Playing the hand dealt

Long an outlaw activity, poker gains a respectable reputation

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The World Series of Poker is underway in Las Vegas, and a record number of fools will be lining up for the privilege of being parted from their money. The buy-in is a minimum of $1,000 and a maximum of $50,000. Around 75,000 players will enter, and the very best will walk away with millions in prize money, as well as a champion bracelet that will mark him (they’re all men, so far) as someone you should never, ever play cards with.

As recently as a few decades ago, playing poker was disreputable, and to find a serious game, one might have had to secure an invitation to the back room of an Italian restaurant or whisper a password through the peephole in the door of an unfamiliar apartment. With the World Series, now in its 41st year, the game evolved from one played on the sly, under the threat of a government raid, into one played on ESPN, with the same fatuous color commentary one might expect while watching a baseball game. The story of how poker was tamed is a sad one, not just for the 74,999 losers but also for anyone who gets his poker thrills from the feeling of transgression and danger. The old poker is dead, killed by the Internet, with the World Series a willing accomplice.

The story starts in 1946, when the city of Dallas elected a new sheriff, who forced many gamblers and other underworld types into an exodus. Among them was L.B. Benny Binion, a bootlegger, murderer and crime lord who had become a violent demigod of the Dallas mafia. Binion decamped for Las Vegas and opened a casino on Glitter Gulch in 1951. Binion’s Horseshoe was known for honoring any bet of any size, a policy that led to countless stories of maniacs who lost or doubled fortunes on the turn of a card or spin of a wheel.

By 1970, Binion had been in and out of prison and had won and lost his gambling license. He had, however, not lost his showmanship or his nostalgia for the old days in Dallas, playing stud against some of the shrewdest and most adept cheats and cardsharps in the business. He hit upon the idea of an exhibition match with seven of the best players, after which they would vote on who was the best. The first round of voting was reportedly a seven-way tie, with no one willing to concede superiority even in a closed ballot. When Binion asked each player to nominate a runner-up, they selected Jimmy Moss, a Texas big-money player who usually played with a revolver in his jacket and a double-barreled shotgun in the back seat of his car.

The other players were equally colorful.  Thomas Austin “Amarillo Slim” Preston Jr. claimed to have beaten pool-hall hustler Minnesota Fats at billiards using a broomstick as a cue, and to have beaten Evel Knievel at golf using a hammer for a club. Slim also befriended Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and pleaded guilty to indecency with a child. Both Slim and fellow Texan Doyle Brunson, also among the original poker players, have been repeatedly assaulted and thrashed while collecting money, and Brunson has claimed he once sat beside a player who was shot in the head in the middle of a hand.

Of course, what started off as a bunch of crooked old cowboys playing cards could not stay private for long. By 1972, they had done away with voting and made the World Series a freeze-out tournament, so the winner was the one with all the remaining chips. That year they instituted a $5,000 buy-in and welcomed eight entrants, including the original seven. Moss won again, and until 1978, when 28-year-old Bobby Baldwin won from a field of 42 entrants, the original seven were the only ones who walked away with the championship.

Then, in 1979, a nobody named Hal Fowler showed up and won — the first amateur to do so. The gates to greatness seemed to open a crack. Poker is, after all, largely a game of luck, so it was just a matter of time before talented amateurs started to occasionally win, inspiring each other to believe that ridiculous odds might someday favor them, too. CBS and ESPN started broadcasting, and by 1982, the field had swelled to 104 entrants. Few of these newcomers were the sort to pack heat, but they shared many of the vices of recklessness (drugs, booze) that go with willingness to wager absurd sums against dangerous men in cowboy hats.

Time has done little but punish these amateurs, first by taking their money, and second by giving it back in small but highly publicized doses. Those doses are sufficient to keep them coming back for more, usually inspired by success playing poker online. In 2005, an Australian chiropractor triumphed; one wonders how the killer Benny Binion, by then dead for 16 years, would have felt about that.

Binion’s Horseshoe had, in any case, been bought up in 2004 by Harrah’s, which meant it transformed rapidly from the casino with one of Vegas’s shadiest backstories to one with the corporate sterility for which the Vegas Strip is now famous. The old Binion casino, once smoky and seedy, is now owned by a big gaming conglomerate and is growing brighter and less distinctive. The championship where Moss and Amarillo Slim once triumphed takes place on the same grounds occupied by magicians Penn and Teller, as well as the Vegas franchise of the Chippendales male strip show.

As for the players themselves, they have talent, of course, and some of the faces are the same.  (Doyle Brunson still plays.) But A. Alvarez, the English critic whose book, “The Biggest Game in Town,” is the best book about Vegas poker, and possibly the best book about Vegas, sounds a melancholy note when he sees the newest entrants, the “clean-living young people who watch their diet, work out in the gym, and never smoke.” The winner now walks away with around $5 million, which is more than the pistol-packing cheat Johnny Moss ever saw in one day. But it is a sad state of affairs when the players’ vice of second resort is overindulgence at the Carnival World Buffet.


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