By Arnold Warner
Former speedboat champion and longtime car dealer John “Bling Bling” Bettencourt has been a familiar face at NorCal poker games large and small for more than 40 years. Raised in the small Central Valley town of Dos Palos, he’s lived in Stockton for a long time now but seems at home wherever the tables make for a good game.
He sat down recently with The Cardroom to tell us all about his journey through the poker world, what he’s up to now, and what he sees for the future of the game.
The Cardroom: I’m curious about how you got involved in playing poker and the business of poker.
John Bettencourt: Well, I started racing boats in ‘65 for Mercury outboards. In ‘69 I was runner up for the world championship, and then in ‘70 I was the world champion of unlimited outboards. So after I did that, I don’t know, I just kind of lost interest in it. So then I went to the big offshore boats, the ocean boats. I started to campaign those and it cost about $150,000 a year to campaign one of those. After about 10 years of that I started looking for another interest.
So when I decided to give that up, my wife kept after me too, because if you haven’t run 150 miles an hour on the water you haven’t lived. But she got nervous about it. I had two or three close calls. So I started to play Lowball. That’s all we could play here in California back then.
You started playing where?
At that time I was playing in Atwater and Merced because I was selling cars to the Ford dealer in Merced. I started playing Lowball and I really did like that. So I just kept on and on. Then the cardroom in Atwater became for sale, so I bought it. Then that worked out so good that I bought Turlock. In fact, Joe [Fernandez, owner of Turlock Poker Room] has my old license.
What was it like as a poker player back then?
For one thing, I used to hide it because people looked down at you in the ’60s and ’70s if you played poker. You know, when you talked poker, they would think of a smoke-filled room back behind the bar, closed doors and all that stuff. You didn’t talk poker at all.
The big poker games, where you’re playing for real money, was taboo back in those days.
Why do you think that was?
The times, I guess, yeah. People just didn’t accept it. You know, way back when a gal didn’t wear these thong bikinis, either. Now nobody thinks anything of it. It’s just the times and those times you had to be careful if you were a businessman. I’d wear the dark glasses and put my hat down when I’d go in and out of a place. I didn’t want nobody to know I was there playing. I was in business. I couldn’t afford that. I belonged to the Chamber of Commerce and all that stuff.
When do you think that changed?
When it came on TV. A lot of people thought it changed earlier. I don’t think so. Cause even your cardrooms were in the sleazy part of town and most of them were a back room behind a bar. That’s the way it was then. When I played poker, I looked for one that I could park in the back and go in the back way. I didn’t want to park out on Main Street and walk into a bar or poker room, you know.
It’s changed now. But TV did all that. And the amount of money they win in these big tournaments, it changed everybody’s thinking.
What were the names of the cardrooms in Atwater and Turlock?
L & S Club in Atwater, and 101 Club in Turlock. Both of them behind the bar.
How many tables did they have?
Atwater had 13 and there were four in Turlock.
There were more in Atwater than Turlock?
Yeah. Well, you had the airbase there. So then I started playing Lowball all over the place. I was making pretty good money at it, and I would tell the kids, “This is a pretty good hobby. Maybe I don’t want to do these boats anymore.”
Then in the late ’70s I heard the base was closing, so I said, “Well, this thing ain’t gonna work there.” Not in Atwater and I sold out in ’81. I only owned it about three or four years, and I was in the car business the whole time. That’s where I made my living. Had I known Hold’em was coming, I’d have never sold them. But even at that time, each club was making about $150,000 a year. That wasn’t bad money back then. I was picking up another 50 to 60 thousand a year playing poker and still boat racing at the time. So I just ran out of time for the boat racing. Then Hold’em came to California. That’s when I really got into it.
Around when did they legalize Hold’em in California?
It had to be in the early ‘90s I think. Then I started playing Hold’em. I said, “Kid, you can make some real serious money here.” But I hadn’t played Hold’em before, so I started out with $3/6 and played that for three months. Then I went to $4/8 and played that about three months. Then I started fooling around with the small no-limits, and just slowly graduated up to the big stuff.
Where were you playing Hold’em? The same places, like Atwater?
Over here in the valley. I played in Atwater a while, I played in Turlock. I played Sacramento. I started moving around. I played a lot at the Capitol Casino, because at that time they probably had the best action, the biggest games. Bay 101 was pretty strong. I played there, but I didn’t like the drive. I’ve got a family, so I wanted to be home at night. Boy, you try to leave Bay 101 at 4:00 in the afternoon or 5:00, it’s a joke. It’s a three-hour trip to get here.
I started playing at Manteca, who for a long time had a $5/10 game that cooked, and then every Friday we had $10/20. Then they just couldn’t support it. It broke a lot of players. The smaller limit players started playing $5/10 no-limit and they lost too much money. Everybody was buying in $1,000, $2,000. They would buy three or four hundred and we’d just run over them.
Then I got interested in tournament poker around 2005.
After the big poker boom that started in 2003?
Yeah. The TV shows came out and I was like, “Look at all these tournaments. These guys are playing for around $500,000.” I got to get interested in that. So then I started playing the local stuff, which at that time was small—$60 buy-in, $100 buy-in. Then I started going to Vegas a little bit because you could get bigger tournaments. I started playing the $1,000 to $2,500 buy-ins at the World Series and I started doing pretty good. Cashed quite a bit.
Then in ‘11, I decided I wanted to play the Main Event, and I’ve cashed three times. I’ve not made a big one yet in the Main Event, but I’ve played every year since ‘11. They were small cashes. I could get into about four days and that’s about as far as I could get. I was getting on the short stack all of the time.
My son was running the store pretty good, so I told the wife for six months we were just going to have some fun. I traveled all over. I made no big money [cashes], but I made 150 grand that year.
I limited myself. I didn’t play anything over a $2,000 buy-in. At that time, the game wasn’t as tough as it is now. There weren’t that many people who knew how to play. Now when you get into the bigger tournaments, those guys are good. So now I won’t play anything that doesn’t have at least $100,000 guaranteed, because first will pay in the low 20s. If you’re going to grind out three or four days, 12 hours a day, you’d like to make 20 grand, you know?
The one I love is the Main Event. Two hour levels and you can play poker. I recommend to any new player, don’t play anything under 30-minute levels, because then you’re playing turbo. You can’t learn that way. The Capitol has a good one for new players the second Saturday [of every month], because it’s 25-minute levels, so it ain’t too bad.
Now you don’t have to travel as much. There are a lot more tournaments around here with $100,000 guaranteed.
Now, if you live in Northern California or Southern California, you really don’t have to travel. You can have all the action you want. My first love is cash games because you can control it. Tournaments control you. There’s certain things you have to do at a tournament. You got an A-Q, you got to play it. You’re running bad in a cash game, you lay it down if you don’t feel good about it. You start laying those kind of hands down in a tournament, you arent going to last long. You get a raise and a re-raise in a cash game, that A-Q ain’t no good no more.
So I prefer the cash game. I believe there’s more talent. You can make good money but you can’t make the big hit. I still want to make that one big hit. My goal now is to make the final table at the Main Event. I’ll be the oldest man to ever do it—78.
Do you think it’s any harder for you at this age?
It’s getting tougher every year. When I play a tournament, that’s four days. By the fourth day I’m really tired. But there’s something about that Main Event. Your adrenaline’s pumping so good, you don’t get tired. When you’re done, you’re wore out, but while you’re playing you’re not tired in that Main Event. I think every poker player in the world should play the Main Event one time, even if he has to borrow the money. There’s just nothing like it.
Your nickname, where did that come from?
Bling Bling? A dealer in this area just started calling me Bling Bling and it stuck with me. Mostly in the poker world now, they know me as Bling Bling. They don’t know John. Almost everywhere I play I hear, “Hi, Bling Bling.” I said, if they want to call me Bling Bling all the time I’ll just get a Bling Bling necklace made up. It says Bling Bling on it. That’s kind of fun, I get a kick out of it.
When I play tournaments, I wear all the stuff. When I play cash, I don’t. When I play the cash games, I’m playing a lot of players that don’t know me, and I’d just as soon leave it that way. If they read me as Bling Bling then they might play me a little tougher. When I wear that jewelry, a couple guys will always say, “Oh, I’ve seen you on TV.”
You’re still selling cars as well as playing poker?
Yes, but I’m doing an awful lot of poker. I never play a game bigger than a $10/20, and I can make over $100,000 a year and never play over three hours a day. I have a philosophy. I go according to the amount of chips on the table. If I play two hours and I haven’t beat that game, if I’m not ahead, I get up. I make sure my losses are less than my wins. So if you’re not winning in a cash game in two hours, you’re not gonna win that day. You’re just not running good. Okay?
Everybody tries to make that big score. You’re only gonna win one big all-in a session. Only one. Maybe two rarely. So when you make that big win, if you’re playing $5/10, and you score a $1,600 pot or $2,000 pot, you play another round and just smile with everybody, and then you get up and you walk out. And you make $2,000 in two or three hours.
I run it just like a business. Poker is as much money management as it is poker. You got to manage your wins and your losses. Very rarely I’ll have a loss that’s bigger than my smallest win. The trouble with some people, they get stuck $200. They got to try and get that money back. Now, they’re not playing their game. They don’t play it as well, they’re playing catch-up. They’re gonna just lose another five. That’s the way it works. I’ve studied this, and it works that way.
When I first started playing, I’d chase that loss. Man, I took some big hits when I first started playing cash games. I’d sit in a $5/10 and lose four, five grand because I’d get stuck a grand. A lot of people think people are bluffing a lot with that all-in. I guarantee it, nine times out of 10 they go all-in, they got the nuts. Nine times out of 10. I really studied this.
You mentioned earlier some ideas about bringing in new players, that there need to be more new players ….
Yes. We need new players, we’re not getting enough new ones. When they first pounded TV, we got a lot of new players. Everybody says it was Moneymaker. It wasn’t Moneymaker, it was TV. That’s what brought it. That’s what made the new players come in. My son even started playing after he started watching it on TV.
What I would do, if I ever close the store, I would start a tournament where the money’s not all on the top end. Okay? A guy sits down, he pays a $1,000 entry. If he wins $20,000, he’s just as happy as if he wins $50,000. Spread that money out. Instead of paying 10 or 11 percent, pay 15 or 18 percent, and make that 18 percent double the entry. Right now all the money goes to first, second, and third. That’s where the big money is.
The amateur doesn’t get in expecting to win, but if he knows he can get into that 18 percent bracket and double his money, he’s gonna be more enticed to play. They got to get off that top end a little I think.
My advice to a new player is start with the $3/6 and $4/8 and figure out what’s going on. Do that for like three months. Then maybe move to the $1/2 no-limits. Don’t get in a hurry to move up. They get in a hurry, “Oh, I want to play that $5/10. Look at all that money on that table.” But those guys know how to play, okay? You get in there against me, I know how to play. I’ll eat you alive if you’re a novice, you know what I’m saying?
Stay with the little stuff. Learn and work your way up slowly, and budget yourself. If you’re not beating that game in two hours, you’re not gonna beat it that day. Take that $200 loss and walk away. Then you go back the next day and you make $300 or $500 if you’re running good. Don’t try to make it a thousand if you’re playing $1/2. Anything over $300 is a good score.
Will you re-buy if you lose your initial buy-in?
It’s pretty rare for me to re-buy, because it’s pretty rare for me to get in an all-in pot unless I know I’m ahead. I never go all-in. If I’m ahead, I try to let the other guys get me all-in. I don’t play a lot of all-in pots because if you’re playing $2/5 and you’ve got an all-in pot with $2,000 in front of you and you lose that, you’re not gonna get that back that day. Maybe you get $500 of it. In $2/5, $1,000 is a big score. People don’t think it is, but if I’m in a $2/5 game I’m not gonna lose more than $300, maybe $400. I’m not gonna let myself lose it all.
I play tournaments the same way. If I’ve got 40 big blinds and I make a raise with kings, and the guy goes all-in behind me, I lay that hand down. A lot of people can’t do that. I’ll guarantee you that if he goes all-in, he’s got some aces. If he don’t, the odds are still he’ll catch something. Then, if you don’t catch you’re out, you’re gone.
Now, if I’ve got 10 or 15 blinds, yeah, I’ll get in an all-in spot, because I need the hit. But if you’re in that 35, 40 blind area, don’t get yourself all-in. I mean, tournaments, in reality, are kind of like the cash game. You gotta keep your losses down. A lot of people say, “I only paid $250, that’s all I can lose.” Bull. If you’ve got 50 big blinds, you’ve made some money. You’ve got a chance for the final table. So you better look to that.
I don’t claim I’m any great player compared to anybody else. I just have a knack for poker.