Get a book. Collect a stack. Raise the stakes. Repeat.
That's the objective of bourré, the underground card game popular with the pro athlete set. Chances are you've heard about it and didn't even know it. Remember when Taft High School alum and ex-NBAer Gilbert Arenas pulled a gun on his then–Washington Wizards teammate in the locker room back in 2009? That was because Arenas owed an inordinate amount of money after losses in‚ you guessed it, bourré.
What started as a Louisiana trick card game has become the game for deep-pocketed athletes enduring cross-country travel and long nights in hotel rooms. Now, with a push from an ambitious 28-year-old from Malibu, Bobby Heyward, the game is poised to go mainstream with a new professional league, à la World Series of Poker.
Today at NBA All-Star weekend in Houston, Heyward's Big City Bourré is setting up shop with an invitational tournament, emceed by local hypeman and hometown hero Clipper Darrell, with a lineup of pro athletes and celebs, including Cleveland Cavaliers forward Luke Walton. The winner will receive a Super Bowl–style ring, $10,000 for his charity of choice, and, of course, bragging rights.
“There's a lot of self-proclaimed kings,” Heyward says. “We're here to find out who the real champion is.”
Far from the gambling dens of Las Vegas, deep in Malibu, cards are flying in a million-dollar house overlooking the beach. Inside, Heyward, aka “Bobby Bourré,” holds court. Scruffy-faced in a black Dodgers cap, Heyward deals cards with the confidence of a shark — or a pit boss who knows the house always wins.
Tonight, the group of players screams young Hollywood: a dirty-blonde sitcom starlet, a tobacco-dipping thespian with a short film on the festival circuit, a coquettish waif with familial roots in the business.
Heyward himself is a legacy: He's the firstborn son of heavyweight Andy Heyward, the man behind DIC Entertainment, creator of '80s mega-hits Inspector Gadget, Captain Planet and Care Bears. That pedigree gave the younger Heyward the chutzpah to strike out on his own in the mid-2000s as a producer and series creator of A&E's short-lived Sons of Hollywood and associate producer on America's Next Top Model.
Between hands, Heyward tells his own bourré story. The jumping-off point for him was a 2007 meeting with Walton and current L.A. Clipper (and Kardashian husband) Lamar Odom. Heyward took such a shine to the game that he was struck with a big idea: Why not create a sports-themed league?
“He's like a big brother to me,” Heyward says of Odom, whom he credits for teaching him how to play without robbing him blind. He adds, “We saw a hole in the market and an opportunity to bring this to the masses. Everybody from Michael Jordan, who was, like, the founder of this game in the NBA, to LeBron [James], to Carmelo [Anthony], to Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, to L.O., to Luke — leaguewide, it's the only game they play. They play it on their charters, they play it in their hotel rooms, they play it overseas during the Olympics. They play it every day, all the time.”
Inspired by the players' love of the game, and a documentary on the bourré-playing 1996 Chicago Bulls, the William Morris Endeavor talent agency set Heyward up with Rick De Oliveira, a reality television veteran who served as executive producer on such competition-based shows as Road Rules, Making The Band 2 and Rock of Love with Bret Michaels. The two hit it off, and de Oliveira eventually came on board as Big City Bourre's co-founder.
“It's a real passion project for the both of us,” Heyward says. “We believe in it.”
“I love cards, I'm good at cards,” De Oliveira gushes. “At the end of the day, my theory for making television is the same: People just want to be entertained. I think the best entrepreneurial elements are the simplest and the ones that make the most sense.”
And bourré is that.
The game is played by two to seven players with a standard 52-card deck. While the rules initially sound confusing, after a few rounds it's simple — and addicting. (“It's endless until you want to call it quits,” Heyward notes.) If you can play spades or baccarat, you can play bourré.
“Imagine the energy of craps, coupled with the strategy of cards,” De Oliveira says. “That's the pace of play of bourré that's different from everything else.”
But a pro league is something new.
“Guys around the league want Big City Bourré,” Walton says of his fellow NBA players. “We've been asking for it for years. Not just to see who is the world's best bourré player, but we want to make the game accessible to anyone.”
Backers of the league are well aware of the Arenas incident and the subsequent reported $150,000 debt between Boston Celtics Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce, as well the bourré-driven feud between then–Memphis Grizzly players Tony Allen and O.J. Mayo.
“I think by taking it and legitimizing bourré, having a real standard set of rules, real stuff going on, obviously we're playing in a much more structured environment,” De Oliveira says. “That's what we're going to do. It's not a backyard game. This is a charity event.”
This first tourney, they say, is a dry run for another invitational they're setting up in Las Vegas. Success there could lead to licensing it to the casinos on the Strip, and then overseas. The endgame is turning this sport into the next World Poker Tour — a traveling affair, and a big moneymaker.
Back in Malibu, the game is winding down. Guests start to filter out. Heyward stacks the cards without stacking the deck, the sound of waves crashing softly in the distance. He's smiling. He knows he has a winner.
“We're not just two TV producers who want to do this,” he says. “It's a long-term play.”