John Morgan Knew When to Hold ‘Em
It was a scene straight out of a James Bond film: A high-stakes poker tournament, with our hero going all-in against his Russian opponent. After minutes of deliberation, the Russian folds. He holds four eights.
It was day one of this summer’s “Big One for One Drop” charity poker tournament in Las Vegas, which features a $1 million buy-in to play. The Russian was Mikhail Smirnov, a Moscow businessman; our local hero was John Morgan, CEO of Golden Valley–based Winmark Corporation, a franchising and capital provider, which controls brands such as Once Upon A Child and Play It Again Sports.
Smirnov was dealt the eight of diamonds and the eight of hearts. The community cards contained the jack of spades, eight of clubs, seven of spades, eight of spades, and king of spades. Only a straight flush—five consecutive cards in the same suit—could beat Smirnov’s eights.
After the final community card was dealt, Morgan raised Smirnov’s $700,000 bet by going all-in with $2.7 million, making the total pot $3.4 million. Smirnov was worried that Morgan might be holding the nine and ten of spades and could beat him with a straight flush. So in a move that only increased the legend of the hand, Smirnov folded his eights face up, for the entire table to see.
“I was stunned,” says Morgan, who admits it was the biggest hand he had ever played. “I was as in shock as anybody at the table.”
Other players, including poker pros Tom Dwan and Phil Galfond, had similar reactions. According to Morgan, Dwan “wouldn’t let up about it,” and Galfond afterwards immediately tweeted that it was the “craziest” hand he had ever seen.
The top nine players in the tournament walked away with anywhere from $1.1 million to $18.3 million, but surprisingly Morgan was not one of them, so the tourney cost him $1 million. (Morgan earned a multimillion-dollar windfall earlier this year when Winmark paid stockholders a special dividend of $5 per share.)
Morgan, who says he plays frequently at Canterbury and occasionally in Vegas, earned the respect of the pros in the tourney, who typically regard guys with more money than poker savvy as “dead money.” Morgan didn’t (and won’t) reveal his hand, “out of respect” for his opponent.
Though Morgan only made it to the tournament’s second day, and while it might not have been a Bond flick, Morgan—John Morgan—was still responsible for a poker hand that will live forever in the game’s lore.