How Brandon Steven developed an obsession for high-stakes poker

Brandon Steven was playing high-stakes poker against Beverly Lange, a Texas woman at the televised World Series of Poker in 2013, when she decided to go all in with $435,000 in chips.

“Would it surprise you if I had a king?” Steven asked her. Steven was telling her that he had kings, which would beat the jacks in her hand. Or he could be bluffing.

“No,” Lange said calmly.

“It wouldn’t surprise you at all,” he said, taken aback by her response. “What do you do in Austin?”

Lange said she ran pom-pom drill team competitions and camps for young girls.

“Really,” Steven said, and then, as if trying to see if she was on his level. “You play a lot of poker?”

Steven started mumbling aloud the possible hands she could have. She couldn’t have an ace, could she?

“I’m really not that good of a poker player,” Lange said. “Don’t try to figure out, you know, what I should’ve done, because what you would expect me to do is probably not something I would do. Does that help you?”

Steven laughed: either she had made a mistake, or Steven was being played. “It helps me; it helps me. I know I have the worst hand, and I’m probably still going to call,” Steven said.

“If you have the worst hand, I definitely want you to call,” Lange said.

But seconds later, Steven folded with the kings that would’ve won. “A dagger to the heart of Brandon Steven,” the TV commentator said. Although Steven lost, the hand showed how savvy he had become at high-stakes poker.

The newcomer

Just three years earlier, Steven was the newcomer, like Lange, who had to avoid being bullied around: He had surprised Las Vegas as a relative unknown from Kansas and finished tenth at the World Series of Poker in 2010, earning more than $650,000.

High-stakes poker became an obsession that rivaled his prominent role in the Wichita business community, where he runs car dealerships and health clubs. Steven is pictured at a poker table for his Twitter profile, and he posts pictures of receipts for $100,000 or even $1 million poker tournament entry fees.

In 2010, during his rise at the World Series of Poker, Jonathan Driscoll, another player, called Steven out for bragging too much. “You should gloat more after you win,” Driscoll said sarcastically after Steven had taken all his chips.

But when Steven was interviewed later in his first big tournament, he appeared to have learned this lesson.

“I want to get excited, but I can’t,” Steven said. “You don’t want to brag. You don’t want to gloat.”

The TV cameras didn’t bother him during his rise in 2010, he said. “I’m in the zone,” Steven told a journalist from Poker News Daily. “I don’t think about anything but the cards in front of me and the people who have cards in front of them.”

“His name in the poker world is recognized because he plays in high-stakes games, and he was featured on ESPN on the World Series broadcast,” Robbie Straznyski, founder of CardPlayer Lifestyle said Wednesday in an interview with The Eagle.

Since 2010, Steven has won more than $600,000 two more times and is ranked No. 1 in the state of Kansas, with earnings in excess of $3 million, according to the Hendon Mob, which tracks hundreds of thousands of players and tournament results. The Hendon Mob is the main website for tracking tournament poker results but doesn’t track any cash games or online games that Steven may have played in.

More than money

But Steven has made it clear on several occasions that his love for poker is about more than money.

“I’m here to win the bracelet,” Steven said in a 2014 interview posted on YouTube about winning the top prize at the tournament. “The money is great. Fortunately, I’ve made a lot of money with poker, but I’m here for the bracelet.”

“Poker is not my source of income,” Steven said in the YouTube interview. “I do well in business. So the money was great, $635,000, but for me, I was there to win it, I wanted the championship.”

After his success in 2010, he took his poker to another level. At that tournament he talked about how nice it was to have so much family around. Then, in the 2014 interview on YouTube, he said, “I say it’s not about the money, but the money is a big part of it. It justifies being here, it justifies being away from work and my family.”

From 2006 to 2010 he only won more than $10,000 once or twice per year. In 2016 alone, he had won that amount nine times or more.

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Steven’s wife once chastised him for being rude with members of the media after losing a tournament. He took poker seriously, he said. “I wish I could say I was (having fun),” Steven told an interviewer for Poker News Daily. “Mostly it’s been fun.”

Steven couldn’t sleep during one tournament because he couldn’t stop thinking about his hands. “Every time I laid down, I started thinking about ‘Why couldn’t an ace have come, why couldn’t a king have come, why couldn’t I have played this hand different,’” Steven said in a video posted to YouTube.

It got so bad that he didn’t sleep for 60 hours. “So I started drinking a whole bunch,” he said in the video. “That will knock me out.”

By the 2014 World Series of Poker, Steven had become even more confident: He played one hand as if he had a pair of kings, even though he didn’t. “I’ll be honest with you,” said one of the TV commentators. “If I’m buying a car from him, I doubt I’m getting the best end of the deal.”

Love of Vegas

Back in Wichita, Steven owned more than 10 car dealerships in addition to dozens of health clubs. But he liked Las Vegas so much he started trying to bring pieces of it to Kansas. He helped bring All American Dave, a favorite Las Vegas food truck of his, to Wichita.

Steven started Ace of Kids, an annual charity poker game in Wichita with a payout that rose to $20,000, the proceeds of which went to a foundation, Genesis Foundation for Fitness & Tennis, to provide funding for underprivileged kids to play tennis and sports.

Steven invited several professional poker players from Las Vegas for these tournaments. And he even offered to personally give the highest bidder at one of his charity auctions a free poker lesson.

Then in 2015, he unsuccessfully tried to build a $145 million casino in southeastern Kansas.

He and his brother Rodney Steven personally agreed to back more than $95 million in loans to build the casino, a design that would have been twice as large as the casino that was eventually built. Steven came up with $11 million in extra cash at the last minute, when the finances of his casino project were called into question.

He would risk everything to make the casino deal work, he said, according to the lawsuit he filed after another developer was awarded the bid. “Everything we have personally in business is on the line because Rodney and I are personally guaranteeing the loan,” Steven testified, when asked if he was building the casino for a quick profit and didn’t care how it turned out. “So at no chance can we let it fail.”

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison