendening's antipoker edict, which came down in May 1997. The prohibition had not ended poker in Maryland but merely moved it from public places into a collection of homes. Instead of good causes' getting the house cut, those who had been the dealers, once working just for tips, became the hosts of the game, often banking more than $1,000 a day. But security was a problem. Players were subject to being robbed or raided and arrested by police. Over the past several years, card players have been hauled off to jail and fined in court. University professors and firefighters have been among those who have been handcuffed and had their money confiscated.

For many people, the rewards of the illegal games were not worth the risks. And playing in a cramped living room wasn't the same as in an open American Legion or VFW hall.

Adams found a comfortable locale and a format that would be legal within its jurisdiction–not PG County–and began his game in the late spring of 1998. To reassure players, he hired a private security guard.

It wasn't long before rosenblum found his way to Ken Adams's game. By now he had started and sold a Web business and re-enrolled at American University as a law student.

The one thing opponents noted about playing with Rosenblum was his never-ending chatter. If he wasn't talking about complex rules of incorporation and taxes, he would go on for hours about poker hands played in the late 1960s and early '70s when people like Amarillo Slim, Johnny Chan, and Doyle Brunson ruled the poker world. He could summon up a hand from a 20-year-old tournament like a baseball fan recalling Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

For mortals like myself, only about half of what Rosenblum said was intelligible. The rest was over my head. And forget his intellect. You had only to play with him once to realize his skill as a card player.

Most people in a game play their own cards. It became obvious that Russell was the rare player who didn't care what his cards were. Half the time he wouldn't even bother to look. He made his bets based on what he figured his opponents' cards were. Then, by betting aggressively when he knew the opposition was weak, he would force players out and win the pot. He was a keen observer of patterns who could predict whether you were going to call or fold.

Because he was so good, he seemed lucky. If another player dared stay in to the end, figuring Rosenblum was bluffing, he seemed always to show a winning hand, no matter how weak it looked on his first bet.

In short, Rosenblum was smart, good, and lucky. And he was amiable, if not above cackling over his winning hands. After one series of such hands at my expense, I directed a few expletives his way. He looked at me with the same expression my puppy uses when she has made a mistake in the family room. It was a sympathetic look, but not one of remorse.

People who played against rosenblum came to realize that his constant talk was part of his strategy. He used conversation not only to break his opponents' concentration but also to glean tips on what they held and whether they were bluffing.

"His constant chatter establishes control over the game and creates a situation where people's reaction to his talking gives him information without their realizing it," says one competitor. "There is some kind of intuition he has developed from this, but if anyone else could understand it, then we could do it. But we can't."

For several years, Rosenblum contemplated entering the World Series of Poker, but he says he held the event in such high regard that he was reluctant to enter.

"The World Series is to a poker player what the US Open is to a golfer," he says. "You can't play there until you are ready."

A year ago he decided to play in a series of tournaments that feature the same no-limit Hold 'Em format as the World Series in Las Vegas. That would help him determine whether he was ready for the big time.

After mixed results in several tournaments, Rosenblum broke through this past April to win $9,000 in a tournament at Connecticut's Foxwoods Casino. He was ready.

Any remaining doubts evaporated when he saw an article in this magazine that called Ken Adams the best lawyer/card player in Washington. "After I read that, I knew I had to go play," Rosenblum says.

Five days before the championship event was to begin, Rosenblum flew to Las Vegas. In his pockets were $13,000 in cash and a $10,000 cashier's check for the entry fee. He arrived in Las Vegas around midnight and checked into the plush Bellagio Hotel. He immediately went down to the poker room to play in the casino's $30-to-$60 game, where pots often exceed $1,000 per hand.

The next morning Rosenblum took a cab to Binion's Horseshoe Casino, the longtime host of the World Series. Only a few miles apart in distance, the two casinos are worlds apart in every other way. The Bellagio is one of the world's best-looking casinos; its lobbies are lined with stores selling shoes for $1,000 a pair. The worn-out Horseshoe has fraying carpets. Its biggest claim to fame is its special $3.99 giant porterhouse steak.

At the Horseshoe, Rosenblum handed his cashier's check to the tournament cashier. Mindful of how much action $10,000 would have bought him in regular games at the Bellagio, he grew apprehensive. "What the hell did I just do?" he thought to himself.

Making matters wore, he still had three days to kill before the tournament. By the time it began on Monday, May 20, the $13,000 in cash was all but gone.

Rosenblum's skills were failing him. "It was hard to focus," he says. He had lost $10,000 before the tournament even began. With each successive day, the urgency of winning the tournament, or at least finishing in the top 45, became more apparent if he was to avoid a $23,000 loss. The top 45 finishers would win at least $20,000.

He was relieved when Monday arrived–and thrilled to find he had been seated at a table with Amarillo Slim. "I wondered if maybe that in itself might not be worth the ten grand, getting to play at the same table with Slim. Then I thought–no!"

Each player would get $10,000 worth of chips, good only in the tournament. Everyone would play with the same number and continue until his chips were gone–then he was out.

In no-limit poker, a player is allowed to go "all in"–that is, to bet all his chips at any time. All 10,000 chips could be lost in one hand. In "limit" games, players can bet only a certain amount at a time; this makes the games last longer.

Even with the "no limit" format, the World Series of Poker tournament would last for five days. The first three days were to play down to a round of 45. On Thursday, day four, the 45 would play down to the final nine. The final nine would play on Friday until just one person was left. That person would win $2 million. Second place would get $1.1 million.

Dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, Rosenblum took his place. He was thrilled to be sitting with Slim but not happy to discover that other tables had begun playing while his had no dealer and no cards.

After 15 minutes the dealer showed up, and with his $10,000 in chips, Rosenblum began playing. The hands were going faster than he expected; in 20 minutes he lost $1,000. He could be out of the tournament in three hours.

He did some math. They were dealing 40 hands an hour, and the first day would last eight hours. That was 320 hands. As always, Rosenblum was constantly talking as he probed his competitors. If his conversation annoyed the other players and upset their concentration, all the better.

While he chattered, Rosenblum was noting the weaknesses and strengths of his opponents, at the same time giving them the idea that he wasn't concentrating on the game and might be an easy mark. Said Rosenblum's friend Matt Matros, who had purchased 1.5 percent of Rosenblum's entry fee: "People think that because Russell is talking he has lost his focus, but in fact the opposite is true. It's only when he stops talking that you can assume his focus is lost."

While he talked, Rosenblum's brain was calculating which players were likely to call large all-in bets and which were unlikely to take risks early. No one wanted to pay $10,000 to be knocked out quickly. He began trying to take advantage of the group psychology, winning hands with large bets that no one had the guts to call. He avoided the veterans like Amarillo Slim, who seemed disinterested. Then Slim was knocked out when his pair of jacks faced two aces and no jack came on the flop to save him.

With his confidence building that first day, Rosenblum tripled his stack to 30,000 chips. He had calmed down to play four or five hands an hour and won most of those. Buffett's maxim about patience was proving its value. Rosenblum returned to the Bellagio for what would become a nightly ritual–two glasses of sangiovese Chianti at the casino bar.

As day two began, rosenblum could see that half the field had been eliminated. His 30,000 chips, out of some 6.3 million on the tables, put him in 50th place.

Playing on the fears of the other competitors had been a good strategy. Now he had to continue to build his stack of chips.

Just 14 minutes into the second day, Rosenblum peeked at his cards and saw a pair of aces. Pocket aces are the most powerful hand in Texas Hold 'Em. Against a player holding only 16,000 chips, Rosenblum went all in, forcing the other player to bet all his chips and leaving Rosenblum with 14,000 that the shorter-stacked player couldn't match.

The dealer turned over eight, nine, and ten. The short-stacked player then showed an eight and a nine. Russell could still win if any of the cards on the flop paired, an event that would give him two pairs, too–aces from his hand and whatever pair was on the board. He could also win with a third ace.

He got neither. In one hand, he lost half his stack and moved back into the pack.

From then on, the tournament became trench warfare. Rosenblum tried to avoid players with more chips, who now would have no qualms about trying to knock him out, and played hands only against others with stacks the size of his. This was another mark of a good poker player. Rosenblum was constantly scanning the piles of chips, getting into the minds of the players, calculating what each would do after one of his bluffs. Short-stack players are less aggressive than players with lots of chips. The way to win was to make sure that when he raised, the other player would fold, not call. Rosenblum would then collect the antes, known in Hold 'Em as "blinds," which grew progressively larger as the tournament proceeded.

By the end of the second day, Rosenblum was back where he started, with about 32,000 chips. But it had been a struggle. "It was the longest day," he says.

Rosenblum had arranged for his wife, Anne, to fly out and meet him on Wednesday, the third day of the tournament. They had made plans to visit the Hoover Dam that day and eat dinner on Thursday at Picasso, the Bellagio's five-star restaurant, which had a three-month waiting list for reservations. One of the perverse tricks of the successful gambler is to make plans that you hope you won't be able to keep.

On Wednesday morning Rosenblum walked past the craps players and ignored the clanging of the Horseshoe's slots. He had a secret weapon today: his friend and entry-fee investor Matros, a Yale-educated computer whiz who worked for the Northern Virginia tech company MicroStrategy.

With a three-hour time advantage on the East Coast, Matros began running Google searches on all of Rosenblum's potential competitors, concentrating on those who would be starting at Rosenblum's table. As Matros gained information about their tournament experience and backgrounds, he e-mailed it to Rosenblum, who received it on his BlackBerry, a wireless e-mail device. Rosenblum was intrigued by Matros's discovery that one opponent was a college math professor.

After Rosenblum got the reports, he called Matros on his cellular phone to go over the bios. "Which one is the math weenie again?" he asked. "That's the guy who will call with two eights."

During breaks in the competition, as players busted out and new people moved to the table, Rosenblum and Matros conferred.

Some 45 minutes into the third round, Rosenblum got a pair of aces. He made a small bet of 4,000 chips. The "math weenie" pushed in 14,000. Rosenblum suspected that his prediction would come true. He was sure the professor had a pair of eights. It was here that a poker player's acting skills were put to the test. Rosenblum had to behave in such a way that the professor would not suspect he had aces and eventually would put his whole stack into the pot.

Rosenblum pretended to look pained at the professor's raise. He put a chip on his cards and pretended to be deep in thought about what to do. He began murmuring about "pot odds" and other mathematical things that would make the professor think he was drawing for a winner instead of already having one. Rosenblum mumbled that he didn't want to call the professor, but if he didn't now, he wouldn't have enough chips to continue in the tournament.

The act worked. The professor called with all his chips. When no eight fell on the flop, Rosenblum turned over his aces. He doubled his stack, and the professor was headed home. "It turned out the guy had nines," Rosenblum says. "But close enough.

"I only put on the show because it was the math weenie. With anyone else, it wouldn't have worked."

Near the end of the day, Rosenblum won another big hand against pocket nines and ended with 80,000 chips.

When he phoned matros that night, Rosenblum cautioned against celebrating. "It's back to work," he said.

The two were convinced their collaboration would be even more important on Thursday. A player who makes the final nine is guaranteed to win $85,000.

Rosenblum was in 29th place as he sat down to begin Day Four. Once again he was armed with information about the styles and tendencies of each player.

One was a wispy 23-year-old Englishman named Julian Gardner, considered Europe's best young player–the continent's equivalent of Rosenblum, who at 32 was the youngest American left in the competition. The two had not hit it off. In Europe it is considered rude to talk much at the poker table. For his part, Rosenblum considered it rude when other players did not respond to his questions.

After two hours of play, Rosenblum looked down at his two cards, an ace and a queen. He pushed 20,000 chips into the middle of the table, expecting all the other players to fold. But Gardner raised to 85,000.

Rosenblum had to call the raise or fold and lose the chips he had bet. He pushed all his chips into the middle and called Gardner's raise. Because there would be no more betting, each player turned his hand over. Gardner showed an ace and a king.

When he saw the cards, Rosenblum was overwhelmed with nausea. The only card he could win with would be a queen, and that was only if a king didn't flop. He walked away from the table toward Anne, who had been out touring but was now watching. "We're done, we're leaving, we're done," he said.

As Rosenblum gathered his things, the dealer turned over the first three cards of the flop. Ace. Queen. Four. Suddenly Rosenblum was in the lead with two pair. The dealer turned over another queen, giving him a full house.

"I jumped six inches high," he says, adding sheepishly, "That's about as high as I can jump."

Gardner grimaced, but he still had chips.

Twenty minutes later, still shaking from the hand he had won, Rosenblum bet with a pair of jacks. He made a small raise. Gardner called. The dealer turned over the flop: ten, ten, four.

Gardner dramatically flung all his chips into the pot. The move, Rosenblum surmised, meant Gardner must have the ten that would beat Rosenblum's jacks and win the hand. Once again he felt ill. Too shaken to stay at the table, he rose and began moving around the room, stopping behind a pillar near a waitress station.

"We have an all-in player," the tournament announcer declared. Then he added, "Where did Russell go?"

Behind the pillar, Rosenblum began to run in his head the hands he could lose to. A ten in Gardner's hand would put him out. So would a pair of queens, aces, or kings, and if Gardner was holding only an ace or a king, one of those cards still could come. Rosenblum had gotten lucky when he called with the ace-queen. Could he get lucky again?

"What I couldn't stand was this feeling that I had just felt a few moments before on the other hand," he recalls.

When tournament officials found Rosenblum behind the pillar, the once-proud player was a mass of human jelly. "I heard them calling my name," he says. "But I couldn't stand that feeling. I just wanted it over; I wanted the feeling to go away."

Asked what he wanted to do, Russell yelled out, "Fold it! Fold it!" A feeling of calm came over him.

Strong enough to return to the table, he also changed his mind and began yelling that he wanted to call Gardner's bet.

But it was too late–his fold from behind the pillar was binding. Adding salt to Rosenblum's wounds, Gardner turned over a pair of sixes. It was a cute move on Gardner's part; when you win a hand on an opponent's fold, you don't show your cards. Rosenblum had lost half his stack, despite having the better hand, and was now down to 55,000 chips. "I play better with fewer chips," he told a TV reporter.

Then he set out to prove it. "I decided after that hand that I wasn't going to quit, I was going to move forward," he says. The hand was a wake-up call. Rosenblum started playing smart again.

Hand by hand, he improved his position. In a few hours he was up to 160,000 chips, then 200,000. Just before play ended on Day Four, he won another big pot, knocking out two players at once and finishing with 900,000 chips.

Not only had Rosenblum made the final table, he had ended up second in chips. If the tournament had ended at that point, he would have won $1.1 million. But there was one more day to go.

When matros heard the news, he gathered up his research and headed for the airport, booking the first flight to Las Vegas.

Ken Adams also decided to book a flight. "I had been following his progress on the Internet," Adams says. "But it wasn't until Thursday night that I really began to believe he could win. I tried to go to bed but kept jumping up every half hour to check the chip count and see if Russell was still alive."

When he realized that Rosenblum was second in the chip count, Adams says, "I knew there was no way I was going to work in the morning."

When Rosenblum entered the arena Friday morning, the prize money–millions of dollars–was stacked up behind the table. In the audience were his wife, Matt Matros, Ken Adams, a few other friends, and one of his legal clients.

Gardner was among the other eight players who had made the finals, but he had fewer chips than Rosenblum.

The day's play would last until one player had all the chips. Comedian Gabe Kap-lan was the celebrity master of ceremonies. Television complications caused an hour's delay in getting the cards into the air. Rosenblum could barely breathe.

The first hand was dealt. Julian Gardner found a pair of aces and doubled his stack. In a single hand the arrogant Englishman had nearly caught Rosenblum.

On the fourth hand Rosenblum made a bet, and his opponents all folded. He made a show of raising his hands in the air and whooping while his gallery cheered from the bleachers. The idea was to loosen up the table, get it into a mood he felt comfortable with, and psych out the other players.

Gardner just glared.

With the stakes so high, few players were willing to risk their money on much except aces. The pace of play was slow; with the TV cameras whirring, Rosenblum found it hard to break the tension and create the kind of free-flowing game in which he operates best. He beckoned Matros over and asked him to get some matzo-ball soup. When Matros returned, Rosenblum made much of the interruption, and the television cameras zoomed in on it. The atmosphere seemed to lighten, and Rosenblum won two pots in a row. He yelled over to the gallery, "It was the soup, Matt!"

After five hours of play, only three of the nine players were out. Rosenblum and Gardner were locked in a battle for second place. Each was waiting for an opportunity to strike. Rosenblum hoped to pick up stray chips here and there and build his stack. Then, at about 6 PM, on the 118th hand, with about 600,000 chips, he made an aggressive all-in bet with the jack and six of diamonds. The hand is not a traditionally strong one in Texas Hold 'Em, but Rosenblum was confident that unless one of the other players had aces or kings–and odds were 50-to-1 that they wouldn't–everyone would fold.

And everyone did–except Gardner. Calling Rosenblum's bluff, he pushed all his chips toward the dealer. The players exposed their cards to the television cameras–there would be no more betting. There was a gasp from the bleachers as Rosenblum's jack and six of diamonds were turned up. He looked over at Matros and shrugged.

Gardner turned over two aces.

Matros and Rosenblum made eye contact. Rosenblum shrugged again. There are few things more embarrassing in poker than to be caught bluffing.

The dealer turned over the first three cards of the flop: a jack and two diamonds. Suddenly, Rosenblum's chances were reversed. All he needed to win was one of the other two jacks, one of the other three sixes, or one of the remaining nine diamonds. There were 14 cards he could win with and still two cards to be turned over. What had become known in the bleachers as Camp Russell erupted in whoops. If any one of those 14 cards was turned up, Rosenblum would capture the million-chip pot, knock his nemesis out of the tournament, and be virtually assured of winning at least a million dollars.

Gardner pumped his fist in the air as two black cards fell–no jack, no six, no diamond, just the queen of spades and the three of clubs.

Rosenblum had 95,000 chips left, which he threw dispiritedly into the next hand. He lost to a full house.

He rose from the table, stunned that it was over. The tournament director handed him $150,000 in cash for his sixth-place finish. He had not won the bracelet–not on the first try.

As he boarded the flight home, his bad luck continued; he was singled out for random frisking. He asked the security guard if he could be checked in another room. Suddenly he was surrounded by security men. Why did he want a private inspection? Was he carrying something he shouldn't be?

"No," Rosenblum said. "I just won some money in a poker tournament, and I don't want everybody else on the plane seeing how much money I'm carrying."

A phalanx of guards shielded him as he unstuffed thousands of dollars in cash from his bags. He was allowed to board the plane.

Rosenblum had come within one hand of becoming champion of the poker world. A few weeks later he was back at his Friday-night game with Adams, Matros, and his friends.

For them, Rosenblum had come close enough. For years and years, they predicted, poker people will tell the story of how Russell Rosenblum got caught trying to bluff his way to the world's championship with a jack-six–and almost made it.