One of the toughest games of poker ever played took place not in the classic casinos of Las Vegas or Atlantic City, but in the basement of an East Side high rise in New York City. Held in the Mayfair Club, an underground gambling den which assumed legendary status within the bridge, backgammon and poker communities during five decades of operation, this game featured a lineup of professionals feared for their prowess on the felt. Owners of multiple World Series of Poker bracelets long before the prizes held the prestige we know today, players like Dan Harrington, Jay Heimowitz, Mickey Appleman, Steve Zolotow and Howard Lederer took their seats and competed at the highest caliber with cash and pride the prizes of the day.
In 1987 a contingent of cardsharps who cut their teeth at the Mayfair Club went west to test themselves against the famed Texas road gamblers — men like Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson, Johnny Moss, and T.J. Cloutier — each of whom convened annually along with the great gamblers from across the globe at the WSOP in Las Vegas to decide World Championships in various poker variants. That year saw Mayfair Club alumni make a historic run through the $10,000 No-Limit Texas Hold'em Main Event, with no less than four members placing in the top 12, and two falling short after reaching the final table. Heimowitz finished in 11th place and Appleman bowed out in ninth, while Harrington left the first of his record four Main Event final tables in sixth, and Lederer pipped him in fifth place. In the end, it was a young and dashing Johnny Chan who claimed poker's premier prize, but the Mayfair Club represented itself admirably yet again on the WSOP stage.
At just 27-years old when his competitors and colleagues from the Mayfair Club returned home, Erik Seidel was one of the game's most precocious players, having only turned to poker a few years before following a successful career as a tournament backgammon expert. Nonetheless, Seidel took notice of how his friends performed against the best players in the world, so when WSOP season came around the next year he joined them in the jaunt westward, making his major tournament debut at the 1988 Main Event. The Mayfair Club represented the East Coast in rousing fashion once again, but this time it would be Seidel who took up the mantle, outlasting 165 opponents to find himself heads-up for the World Championship, and pitted against none other than the defending champ himself in Chan. Destiny danced with "The Master" that night, and Chan won his second consecutive Main Event to secure his legacy as the best player of his generation. For Seidel, though, second-place was just the start of something special.
Seidel sat down with PokerNews during the 2014 World Series of Poker to reminisce about his first trip to the WSOP and that fateful heads-up match against Chan.
PokerNews: Erik, with the 10th anniversary of the World Series of Poker moving to the Rio now upon us, PokerNews is interested in hearing about that bygone era in poker history when a few hundred poker pros contested the World Championship back at Binion's Horseshoe. So with that said, tell me about your first time attending the WSOP, and what you remember from that first foray into the most prestigious tournament in poker.
Erik Seidel: I played in a game in New York, and I had actually gone on a big streak just before the World Series. And several of the players in the game said “you really should come out and play the World Series.” So I went out that first time, and I played a bunch of satellites. I think I played nine satellites and I lost them all, and so now I really was kind of low on confidence, and ended up selling most of myself in the tournament with no markup. I think the only markup was two percent that I was giving a friend for a freeroll (laughing).
And that was it… it was very exciting for me. In the tournament, I just felt like I didn’t know what to expect, and I’m sitting there and I just felt like ‘hey, there’s lots of stuff to do and I’m starting to figure things out.’ I didn’t feel like it was beyond my skill set, which was something that I was worried about, and it was just a really fun time.
I mean, what was nice back then was that I didn’t know a whole lot of people, I knew Chip Reese, and I knew Stu Ungar because they were both great poker players but they also played backgammon. I knew Puggy Pearson, same thing. But it was a very small community, and it was just, by the second or third year you start to know almost everybody. If there was somebody at your table that you didn’t know, you could be pretty sure that they were a live one, and that’s definitely not the case anymore. Now, if you don’t know somebody they’re probably the best player in Scandinavia or something, best player in Europe.
PokerNews: You mentioned the hot streak that motivated you to attend the World Series. Did this occur at the famed Mayfair Club?
Yeah, it was a game at the Mayfair, and I had my two best weeks ever leading up to the World Series. I think I made like $72,000 or something, which for me was an insane amount of money at the time. So I was… you know, it all happened in such a short period of time, because I really wasn’t feeling like I was… I was just trying to find my way as a poker player then, and I certainly a lot of flaws in my game.
PokerNews: The Mayfair Club has become a famed part of poker lore at this point, with several players who are considered legends today cutting their teeth in that room. Had any of your friends from those games made the World Series trip before, and if so, did that provide any additional incentive to attend?
Howard Lederer and Dan Harrington both got to the final table the year before. Jay Heimowitz was also in the game, and he played a lot. I mean, he has six bracelets, and was just a fantastic player. He would go out, and Steve Zolotow would go out, and he was one of the people that backed me, and also one of the people that encouraged me to play. So yeah, there were a bunch of us. Mickey Appleman, he’s done pretty well out here, he’s won four events I think.
PokerNews: Something we’ve heard from previous iterations of this My First WSOP series is that, back in this era, the prominence of the bracelet really wasn’t a big deal compared to winning money.
That’s very, very true. Yeah, it’s very funny. Like, the whole bracelet thing it didn’t even really seem like, it was just something that you got if you won the tournament. But there certainly wasn’t this feeling that you had to collect them, or there was some convention of it, it really didn’t mean much to me at all. I think, after I won a couple of them then I started to feel like, “oh this is kind of nice.” I think, maybe it became a little bit more of a thing, and I started to feel it a little bit more, that it meant something. But yeah, you’re absolutely right, at the beginning it really didn’t have that much meaning. You know, it was just pretty much a tournament and you got an extra bracelet, which was very nice because it was gold. But that was it, it was like getting a watch or something.
PokerNews: Back in New York, did you all dabble in tournaments or was it predominately cash games that you played at the Mayfair Club?
It was primarily cash games. I think occasionally they had a tournament, but I don’t really remember. I think I remember playing one or two tournaments at the Mayfair. There was another game, another monthly tournament in New York that Steve Z did very well in, and I remember being very impressed with him because he was like, I think he was Player of the Year for one or two years in this New York tournament. And then Noli Francisco played in the tournament, he’s won a WPT event, a very creative player. You had Sonny Mendoza, another really great player, and I think he hosted the games.
PokerNews: When you showed up at Binion’s Horseshoe was the goal simply to win more than you lost, or was winning a World Championship something you thought about?
No, it really wasn’t on my mind. I mean, even now I don’t really feel that way, I just play and you see what happens, and hopefully things go well (laughing). But I don’t think I’ve ever had enough self-delusion to think about winning a bracelet. So each of them was kind of a surprise to me.
PokerNews: As you weaved your way through the tournament — obviously you finished as the runner-up — did the idea of becoming the World Champion of no-limit Texas hold’em start to weigh on you?
I think I was in last place in the tournament coming into the final table, and T.J. [Cloutier] was at the table, and Humberto Brenes was at the table. Ron Graham, I think he came in third, he was there, and Chan obviously. So I definitely didn’t have the sense at any point that “oh I’m going to win this tournament,” it was more a matter of let’s muck around and see what happens (laughing). It was a total surprise to me that I ended up doing as well as I did.
PokerNews: After Graham was eliminated in third place you were left to play heads-up with none other than Johnny Chan. Did his stature as the defending World Champion, as “The Master,” come into play for you, or was he just another opponent to contend with?
He was… before I came out to Vegas, I had been told by my friend Paul Magriel that the best no-limit player in the world was Johnny Chan. So I knew who he was, you know, and I was very conscious of his reputation. So it was an odd thing, it was a very surreal experience for me, because I just felt like I was some random kid from New York and I was playing this guy who, in my mind, was the best player in the world. I think that at the time it was odd, because I had never been in that spot before, so it’s difficult to think well the first time you’re in that spot. I had no preparation for it at all; I had never played heads-up, so I think that I was just in a position where I could’ve played a lot better but I didn’t know how (laughing).
PokerNews: Obviously every true poker fan remembers the final hand between you and Chan. It was immortalized on the silver screen by the film Rounders, and it’s since become a part of poker lore. What do you remember about the heads-up contest up to that hand?
You know, I really don’t remember that much. I remember it in early, early on he got all in with a straight draw and he hit it. Although he had other outs too, but somebody told me that I had, early on I had like eights versus sixes, or eights versus sevens or something, and then he drew out that hand. I don’t know if that’s true, somebody just told me that a couple days ago, but that just shows how bad my memory is that I don’t even remember that. I don’t remember much about the match, truthfully, but I remember vividly the whole experience of it, and just being in the middle of this thing.
PokerNews: Going back to that final hand, obviously as you said earlier, you were the new kid on the block, while Chan was the defending champion and “The Master.” So the television broadcast at the time, and then in Rounders, that hand was portrayed and played up as Chan trapping you in expert fashion. In reality, he flops the nut straight and you flop top pair, and in heads-up play that hand is typically going to end in the way it did more often than not. Looking back on it though, with more than 25 years of knowledge know at your disposal, do you think there’s any way you could’ve played the hand differently?
I don’t know. You know, it was funny the next year I came back and I was in line to pay my way into the Main Event, and I’m in line with Puggy Pearson, and he says “Son, I watched that play you made, and that was the worst play I’ve ever seen!” (laughing). But the whole movie thing, first of all they’re entitled to artistic license, it’s a film, but second of all I don’t necessarily think they took it. I mean, I was outplayed by him. If you watch the hand, I think he outplayed me badly in the final, and that particular hand he did trap me, so I don’t think there was that much artistic license taken. It’s fair game.
PokerNews: Your name and Johnny’s will always be linked forever in poker history, but do you two have any sort of personal relationship today, after being on the circuit together for so long?
He's not really around that much, and no, we never really hung out or anything. I think I’ve had one meal with him. You know, we have a cordial relationship for sure, but obviously we both lead very separate lives.
PokerNews: When you returned home to New York, and the Mayfair Club in particular, you’ve now had a few days to process the experience and decompress so to speak. Did you feel a sense of accomplishment or pride, or was it the flip side of, I came so close but I didn’t get there?
I remember, for me, it was hard to recover from right away. I think it took me a couple days to recover from it. I don’t really remember so much back then. Obviously, I wanted to win the World Championship, but I also have always felt a great appreciation for that tournament too, because I was a kid who was just starting to play. I didn’t have a ton of experience, and it gave me so much confidence, and it started my career.
So when I look back at that tournament, I don’t have the negative feelings that a lot of people feel like I should have because I lost a tournament. It’s still one of my favorite tournament experiences of my lifetime, because there I was, you know, making what was a lot of money for me. And for me, it was a real confidence boost, because now I felt like “hey I can play these things.” A few months later, actually, at that time there weren’t really that many big events, but the Bicycle Club had a big event, and I played it. It was a $2,000 event, and I beat [Phil] Hellmuth heads up, and that was big. So now, within a few months of each other I had two significant cashes, and all of a sudden for me it was a life changing thing.
Especially at that time, I had a daughter on the way, and I was very concerned about 'how am I going to pay for this girl to go to schools and all that kind of thing?' (laughing) I was a professional gambler, and there wasn’t a ton of money around in those days. So that was a very big deal for me to have that streak, and all of a sudden I had a decent bankroll, and didn’t feel the overwhelming pressure of having a kid on the way and no way to pay for her (laughing).
PokerNews: All these years later, did you ever foresee this game you love turning into the spectacle surrounding you today, with television coverage, sponsorship, and everything else?
Yeah, I don’t remember really how much I looked ahead to what poker would be look like. I don’t think anyone could’ve anticipated, or it was a stretch to anticipate that it would get to where it is now, where you have seven or eight thousand players playing for the World Championship. If I had known that it was going to get that big, I would’ve worked a lot harder to win when I had a chance to (laughing). Now it’s funny because you can’t realistically think you can win the World Championship, you’ve got to have a lot of delusion, which you know, is pretty common in this type of environment, but it’s not something you can really think about anymore.
Twenty-six years after nearly winning the World Championship in his first crack at the crown, Seidel may not consider a Main Event win to be an attainable goal in today's day and age, but there are still summits to be scaled. A truly exceptional career on the felt has netted Seidel a total of eight WSOP bracelets, putting him squarely in contention for the jewelry race which has so consumed Phil Hellmuth — who, in an ironic twist of fate, succeeded where Siedel did not and finally dethroned Chan to win the 1989 Main Event.
Seidel currently sits in sixth place on the all-time WSOP bracelet winner's list, and the next time he grabs gold will tie him with Moss and Phil Ivey. If he manages to win two more bracelets, Seidel will chase down Chan (along with Brunson) at 10, leaving Hellmuth as the lone target in terms of all-time WSOP tournament victories. For a man who played games to pay the bills for as long as he can remember, jewelry has never been the priority — as Seidel's remarkable career earnings of $20,415,596 can attest. That lifetime haul from live poker tournament play puts him in fourth place on the all-time money leader list, further confirming Seidel's status as one of the greatest gamblers to ever bring a bankroll to bear in games of skill.