Michael Craig

Michael Craig, former lawyer turned author turned poker buff, is the author of the highly acclaimed book, The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time. Published at the start of the 2005 World Series of Poker, the book details the story behind the ultra-high stakes games between Texas banker, Andy Beal, and a group of the most accomplished poker players in the world, including Doyle Brunson, Ted Forrest, Jennifer Harman, Todd Brunson, Chip Reese, and Howard Lederer. Mr. Craig sat down with Poker News Daily recently to discuss his experiences writing the book.

Poker News Daily: You graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and practiced as a lawyer for 15 years. How did you get started as a writer?

Michael Craig: I’ve always been interested in writing and the creative process. When I was in high school, when I was in college, when I was in law school, I either did well in writing things or did elective writing-type projects…newspaper, things like that. I taught legal writing for a year before I started practicing law.

Toward the end of my legal career, I started doing some freelance writing. I wrote a series of articles of Penthouse, I wrote an article for Cigar Aficionado, I wrote for a couple other magazines, so it was something that I always regarded as a hobby, and a hobby I was getting more active in. Even after I stopped practicing law, I mostly regarded writing as a hobby; I published two books about business and finance and then did a lot of writing for magazines about the same subjects in 1999, 2000, 2001.

That kind of dried up and I, having written two books for a trade press called Career Press… [and] gotten my feet wet, I would take on some meatier subjects. I spent the next couple years getting an agent, developing some really, big, ambitious projects, and then getting no interest whatsoever.

PND: It’s one thing to hear about the game with Andy Beal. It’s another to get in with the major players. How were you able to get so deeply involved?

Michael Craig: The biggest thing is because I wanted to. On the one hand I could say [sarcastically] that I’m real skilled because I have a law degree and was a hot-shot lawyer and I tried cases and I took depositions for CEO’s. [so] I could just go up to these guys. I mean, on one hand, I thought I won’t be afraid to approach them, but on the other hand, I just decided that this was something I really wanted to do. I spent a number of months developing secondary sources; low stakes regulars in the Bellagio poker room, dealers and floor people at the Bellagio, people who gave me information or gave me what the latest rumors were.

One of the breaks that I got was that a friend ours [Mr. Craig and his wife] went to high school with Barry Greenstein. She’s telling me this right before he won in Tunica. It’s not like Barry Greenstein was more successful after Tunica, but he was a lot more well-known. She’s talking about this guy and I have no idea what his connection is. I’m just thinking any high-stakes poker player would increase the number, to one, of high-stakes poker players I know. You start hearing about his story, this is a guy who’s been playing and winning in big games for years, and in the biggest game in the world, and then I find out that he was actually one of the members of the group who was playing against Andy Beal. I had a conversation with him – he was very friendly and very nice. He said he couldn’t tell me anything about the game (this was in February-March 2004), but I felt like I was at least a little bit closer.

Then I started getting some help from some of my secondary sources. Somebody offered to introduce me to Mike Matusow, who was not part of the game, but [he] told me, “Mike’s got an opinion about everything.” He’s not part of the Andy Beal game, but at least that would be a step closer. I ended up getting invited to this video shoot…they were shooting this instructional video, they were looking for players, these extras, and Mike was one of the expert commentators. So, I got into that thing really under false pretenses. Everybody else was a friend or family member, and here I was, somebody who was [undercover]. Turned out one of the other commentators was Todd Brunson, and this was like two weeks after he played Andy Beal $100,000/$200,000. I very gingerly tried to bring up…to Todd that I was thinking about writing a book about high stakes poker…and Todd couldn’t have been more friendly [sic]. He said it’s about time that somebody did something like this.

Then that started other things. I was able to approach other players…”You can ask Todd about me.” Howard Lederer was very helpful. He was the one who introduced me to Doyle [Brunson], he was the one who introduced me to Jennifer Harman. Doyle actually introduced me to Andy Beal. A critical mass developed and then it kind of sped along.

PND: Were there any players that were particularly accommodating to you?

Michael Craig: Everybody was particularly accommodating. I interviewed Doyle Brunson just once for about forty minutes and it was clear that it wasn’t like I could just sit there and talk with him for hours and hours. He left his $2,000/$4,000 game for me…it wasn’t like he was giving me a limitless amount of time, but on the other hand, he was extremely helpful with information, he told me some great stories. [He] introduced me to Andy Beal, this guy who everybody was going out of their way to protect and keep information about the game from getting out just because…part of the ethic is that you don’t go doing things that sound like you’re bragging about people that you beat, especially when they’re people who know going in that they’re the underdog. Given that, he was going to introduce me to Andy and he would have that much trust in me that I wasn’t looking to do some kind of rip-job. This is an example [where] Doyle didn’t give me limitless amounts of time, but what he gave me was of immeasurable value.

Howard Lederer let me interview him, I believe, three times, it might have been four, I’d have to look. None of these interviews had a set starting or ending time and I pretty much just kept asking questions until…he ran up against something where he had to leave.

Ted Forrest, I interviewed him for, it must have been altogether, six hours, eight hours, nine hours. One time he was driving in the middle of the night through, I think, Connecticut, or somewhere in New England, so he had the speaker phone on…and just would let me ask anything I want[ed]…He was incredibly generous with his time.

But nearly all the principals who I interviewed were extremely helpful. I interviewed Jennifer Harman three times, the first very shortly after her kidney transplant. She shared information from the book she has kept of her results for as long as she's been a professional. Todd Brunson was very frank in several interviews. Barry Greenstein let me interview him at length on several occasions and commented on portions of the manuscript in between hands of a $4,000-$8,000 game. And Andy Beal, for such a private man who had nothing to gain by cooperating and every reason to consider my project an intrusion, just couldn't have been more helpful.

PND: The scenes depicted in the book might have made for some interesting pictures. Why no photos, especially the one described of Beal and the mass of chips lined up on the table?

Michael Craig: The combination of a tight deadline and the possibility that I have have to take the time and spend the money to negotiate for the rights to use pictures made it impractical.

The picture that I really would’ve wanted to use was the picture I described [in the book]: Andy Beal with all their money, then Jennifer Harman, then Doyle Brunson, then Ted Forrest…Ted actually has a fairly placid expression. Jennifer and Doyle are really struggling to smile, which was understandable under the circumstances. They had both told me…what a difficult time it was and while they didn’t feel like Andy was rubbing it in or showing them up, the point was that…they were not in at all a joyful mood over that. I mean, they had to borrow money to be able to play him one more time. While they had non-poker assets, it’s just a real uncomfortable situation.

The rights to that picture are so messy, that if I had a year, I think it’s possible that I might’ve been able to work it out, but the issue of who the rights belong to is a real thorny one. Arguably it’s the Bellagio, arguably it’s the photographer of the Bellagio who was hired to take the picture, arguably it’s Andy Beal who contracted to have the picture taken. Andy said that he didn’t have a problem with it if everybody else was ok with it…that’s much more complicated.

PND: Has anyone shown interest in making the book into a movie? Who could you picture playing Andy Beal? The players?

Michael Craig: There have been a couple inquiries, nothing real serious. I expect that somebody will come forward on it, but it’s not something that I’ve actively marketed.

James Woods loves the book and he would be perfect for Andy Beal. One of the things that I think makes it difficult to imagine as a movie is that it’s an ensemble piece.

I think George Clooney would be great for Andy Beal, except George Clooney is not going to want to be in a movie or some producer is not going to want to pay him his fee where they’ve got four other people they’ve got to pay the same amount of money. His role isn’t a bigger, more important role than four other people, and if he’s going to be Andy Beal, you can’t have some nobody be Doyle Brunson or have a nobody be Howard Lederer, Barry Greenstein, or Jennifer Harman.

For Doyle Brunson: Jack Nicholson. Mark my words, Jack Nicholson IS Doyle Brunson.

James Woods told me that the ideal person to play Ted Forrest would be Ted Forrest. I also heard a rumor that Cameron Diaz had Ellen Degeneres teach her poker so she could play Jennifer Harman.

PND: You came up with quite an intriguing title for your book. How did that develop?

Michael Craig: When I sold the project…it was sold under the title, The Big Game, which was sort of a nod to The Biggest Game in Town, which, to me, is the best poker book ever written. Incredibly influential in both my writing separate from poker, and my becoming a poker player. It made poker seem a lot more interesting than I had previously thought it was.

Warner, because of the success of Positively Fifth Street and the kind of literary nature of that title, said, “We want a more literary title.” So I gave them about thirty possible titles and one of them, that I referred to as my “American pie” title because it was long and rambling, I believe it was The Banker, the Professor, the Goddess of War, the Bulldog, and the Suicide King. They eventually put “the Professor” ahead of the “the Banker” and said it was too long and they wanted to shorten it. So we took out “the Bulldog” and “the Goddess of War,” “the Bulldog” being Todd Brunson – none of these are nicknames that anybody ever actually uses for these people, which is to me is part of charm, that other than [Howard Lederer’s], they are all pretty much made-up nicknames. Nobody calls him [Howard Lederer] that, other than [Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten]; now other commentators will call him that, too. His actual nickname amongst his friends is “Bub.”

Todd was the “Bulldog” just because when people described his play against Andy Beal, the word “bull” always showed up. Somebody said, “He bulldozed him,” or “He bullied him around,” or “He was like a bull charging at him,” so I decided to pick “the Bulldog” because of Todd’s tenacity as a poker player.

And then the “Goddess of War” is the armed Queen, I’d have to look at a deck of playing cards, but one of the four Queens is carrying, I think, a pike. That would, of course, represent Jennifer Harman, the one woman in the group.

We took those out really just for space and they liked “the Suicide King” because it’s an interesting image, as well as a mystery as to who that represents.

PND: During the researching and writing of the book, what surprised you the most about the world of professional poker or high-stakes professional poker?

Michael Craig: It may have been a couple things, so if I think about it more, my answer might change some, but when you first mentioned that to me, the first thing that came to mind, and maybe this doesn’t sound like it surprised me, is what gamblers these people are. How they’re willing to play $100,000/$200,000 poker when their regular game is $1,000/$2,000 or $4,000/$8,000. Of course they’re gamblers, but the way I was conditioned to think about the top pros is that they are experts in getting and exploiting their edge.

To me, that's not real gambling. Somebody like Barry Greenstein could get into a game, even a game with the nine worst players in the world, and lose a million dollars. But that's not gambling. A player of caliber says to himself, “I have an edge in skill against these players. If I play long enough with that edge, I will end up winning.” For the players who were the focus of the book, these are risks, but they aren't gambles. That's not the same as a guy who bets on craps or puts money in a slot machine, where he is risking money without ever having the best of it, or having a long-term expectation of a profit once luck evens out.

The thing that I learned, and that was surprising to me and is beginning to make sense, is first that these people all got attracted to poker because it was gambling. It wasn’t like they were one of these guys running a hedge fund and said, “You know, I actually think I could make more money playing high-stakes poker than a hedge fund.” These people all got into poker really young and mostly weren’t good at it right away. Many of them were throwing money at blackjack, throwing money on sports, throwing money on slots, throwing money on whatever, and they were just like crazy gamblers and like millions of other crazy gamblers, poker was one of the craziest things to gamble at, except because of their interest, ability, and skill, they turned it into something that they were good at. But they were still gamblers.

But their gambling was something that wasn’t really gambling to them anymore. It’s risk taking, but it’s not gambling.

It’s not all about them always having an edge. Some very successful gamblers…will get into situations where they don’t have the edge because they’re gamblers and that’s the way they think gamblers need to behave. But if they have an edge the majority of the time, part of the way to get action is to give action.

PND: Regardless of whether or not they were involved in the matches with Beal, who is your favorite poker player?

Michael Craig: Andy Beal.

There’s no single way to answer that. Andy Beal, and his form of poker – high stakes, heads-up, limit hold’em – just has a great approach to the game.

He developed a method to try to master limit hold’em and did extremely well. The difference between you and me and let’s just say, Doyle Brunson, in playing limit hold’em is gigantic. At one time, maybe we could’ve taken Andy Beal, but now Andy Beal has an overall winning record against Doyle Brunson.

Same thing with Chip Reese. Same thing with Barry Greenstein. Same thing with Minh Ly. Here is Andy Beal, a guy five years ago who we might have beat at poker, and he has the skill - in this particular form of poker - to lock horns with the best players in the world, some of the best players ever, and have a real shot of winning.

Editor’s Note: Look for a review of The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time on Poker News Daily soon.

Mr. Craig's book can be purchased at Amazon.com by following this link