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Poker News | People in Poker | Poker Superstars

Michael Craig

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Michael Craig was grinding away at the game he loved, mid-stakes poker, when he heard about an incredible, mythic game with millions of dollars on the table. As Craig looked to find evidence of this game, he stumbled upon www.pokerworks.com, Linda Geenen , and hints at the biggest heads-up poker game ever. This attorney and aspiring writer quickly found that indeed there was a story, the story of billionaire Andy Beal taking on the greatest poker players alive. The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King brilliantly captured the intense drama of this story. Craig has continued to build on this success, capturing the return challenge of Beal vs. the Corporation this winter. You’ll find him part of the story of this year’s World Series of Poker as he plays with a chance to win his first bracelet and the Main Event.

CC: Where did you grow up?

Craig:
I was born in Detroit, Michigan and lived in the Detroit suburbs (Livonia, Royal Oak) until I graduated from college.

CC: Tell us about your family today.

Craig: I’ve been married for nearly 25 years to my wife, Jo Anne. We have 3 children: Barry (16), Ellie (14), and Valerie (9). It’s fashionable to say, “I owe it all to my family,” but think about it in my case. I tell Jo Anne some story about Ted Forrest shooting craps and losing a million dollars and then say, “I’m meeting Ted for the first time tonight at the craps table at the Aladdin, honey. Isn’t that exciting?” And we’re trying to raise our kids to have values that can appear skewed when you’re telling them stories about Mike Matusow and Andy Beal. This doesn’t even count leaving town, on average, every 10 days over the past 2 ½ years. There’s no way around it other than to say, I owe it all to my family.

CC: When did you know you wanted to become a lawyer?

Craig: When I read F. Lee Bailey’s The Defense Never Rests in junior high school.

CC: Where did you practice law (I’m assuming Michigan)?

Craig: Actually, I never practiced law in Michigan. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1984, Jo Anne (who also graduated law school the same year) and I sat for the Illinois bar exam, passed it, and I practiced law in Chicago for the next 15 years.

CC: When did you start pursuing your interest in writing?

Craig: When I was 13, I wanted to write a book about major league baseball players. I started calling the hotel where visiting teams stayed when they played the Tigers and interviewed several players. (That was the first of many, many … many uncompleted book projects.) The point is, I have always been interested in writing, in the exchange of ideas, in telling stories, and in exploring my creative potential. I was on the school newspaper in high school. I wrote a play in high school and another in college. I was on the debate team in high school and college and participated in moot court competitions in law school. I was the editor-in-chief of the law journal.

CC: Any hope of reviving those early movie scripts?

Craig: I am routinely horrified when I read my old writing. On the other hand, I did write a movie script about a bar mitzvah that has a scene where the kids have smuggled some of the gifts into the bathroom of the reception along with a bottle of vodka that ends with a pipe bursting, kids puking, and a giant inflatable raft exploding. I think I had another scene where someone is smoking where they aren’t supposed to and throws the butt into a little wicker wastebasket, setting it on fire. They are a guest in somebody’s house and this is in the bathroom, so they grab the wastebasket, throw it in the toilet, and slam the lid closed. Then, for good measure, they flush the toilet. Maybe I’ll dig that one up.

CC: How did you decide to leave your law practice behind and move to Phoenix?

Craig: Jo Anne and I had decided a few years before making the decision that when I retired from practicing law, we wouldn’t stay in Chicago. We loved the Scottsdale area, and “retirement” came a lot sooner than I thought. I actually retired on my 40th birthday, the result of a dispute with my partners. We resolved it amicably, so I quit. Then I sued them. Then we resolved the lawsuit amicably. And I got on with my life.

CC: What is your favorite golf course in Phoenix?

Craig: My favorite is Ancala Country Club, which Alice Cooper told me he thought was the most difficult course in Arizona. (He used to be a member; it’s where I’m a member.) But in truth, since I started writing about poker, I haven’t had much time to play. I hope to get back to it, but too much traveling, too many late hours.

CC: Did you start playing poker in Phoenix?

Craig: I actually started playing in Vegas in the early Nineties, instead of playing craps or blackjack on vacations and on stopovers after business trips to the West Coast. I got too busy at work to continue the fantasy that I was good enough to pursue it as a career. My friend Ted Corse had become interested in the game in mid-2003. He asked me if I knew anything about online poker (which I didn’t but it didn’t take much to convince me to check it out) or the local Indian casinos (ditto). I was in a rough place in my writing at the time and decided I’d pursue poker, instead of writing, as a hobby.

CC: What and where did you play?

Craig: I started playing at Casino Arizona in 2003-04, $10-$20, $20-$40, and $40-$80 hold ‘em, as well as some of their weekly tournaments. But I’ve been traveling so much and been so busy that, like golf, I haven’t had much time to get back there. But it’s a great card room. Back then, I was also playing at The Mirage whenever I was in Vegas, same games and limits, and occasionally in their daily tournaments. Now I play primarily in tournaments – which isn’t often – online at FullTiltPoker.com. Unlike the pros, I don’t get anything for telling you that; I just think it’s a great site. I won a seat in the Main Event there. I’ve done well in some other tournaments there. I also play, whenever possible, the daily tournament at Wynn Las Vegas. They run a terrific poker room and, David, the tournament manager, runs a great tournament. (Okay, you twisted my arm. I finished second in that tournament the day before I wrote this.)

CC: You’re on a roll! As you were working to pursue your writing career, was poker a topic that you felt you wanted to tackle?

Craig: Yes, but it seemed completely unrealistic. I was enchanted by poker writing, based on reading A. Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town and Anthony Holden’s Big Deal. I had read those years before I had contemplated writing nonfiction books, but I consider those men giants, and not just in poker writing. (The great irony, which is incredibly gratifying, is that Al Alvarez and I are now pen pals, and Tony Holden told me he has written me in as one of the characters to the sequel, Bigger Deal, which he will be completing at this year’s Series.) But up to 3 years ago, I thought, why would anybody want me to write a book about poker?

CC: Take us through the logistics of how you discovered Andy Beal and the Big Game.

Craig: I described the beginning in the Prologue of Suicide King. I was in Las Vegas, pursuing poker as a hobby with my friend Ted, abandoning writing completely. The table buzz was about a poker game up the road with $15 million on the table. I thought it was a made-up story but I looked it up online when I got home and found out it was true. Then I learned what little was known about the game appeared on a site named PokerWorks.com, in a blog – did they even call them blogs in the stone age of Fall 2003? – by a woman named Linda, who was a dealer in the game, and was taken off the site without explanation. On the theory that whatever I’m not supposed to know is automatically interesting to me, I pursued it.

CC: Poker players can be fairly standoffish and easily spooked. How were you able to get close to people so seemingly unapproachable?

Craig: I might dispute the basic premise. I don’t think poker players are standoffish or easily spooked. Unless I have some kind of magic, I’ve found poker players to be more approachable than I could imagine any public or quasi-public figures. During the Tournament of Champions, at the end of one of the breaks, Mike Matusow wanted to take a nap for ten minutes. He found a couch outside the cavernous tournament area. A crowd soon gathered and people wanted to take pictures of him napping. He could have cared less. You’d have trouble finding a professional athlete, politician, or movie star – even one with a reputation of being friendly and generous with fans – who would put up with that so good-naturedly. But my method was to take advantage of contacts I had (my wife’s friend’s cousin went to high school with Barry Greenstein) and present myself as a person they would feel comfortable with: someone intelligent, interested in telling a good story, not looking to be someone’s toady but respectful and appreciative of the difficulty of succeeding in poker. And when that didn’t work, I told whatever lies I had to tell to get what I needed.

CC: Did you think early on that you were onto a potential project?

Craig: I thought from the first time I heard the table talk about the big game up the road that it was a story. I got the contract from Warner before I talked with anyone in the game beyond Linda Geenen, who had dealt it, and Barry Greenstein. Linda had taken her posts off the Internet, and Barry, while very friendly and generous with his time, told me he couldn’t say much about the Andy Beal game. I knew I was on to something huge after I met Jennifer Harman for the first time. She is a phenomenal storyteller. When she told me stories about going broke eight times before making it to the $400-$800 game, about posing for the picture with Andy (with their chips) after he won everybody’s money, and about rushing out of her doctor’s office in horrible, horrible condition to play Andy at $100,000-$200,000 because he had won $9 million and they were running out of players, I knew I could build a great narrative. Then when I met Ted Forrest , I was certain of it: walking into the first “heads up” game uninvited on his own bankroll, firing the last bullet after Andy won all their money in December 2001, all those great stories about prop bets? I consider Ted Forrest a good friend so it feels awkward confessing this, but I don’t think I’ll ever again be blessed as a writer with a subject/source as rich as Ted.

CC: How did you collect real time information during Beal’s first play vs. the Corporation?

Craig: I didn’t start working on the book until after they had finished playing in May 2004. I was lucky enough to sneak myself into the room at 7 AM on the day when Andy won $9 million from Chip Reese, but even then I was watching from a distance and occasionally strolling by. One time, I raced to the bathroom (from my $15-$30 game) because I saw Andy Beal get up and go. I don’t have any idea why I did that, but I felt I had to. I got my information later, from the participants. But you’ll notice that there are few actual hands described in detail. In contrast, when they played in 2006 and I was allowed to sit at the table and take notes, I have a lot of hand descriptions in the pair of articles I wrote for BLUFF about the game. Suicide King is more about the tone of the games and the affect of the games on the lives of the players, almost more than it’s about the actual games themselves.

CC: Take us through your process of research and writing.

Craig: I interviewed Barry Greenstein over the phone. I approached Howard Lederer and had my first of many conversations with him. He was tremendously helpful, not only with sharing information, but he introduced me to Jennifer Harman and Doyle Brunson . I approached Todd Brunson after being an extra at a DVD-shoot where he was a teaching pro – Linda Geenen was invited and let me take her place. That’s also where I met Mike Matusow for the first time. The late Andy Glazer introduced me to Ted Forrest the night Ted won his fifth bracelet, though it was months before we actually met. Barry Greenstein, who also let me interview him in person several times and did not flinch from his role in some potentially controversial areas – several players “blamed” him for Andy winning $12 million the day they played $100,000-$200,000 because he was arguing for letting Andy play those stakes, and he also did not have a great record personally against Andy, though in fairly limited action – put in a good word for me with Ted. I met with Ted several times and had many long phone conversations with him. I met with both Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese. Doyle introduced me to Andy Beal, who I visited several times in Plano and had several long phone calls with. David Plastik, Mike Matusow, Ron Stanley, and Daniel Negreanu were also interviewed and were all helpful and generous, though they themselves were not participants in the Andy Beal games. Doug Dalton and Jack McClelland eventually proved helpful in getting the details right about the operation of the Bellagio poker room – its design, procedures, and controls.

CC: It seemed exhausting work to validate and rectify the facts.

Craig: All part of the job. And I swear, even if I don’t get it all right, I really try hard. Barry Greenstein was brutal in e-mails after reading an advance copy. We exchanged about 20,000 words of e-mails. I admitted I was wrong on some occasions and deleted reference to one game and made a few other changes. I’m sure he thinks I should have made more. There were certainly people who said I should have laid more “anti-Barry” material into the book, and there were definitely multiple versions of some stories. I tried to get the truth and usually got it right. I was grateful that Barry took so seriously the task of reviewing the book. (It goes without saying that the book is better for his participation, even though he recognized going into it that he wasn’t going to come out a hero because he didn’t have a good record against Andy, and some other players would take the opportunity to say negative things about him. But he was still extremely helpful.) I’m sure he’s not satisfied but I think he recognizes that I did my good-faith best and probably came pretty close, especially as an outsider, getting the story from conflicting sources who had various agendas after the fact.

CC: What was the biggest challenge in completing the book?

Craig: The fast deadline. I got the contract offer on May 17, 2004 and they wanted the manuscript, 80,000 words, on October 1. Warner’s editor said, “I know the time is incredibly short. But you already did all the research, right?” I said, “sure,” which was about as inaccurate as possible. The corollary is that the story was not easy to nail down. It was late July by the time I ever talked to Ted Forrest for the first time. It was August before I first met Andy Beal. If I was doing it again, I’d have spent another six months on the research.
CC: It truly has been a seminal contribution to poker. in the short list of Rounders and Positively Fifth Street. What were your expectations for it?
Craig: Thanks. My expectations were sky high. I wanted to tell a story that would amaze people, a book to stand the test of time.

CC: Most authors aren’t asked to produce non-fiction sequels, but this winter we all followed the chatter as Beal and the Corporation came together for their next round. What were the differences for you this second time around.

Craig: The first difference is that I made myself part of the story – not part of the story I wrote about the game but the as-yet-unwritten story of how the game took place. During Andy Beal’s periodic public fights and negotiations with the pros, I was involved. When I sensed that Andy was interested in playing again, I acted on it. Second, as a consequence, I was allowed to sit at the table, watch, and take notes. So much energy, as a writer, is expended in “getting the story.” Here, the story laid itself out right in front of me. I almost didn’t know how to handle it. Third, the type of reporting was different. I was so much an insider this time around that, for example, instead of writing about the lives of the players and what went into making it at this level, I could focus on the game as it unfolded. So there are little moments, like Doyle Brunson’s ring-tone being The Godfather theme. Or how Andy Beal came back from a $7 million deficit when it was clear to me that he wanted to lose his remaining chips so he could give up poker forever. Or how Phil Ivey won $5 million in an hour.

CC: You’ve had an opportunity that few have had, to observe the best in the world at something, to see someone strive to reach that level before your eyes. How has all of this impacted your poker play?

Craig: I certainly know more about playing heads up than most poker players. I’ve gained tremendous insight on the kind of temperament you need to make it in this world, but that’s not the sort of thing that can directly help the game of someone who plays as a hobby and wants to get better. What I’d really want to learn is how to play tens after the flop. But I’m working on a project to help me with that.

CC: You seem to have managed to move into a comfortable working and social relationship with some of the people in the book, including Andy Beal. Are you working on any writing projects with any of those players?

Craig: I am under contract to produce for Warner Books (the publisher of Suicide King), The Full Tilt Poker Strategy Guide – Tournament Edition. It will be available for next year’s World Series and I’m not putting you on when I tell you there is some very valuable tournament poker advice in this book. I’ve done very well online and in casino tournaments during the past few months trying out the advice.

CC: Congratulations on your recent win, now qualifying for the WSOP Main Event. You must have snuck in some poker in the midst of all this writing. Tell us about your plans for the WSOP.

Craig: I won a seat to the Main Event on FullTiltPoker.com, so I’ll be playing there. I’m taking a portion of the money I’ve won in other tournaments and offering to put it back in the poker economy. By that I mean I’m going to play at least a half-dozen events.

CC: How will you prepare for the Main Event?

Craig: In the most haphazard way possible. But it’s going to take me the next five weeks to figure out what that is.

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