Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Warren Buffett's Private Poker Game

High-stakes betting with investing's Mr Hold 'Em

Published: Sep 28, 2012 06:13:52 AM IST
Updated: Feb 20, 2014 05:41:28 PM IST
Warren Buffett's Private Poker Game
Image: Billy Farrell Agency
The Oracle of Omaha is very self-eff acing about his poker prowess

Warren Buffett is a famously world-class bridge player, putting in 12 hours a week at the table, often with Bill Gates, and sponsoring the Buffett Cup, which mimics golf’s Ryder Cup, except with cards. “Every hand fascinates me,” he recently told me, in explaining this obsession. But relatively quietly, over the past seven years, he’s emerged as the host of one of the planet’s most exclusive poker games.

While the World Series of Poker Main Event remains the most famous and prestigious tournament, a 10-day-long bacchanal that satisfies ESPN’s late-night programming needs for months, it’s also open to anyone with $10,000 and a dream. The NetJets Poker Invitational, run by Berkshire Hathaway’s private-jet subsidiary, has a much steeper hurdle: Players must be a NetJets fractional owner (minimum cost: $200,000), with a select few heavy Marquis Jet Card owners sprinkled in.

However enticing the $500,000 prize pool—the big winner has the option of 10 hours of time on a Bombardier Global 5000, worth $150,000, and the top 10 all get something heady—the true stakes are measured in ego. As at the World Series of Poker, Texas Hold ’Em is nothing more than a betting and bluffing game, and tournaments like this appeal to the same primal instincts as in an ancient battle royale, combated via brains and daring. Plus, Buffett lords over all of it, as host, mascot and, most notably, target. Knocking the Oracle of Omaha out of the tournament is the poker equivalent of beating Jack Nicklaus at a charity closest-to-the-hole contest.

In June, I gave it a shot, snagging one of the 240 seats. The game, the centrepiece of a lavish weekend of food, drink and entertainment—this year’s headliner was Jerry Seinfeld— rolls out over seven hours on a Saturday. That’s a lot longer than other corporate tournaments I’ve played and much shorter than World Series of Poker marathons. But don’t tell that to most of the participants, many of whom hone their skills all year in anticipation. All 24 tables were filled right at 10 am, when the tournament kicked off. Scoreboards rattled off statistics, and professional poker player Phil Gordon, who often does TV analysis, gave a running commentary.

At each starting table, one notable, from Buffett to NetJets CEO Jordan Hansell to NBA star Vince Carter, dons an armband. Knocking him out (or her, though about 95 percent of the players were men) earns a shoutout and a prize worth about $5,000.

Unfortunately for me, rather than an A-list patsy, the bounty target at my table was Jordan Mayers, a wealth manager who came in sixth last year and also finished in the money at the World Series of Poker. Not that I didn’t give it an early run: I flopped three sevens, with a pair hidden, enticing Mayers to throw in most of his pot—a tactic that turned against me when he nailed a flush on ‘the river’, or last card.  The prospect of reaching the final table now unlikely, I set a personal goal of trying to outlast Buffett.

Not shy about his bridge skills, Buffett is very self-effacing about his poker prowess. “You will find me about five minutes after the tournament starts on the sidelines—knocked out as usual in the first round,” he emailed me before the tournament. He later explained the difference between the two card games this way: “I just don’t care about poker as much.” Temperamentally this makes sense. Buffett’s favoured holding period for his positions is “forever”; poker demands immediate exploiting or discarding. That played out at my table. A New York private equity executive named Ethan was quickly blown out, while Mayers, who has a trading background, amassed chips. Bodies fell. Tables began merging. As I looked over, Buffett, wearing the loudest shirt in the room—electric green—was holding his own, a bit up from where he started.

Desperate to make a move and cursed most of the morning with lousy cards, I began bluffing heavily, and successfully, scratching back near even. And then disaster: Playing one bluff too many—a lousy queen-six unsuited—I bet into a publishing entrepreneur named Brad Mayfield, who held a hidden pair of jacks. Seeking to scare him down, I went all-in with my chips, he called, and I was toast, finishing a mediocre 181st.

Buffett hung in longer. A pharma- ceutical entrepreneur named Dennis Jones took him out almost an hour later, earning four days at L’Auberge d’Aspen and a scalp he can brag about for the rest of his life. Buffett wound up 121st. By late afternoon, the 10 finalists took their places at a table set up like a mini-amphitheatre, complete with overhead television camera. Buffett had changed out of his poker shirt and watched the proceedings intently. He had a rooting interest. The final two players were Jeff Corzine, son of the embattled former New Jersey governor who ran Goldman Sachs and MF Global, and Sue Decker, the former Yahoo president who’s now a Berkshire Hathaway board member. The trader’s son versus the investor’s advisor. “You know who I’m for,” Buffett barked, to laughter.

After a 30-minute seesaw battle that saw both stave off elimination hands, the tournament came down to her queen-ten suited versus his ace-jack unsuited, with almost precisely equal chip counts. The common cards yielded neither a flush nor an in-hand pair, handing Corzine the title and the flight hours, with Decker content with a trip to Scotland’s Skibo Castle and her own barrel of Dalmore whiskey.

NetJets skipped the tournament in 2010, post-meltdown, but faced enough of an outcry from its customer base that Buffett has declared the tournament an annual fixture. “I’ll be back next year, and I’m going to keep coming back until I make it to the final table,” he told the attendees of the pre-Seinfeld awards ceremony on Saturday evening.

(This story appears in the 28 September, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)