Playing Poker

Before applying to graduate school at the age of 30, I had spent almost eight years playing a lot of (relatively) high stakes poker. (I hesitate to publish this post—it reveals my youthful immaturity and recklessness. But at the urging of my son-in-law, I’ll publish it nonetheless.) Here is the story of my youthful playing poker.

In 1977, a few friends and I decided to play poker one night. The game was 10 cent limit. I think I won a few dollars and it was fun. As best as I remember the next night we played 15 cent limit. Soon we were playing $1 limit. Being a poor college student I quickly realized that I didn’t have the funds to lose $20 or $30 so I went to the library and found a few poker books. They were dated and not very good.

Next, I went to a bookstore in the mall (remember when they had them?) and found Amarillo Slim’s Play Poker to Win: Million Dollar Strategies from the Legendary World Series of Poker Winner. (The link is to a revised edition.) The 1970s edition of the book I read didn’t have many details about poker playing but it provided some insights. Most importantly it discussed Texas Holdem which I introduced into our game. This gave me an edge as none of my competitors were familiar with Hold-em.

Soon a few of my older and wealthier acquaintances started playing pot limit with a $100 maximum bet. Being competitive I wanted to play in the game but didn’t have the funds. So I kept playing in the small game trying to build my bankroll. At about the same time, I saw an advertisement for a $100 poker book—over $400 in today’s money—How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker. (The book evolved into Doyle Brunson’s Super System, the most famous poker book ever written.) I studied it closely and somehow got a few hundred dollars together and took a shot in the big game. Through a combination of luck and skill I quickly had about $4000. (about $15, 000 today.) Soon my buddies didn’t want to play with me so in January 1979, armed with my small bankroll and a BA in philosophy (is that relevant?), I took off for Las Vegas.

Brunson had written that the $10-$20 Holdem game at the Golden Nugget casino was the toughest game in the world so I sat right down. I didn’t do well in the game so I started playing smaller limit games to keep my bankroll intact. I did play in one of the first Holdem tournaments ever held with a $200 buy-in. Of about 100 entrants I came in 10th. I also played in the side games of both the Super Bowl of Poker and the World Series of Poker. During my time in Vegas, I competed against poker legends such as Amarillo Slim, Puggy Pearson, Sailor Roberts, and Tom McEvoy. My problem was I’d make a little money, step up to a bigger game, and lose. The problem I now know was that I was playing for stakes too high for my bankroll.

I did meet a number of memorable people in my time. A casino manager was very nice to me and gave me a job years later as a blackjack dealer. An older poker player actually discussed a little philosophy with me. And a Vietnam war vet with whom I became friends once asked to borrow a couple of dollars. I searched for quarters until he told me that $2 in Vegas meant $200!

The most memorable person from those days was a mobster from Detroit. I didn’t know his identity initially but multiple people told me to not leave the casino with him. Subsequent experience and evidence confirmed they were giving me good advice. Nonetheless, I spent a lot of time playing poker and conversing with the guy. He made his money as a con man and he cheated me out of money a few times. I slowly learned not to be so naive.

After leaving Las Vegas I started a new phase of playing in the worst neighborhoods in north St. Louis. I played in high-stakes cash games in neighborhoods with some of the highest, if not the highest murder rates in the USA. This was extraordinarily stupid, but I was immature. I did encounter some scary situations—here is the story of the worst one.

We were playing one night with a guy who was obviously disturbed. I told my buddy that we had to leave because the guy was desperate and going to violently explode at any moment. But my friend convinced me there was nothing to worry about. (I wasn’t convinced but I was winning so what the heck.) We survived the night and left with about $2000 in cash (about $8,000 today.) Needless to say, a lot of cash to be carrying in a ghetto.

A few months later my friend called and screamed into the phone: “Did you see the paper?” (The St. Louis Post Dispatch ) I looked and saw a familiar face. That disturbed man I had been playing poker with murdered multiple people about six months later. Again I’m not boasting about this; I’m admitting my youthful stupidity. I’m lucky to have survived. I was elbow to elbow with this guy and taking his money just a few months before.

I played off and on for the next few years to supplement my income—avoiding the bad neighborhoods though. I did win consistently but games were hard to find. I wanted to go to grad school but didn’t think I could afford it with a young family. Then in 1984, I found some more big games. Soon I had about $6,000 (about $20,000 today.) This led to playing with people I didn’t know and I was cheated out of all my money. This round of play culminated with a guy showing up at my door with (what appeared to be a gun in his coat pocket) demanding money. I never played poker again.

Still, we moved to Vegas in 1985 as I had a guarantee of a job dealing blackjack. But, even with poker rooms all around, I never played. I also had the chance to work in one of the best-paying casino jobs at the time. Probably would have made six figures which was a lot in 1985. But I didn’t want to deal cards and finally went to graduate school. I’m glad I did.

I do have a final story. Remember the Italian mafioso I knew? I hadn’t seen him since 1979 but ran into him in 1985. I asked him if he could give me some of the money he had cheated me out of. After all, I had a wife and 2 kids. He reached into his pocket pulled out a wad of hundred-dollar bills and said, “Sorry I’m broke.” He did buy me dinner though! He also told me that he was now collecting for the mob—knocking on doors and asking for a cut of various illegal activities in exchange for “protection.” By 1985 I was smart enough not to pursue this relationship. I never saw him again.

To reiterate I’m not proud of all this and was inspired to write it so my readers know I wasn’t always a (relatively wise) philosopher (although I always wanted to be.) But then it takes time to grow up—assuming I have. Yet I learned some things in those years about avarice, violence, and the like. I even leaned on those memories a bit in my post “American Authoritarianism.” I suppose I should be grateful for those experiences, but if I had it to do over again I would never play poker.

Finally, I’m glad I wasn’t held responsible for the stupid things I did when I was young. Research shows that our brains aren’t fully developed until age 25 or so. This raises questions. For example, why are the young given long prison sentences? We would be a much more civilized society if we were more lenient in this regard. The injustice of some being held responsible for youthful indiscretions while others, especially the wealthy, never being held accountable is depressing. But then if you expect the world to be fair, you will be disappointed; and if you think it is fair, you are deceiving yourself.

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3 thoughts on “Playing Poker

  1. I absolutely love this piece.
    Thanks for sharing this part of your life with us. It makes you more well-rounded and relatable. It also helps me realize that we are all capable of growth and that is inspiring.

    I also very much appreciate your rejection of the cliche “no regrets”. I think that if you wouldn’t have done anything differently in your life then you didn’t really learn anything.

  2. It was a must. All to often the route to academic success is born via privilege, you should be commended for your efforts. Mine included living in a camper in someone’s backyard without plumbing my final two semesters at LSU. My scandalous route in no way competes with an account of mobsters, high-stakes gambling, larceny, and murder—I commend you sir. And the high stakes poker player sounds like a character worthy of a visit from Guy Noir—Private Eye. It was and enjoyable read and quite telling. Nice to see you step back from the ledge for a moment and reflect. I find so much of what makes history, history, tends to fall through the cracks and more should be captured to shape the future. Way to tell on yourself. Ha!


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