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Wednesday, October 22, 2014
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Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd has covered the gambling industry since 2006. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi. Follow him on Twitter @CasinoCity_AT.


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Bernard Lee joins the Casino City Home Game
 

A medium-sized pot had developed in my home poker game, and I glanced across the table at my competition. Sure, I think most of the players in my home game are better than average, but none of them has the resume that Bernard Lee has.

Lee joined us for a night in late August to give us some insights into his own life, as well as a few thoughts about our game. He introduced us to a new game called Mini-May, and we were on our third or fourth hand, trying to keep up with a guy who has likely played thousands of hands of the game.

Mini-May is a five-card stud game with a community card and a replace. The game starts with everyone receiving one down card, one up card and a community card is placed in the center. Each player then receives three more up cards, one-by-one. Players are then able to pay a small bet to replace an up card and a big bet to replace their down card. The game is played high-low with a 10 qualifier.

I had split aces with a middling low, and I knew pair of aces was better than anything Bernard could have. Since he had the high hand showing, he replaced first, dropping a face card and picking up the ace of clubs, the case ace, giving him a pair of aces on the board and four clubs showing, including the community card.

I had just two decisions left to make: I could replace one of my cards, and I needed to declare whether I would be going for the high or low end of the pot. I ended up making the wrong decision in both cases.

I opted not to replace a card – I would have either had to break up my aces or risk not drawing a low – and then went low instead of high. Lee also went low; he didn't have the flush and correctly surmised that I had an ace in the hole and that I could beat his high hand. But since I didn't declare high, I lost out on half the pot.

I've played about 30 more hands of the game since then, and it's now painfully obvious just how badly I played the hand. But sometimes in poker, you have to pay for your education.

Lee's poker education began at Harvard in the late '80s and early '90s after a friend from high school got him into a game with people who lived literally five doors down the hall from him.

"We were playing for dollars, and looking back now it might be small money," said Lee. "But back then, you're in college, you don't have an income, so you don't want to lose a few hundred dollars. That's a lot of money to you."

Lee didn't lose often, however, and after he graduated and the game died out, another one of the better players in the game asked Lee if he wanted to take a trip with him to a casino to play poker.

"I said, 'We're going all the way to Atlantic City? Are you kidding me?'" said Lee. "And he said, 'No, no, no. It's in Connecticut, it's an Indian casino.' You might have heard of it, it's called Foxwoods."

Lee and his friend started taking regular trips to Foxwoods when his graduate school schedule allowed, hoping to make up the $20 apiece they spent on gas money and a rental car from Rent-A-Wreck to get there. More often than not, they did and then some.

"We aren't talking thousands, but when you're in grad school and you're making $200 every time you go down there and you're having fun, it's pretty easy."

He got bit by the tournament bug after watching Chris Moneymaker win the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event and spent a year trying to qualify at PokerStars. He didn't get there, but did satellite into the next two major tournaments at Foxwoods, finishing on the bubble in the $5,000 New England Poker Classic in the spring of 2005. However, that disappointment was soon followed by a 13th-place finish in the 2005 World Series of Poker Main Event, worth $400,000.

Lee has won nearly $2 million on the poker tournament circuit, is an analyst for ESPN Inside Deal, has a weekly poker radio show on Boston's 1120 AM radio and writes a weekly poker column for the Boston Herald. He has done television commentary for poker tournaments and was the official spokesman for the Foxwoods Poker Room for two years.

He is also one of the few poker players with a mainstream sponsor. Lee has an MBA from Babson College, and a marketing executive at Cabot Cheese who also went to Babson read a story about Lee in the college's alumni magazine. Knowing that one of the company's vice presidents loved poker and that Cabot was looking to find ways to market itself to men, she invited him in for a meeting.

"We hit it off," said Lee. "They understood the mission of my Full House Charity, which we've done for two years and are hoping to extend it further."

Lee's Full House Charity donates $500 for each full house he makes on tour (with a minimum commitment of $20,000) to children's charities in New England. Last year the program raised money for Playing it Forward, a non-profit that provides sports equipment to disadvantaged children, helped organize a tournament for the New England Chapter of Autism Speaks, and provided families from Hartford, Conn., and Springfield, Mass., many of whom were still without electricity weeks after ice storms and tornados rocked the region, with Christmas presents and gift certificates to the grocery store chain the Big Y and Chili's.

Lee also took the opportunity to give his children a bit of perspective. His son and daughter, aged eight and six at the time, picked out the presents for the kids and actually handed them out at the event.

"I'm very fortunate that I get to (play poker and work in poker media) and I make a pretty decent living at it," said Lee. "We're very fortunate in what we can provide for our kids. But I think my kids also need to understand that this isn't a given in your life. Why couldn't their situation be flipped and they were in the other kids' shoes? My kids really appreciated it and I think they did a great job getting presents for these kids."

A true family man, Lee is the parent in the family who puts the kids to bed, even if it means getting to his regular home game (a $10/$20 limit mixed game in Wayland, Mass., that's been running for 13 years) a little late.

"When I'm home I try to be with my family," said Lee. "My commitment is to put my kids to bed, and the game is so close to my house that I get there around 8:30 – 9:00. This home game is a tradition; these guys are my friends."

Sounds exactly like what a home game is supposed to be.

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