Adventures With Fort Worth Poker Star Ray Suppe

When everyday Fort Worthian Ray Suppe takes a trip to the Bahamas to try his hand at winning $5.1 million, things get pretty crazy.

A timely car accident is like a welcomed punch to the gut; there’s no such thing. But the timing of a car accident that involved Ray Suppe and his wife, Holly, on a rainy Sunday night seemed particularly bad. The typical achiness and soreness that succeeds car wrecks was, of course, present, but such pain seemed miniscule compared to what Suppe could miss out on: a chance to win millions.

The pair were traveling down Boat Club Road in Fort Worth when a Toyota Corolla hydroplaned, did an illegal U-turn and slammed into their car. “They took us straight to the hospital after my car was totaled,” Suppe recounts. “I had five herniated discs in my back and three in my neck; all the doctors told us we were lucky to be alive.” The ripple effect would have the couple concerned they’d miss their flight the following week to the Bahamas — an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas, where Suppe planned to take part in a $25,000 buy-in poker tournament that could have Suppe going home over $5 million richer.

Suppe, for all intents and purposes, is a pretty normal guy. He’s 49, has three kids, wakes up every morning to go to his day job — he works in sales at a printing and direct mail company — speaks with a slow draw, wears hoodies, and sharpened his poker chops at the nearby WinStar Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma. He’s not a professional. He’s not among the ranks of Phil Hellmuth or Doyle Brunson, and nor does he wear clothing clad in sponsorships — opting instead for a shirt that features a chinchilla sporting a pair of aviators. Yet, Suppe has something even the pros envy: a perpetual poker face. While many wear sunglasses to hide their expressions for fear they’d inadvertently show their hand, Suppe wears nothing but a constant deadpan expression; an occasional laugh being the only utterance of emotion. While it takes more than a lack of expression to succeed at Texas Hold ’em — strategy helps, too — this is nonetheless a dangerous weapon bestowed upon Suppe.

“My dad taught me to play when I was pretty young,” Suppe says. “So, yeah, I guess you could say I’ve been playing poker since I could remember.”

Now, this seemingly average Joe with a stony guise was on the verge of trying his hand at winning millions in the Bahamas, thanks to a mere $86 — the buy-in that resulted in Suppe receiving a coveted PokerStars Platinum Pass that included an invite to the online gambling site’s signature live event at the Atlantis Resort and Casino in Nassau, Bahamas.

PokerStars, with the help of 2003 World Series of Poker champion Chris Moneymaker, began handing out these passes last year. As part of the promotion, Moneymaker toured the country handing out passes to winners of $86-entry, no-limit Hold ’em tournaments — the amount Moneymaker spent in a qualifier that eventual led to his 2003 championship. Winners of these tournaments received $25,000 for the buy-in to the signature event, as well as $5,000 for the trip and accommodations. These Platinum Passes quickly became the Hope Diamond of the amateur poker world, coveted by all.

When the Moneymaker Tour rolled into Suppe’s normal playhouse, the WinStar, in December, Suppe was looking forward to a proverbial home game — with the hope that the WinStar would carry some strange, almost mythical advantage. After all, he won a tournament at the property two weeks earlier to add to his nearly 20 tournaments he’d won there already, so this wasn’t a far-fetched notion. But, alas, it wasn’t easy.

To advance, Suppe had to rely on what he calls his “dummy hand” — a hand that would otherwise appear unplayable to most poker experts, but a player will always ride with, regardless. It’s how Doyle Brunson won the World Series of Poker when he played a 10 and two off suit. “’Cause, when you think about it, the flop could always turn things in your favor no matter what you have in the hole,” Suppe explains. For Suppe, those cards are seven and four, which is exactly what he had in the hole when he knocked off Billy Burford — who had pocket aces — to claim the Platinum Pass.

“[Burford] kept pushing me, and I went ahead and played the hand I was dealt and caught two pair on the flop and knocked him out,” Suppe says. “He got up screaming and throwing a fit; it was definitely a shock.”

Poker is a sport in the sense that it requires strategy, patience, stamina and luck — all necessary in tennis, soccer and even football. No, lateral quickness and vertical leaps are not prerequisites for card games, but much like the aforementioned sports on network television, winners and losers are determined by the above criteria. How much luck has to do with it can be debated, but even in football, teams can catch breaks based on how the ball rolls. And, like any sport, as luck would have it, the ball didn’t roll in Suppe’s favor after gaining his Platinum Pass.

Just over a month later, the plane fare was booked, the sunscreen packed — and then the wreck. Suppe and his wife remained in pain. “I was requiring epidural [steroid injections] for my back and neck,” Suppe says. He was in no physical condition to hop on a plane, much less play among a field of 1,039 entrants for what could be a million-dollar payday. Despite their pain, the pair collectively took their knocks and boarded their flight for the Bahamas. While the weather was beautiful, the white sand beaches pristine, and PokerStars provided some memorable night life, Suppe hardly left his hotel room except to play poker.

Suppe summed up his time in the Bahamas with three short and telling statements: “Poker was awesome. Pain was terrible. It was not a vacation.” But focusing on poker was just fine, considering the tournament carried a prize pool of $25.5 million.

On the first day of the tournament, Suppe looked around and noticed he was the only nonprofessional at his table. “I was really excited,” Suppe says. “I mean, these were people I’ve only ever seen on TV, and now I’m playing alongside them.”

One of the players at his table was Dallas native David Williams, a runner-up at the 2004 World Series of Poker, who also competed in the seventh season of cooking show “MasterChef.” At one point, Williams was down on chips to Suppe, and Williams went all in on ace/king.

Suppe describes his play as “aggressive.” “I like to put the pressure on somebody else instead of allowing pressure to be put on me,” he says. So, he unflinchingly makes big bets and calls big bets. With that in mind, Suppe, naturally, called Williams with an ace/10. To put this in perspective, while it doesn’t quite register as David and Goliath, it is still a jarring mismatch of amateur against a million-dollar-winning professional.

The turn was a 10, and Suppe sent Williams packing.

The fairy-tale ending would have Suppe making the final table and taking home the top prize after five days of intense poker action. We’d have more stories like the above and wrap the piece up with a hopeful conclusion that dreams do come true. Unfortunately, as the cards flopped and the balls rolled, it wasn’t meant to be.

Suppe went on to make the second day, playing for hours upon hours while enduring an immense amount of pain. “I was hurting really bad,” he says. “After the 10th hour, everyone was asking me if I was okay. I hadn’t even told anyone about the car wreck.”

Despite not going home with a life-changing chunk of cash and not being able to take full advantage of the consolation prize of being in the Bahamas, Suppe remains far from bitter about the experience. He got to hang out with poker stars Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth, whom he described as “funny and not intense at all,” despite Hellmuth’s poker-brat reputation, and played well enough to keep a smile on his face.

When asked what his biggest takeaway from this experience was, he broke his poker face, smiled, and said, “Through it all, I found out I can hang with the big dogs and not be scared.”

by Sean Chaffin and Brian Kendall