Last Spring, Shellac frontman and recording engineer Steve Albini, best known for producing gold and platinum albums for Nirvana, Pixies and others, won a shiny award of his own: a gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He also took home nearly $106,000 after beating out 309 other people playing in the Seven Card Stud tournament in Las Vegas.
Now his big win is the subject of an episode from Poker Central’s Stories From the Felt series. The series, whose second season premieres on PokerGO today, features episodes that chronicle the history of the game in Sin City, how it’s become a televised game and the stories of select players like Albini. The 12-minute mini-doc features interviews with Albini and his friends, footage of his time at the World Series of Poker and shots from his regular, weekly “Tuesday Game” (where you can spot a poster of him with his former Big Black bandmates on the wall).
Albini, who is humble about his victory, tells Rolling Stone he grew up in a cards-playing house. “My father was a champion bridge player,” he says, “but in our family we played pinochle.” His great-grandmother taught him poker when he was 7 and he’s played it ever since. He got serious about the game in the mid-Nineties when a friend of his started up the Tuesday Game and has only started going to Las Vegas recently.
“Poker’s an endlessly fascinating game. It’s like chess, but where the pieces are money”
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but it’s pretty awful,” he says of Sin City. “The vast expanse in the desert means there was room to invent a whole way of life and fantasy world. But while you’re playing cards, it doesn’t matter where you are, whether you’re in a casino or somebody’s home. Las Vegas happens to have the very best poker games in the world.
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“There are things there which are uniquely suited to having a large number of poker games. Las Vegas has a tradition of having a very low ‘rake,'” he adds, referring to the casino’s house fee.
What he likes about the World Series of Poker is that it’s a bit like a “convention for poker players.” “There’s a series of tournaments, but it also attracts players from around the world,” he says. “Then you have very, very lively side-game action or cash-game action. There are players who go to the World Series religiously who never play in the tournament.” (That convention quality also explains why Albini is dressed like an astronaut in one scene of the documentary; a friend had asked him and others to dress in NASA flight suits as a gag. Albini adds that he’s not wearing headphones in that scene — it’s just part of the costume — but he will sometimes wear earplugs to block out the noise.)
In the doc, Albini says he didn’t feel like he was the best poker player in the room, even though he won. Although he doesn’t downplay his own skill, he chalks his success up to luck. “In order to win a tournament, you have to have a good run of cards now and then,” he says. “You can’t be terrible at it, but it’s certainly not the case that the best player in the game wins the tournament. I recognize the fact that I won the tournament didn’t make me a better poker player than I was before I won the tournament.”
Moreover, he says that winning the tournament didn’t change the way he plays. “I play poker for money,” he says. “I find the game endlessly fascinating, but the reason I play it is because I can make a little extra money at it. In this case, having a six-figure score made a pretty significant difference in the way the summer progressed for me, just in my normal life. The best thing about winning a tournament is you get a little bit of notoriety amongst your poker-playing peers. They might notice that you won a bracelet, and that’s always nice, but bear in mind there are 60 or so bracelet events every year at the World Series, meaning there are 59 other guys that won a tournament last summer.”
Winning didn’t sink in immediately for Albini. It wasn’t until he started getting congratulatory texts from friends who were following the game with his wife at home in Illinois later that night. “That was both surprising and very satisfying,” he says.
At home, he’s happy with his Tuesday Game. “It’s a cherished thing,” he says. “The camaraderie is intense, and the ball-breaking is epic.” About 60 percent of the other players in his weekly game are part of the Chicago music scene, a mix of amateur and semiprofessional musicians, other engineers and people who work at record labels or in publicity. He doesn’t invite bands he’s recording at his Electrical Audio studio to play in the game, unless it’s a social invite, because he doesn’t want them to feel “preyed upon,” but he has welcomed a few people from bands to play.
“It’s a cherished thing,” Albini says of his weekly game. “The camaraderie is intense, and the ball-breaking is epic.”
He says Breeders frontwoman and former Pixies bassist Kim Deal is a “better-than-average poker player.” “I’ve known Kim for a very long time,” he says. “We’ve just maintained a very warm friendship. She was here recording one time when there was a game on, and she hopped in and I think she won a couple hundred bucks.” Another notable player is former High on Fire bassist Joe Preston. “This was in a five-card draw game,” Albini says. “It’s extremely rare to draw one card and make a straight flush, and that’s what he did. I had to pay him off because I think I had made a king-high flush.”
The engineer says that poker winnings account for about 25 to 30 percent percent of his income, along with what he makes from recording bands and touring with Shellac. “I would miss that income if it wasn’t there,” he says. He says he takes home just a modest income from Electrical Audio, so as to keep it going and keep his six employees paid. “I play medium stakes,” he says. “I think my biggest win before the tournament was maybe in the order of $5,000 or $6,000, and that’s a pretty notable win. A few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars are normal swings.” (Incidentally, Shellac is working on new material “at a glacial pace”; currently they have about half a dozen or so songs that haven’t been recorded for a new album.)
So what is Albini’s advice for non-champions to improve their poker games? “Don’t play above your head,” he says. “Don’t get into a bigger game than you’re comfortable with, because people make poor decisions if they’re stressed out about money.” Also, he says people should read up. “In the Seventies and Eighties, when I was first getting serious about poker, there wasn’t much written about it. Now there’s a whole publishing company called Two Plus Two that publishes books about all the different disciplines in poker and the technical aspects. Previously all the great players treated that knowledge as their edge over the world, and they weren’t gonna share it with anybody.
“Poker’s an endlessly fascinating game,” he continues. “It’s like chess, but where the pieces are money and if you develop an aptitude for it, it’s certainly possible to make millions of dollars playing poker. But it’s also a game that you can play for your entire life and get a lot of satisfaction out of without ever risking more than a good dinner.”