|SHY GUY: Little has been written about the reclusive billionaire Andy Beal. This photograph of him was taken in 2002 at Beal Aerospace.|
IN A BACK CORNER OF THE UPSTAIRS VIP LOUNGE of the gentleman’s club known as the Lodge, there sits a single poker table illuminated by a faux Tiffany lamp. On a recent night, atop this quiet oval of green felt (framed in soft, black leather), a small white card read, "Reserved: McManus v. Beal, Round 2."
James McManus had just finished a book signing downstairs. He and Andy Beal faced off earlier in the day at the Beal Bank offices in Far North Dallas. ("I got crushed," McManus said.) McManus, of course, has made it to two final tables at the World Series of Poker. Even more famously, he’s the best-selling author of Positively Fifth Street, one of the quintessential narratives about poker and lap dances. His current book-in-progress is a complete history of poker—and Beal is a key character in the final chapter.
Foremost, Beal is a banker and father of five who lives with his wife in a surprisingly modest Highland Park home, given that he’s worth more than a billion dollars. But he’s also a serious poker player. Beal has spent the past four years periodically competing against the top professionals in the world for millions at a sitting.
Playing for such high stakes, though, takes a lot of time, energy, and focus. "You’ve got to know exactly what you’re doing," Beal explained to me. "It’s a very consuming process to stay good at that level. And I’m trying to do other things and not spend my life thinking about poker."
Not long ago, Beal let it be known that he would play just one final round, which was supposed to take place in Dallas this past September. It would be Beal versus a consortium of pros, "the Corporation," led by Doyle Brunson, the Godfather of the game. The buy-in: $40 million. But Brunson and his team balked, and, in an open letter published in a poker magazine, Beal basically called them chickens. Brunson fired back with his own open letter, saying that Beal was offering up a bum deal. For now, the game is off. So it remains unclear whether Beal has already played his final hand of serious poker—the kind in which the money at stake really matters.
With the pros a no-show in Dallas, Beal settled for a friendlier game with a couple of writers in a strip club. At the table were McManus, Beal, a banker friend of Beal’s, and, because I carried the chips upstairs, me.
Before we got started, McManus pulled me aside and said, "Hey, we’ll play for whatever you’re comfortable with. What do you think? A hundred bucks?" I took a peek in my wallet and saw that I had just $68 on me.
"Nah," I said, "I’m good for $200."
ANDY BEAL IS PUBLICITY SHY. Very little has been written about the man, and he declined to be photographed or formally interviewed for this story. But his accomplishments are the stuff of legend.
He came to Dallas in 1979 after dropping out of Baylor University. He did well enough in real estate, and then in 1988, at age 35, he launched Beal Bank with $3 million that he used to buy up defaulted loans from failing savings-and-loan institutions for dimes on the dollar. Eight years later, Beal Bank was among the most profitable in Texas. It grew into the largest privately held lender in Dallas and, based on five-year returns, frequently ranks first among all U.S. banks.
A key component in Beal Bank’s success has been "a philosophy of careful mathematical analysis," according to the company web site, "to accurately quantify and price risk." Beal’s always been something of a math nut. In 1993, while trying to find a simpler proof of Fermat’s famous Last Theorem, he came up with his own numerical conundrum now known to the fraternity of mathematicians as Beal’s Conjecture. Through the American Mathematical Society, Beal has staked a $100,000 prize for anyone who can prove (or disprove) it.
Then, in 1997, with $200 million of his own money, he started Beal Aerospace. He intended to create the first private company to launch satellites into space. With more than 200 employees, it was the largest private rocket development effort in history. But Beal discovered he couldn’t compete with the federal government’s deeper pockets. "When Congress and NASA targeted $10 billion to fund competing launch systems, we threw in the towel," he said. Beal shuttered the operation in October 2000.
Shortly thereafter, he headed to Las Vegas to try his hand at poker.
Beal quickly found his way to the $80/$160 Texas hold ’em tables at the Bellagio (where those numbers represent the forced antes, or "blinds"). As he grew more comfortable with the game, he progressed to the $400/$800 tables. Soon, he began asking if anyone might be interested in playing for higher stakes. Several professional players were interested. The only condition: Beal insisted on playing heads-up, meaning he would take on only one player at a time.
Even though many of the top poker players are multimillionaires, none of them could afford to take on Beal without risking his entire bankroll. So they formed the Corporation—pooling their money (and money from investors) to take on a man they had to see as the biggest gravy train ever to hit The Strip. In addition to Doyle Brunson, the team included 16 of the best players in the world. Johnny Chan, Chip Reese, Jennifer Harman, Howard Lederer, Chau Giang, Gus Hansen, and Phil Ivey are some of the names a casual fan of the World Poker Tour might recognize.
During the next few years, you could always tell when Beal was in town, because at the Bellagio’s highest-stakes table, a crowd of pros would gather around just two players duking it out with towering stacks of chips, each chip worth $10,000. For the most part, the Corporation booked wins of a few million each session. Beal did reportedly deliver a $5 million blow to two-time World Champion Chan, but then there was also that time Beal was supposedly up $4.5 million, only to see it turn into a $1 million loss.
Though who has won or lost how many millions is in dispute, Beal admits that he has been an overall loser since he began playing in the Big Game. But he’s getting better, and last May, he played in the biggest game ever. Blinds were $100,000/$200,000, and for four days, for up to 14 hours a day, Beal sat quietly in a white suit and bulky black headphones and grinded it out against the pros, who took him on in shifts. He finally got up and walked away from the table, saying he had to go back to Dallas for his twin daughters’ camping trip—finishing up a $10 million winner.
a lot of speculation as to what drives a guy like Beal to play for so
much money against such accomplished players. While some think he’s
just a sucker chasing his losses—betting more and more each time until
he finally gets lucky—others know there is more to it for a man as
smart as Beal.
Perhaps he believes that a prolonged run of good cards will inevitably come, thereby breaking the Corporation, or that with his bankroll, he has enough time to step up eventually to their level of play and just wear them down from there. Poker theorist David Sklansky has speculated that Beal has his bank’s computers working on algorithms so that he can bust the Corporation—and, in doing so, beat the game itself. In other words, he’s trying to prove a theorem.
"I’m not much of a risk taker," Beal told D Magazine in 2002. "I just take situations that people perceive to be high risk, and I decide that they can be managed to low risk. I’m really very conservative." He was talking about Beal Aerospace, but he could have been talking about a heads-up game of Texas hold ’em for millions a hand.
THE FINAL MATCH-UP between Beal and Brunson Inc. was supposed to go down in Dallas this September, right after the Legends of Poker tournament in Bell Gardens, California (which Brunson happened to win). Both sides knew what was at stake. It would be the biggest poker game in history. One super-rich genius against the most formidable poker team ever assembled.
It was to take place in the Beal Bank offices or at a mutually agreed-upon third-party location. (Poker games are legal in Texas, so long as they take place in private and there’s no "house" taking a cut.) But what at first seemed like pre-game posturing turned into deal-breakers: Brunson wanted to keep the game in Vegas, and he didn’t want to let Beal pick his opponents.
With the game seemingly off, some members of the Corporation began talking smack. Todd Brunson, Doyle’s son, told the New York Daily News, "I’ve beaten him for $20 million. $20.5 to be exact."
The gloating left Beal incensed, particularly because, as he saw it, they were refusing to play him again. So he wrote an open letter to Brunson and his team, which he sent to CardPlayer Magazine. "I challenge you to put up or shut up about your ’professional play.’ Come to Dallas and play me for four hours a day, and I will play until one of us runs out of money or cries uncle. If ... your wins have been as large as you claim, you should have plenty of bankroll and be jumping at the chance to ... win a lot more money."
In the following issue, the magazine published Doyle Brunson’s reply. He apologized for the "fisherman’s tales" about how much money Beal had lost and laid out the terms under which he and the Corporation would play: each side puts in $40 million, heads-up limit Texas hold ’em, with blinds starting at $30,000/$60,000 and potentially going up to $50,000/$100,000. (Beal wanted to play a $100,000/$200,000 structure.) And though the pros prefer to play in Vegas, they’re open to coming to Dallas. But only if Brunson can decide who plays against Beal each step of the way.
Beal was not moved. "I’ve never said I was better than every player they had," he told me. "I said I’m better than most of their players. If they pick six of their 16 players, I’m better than some of those six, and if I can pick who plays, then I’ll have the advantage."
Though this game, whether it happens or not, may indeed be a test of number theory—a proof in progress of another Beal conjecture—an element of psychology still enters the picture. And in poker, you’ve got to be able to look into your opponent’s eyes to learn where you really stand.
I got a glimpse of that in our little $200 game ($1/$2 blinds) at the Lodge that night. Beal and I were heads-up in a hand, and I needed to figure out why he’d just raised me. Was he trying to find out something about my hand, or was he trying to tell me something about his?
Wanting to get a better read on him, I engaged Beal in a classic poker stare down. It didn’t take long before the circular saw blades started shooting from his eyes, making me want to curl up in a ball and cry like a baby.
He won that hand (I folded a mediocre pocket pair), but I continued to duke it out with the billionaire banker, who was unaware that I might need a loan to cover my losses. Though I did suffer a few beats, I played smart—and perhaps a bit scared. Only once did my chip count drop below the money in my pocket. At the end of the night, I won $7.
Beal lost $21.
Dan Michalski is a contributing editor for All In magazine and founder of Pokerati.com.