Poker can trace its origins back to colonial America, where a melting pot of different cultures saw several different games of chance molded into the early versions of poker. Since those first games were played in the saloons and riverboats, poker has gone on to achieve worldwide fame and spawned wild legends and stories that are retold at tables over and over again, embellished a little each time, no doubt, until who really knows what the truth is. Here we uncover some of the best.
THE LONGEST POKER SESSIONS EVER PLAYED
A classic one to start off with. The longest poker session ever played. We’ve probably all been in one of those, where it seems like you might need a haircut when the session is over. And you were bald when it started. The other people don’t seem to have any sense of timeliness and you’re about to go slightly nutty. Most modern games of poker will generally last a few hours, or if it’s a big tournament like the World Series of Poker, a few months at most. Throughout the history of poker however, there have been several games that have allegedly lasted much longer, taking years before the final hand was dealt.
BIRD CAGE THEATRE, TOMBSTONE, ARIZONA
The basement of the Bird Cage Theatre in Tombstone, Arizona, is believed to be the site of the longest documented cash game in history. Lasting from 1881 to 1889—a little over eight years in total—the game had old west legends, politicians, lawmen, professional gamblers, businessmen and philanthropists all playing together.
The Bird Cage Theatre first opened its doors in 1881 to provide entertainment for the minors working in the silver mines in the area. The owners soon discovered that their patrons were far more interested in low-brow entertainment, and the venue quickly became known around the land for excessive drinking, gambling, and all-night parties. At one point, the New York Times proclaimed that the venue was 'The wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street and the Barbary Coast.' While upstairs the patrons partied, in the basement, the heavy hitters enjoyed a high-stakes poker game.
The buy-in was $1000 upfront, which was a kingly sum at the time—approximately $25 large in 2020—and players could enter and leave whenever they pleased. Among the more notable attendees over the eight-year run were Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, two legends of the old west. Lovely moustaches. Along with American businessman Diamond Jim Brady, titan of industry Adolphus Busch, and US Army scout journalist and lawman Bat Masterson. The game ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week and had an estimated $10 million changing hands throughout the eight years, with the Bird Cage retaining 10 percent as a rake fee. Keep in mind, $10 million back then would be something like $260,000,000 in 2020. Hot dang, that’s a lot a green!
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and the game was eventually scrapped when groundwater seeped into the mines and flooded several of Tombstone’s buildings. The theatre itself only lasted a few more years, finally closing its doors for good when nearly all the miners were let go and left the area.
Nowadays, the Bird Cage Theatre still operates as a museum, but it is also said to be haunted. The old venue has been featured in several ghost hunting and paranormal enthusiast TV shows attempting to find evidence of supernatural entities still living in the building. Spooky!
DUN GLEN HOTEL, THURMOND, WEST VIRGINIA
The Bird Cage Theatre holds the official record for the longest poker cash game, but another unofficial claimant for the title is the Dun Glen Hotel in Thurmond, West Virginia, where a game lasting 14 years allegedly took place.
The town once had a booming coal economy and an important rail stop that meant there was plenty of traffic to the area. During the early 1900s, Thurmond had more freight passing through than Richmond, Cincinnati and Virginia combined. More than 95,000 passengers went through each year, and hundreds were employed by the railroad to keep everything running smoothly.
The hotel opened in 1901 and offered all the usual vices, drinking, gambling, and other night-time shenanigans. The poker game was said to have lasted for over 14 years. Reliable accounts of who played, the cost of the buy-in and other details are scarce. The only real accounts come from Ripley's Believe It or Not, a business that specializes in investigating weird and wonderful things around the world.
LONGEST POKER SESSIONS IN THE MODERN ERA
LARRY OLMSTED & PAUL ZIMBLER
In 2004, at the Foxwood Casino, Connecticut, Larry Olmsted set a record for the longest poker marathon by an individual when he played for 72 hours and two minutes straight. Only a few years later, another poker player, Paul Zimbler, surpassed Olmsted with a session lasting 78 hours and 45 minutes at the 2009 World Series of Poker event in the UK. Zimbler's record was never officially recognized, but many in the poker community considered him to be the record holder from that moment onward.
This is a bit of a side note, but one of the reasons why Zimbler’s efforts were not officially recognized could have been because of the gravity of going without sleep; the serious effect it has on the body. And here’s why we think that. The Guinness Book of World Records will measure, and record the efforts of those adrenaline junkies who take a space balloon to the edge of the Earth’s gravitational pull (not quite, but close enough for us), and skydive back to Earth. Guinness will actually measure that. Not sure if it’s a tape measure, or one of those laser measuring devices you see on those home improvement shows or what, but they will measure that and give people world record titles for it. However, they (Guinness) won’t recognize attempts to go for the longest time without sleep, because medicine has agreed it’s just too dangerous… “What’s that Felix? You’d like to skydive from how high? 24 miles above the Earth’s surface? OK, hang on, let us get our tape measure…See you in New Mexico.” So that guy—Felix Baumgartner—could go so high up and jump back to earth—that’s fine—but going without sleep? Nope, sorry, we’re not measuring that. Why not? Umm, because it’s too dangerous. Wow. Old Felix, he’s floating up to 128,000 feet and jumping off his balloon, traveling at 690 miles per hour, breaking the sound barrier, and that’s safer than not getting your sleep. That’s some serious information.
A year after Zimbler set his record, Phil Laak planned to have an 80-hour session at the Bellagio in Las Vegas during the 2010 World Series of Poker. Even after hitting his target though, Laak wasn't content and decided to continue, eventually reaching the 115-hour mark officially setting the new Guinness World Record for the longest poker marathon by an individual.
LONGEST POKER TOURNAMENT
The record for longest poker tournament was set in 2013. During the Asian Poker Tour at Resorts World Manila, Philippines, over a hundred players bought in for $700 each. Categorized as the “iron man challenge,” the contest lasted an impressive 48 hours 55 minutes, beating the former record by 12 hours. American player, Damon Shulenberger, was the ultimate victor, taking home $18,240 and the title of winner of the longest poker tournament on record.
RANDY LEW—EIGHT HOURS & 23,493 HANDS
Online casinos have revolutionized the gaming industry, providing players with virtually unlimited access to games of chance 24 hours a day. This unprecedented access has also given opportunities for players to perform feats that would be impossible at a traditional building-based venue, as Randy Lew proved when he played a total of 23,493 hands over an eight-hour session.
When Lew sat down for an online poker session at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in 2012, he had one goal in mind—set a record for the biggest number of hands played and make a profit while doing it. Over the next eight hours, he multi-tabled between 25 and 40 online poker tables at once, smashing out hands at lightning speed. At one point he was $1,200 down, but Lew persevered, and by the time he hit the massive hand total of 23,493, he was up by $7.65.
MIKE POSTLE—2019’S BIGGEST POKER SCANDAL
Late last year, the poker world exploded when cheating allegations against Mike Postle came to light. Postle had remained a relatively unknown pro player until his hot streak at the live-streamed poker games in Stones Gambling Hall, Sacramento, saw him win more than $250,000 in a series of No Limit Texas Hold‘em games.
The sum of money itself isn’t overly remarkable; many high stakes games can have prize pools that reach well into the millions; rather, the noteworthy thing about Postle, was his strange playstyle. He would hold onto cards that had low chances of success, and still win consistently. His uncanny ability to always make the right decision in nearly every situation earned him nicknames like 'The Messiah' and 'God' (who apparently were really successful at poker back in the day).
His fanbase quickly grew, and so did his legend, no matter what his opponent had, Postle was always able to defeat them. If they had a better hand, he would fold, if their cards were weaker, he would bet heavy. It appeared that he had somehow figured out a way to get a perfect read on his opponents every time, something that the best-ranked players in the world struggle to replicate consistently.
It wasn't long before Postle's abilities started to raise eyebrows, and many started to whisper that he was cheating somehow. Keen-eyed Stones employee Veronica Brill was the first to voice the suspicions out loud, and a storm of hate and anger quickly followed. Postle had amassed a large fanbase during his hot streak, and they were quick to defend their idol. Other professional players also threw their lot in, condemning Brill as well.
Once the story broke, making headlines in poker circles around the world, savvy Internet sleuths and poker players began to examine Postle's game style at length. Most came to the same conclusion; his wins defied all mathematical odds and statistics. The running theory became he was able to see the other cards at the table through some sort of trickery.
After these new allegations came to light, public opinion turned against Postle, and 76 affected players sought $10 million in damages from him, $10 million from Stones Gambling Hall and $10 million from Justin Kuraitis, the tournament director. Some of the players have settled their grievances in court, but the truth of the matter is yet to be revealed, leaving the rest of us to wonder, did Postle really cheat, or has he truly figured out how to get a perfect read on opponents every time?
BERTRAND GROSPELLIER—62 TABLES IN AN HOUR
Online poker tables have changed the way games can be played, with some players hitting multiple tables in one sitting. Professional poker player Bertrand Grospellier took this to new highs when he settled down in front of 62 Sit-n-Go tables in the space of an hour. Fresh off a third-place win in the Texas Hold‘em Poker Tour World Championships at The Bellagio in Las Vegas, Grospellier managed to set the record and still come away in profit.
POKER LEGEND—THE DEAD MAN’S HAND
Whenever a hand consisting of two-pair black aces and black eights comes out at a poker table, talk inevitably shifts to the dead man's hand, and how those particular cards received the name.
The tale begins in a saloon where lawman and gambler James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was playing a game of five-card draw. One of the other players, Jack McCall, lost every cent he had. In what would prove to be the biggest mistake of his life, Hickok decided to take pity on the hapless McCall, offering him money for food and some free advice, "Don't play again until you can cover your losses." McCall was insulted and left immediately.
The following day, Hickok returned to the poker table, but his favored seat with the back to the wall was occupied. By this time in his life, the old lawman was paranoid about being shot and always liked to sit with his back to the wall so he could see everyone who approached the table. Unable to persuade the player in his seat to move, Hickock was forced to sit elsewhere.
McCall entered the saloon later that day and saw Hickock back at the poker table. Nobody is quite sure why, but at that moment, McCall flew into a fit of rage and stormed over to Hickock, shooting him in the back of the head, killing the legendary gunfighter instantly. When the dust had settled (and the contents of Hickok’s noggin spattered on the table cleaned up), Hickock's cards were retrieved, and the hand composition would forever be remembered as the Dead Man's Hand—two pair, black aces and eights.
LARGEST ONLINE POKER TOURNAMENT EVER
Most large-scale poker tournaments will attract a few thousand people at best, which makes an online poker tournament where 225,00 players bought in even more remarkable. Held in 2013 by PokerStars, the buy-in was only $1, which generated plenty of interest from people who wanted to help make history.
HONORABLE MENTION—MOLLY’S GAME
This poker game has achieved legendary status as the biggest underground game ever created. The players were A-listers, sports figures, celebrities, billionaires, businessmen and other influential people.
Initially started by Spiderman star Tobey Maguire, a woman named Molly Bloom was brought in to help keep everything running smoothly. The venues included high-end hotels and private poker rooms, but the real attraction was the money that changed hands, pots could reach well into the millions.
The craziest thing about this story isn't necessarily the game itself, but rather what happened when the law caught up with Molly Bloom. On April 16, 2013, she was arrested and charged with 33 others as part of a $100 million money laundering and illegal sports gambling operation.
Throughout the trial, every part of her operation was revealed, including her client list and the intimate details of Tobey Maguire's poker game. A-listers Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Phil Ivey and a whole host of others were named as players.
Bloom was facing a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, six years of supervised release, a fine of $1.5 million and a $200 special assessment. She eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to one year of probation and 200 hours of community service. She would go on to write a book—Molly’s Game—which would be adapted into a movie in 2017, entitled Molly's Game (strange that, isn’t it?).
TRUTH CAN BE STRANGER THAN FICTION
There will always be weird and wonderful tales around poker, and we don’t want that ever to change. It’s testament to the range of skills and dedication required to play and get the most out of this game we love so much, that there is always such mystery, legend and excitement surrounding it.
Long may it continue, and we’ll be watching every flop of the way.