On the sixth card Texas Dolly stared hard at Jesse Alto. Four cards face up and $40,000 in gray $500 chips lay stark against the green of the poker table. The four cards were the jack of diamonds, the 2 of hearts, the ace of spades and the 10 of diamonds, which had been the last to fall. The gamblers both had two hole cards. On the strength of his hidden cards—or was he bluffing?—Alto bet $80,000. It was getting late: a warm dawn was about to break in downtown Las Vegas, and Alto's raise was all the money he had left in the game.
Texas Dolly sighed. "O.K., baby," he said. Hunching forward, his massive shoulders rolling inside his dark brown sport shirt, he began pushing forward $20,000 stacks of gray chips. The bet was called, and there was one more card to be turned.
"What do you have, Jesse?" Texas Dolly asked. Because Alto had nothing left to bet, the hole cards could be turned over before the final one fell.
Alto flipped over an ace and a jack, both hearts. Matched with the four cards in the center of the table, they gave him two pairs, aces and jacks. His dark Lebanese face was blank.
May 30, 1976
"You've got me beat," Texas Dolly drawled. He revealed a 10 and a deuce, both spades. Another two-pair hand, but his pairs were too small. "Turn the last one over," he said looking across at the dealer. The dealer's right hand moved toward the deck.
Fifty-seven hours earlier, on May 14, 22 men had sat down at three tables in Bin-ion's Horseshoe club, where $1 million in $10,000 bills is on display behind a thick shield of Plexiglas, to begin the Seventh Annual World Series of Poker. All but three were full-time gamblers; 13 of them were Texans.
Each man needed $10,000 to sit in on the Series, and when a player's stake was gone, so was he. The last man left at the table would keep all the cash—$220,000. The game was hold 'em, which is no less Texan than the Alamo, and all it takes to play it well are a gunfighter's nerve, the endurance of a cattle drover and a drunken cowboy's respect for money on Saturday night.
The rules of the game, a volatile variation of seven-card stud, are simple. After two cards are dealt face down to each player, bets are made. Then three cards, called the flop, are dealt face up in the middle of the table. More bets are made. The sixth and seventh cards also are dealt face up, with betting after each. The player puts together his best five-card hand, using his two hole cards and the five community cards. Success is keyed to the bluff, armed robbery with an empty shotgun, and the trap, making your opponents think you are Gomer Pyle when you really are the 1st Marine Division.
"Played for high stakes, poker is brutal," says Crandall Addington, one of the 13 Texans, but after a highly successful five-year tour playing gin rummy, no longer a full-time gambler. A handsome, balding man who favors diamond stickpins and hand-rolled Brazilian cigars, Addington greatly fattened his gin rummy winnings on the commodities market. He now deals in San Antonio real estate. "After half a million years of man hunting man, we now do it in a socially acceptable manner," he says. "We play poker for fortunes."
A small game hunter when not trapping two-legged prey at cards, Junior Whited spent most of his first 19 years picking cotton in Texas. A burly man with a wide, pleasant face, thick sideburns and his hair slicked back in a pompadour, he looks as though he belongs in a stock car streaking around a track in North Carolina. He bought his first shoes when he was 10 years old, and lost them the next week, shooting craps with a cousin. A few days later Whited and his cousin played again. The cousin went home naked. The next year, still shooting craps, Whited won a grocery store from his uncle. His mother made him give it back. "It was just a little ol' store," Whited says.
Never having spent a day in school, Whited taught himself to read and write. One of the country's top gin players, he can add a six-card point total in a flash; he has what Addington calls "the very precise, analytical reasoning of the successful high roller."
"Poker playing isn't knowing what you have," Whited says. "Anybody can know that. It's knowing what the other guy has. It's that, and selling your hand to make the most money. You have to analyze people. If they can be read, I'll do it sooner or later."
While explaining the essentials of his profession, Whited sat with his new wife Sue in the coffee shop of the Horseshoe. Soon they were joined by Sailor Roberts, a short, pudgy man, gentle and shy, with a quick, engaging grin. Other poker players say Roberts is the last great romantic in the world. They swear he has been known to borrow money to lend to a stranger with a hard-luck story. Or to give it to a female. If skin were money, Roberts would have to find another way to hold his bones together.
A year ago he won $210,000 in the World Series of Poker. This year he is down on his luck, but staying cheerful. "Hey, things are looking up," he said. "Last night Amarillo Slim and I were betting on what time the 6 o'clock movie came on. He liked 6:30. I won that one."
"You gonna play?" Whited asked him.
"I guess so. If I can borrow enough heavy money to stake me," Roberts said.
"Well, I've got $2,000 of it for you," said Whited.
"But you need it for your stake."
"No," Whited said. "I've had this put aside to help you."
Born in Dallas and raised in San Angelo, Texas, Roberts learned to shoot dice when he was a 12-year-old caddie. After playing high school football, he spent the Korean War in the Navy. When he got out, he was a full-time gambler.
"I always wanted to do something other than gamble—almost anything else," he says. "But I was just too lazy."
For some time after the war Roberts and his dog Flirty, a German shepherd, roomed with Texas Dolly, as the 300-pound Doyle Brunson is known. One day Roberts and Brunson were playing golf, with $1,900 riding on the outcome. Brunson, then nearly a scratch player, was the winner.
"I'm a little short right now," Roberts said.
"That's O.K.," Brunson told him. "I'll just take your dog."
Another time the two gamblers were driving through Mexico. Roberts was impressed by the height of a nearby mountain. After a glance, Brunson dismissed it as an insignificant bump.
"Oh, yeah?" said Roberts. "If it's so little, I'll bet $500 you can't climb it in an hour and a half."
"Stop the car," Brunson yelled. Forty-five minutes later he stood at the top, waving his coat wildly. "A case of bad handicapping," says Roberts.
While getting his degree in administration education at Hardin-Simmons, Brunson was one of the fastest collegiate milers in Texas. He was also an outstanding basketball player who was closely scouted by the Minneapolis Lakers. Then, between his junior and senior years, a wall fell on his leg and broke it. It was the end of his athletic career.
Fourteen years ago he was felled again, this time by cancer. With his wife and Roberts he went to the M.D. Anderson Institute in Houston, where the cancer was cut away. His wife spent 12 hours a day at his bedside; Roberts was there the other 12.
When Brunson left the hospital, the cancer was gone. Before that he had been just a good poker player. Since then, he has become the finest (at least, after age slowed the legendary Johnny Moss). When you look cancer in the eye, flip over your hole cards and pick up the pot, any other game, no matter the stakes, has to seem like hopscotch. "He's a little hard to get the best of," says Roberts.
Another tough cookie is Amarillo Slim Preston, who won the 1972 World Series and became an instant international celebrity. Tall, slender and craggily handsome, he holds an open invitation to talk shows, played a bit part in the movie California Split and has written a popular book on how to play poker. "The book isn't worth a bar of soap," he says with the long ton of honesty that is typical of professional gamblers. "But if people want to buy it, that's their business."
Aside from gambling, Preston's business is raising cattle and quarter horses on his 3,170-acre ranch near Amarillo. He leases out three other spreads. During his frequent absences from his ranch he does things like beat Minnesota Fats at pool played with a broom handle and defeat a Ping-Pong champion in a game of table tennis during which Coke bottles served as paddles.
"My wife says when a man works, he sweats. And when he sweats, he stinks," says Preston. "To please her, I try never to work. When I went into the Army in 1948, they sent me around the world as a goodwill ambassador. The only good will I created was for me. I broke every noncom in Europe shooting pool. Rumor has it that I was a pretty good-sized bookmaker in Texas. Rumor also has it that when Uncle Sam got interested, I got quickly disinterested. Rich men would rather beat me out of $3 than beat another man out of $10,000. But when they sit down to play, they always anticipate losing—and I never try to disappoint them. Most places when I show up to play, people start looking at their watches. All of a sudden they've got to take their old ladies to the market or their kids fell in a well.
"People would rather play me gin rummy because I only hit them once—at the end when we tote up the score. It's not as painful as poker. In poker you keep pounding and pounding."
Play had hardly begun at the Horseshoe when Whited and Moss, two of the big favorites, began to find themselves on the wrong end of the pounding. With only $10,000 at the start, it does not take a very long run of dull hole cards to knock even first-rate gamblers from the game. This was Moss' 69th birthday, and just 2:05 into the game he was gone, the third man out.
By Sunday afternoon, after 10-hour breaks each night, the field had been reduced to eight. Preston was gone, a victim of bad cards and called bluffs. "I haven't seen a hand since I left Texas," he said as he settled into his new role as a TV color man.
It is the nature of poker that stronger players turn on the weakest—at first the untalented and the unlucky, later those short on money. None of the eight who survived until the start of the final round of play was lacking in skill, but some were suffering from the shorts. The first to go was Bobby Baldwin, who began the day with only about $5,000.
The next two—ex-Navy frogman Pug Pearson, the 1973 World Series champion, and Bert Rice—were soon taken out by Addington. With a pair of 5s in the hole, he baited a trap by merely matching the $400 opening bet. So did five others, including Pearson, who had a jack-8 in the hole. Then Rice, with an ace-jack, raised $2,000.
Shrugging, Pearson matched the raise and upped it $3,400, all the money he had. When you are that low, you either make a move or the ante in ensuing hands will eat up what is left. Alto called, Roberts matched the bet and Brunson dropped out of the hand.
The trap set, Addington looked across the table at his opponents and sprang it. He called and raised $22,000, which was all he had left. Pearson called, Alto dropped out and Rice pushed in his remaining $14,000. Roberts tossed in his cards.
A 5, which gave Addington three of them, a 9 and a jack fell in the flop. Now Pearson and Rice each had a pair of jacks to Addington's trips. Aside from the case jack, the only cards that could beat Addington were an ace-ace for Rice or an 8-8 for Pearson. The sixth card was a queen, the seventh was a 4. The pot was worth $38,000, and Pearson and Rice were finished.
Escaping Addington's first trap, Roberts walked straight into a second. With five players left, the ante up to $200 and the opening bet increased to $800, Addington was dealt two queens in the hole. He covered the opening bet of $800. Roberts checked his hole cards, saw an ace and a queen and raised $3,000. All the other players had folded, but Addington still was content to bait his hook. He just met Roberts' raise. The flop came up jack-7-queen. Roberts bet $3,000. "How much you got left?" Addington asked.
Roberts counted his chips. "Exactly $27,700," he said.
Addington called the $3,000 raise—then increased the bet by $27,700. Snap. Roberts met the raise with the last of his chips, and the hole cards were turned over. Addington had three queens to Roberts' two. Roberts had just two chances: an ace-ace to give him a full house or a king-10 to give him a straight. It was about a 200-to-1 shot. The first card was a 5. The second didn't matter.
"To be very honest about it," Roberts said, "I just made a real bad play."
Now only four players were left. The survivors were Addington, Brunson, Tom Hufnagle, a young pro from Pittsburgh who impressed his opponents with his personality and potential, and Alto. Born in Mexico of Lebanese parents, raised in Haifa and a Texan since his early 20s, Alto was one of the three part-time gamblers in the field. He makes his living as an auto dealer in Houston.
Soon it was Addington's turn to fall. The ante had been increased to $500, with the automatic opening bet—called "the force"—raised to $1,000. Addington caught a queen-10 in the hole and, after Brunson checked, he bet $5,000. Alto, with a queen-jack, called, and so did Brunson. Hufnagle folded. A queen-9-6 fell on the flop. At that moment Addington thought Alto had the best cards, and decided to play him into Brunson, who, he figured, had the weakest of the three hands. Addington bet all he had, $22,000. Alto folded. One of the most aggressive bettors in the game, Brunson matched the raise. "At that moment I knew I had played the pot perfectly," Addington said later.
The sixth card was a 9, giving Brunson three of them. So much for perfection; Addington now needed a queen to win. The last card was a 4, and Brunson pulled in $64,000.
"And then there were three," said Preston, who was watching the play.
Hufnagle grinned at him and said, "And I never thought I'd be one of them. What am I doing here?"
No sooner did he say that than he was pot there anymore. For Hufnagle, the end came at 3:32 a.m., about 56 hours after he had hit the table. With an 8-9, both hearts, in the hole, he checked. Brunson, with two diamonds, the jack and the 5, bet $1,000. Hufnagle called. Alto folded.
Two hearts, the jack and the ace, and the 8 of diamonds came on the flop. That gave Brunson a pair of jacks and three diamonds. Hufnagle had a pair of 8s—and four hearts. They had two cards still to play.
Brunson bet $5,000, all that Hufnagle had left. With a small smile, Hufnagle pushed in his remaining chips.
The sixth card was the 4 of diamonds. Then a black deuce came, helping no one. "Oh, dear, he got me," Hufnagle said. "Two jacks are good."
Now just Jesse Alto and Texas Dolly Brunson were left sitting at the table.
The dealer removed the top card and tossed it away. That is called burning a card. In the World Series there is no room for chicanery. The dealer is a nonplayer and receives no cut of the action. A joker covers the bottom card. And before any cards are turned after the hole cards have been dealt, the top card is burned. That eliminates any desire to mark a card. Before the sixth and seventh cards come off the deck, another card is burned. The dealer's hand returned to the deck. Alto was dead still. The 10 of clubs fell face up on the table, giving Texas Dolly his third 10, good for a full house of 10s over 2s, $220,000 and the championship.
"Wow," said Texas Dolly.
"Congratulations," said Alto.
Thirty minutes later Alto was at another table, sitting down to a new game of hold'em. "Why not?" he asked. "I came to play. That game is over."