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Poker Nirvana

How legendary musician and producer Steve Albini won his first WSOP bracelet

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The stereotypical trappings of poker have never appealed to Steve Albini.

“Douchebags in sunglasses trying to soul read each other or some macho jagoff with a flaming ace of spades tattooed on his shoulder,” he said recently. “That kind of stuff.”

That’s not Steve Albini. The bespectacled indie rock iconoclast is a funnier and more self-aware kind of provocateur.

At the final table of the 2018 World Series of Poker’s $1,500 seven-card stud event in June, Albini wasn’t wearing shades or showing off any tacky ink. But he did have on a black T-shirt featuring the name and logo of a Belgian punk band called Cocaine Piss. Albini works with the group. “We actually have a session booked in a couple weeks,” said Albini, the owner of Electrical Audio in Chicago. “They’re coming to record another album.” After he sported the tee, traffic to the Cocaine Piss Bandcamp page quickly jumped.

That Albini chose a moment of personal glory to boost obscure artists was fitting. While fronting bands Big Black and Shellac and working on thousands of records, including the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, the Breeders’ Pod, PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, and Nirvana’s In Utero, he’s loudly pushed back against an industry that he sees as exploitative. The man who, on principle, has refused to accept royalties — even on projects as huge as the follow-up to Nevermind — supports underdogs. Last month at the Rio hotel and casino in Las Vegas, he was one himself.

Albini topped the 310-person tournament field, which included six-time bracelet winners Chris Ferguson and Jeff Lisandro, to notch his first WSOP victory. The unlikely triumph earned him $105,629, about double the semiprofessional player’s previous total career Series earnings.

“I had never even been a chip leader, much less made a final table, much less won a bracelet,” Albini said. “It wasn’t really an ambition of mine to win a bracelet. I genuinely didn’t think it was a realistic expectation, so I never really harbored the fantasy.”

As the three-day event reached its climax, Albini said he was “over the moon.” His friend Eric Rodawig, who won a WSOP bracelet in 2011, said he heard that “Steve was walking around the Rio like he found out that Santa Claus was real.” Matthew Ashton, a buddy with more than $2.6 million in WSOP winnings, was part of a small contingent in a mostly empty room that watched Albini take down the tourney. “There was maybe 15 of us rooting for Steve by the time he clinched the bracelet,” Ashton said in an email, “which might not compare to other crowds he’s performed in front of but it made for a great moment.”

To the 55-year-old Albini, the accomplishment is less a culmination than an unexpected byproduct of a nearly lifelong poker fascination. The game provides an outlet from his prolific creative existence. “I feel like the parts of my brain that I’m not using in my day-to-day life come into play,” he said. “I don’t do a lot of calculating when I’m going through a normal day. You’re doing at least some sort of rudimentary math in every hand of poker. When you’re playing cards you have to do a lot of sort of prediction of behavior. I don’t do a lot of manipulative psychology in the rest of my life.” If Albini needs information from a band that he’s recording, he added, “Normally I just ask them. They’re not trying to keep secrets from me.”

FYF Fest 2016 - Day 1 Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for FYF

Albini’s interest in cards dates back to his childhood in Missoula, Montana. His great grandmother Dora McKeever enjoyed playing poker. “One of the strongest people I’ve ever encountered,” Albini said. “She lived to be 97. She ruled her family with an iron fist.” McKeever taught the game she loved to a younger generation. “I think because she wanted to play poker and there was no one to play with,” Albini said. Instead of chips, he recalled using household items like cellophane-tipped cocktail toothpicks.

“We had the red ones and the blue ones and the green ones and the yellow ones and they were [worth] different amounts,” he recalled. Naturally, Albini said, “We started with some and she ended up with all the toothpicks.”

As far back as Albini can remember, his whole family has played cards. His father, Frank, a scientist who studied the behavior of forest fires, was a champion bridge player. At his nephew’s wedding this spring, Albini played pinochle with his mother, aunt, and cousins. “It’s a big part of the way we socialize,” he said.

As a student at Northwestern University in the early 1980s, Albini played in a semiregular poker game. After college, he started hosting his own. Over the years, his job has given him the opportunity to find games all over the world.

“When my band is on tour and I find myself with nothing to do after a show in a strange town, I can Google the words ‘poker’ and ‘casino’ and find out if there’s a poker game nearby,” Albini said. “Sometimes people will find out that I’m a poker player and I’ll be invited to private games. I’ve played poker just about everywhere I’ve sat down as a musician or an engineer.”

After he opened his Chicago studio in 1997, Albini began playing in a weekly poker game at Russ Arbuthnot’s apartment. Named for the bakery located above the Electrical Audio engineer’s home, the Alliance-X game ran every Tuesday for a decade. Regulars included multiple-WSOP-bracelet winners Brandon Shack-Harris and Brian Hastings.

“You could probably consider it one of the toughest home games in the country,” said Rodawig, who also joined in when he was living in Chicago. When he met Albini, Rodawig had no idea that he was in the music business. After finding out about his background, Rodawig recalled, “I said to him, ‘Wow, you must have some cool stories.’ And kind of in typical Steve fashion, he’s like, ‘Eh, not really.’”

When they got to know each other, though, Albini’s strong opinions began trickling out. They always do. After all, this is a guy who in a pre–In Utero letter to Nirvana referred to “front office bulletheads” and closed the correspondence with this: “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up. Oi!”

“He’s always right and he’ll let you know that,” Rodawig said with a laugh. “Let me clarify that: He thinks he’s always right.” Naturally, their discussions turned to Albini’s disdain for pop music. While Rodawig openly disagreed with that assessment (“I understand it’s not for you, but a lot of people like pop music,” he remembered telling his friend. “It brings joy to their lives”), his conversations with Albini led to a realization.

“Steve is so extremely egalitarian,” Rodawig said. “You and I are like, ‘Whoa, you did something for Nirvana!’ But some band from Japan comes over [to record] and I guarantee he’s going to give Nirvana and that band from Japan the same amount of energy to make sure those two albums are equally as good.”

Albini has spent his career diligently attempting to strip an overblown world down to something that he finds meaningful. He’s done the same with poker. “When I’ve played poker with Steve he’s a lot quieter and more purposeful at the table than away from it,” Ashton said of Albini, who wears ear plugs while playing. “It feels like he’s happier focusing on the action and other players’ tendencies than getting involved in conversation than perhaps other non-pros.”

For years, Albini has posted about strategy on the Two Plus Two Poker Forum. (Before that, he frequented the Usenet group rec.gambling.poker.) When the poker boom brought Texas Hold ’Em to prominence in the early 2000s, he had to study up on the game. In 2010, he finished 14th in the first Series event he ever played, a $1,500 seven-card stud tournament. Pulling in $6,356 that week, he said, “gave me enough reinforcement to go back the next year.” Between 2013 and 2016, he cashed four more times, but never finished higher than 12th at a single event.

To Albini’s surprise, however, poker had gradually become a significant portion of his income. “You realize one day that you haven’t had to go to the ATM for six months,” he said. His wife, filmmaker and longtime Second City manager Heather Whinna, has been supportive, but isn’t exactly fond of his favorite pastime.

“My wife does not give a fuck about poker,” Albini said. “What she has seen of it has been revolting. And I can’t blame her for being repulsed by it. The popular image of the macho bro-man poker contingent is pretty depressing. It does seem quite retrograde. She does know my friends who play cards. And she likes them. And I think she discerned that there was another kind of poker player, that there were people who took the game seriously as an intellectual problem and who wanted to play not as a means of asserting dominance over each other, but as a way of expanding their own experience.”

Last month, those skilled friends were there for Albini. With the field winnowed down to just him and Jeff Lisandro, there was a dinner break. Before heads-up play, Albini and Ashton talked strategy. “He’s a really accomplished theoretical thinker,” Albini said. “He’s worked on a lot of stud situations that a lot of people have not worked on.” The chat was extremely helpful. “I don’t think I would’ve won the bracelet without having that conversation with Matt,” said Albini.

After Lisandro gained more than a two-to-one chip edge on Albini three times, the latter managed to overcome the deficit each time. With only a bring-in and a call of Albini’s completion bet left in his stack and the final hand fully dealt, Lisandro ended up with just a queen-high. Albini’s pair of 10s had Lisandro beat. The bracelet was his.

“I just felt like I was playing hand after hand after hand and then all of a sudden we stopped playing because I’d won,” Albini said. “It genuinely didn’t feel like I was incrementally getting closer to winning.” Afterward, he and his “asshole friends” took a goofy group photo and went out for some noodles.

After telling the story, Albini made sure to point out to me that he’d won a tournament with a relatively small field. “Some events get 1,000 or more participants,” he said.

The self-deprecating Albini isn’t one to brag about his own achievements and connections. But occasionally he can be goaded into taking advantage of them.

In February, before the United States men’s curling team’s Olympic final against Sweden, Mr. T phoned to wish the squad luck. As soon as Rodawig heard about that, he told Albini, a fellow curling enthusiast, that he should text Dave Grohl and ask him to do the same. “That’s an excellent idea,” Rodawig remembered Albini saying. At the time, the Foo Fighters were on a flight to a tour stop in Rio de Janeiro. Albini still managed to send the band’s frontman the mobile number of USA Curling CEO Rick Patzke, whom the Nebraska-based Rodawig had met at the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha. After the team won the gold medal in Pyeongchang, Patzke’s cell rang.

“We were in a van on our way to our media stuff that we had to do all night and Rick, our CEO … says somebody wants to congratulate you guys and hands the phone up,” American curler Tyler George said in March on FiveThirtyEight’s The Lab podcast. “A voice comes over, kind of gravelly, like, ‘Hey, guys, this is Dave Grohl. I just landed in Brazil and I just wanted to tell you guys how proud we are and we’ve been watching all the games and you guys are doing great.’ It’s just like, ‘Well, thanks, Dave Grohl, that’s really cool.’”

It’s unclear whether the curlers knew who set up the call. Albini’s name didn’t come up in the interview, which likely didn’t bother him. He doesn’t lust over acclaim or celebrity. So it makes sense that after winning his first WSOP bracelet he won’t be playing in the glitzy Main Event. In fact, he’s never participated in the biggest tournament of the year, which begins Monday.

“I’ll have a rooting interest in some friends who are playing it, but I’ve never been tempted myself,” Albini said in an email after we spoke. He plays only a handful of tournaments a year, and he doesn’t view himself as a strong no-limit Texas Hold ’Em player. Entering would be a cynical, futile money grab. He’s always hated those.