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Best of Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS – Of all the people that entered this year's $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. World Championship at the World Series of Poker, the guy in the purple jacket probably had the least to gain.
Sure, the first-place payday of $1.2 million would have been nice, but when you're Jerry Buss – owner of one of the most illustrious franchises in all of sports – you aren't sitting at the poker table for 12 hours a day for the money. You're doing it because you love it.
"I'm having a ball," said the 75-year-old owner of the recently crowned Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday afternoon during a break in the action of the H.O.R.S.E. event. "I have been super competitive all my life. When you get my age, poker's probably the only outlet you have to feed those competitive juices. And for me to be able to sit here and play against 100 of the best players in the entire world, that really feeds those juices."
Jerry Buss playing poker is hardly a news-breaking event. He's been a noted high-stakes poker cash game player for years. He's also active in the tournament circuit and has three WSOP cashes in his part-time career as a professional poker player – the last one coming in 2004 when he placed 33rd in the Seniors Event.
"Poker has changed over the years because of the Internet," said Buss, who was drinking Gatorade at the table while wearing a purple Lakers jacket, an untucked blue dress shirt, jeans and black Nike sneakers. "There are so many young, good aggressive players out there that no one even really knows about. They're fantastic players and that makes it all the more challenging. But that's fine with me. I love the challenge."
Up until this year, Buss had never bought into the prestigious H.O.R.S.E. Championship, where each year the game's greatest come out for what many feels is the best test of a player's overall abilities on the felt.
"I've been practicing a lot of the mixed games lately and I just thought I was ready to give it a shot this year," he explained.
Buss started the day at the same table as former Main Event champ Huck Seed and poker icon Phil Ivey. Later in the day he was moved to a table that featured defending H.O.R.S.E. champ and five-time bracelet winner Scotty Nguyen, as well as Todd Brunson, one of the chip leaders for most of the day.
When we spoke to him during the break early on in Day 3 of the event, 42 players out of the 95 that started the tournament were still alive. And even though Buss was one of the shortest stacks left in the tournament, he had already outlasted the likes of Ivy, Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Annie Duke and Barry Greenstein.
"I can't tell you how happy I am that I have survived this long and made it into the top half of this field," he said with an ear-to-ear grin. "It's something to be proud of for sure."
When Buss bought the Lakers back in 1979 – along with the NHL's Los Angeles Kings and The Forum – the price was $67.5 million, which at the time was the largest transaction in sports history. He has since sold the Kings, but has always held on to his beloved Lakers and under his watch the team has won nine NBA titles. He has been around some of the greatest players in NBA history – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant – and he said the competitive spirit and mental toughness that's necessary to succeed in professional sports is also a requirement in poker.
"Poker at this level is amazing," he said. "Just like basketball players, all of these guys here were born with a gift. It takes a great mind to play basketball and it takes a great mind to play poker. But I can tell you with all honesty that sitting at a poker table like this is one of the most competitive situations I have ever been in."
As the day continued on Sunday, Buss' stack got shorter and shorter. He was eventually busted out during a game of Stud 8 and his official finish was 36th. Buss stood up after the hand and thanked everyone at the table and wished them luck. Nguyen immediately got up from his seat at the other end of the table and came over to pay his respects to Buss.
"Nice run, Jerry," Nguyen told him as he put his left arm around him. "You played great my friend."
Buss, who walks with a slight limp, then made his way to the exit. A couple of fans asked him to sign autographs and he obliged. He even talked a little NBA draft with one of them. In fact, it seems that if you want to put a smile on Buss' face just ask him about the Lakers or poker. Either one will get his attention.
"I gave it my best shot," he said as he ambled down the Rio hallway. "I played well and I had a blast. I can't ask for much more than that."