Two hundred and seventy-eight miles from the Las Vegas Strip, at an unglamorous intersection in Gardena, Los Angeles, sits the Hustler Casino. Built by the late porn king Larry Flynt, the Hustler normally hosts dozens of low-stakes poker games. But on the night of September 29, 2022, the place was abuzz—a high-stakes game of no-limit Texas Hold’em was being broadcast live. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were at stake.
This wasn’t unusual. The Hustler often live-streams games on YouTube. On a glass-enclosed stage the regular mix of professionals—guys identified only by nondescript nicknames like “Rip” and “Mike X”—and eager amateurs were all there. But joining them at the oval table was Phil Ivey, widely considered one of the best Hold’em players of all time, with nearly $40 million in tournament winnings. However, within minutes of the broadcast starting, Ivey would be nothing but a footnote.
In no-limit Texas Hold’em, each player is dealt two cards—known as their “hole” cards. Five communal cards are then dealt face up in the middle of the table in increments—three cards (“the flop”), then one card (“the turn”), then the last card (“the river”). Players bet after each set of cards is dealt and try to make the best five-card hand using the seven cards available to them. This might be a pair, two pair, three of a kind, and so on, all the way up to a royal flush.
This is the version of poker played in almost every home game in the United States as well as at the annual World Series of Poker (W.S.O.P.) championship, where last year Norwegian poker pro Espen Jorstad bested more than 8,000 other competitors to be the last man standing, taking home a $10 million first prize.
The Hustler’s game is not a knockout tournament like the W.S.O.P. It’s a cash game in which players bring their own money and play until they’ve had enough. On this night, which is still being talked about almost nine months later, eight players were sitting at the table, with chip stacks ranging from $81,000 to $816,000.
Sitting to the right of the dealer—in seat eight—was Garrett Adelstein, the poster boy for the Hustler live stream. The 37-year-old was known for his boy-next-door looks and his amiable charm in victory and defeat. Among the pale, vitamin D–sapped poker pros he was remarkably healthy-looking—he had been a contestant on Survivor: Cagayan—and he had won more than $2 million in games at the Hustler since it began live-streaming in 2021. Despite his easy charm, Adelstein was famed for his aggressive playing style, betting heavily when he had good cards, and raising bets frequently to squeeze other players out.
Sitting to the left of the dealer—in seat one—was Robbi Jade Lew, 38, a newcomer to the Hustler. A former biopharmaceuticals manager from Pacific Palisades, she had become interested in poker only a few years before and had picked up a copy of Poker for Dummies to learn the ropes. Since then, she had entered tournaments and posted some decent cash wins, but rarely had she seen a game this big. With her bee-stung lips, low-cut outfits, and fashion-forward shades, she was becoming popular among poker fans and had openly discussed how her A.D.H.D. diagnosis influenced her impulsive, not always by-the-book play.
The live stream was just two minutes old when it happened.
The blinds—two rotating forced bets—were set at only $100 and $200, but Adelstein became the first to raise, aggressively “bumping it up” to $3,000. His starting hand, which viewers could see on their screens thanks to radio-frequency tags embedded in the cards, was 7♣️/8♣️—a potentially good hand since it opened up the possibilities for a straight (when all cards in a hand are consecutive) or a flush (when all cards in a hand are the same suit). Without hesitating, Lew called Adelstein’s raise—i.e., she matched it. The live stream revealed her to be holding J♣️ and 4❤️, which didn’t offer much of anything. The other players all folded.
Adelstein was famed for his aggressive playing style, betting heavily when he had good cards, and raising bets frequently to squeeze other players out.
When the flop was dealt, it fell 9♣️, 10♣️, 10❤️. Adelstein, who was just one card away from a straight flush—the best hand in poker—with two cards still to come, bet $2,500. Another strong bet, but one that wouldn’t scare his opponent away. Lew, whose hand was only slightly improved—she was still two cards away from a straight—called.
The turn saw a meaningless 3❤️ fall—helping neither of them—so Adelstein upped his bet to $10,000. To the viewers at home, it seemed like Lew would have to fold her cards. But Lew called Adelstein’s bet. Then she raised him $10,000 more.
This was, to put it mildly, surprising. Lew had no pairs and could no longer catch a flush or a straight. She was holding only jack high, meaning if Adelstein had a solitary queen in his five-card hand she would be beaten.
After a pause, Adelstein went “all in.” He still had an outside chance of getting a straight, a flush, or even that straight flush, but what he was really aiming to do was to scare Lew out of the pot. If she called his bet, she would have to put in all her remaining chips: $109,000. It was a no-brainer. In this situation, with only jack high in your hand, 99 percent of all poker players would instantly fold.
Lew took a couple of minutes to think about her next move, and, after looking at her cards repeatedly, she did the utterly unexpected—she called the enormous bet. The pot had swelled to a huge $269,000.
Bart Hanson, a poker pro who was commentating on the live stream, could barely control himself. “What is going on here?,” Hanson asked. “I’m speechless.”
The river fell. It was a meaningless A♠️ that didn’t improve either player’s hand. With no more betting to take place—all Lew’s money was in the pot—it was time to reveal their cards.
Lew had openly discussed how her A.D.H.D. diagnosis influenced her impulsive, not always by-the-book play.
Up until this point, Adelstein and Lew had been happily talking with each other. Neither player seemed all that bothered that there was nearly $270,000 at stake, but that is professional poker for you. Indeed, after the last card was dealt, Adelstein seemed to know he’d lost the hand.
And he had. Adelstein had missed his straight and flush, and he hadn’t managed to pair any of his cards. When they flipped over their hole cards, both players shared the pair of 10s and the ace that were among the communal cards on the table, but Adelstein’s next highest card was the 8♣️ from his hole cards. Lew held jack high in her hole cards. Lew had won.
When the grinning Adelstein saw Lew’s hand, his expression immediately changed. His smile dropped. His eyes darted back and forth between the cards and Lew. As the other players laughed, and Lew sheepishly smiled, Adelstein looked on in disbelief. It wasn’t that he’d lost the pot—he’d been expecting that; it was how he’d lost it that shocked him.
Lew had won. But not with a good hand. She’d won with a miserable hand. A hand so bad it was impossible to believe it could have been played so far. Even if Lew had thought Adelstein was bluffing, her bets made no sense. “If you are convinced someone is bluffing, you have to be able to beat the person’s bluff,” explains Maria Ho, a professional player for 18 years. “But you are not beating a lot of hands with J/4.”
It seemed that somehow Lew knew, with absolute certainty, that Adelstein had a worse hand than she did.
Watching from the control room above the stage, Ryan Feldman, the wiry, 38-year-old producer of the show, rushed down to the table. “My first thought was Oh, my God, this is going to go viral,” he says. He was right. In an instant, Twitter exploded with incredulous comments from poker players watching the stream who could not believe what they had seen.
By now, a couple of minutes had passed and Adelstein’s expression was starting to harden. He had lost $135,000 of his money, but that seemed less important than how he’d lost it. Lew, who was still smiling, sensed the darkening mood of her opponent. “Garrett, you look like you want to murder me,” she said.
Adelstein tried to string some words together, replaying the hand out loud. Lew deflected and responded that this wasn’t the first time she’d caught Adelstein in a bluff. When Adelstein asked her what she thought he had, Lew replied, “I thought you had an ace.” Adelstein’s steel-trap mind snapped back, “So why call a jack high then?” Was Lew flustered? Or was she lying? Either way, it was clear by now that Adelstein had come to the only conclusion that seemed to make sense: he had been cheated.
Adelstein got up from his chair and walked off the set. Lew followed him onto the main floor of the casino, and a heated argument ensued. According to Feldman, who was standing nearby, Lew attempted to calm the situation by asking Adelstein, who still had more than $400,000 to play with, what she could do to bring him back to the game. According to Feldman, Adelstein said, “You could give me back the money I had in the pot.” Shockingly, Lew did exactly that. (Adelstein denies asking for his money back and says Lew offered to return it.)
In my 40 years of playing poker, I have never seen anyone ask for their money back—not for $5 and not for $5,000. It’s just not done. But even more unusual, even more astonishing, was that I have never even heard of a winner offering to pay back a loser’s bet. What the hell was going on?
If I were producing the movie version of this improbable story, it might be called “The Hand.” Matt Damon would portray Adelstein. Margot Robbie could play Lew. But I can tell you this—any story written with the actual hand that went down that night would not have made it into the final script. No one who knows anything about poker would believe it.
The inexperienced Lew taking down a pot of this size against the veteran Adelstein, with the cards she held, would be like a Little Leaguer hitting a 100-m.p.h. fastball out of Yankee Stadium. It’s not that it’s unlikely—it’s that it’s inconceivable.
Adelstein had come to the only conclusion that seemed to make sense: he had been cheated.
Adelstein told me, via text, that the experience at the Hustler so rattled him that he has not played poker anywhere since that night. The break dovetailed with his becoming a new father, but he also explained his poker sabbatical was motivated by “serious concerns about the security of livestream poker.”
He admits his reaction that night was out of character. “Part of my popularity in poker comes from my flawless record of sportsmanship and ethical behavior,” he says. But for him the hand immediately set off alarm bells. “After the last card came and I missed my flush or straight, you can see me smiling and joking as I knew I would not be winning the hand with 8 high. It wasn’t until Robbi flipped over J/4 that I became immediately concerned the hand was not legitimate.”
“I’ve been playing and watching poker obsessively for 20 years,” he says. “Never have I seen a hand even close to egregious as that one.”
When I spoke to Lew and asked her about the strange way she had played, she explained that’s just how she plays the game.
“It was a very impulsive, singular decision. I just thought he was trying to bluff me off my hand, and I decided not to let him do it.” As for the amount of money she was risking on an impulse, she shrugged it off. “I did not even think about the money. When I play poker, it’s just Monopoly money.”
Lew insists that while she’s not as experienced as some other players, that’s just her style. “I’ve always been someone eager to jump into the shark-infested waters without even considering it might require more preparation.”
So why did she offer to pay back Adelstein’s money? “I just thought he was being a big baby and a sore loser, and I just needed him to stop crying,” she says.
For some, Lew’s attempts to pay back the bet were a sign of her guilt. If she had been caught cheating, she would almost certainly have been banned from the game. “Robbi wanted to become famous through poker,” suggests Feldman, “and in that moment, she saw that opportunity slipping away.”
But Lew says this was not the case. “I felt a little tormented. I felt bullied. I just thought this is the price I’m going to have to pay to stay on the show, to keep the star player happy and not to cause any more drama.”
There were many who felt Adelstein’s demand for cash was out of line and that he would have been far less likely to push Lew to defend her play had she not been a woman. “In the heat of the moment, when he felt he was cheated, I understand Garrett’s need for an explanation,” says Ho. “But I doubt very much anyone would ask Phil Ivey to explain how he played a hand once, much less twice.”
The Internet leapt to Lew’s defense: “Entitled male poker pro loses hand to woman who outplays him, but cries until she gives him his money back,” read one tweet, according to Adelstein. And it’s hard to ignore a strand of sexism in some of the outrage aimed at Lew. “If you listened to all the criticism of Lew,” says Norman Chad, a color commentator for the World Series of Poker, “you’d think she had kidnapped the Lindbergh baby.”
But Adelstein insists sexism played no part in his reaction. “I’ve always been a strong advocate for women and have discussed as much on live streams many times over the years,” he told me in an e-mail. “Robbi’s gender had absolutely 0 to do with how I handled the situation and I would have done the exact same thing versus a guy.”
“If you listened to all the criticism of Lew, you’d think she had kidnapped the Lindbergh baby.”
In the game’s aftermath, Lew did herself no favors by contradicting her explanation for why she played the hand the way she did. She later insisted she misread her cards—despite clearly having checked them numerous times—and thought she had a pair of threes. These faltering responses have made Adelstein, and others, believe that she was acting as the front for a gang of cheats.
If cheating was involved, how could it have happened? Most theories rely on a conspirator being in the live-stream control room, relaying information to Lew about her opponents’ hands in real time. Some suggested Lew was receiving signals via a vibrating device that told her when she had the best hand.
“It was a very savvy move from the cheating group to have Robbi receive hole-card information,” says Adelstein. “They well knew that if the shit hit the fan as it did, she would immediately have a leg up in the court of public opinion, especially as unfortunately women are an extreme minority in high-stakes poker.”
Things got even stranger when it was revealed that amid all the confusion, a 24-year-old production assistant named Bryan Sagbigsal, who was present in the control room on the night of the game, was seen on video removing $15,000 in chips from Lew’s stack. According to Feldman, he was fired, but armchair detectives speculated Sagbigsal might have been in on the scam and the $15,000 was his cut. (The money was paid back to Lew by the live-stream producers, and both Lew and Sagbigsal have denied they colluded.)
In the weeks that followed, Lew submitted to, and passed, a polygraph test, but this did nothing to stop the uproar. So, in order to draw a line under the case, High Stakes Poker Productions, which runs the Hustler live stream, launched a “six-figure” investigation, engaging the Canadian cyber-security firm Bulletproof, the L.A. law firm Sheppard Mullin, and a team of private investigators. After several weeks of inquiry, they unearthed no evidence of cheating. Without proof, the allegations against Lew evolved from “likely” to “possibly.”
In December of last year, Lew texted Adelstein asking him to return the money to her. She also said she wanted him to publish an apology, if he wanted to avoid a lawsuit. Adelstein never replied to the text, but Lew declined to pursue legal avenues. Adelstein says the money Lew returned to him has been donated to charity, which the charity confirmed.
Increasingly, in the last nine months, sympathies have swung from Adelstein to Lew. “I’d say there is only a small chance there was cheating,” says Ho. “It’s never going to be a zero-chance situation.... There’s just no smoking gun.”
But, says Chad, “there are two areas of poker I could never completely trust: One is online poker. The other is the live stream. Ninety-nine percent of the time these games are on the up-and-up, but there will always be people out there who will try to cheat the game. The funny thing is, most of the time, poker just moves on.”
Lew certainly has. Since that fateful hand, her profile has rocketed. She remains a polarizing, and popular, presence at high-stakes tournaments and on live-stream events. Six months on, the hand has made her notorious.
Meanwhile, Adelstein says he hopes to get back to playing on live streams later this year, but probably not at the Hustler. He says “J/4,” as he describes the hand, “gave me the opportunity to sit back and reflect.” Although he has been invited to play on all of the well-known live-stream sites, Adelstein says he has grown to despise “the zero-sum nature of the game and all the negatives attached to it.” “I want to do something else,” he adds, “something more meaningful in my working hours.” He remains “extremely confident” he was cheated.
What lesson can be learned from all this? Perhaps we should turn to the all-time poker great Phil Ivey, who watched the whole drama unfold in front of him that September night. According to Lew, Ivey approached her after the now infamous hand and shared some words of wisdom gained from his decades of card play: “You never have to explain to anyone why you played a hand the way you did,” he advised her. “If anyone asked me, I’d just tell them to fuck off.”
David T. Friendly is an Academy Award–nominated film-and-television producer and a former journalist