Sunday, June 29, 2014 | 5:45 p.m.
A gathering consisting of some of the world’s richest poker players and wealthiest entrepreneurs congregated on the ESPN set minutes before the start of the World Series of Poker Big One For One Drop Sunday afternoon.
Instead of following course and waiting within the playing area of history’s largest buy-in tournament, local poker pro Jean Robert-Bellande drifted past the ropes separating the highest of high rollers from the commoners to visit with friends.
“When he walked in with his puppy and girlfriend, I thought it was amazing,” said Bill Klein, a retired businessman who made his riches by owning a manufacturing company that partnered with Home Depot. “I was surprised to see him.”
Of the 41 players who ponied up $1 million to compete from the start in the second seven-figure charity event jointly established by the WSOP and Cirque du Soeil founder Guy Laliberte, Bellande was the most improbable.
The 43-year-old has the stature in the poker community to fit in at the game’s plushest tournament, where the winner will take home an estimated $15 million. Final numbers won't be available until late tonight when registration closes.
Almost everyone packing into the Rio during a record-setting summer series knows Bellande as the ambassador of the ever-popular Aria poker room and a former contestant on “Survivor.”
But Bellande is, by his own admission, perpetually broke. While the rest of the Big One For One Drop field is known for their fortunes, Bellande stands outside the circle, as he’s more associated with his misfortunes.
“I’ve never played a $100,000 tournament, and now I’m playing a $1 million tournament with the best players in the world,” Bellande gushed. “I’m grateful for being here.”
Determined not to get left out — the tournament is capped at 54 entrants, a number many felt reachable after the 2012 event sold out with 48 players — Bellande bought in nearly two months ago. He’s wanted to play ever since missing out on the original $1 million buy-in two years ago.
Bellande toiled to raise $550,000 to go toward his entry in 2012 but gave up before realizing he probably could have rounded up the remaining funds at the last minute.
“So this time, I said I’m giving it a go,” Bellande said. “I’ve got a lot of friends who have pieces, but I’ve got a little piece of myself, too.”
It’s no secret that the poker players in the Big One For One Drop aren’t handing over seven figures of their own money. Antonio Esfandiari, who’s playing again this year, admitted to securing investors before winning the first tournament for $18.3 million but wouldn’t reveal any numbers.
Daniel Negreanu, one of poker’s most famous personalities, openly discussed selling 50 percent of his buy-in to backers. Bellande found some cash-game success before forking over the $1 million to ensure some stake in himself but holds far from the bulk of his action.
“At the end of the day, is it going to be life-changing for me?” Bellande asked. “I’m not sure it will. I live a pretty good life living broke right now.”
A win wouldn’t be the least bit life-changing to Klein, who’s not even playing for himself. Klein plays cards only for leisure, not profit.
No matter if it’s a $10,000 or $1 million tournament, he donates all winnings to charity or gives away the equal to his buy-in if he loses. Charity already had $1 million coming from Klein before The Big One For One Drop began because he won his seat through an invitation-only freeroll tournament at Bellagio on Saturday night.
“I felt like I had just won the Stanley Cup, for crying out loud,” Klein said. “It’s still sinking in, but the money isn’t a big deal to me.”
Klein had already committed to play the tournament before beating out more than 100 people for the free entry. The satellite victory means Klein has arguably recorded more tournament success than Bellande recently.
Bellande hasn’t cashed at the WSOP in more than two years, with his only tournament earnings since being a $52,079 payout coming from a 10th-place finish in a 2013 World Poker Tour event. He’s only played in two prior WSOP tournaments this summer, instead focusing on no-limit hold’em cash games at Aria.
But Bellande reports the sessions have gone poorly with his losses mounting. Klein has played with Bellande, and most of the other pros in the event, a couple times over the years.
“He’s a very emotional player — the highest highs and lowest lows,” Klein said. “But I think he’s one of the top players in the world.”
That’s all Bellande wants to prove in The Big One For One Drop.
“Everyone playing in this is playing to establish they can beat the best,” Bellande said. “With 11 percent going to charity, I don’t think anyone is really coming in here to play for value. This is an ego event.
“I want this more than anyone.”