Andy Frankenberger scored a perfect 800 on his math SAT while a day student at the elite Phillips Academy. He passed up Harvard for Duke, graduating with dual degrees in Russian—he’s been fluent since high school after a two-month semester in Siberia—and Economics. He was part of the founding team for the currency trading desk at JP Morgan in Moscow. Continued success on Wall Street earned him friends in high places, including the hedge fund billionaire David Einhorn. When he left Wall Street in 2009, his goal wasn’t to become a professional poker player. But he played well in his underground games and with Wall Street buddies to give poker a try. Enough wins brought him to his first big tournaments, and eventually his first professional title, at a 2010 Venetian tourney, besting 350 people for the six-figure prize.
Frankenberger is handsome, tall, with rust-colored hair and warm brown eyes. Fair skin that burns or freckles, but probably never tans. He purposely left his razor at home, Frankenberger tells me, because when he comes to Vegas he likes to get a straight shave once a week. It’s been a week already, and no shave, so his facial hair growth pattern is fully visible: scattered swirls of russet stubble.
Outside the Mandarin Oriental, where we have just finished looking at luxury residences, the valet pulls up with Frankenberger’s car, a silver Mercedes sedan he’s rented for the duration of the World Series of Poker. It’s not nearly as cool as the silver Mercedes he has back in the city, a tiny coupe with massage seats, but a luxury vehicle nonetheless. We get in, crank the air conditioning up to full blast, and let the car idle in the valet section. We are waiting to hear back from Phil Hellmuth, to see if he can join us for dinner, Thai food at Lotus of Siam. Hellmuth texts back that he can be there in an hour and a half, about six o’clock. Frankenberger puts the car into gear and like five seconds later his phone rings. It’s Hellmuth. He wants to know whether we’d be interested in joining him for nine holes at Shadow Creek, and have we heard of it? “We’ll eat plates of lobsters,” he says. “They’ll pour us $400 shots.”
We meet Hellmuth, who is dressed all in black, his “thing” Frankenberger tells me, in the VIP lot in the back of the Rio. There are double-wide trailers set up nearest the staircase, a luxury certain pros allow themselves. Not Frankenberger, and not Hellmuth either. His BMW is all black, too, cream inside. We cruise in air-conditioned, leather-upholstered comfort through the parched desert—me, Frankenberger, Hellmuth, and Hellmuth’s friend Chris Connor—past the strip, to North Las Vegas where the ultra exclusive Shadow Creek Golf Course is an irrigated and verdant mirage. “I’m dreading the day when a best friend of mine has a wedding during the Main Event [a guaranteed prize of $10mm, and the title of No-limit Texas Hold’em World Champion],” Frankenberger says. “A cousin did that to me once,” says Hellmuth. “I didn’t show up.”
Jonathan, our caddy for the evening, is waiting for us in a golf cart by the parking lot. God forbid we actually set foot on the maybe 10 yards of asphalt between our vehicle and the doors to the Shadow Creek men’s locker room. There is a short discussion at the threshold, what we’d like to eat after the game: lobster tails, chilled, and jumbo prawns and chicken salad sandwiches. “You know what I like,” Hellmuth says to the woman in charge of feeding us. We are the only ones there. The club is otherwise closed. Just us. And Jonathan. Inside the men’s locker room are walls of blond wood lockers, each with a brass (or could it be gold?!) plaque engraved with the name of its owner: Michael Jordan, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Phil Hellmuth. There is green-and-red plaid pile carpeting, a chilled silver bucket with individually wrapped moist hand toilettes resting on a bed of ice, and assorted citrus wedge garnish.
Hellmuth changes into his golf clothes, Connor is already wearing his, and this is the lucky one day that Frankenberger happens to be wearing shorts. His Lanvin patent leather-tipped sneakers will be just fine on the course; they keep it pristine. I slather on sunscreen dispensed from a giant pump in the corner. We all do. Hellmuth: “Let’s hit it boys. And girl.” They play the nine holes as a scramble, Hellmuth and Frankenberger against Connor. I help putt, when they ask, and I talk to Jonathan, who eats shrimp gumbo out of a Styrofoam cup. Hellmuth tells us he once played here with Tiger Woods for an ESPN special. “One million dollars a hole,” he says. “It made great TV.” There are giant electric fans like steel drums that blow a gentle breeze against certain of the some 21,000 trees—“so they don’t develop a fungus,” Jonathan explains. There is a flowing stream. There are ducks sitting on the lawn, and other game birds. There is a “very mean” swan. There is a waterfall. Shadow Creek should not exist.
Waiting for us in the dining room are chilled plates of crustless finger sandwiches, plates of sliced lobster tail with glass dishes of cocktail sauce, and lemon wedges. Hellmuth drinks Blue Moon from a frosty glass and samples from a plate of orange wedges. We order glasses of the house white, a Far Niente chardonnay from Napa that happens to be one of Frankenberger’s most favorite, and is not inexpensive. The conversation pivots to a good night’s rest; Hellmuth can sleep 12 hours a night, easy.
“You’re talking to someone who has sleep apnea—I know the value of sleep,” Frankenberger says.
“Wait, you have sleep apnea, too?” Hellmuth says. “So do I.”
They debate the merit of wearing a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) mask to bed.
At first, Frankenberger was reluctant. “I didn’t want to get the machine because it’s not very sexy, and a girl is going to be over and she’s going to see a machine—I’m like, anything but that. But now, I’m like, fuck it. This is my thing, I have a fucking old man machine, whatever.”
“Sleep apnea is no joke,” says Hellmuth.
Out come a wicker basket of crinkle-cut potato chips and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Platinum, a label none of us knew existed. And the conversation inevitably returns to poker. “The way I describe it,” Frankenberger says, “is you have to be good enough to put yourself in a position to get lucky.”
“Well I have a different definition than everybody else of this stuff,” says Hellmuth. “Everybody else thinks one way, and I think a different way. The kids can’t imagine, because there’s no breakdown for it mathematically—all these genius kids that have grown up playing online, they’re math geniuses. And I’m like, okay, are you guys fucking dumb? You think that math is going to trump reading ability? So I had to coin a term: white magic. It’s 30% play it perfect and put yourself in a position to get lucky. There’s lot of truth in that.”
Frankenberger has been pointing out the Kid Geniuses to me all week: gangly, nerdy-looking young boys, college-age, with backpacks and usually glasses.
“For some reason, Andy doesn’t get credit,” says Hellmuth. “I don’t exactly understand why not. He thinks so far outside the box, and he’s a little bit…goofy. And so, because of that, they don’t give him much credit? They don’t give me credit, I think, because sometimes I’m a brat on T.V.”
It’s late now. Their CPAPs beckon. Everyone drains their glass and pulls out variations on the same fat wallet. The whole evening hasn’t cost Hellmuth or anyone else a dime: Luxury is free when you have enough money. A bouquet of $100 bills is assembled and pressed into the palm of our humbled waiter.
“Plates of lobsters,” Frankenberger mouths to me, grinning, thumbs up.