When Cadillac Jack Grimm bought $10,000 worth of chips and sat down at a green felt table in Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas two weeks ago, he had no real hope that he might stand up a couple of days later as champion of this year's World Series of Poker. If there is one thing Cadillac Jack thinks he is, it is sensible. Grimm is an amateur poker player—which means he plays poker for money but not for a living—and an amateur would have as much chance in the big poker game at the Horseshoe as Cadillac Jack would have of bringing in a wildcat oil well through the floor of the First National Bank building in Abilene, Texas, where the Grimm Oil Company is located. That is not much of a chance, of course, but Grimm has tried to find Noah's Ark and the Loch Ness Monster and will soon be in search of Big Foot, so it is not unknown for him to dream of pulling off an upset.
There were many cardplayers with similar dreams at the Horseshoe. Jack Binion, manager of the casino, had expected 25 players for the World Series. Instead he got 34, who put up $10,050 each (the odd $50 went to the house to pay the dealers) to sit in on the winner-take-all tournament. Four of them came from "over the rail," as Binion says, referring to strangers who walked in and paid cold cash for seats on the action side of the rail that separates the crowd from the poker players. Ten other players were known to Binion, but had never played in the World Series before. There are about 15 king poker players, and they all showed up at the Horseshoe, an old hotel-casino in downtown Las Vegas. Some of them, like the famous Johnny Moss, complained that the game was getting out of hand.
"If you got more than eight players at a table, you ain't playing the game right." said Moss, who runs the poker room at the Dunes, a big hotel out on the Strip, where heavy-money poker games are frequent. "I don't let more than seven sit down at a game," Moss said, "unless a rich drunk or sucker walks up, and then maybe he can have a chair." Moss, who has won the World Series three times, was clutching his personal check for $10,050, waiting to hear how many players there would be before deciding whether to play. "You get nine, 10, 11 players at a table, you got some kind of a bug contest," he said.
The reason that 11 or more players can sit at a single table is that the game at the World Series is hold 'em, currently called Texas hold 'em, a form of seven-card stud in which all the players share the same five up cards. Two down cards are dealt to each player at the start, followed by a round of betting. Three cards are turned up in the middle, and after another round of betting, a fourth card is turned up. A third round of betting ensues. Finally a fifth card is turned up, and the last bets are made. It is a game of fast action, and it is easy to learn to play at a mediocre level.
It used to be that stud poker—usually low-ball—was considered the game for serious gambling. "Most of the stud players are dead," says Jack Binion's father, Bennie, who opened the Horseshoe 25 years ago after a storied career as a gambler and scofflaw around Dallas. He thinks hold 'em might have started in Waco, Texas. Moss says he played hold 'em in Dallas in 1926, but doesn't know where the game came from. Moss and Amarillo Slim Preston went to London to gamble many years ago and wound up in a game called hara-kiri that was similar to hold 'em. Regardless of whether or not hold 'em started in Texas, it has become the most popular big-money poker game in Las Vegas, and 20 of the players in the 1977 World Series were Texans.
One of them was Doyle (Texas Dolly) Brunson, formerly of Fort Worth, who happened to draw a seat next to Grimm's. Brunson is a professional gambler any way you care to define it. Mostly he plays golf and hold 'em. Last year Brunson won the Series—a victory worth $220,000—with a final-hand full house of 10s over deuces. Early this year he lost $186,000 playing golf with a businessman. He three-putted the 18th green from 30 feet, while his opponent got down in two from a trap. "A $10,000 entry fee is not that big a deal," Brunson says. "I win or lose more than that every day."
Professional gamblers, at least in Las Vegas, are not as reluctant to talk about their winnings as they were a few years ago when IRS agents were known to rush up to a poker or baccarat table and grab chips away from a delinquent taxpayer. "There're IRS guys watching us constantly." Brunson says. "But now they understand how money comes and goes. I pay taxes in the high bracket with no write-offs. I guess I could deduct an eye-shade or something, but I don't want to make them mad." And now that he is at peace with the IRS, Brunson admits that he has won millions at poker.
Grimm is a millionaire many times over, not from poker but from other forms of gambling, mainly drilling oil wells. He has sunk more than 300 and hit about half of them, even though he once had 25 dry holes in a row. His self-confidence was getting a little shaky until he hit the 26th. Grimm also has gas wells and silver and gold mining properties, owns some land and has a flagpole in his front yard in Abilene. He plays big-stakes poker for the fun of competing with the best. "They're a colorful bunch—Amarillo Slim, Texas Dolly, Saratoga Hank. Puggy Wuggy, Johnny Moss," Cadillac Jack says, reciting the gamblers' names as one might reel off a list of movie stars who happened to have sat at an adjacent table in a famous restaurant.
The king poker players regard Cadillac Jack as fairly colorful, too. As a poker player he is viewed as conservative, and that's how he looks as he sits straight up in his chair wearing a vested suit and a firmly knotted tie. He usually waits for the cards to fall his way, rather than trying to bluff, and he does not bet big the way Brunson bets big. But how many king poker players could turn up at the Horseshoe with a piece of Noah's Ark in their pockets?
When he was a boy scout in Wagoner, Okla. Grimm played poker for matches and pennies. And like all kids who grew up in the country, he heard tales of buried treasure. In the Southwest, the loot is usually said to be from a Spanish gold train that was ambushed by Indians and is supposedly hidden in a cave or under a big rock. At the age of 10, after listening to yarns told by his grandfather. Grimm bought half a case of dynamite, hitchhiked to Flat Rock Creek and blew a big hole in the creek bank looking for gold. He has been looking for treasure ever since.
On their honeymoon, Grimm and his wife Jackie stayed in a log cabin in California and panned for gold. They had met at the University of Oklahoma, where Grimm had matriculated after his tour of duty in the Marines had ended when he was wounded in the landing on Okinawa. Grimm got a degree in geology and then hit oil on the first few drilling deals he put together. He has been in business ventures with Bunker Hunt, who gave him the name Cadillac Jack. "Cars don't mean anything to Bunker," Grimm says. "He thought it was funny that I drove Cadillacs. Besides, it rhymed. You talk about a gambler. Hunt is the man. Not at poker, of course. But Bunker plays for billions. He's the greatest I've ever seen."
Grimm isn't too bad himself, especially when it comes to throwing money at lost causes. Next month he is sponsoring an expedition to the mountains of Washington. Oregon and western Canada to hunt for Big Foot, the huge, hairy cousin of the Abominable Snowman that is said to roam those areas. Grimm has never looked for the Snowman, but in 1969 he got interested in reports that Noah's Ark was buried in the ice near the top of Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey. The Grimms went over there with a crew and brought back wood that Cadillac Jack believes to be from the great boat.
Grimm backed a movie version of the discovery—not the highly promoted Search for Noah's Ark—that is playing around the country now, mostly at churches and civic clubs. He also hired a photographer to shoot Loch Ness with a new aerial film process and thinks he has pictures of two of the creatures, which he believes to be plesiosaurs, reptiles thought to be long extinct. Cadillac Jack put up a $5,000 reward for the capture—alive—of the so-called Big Bird that was spotted along the Rio Grande a year or so ago. He says he also has a photograph of an ancient carved stone door that leads to a famous lost gold stash. Grimm claims he does this stuff because he is curious and because he has no reason not to believe the tales he has heard. "More treasure's been lost than has been found," he says.
For the first few hours at the World Series, Grimm's conservative side was in control. He sat quietly, kicking in his antes and then folding his hands. It was very crowded in the Horseshoe alcove, which is jammed with slot machines except during the Series. As the players sweated under lights rigged by a CBS-TV crew, the black $100 chips slowly started to slide across the tables. Soon several of the king poker players were busted. The reigning champion, Brunson, had dealt off 25% of himself to Jack Binion, one of his best friends, and 7% more to several others. Considering Brunson's income tax bracket, it hardly mattered that he had pieced out part of himself. One player mentioned having sold 200% of himself and wondered what he would do if he won. Brunson also accepted a side bet of $20,000 to his $1,000 that he would win it all again, but he wasn't doing so well as the first evening of the Series wore on.
Neither was Cadillac Jack. At one point he was nearly broke and had a pair of nines as down cards. When the next three cards were flopped over, Grimm caught a third nine. He now had the best possible hand at the table, though someone might draw out on him on the last two cards. Brunson bet $500, and Cadillac Jack shoved in $2,600, all he had left, thinking one of the four players left to bet might call his raise in hopes of picking off a cripple.
But the others gave Grimm the hand at a low profit. A while later he was almost busted again and pushed in all his chips with nothing but an off-suit seven-two as down cards. Once more he was not called. When the first night's play stopped, 10 players were knocked out, and Cadillac Jack had $5,250, which made him low among those remaining.
"Well, I'm really a long shot now," Grimm said the next morning. But he almost had been out of the same kind of tournament at the Marina Hotel in Las Vegas the week before and had come in second. He had lost $21,600—the biggest poker bet of his life—on the final hand. He might make a comeback again today, he said. Indeed, at about 5:30 in the afternoon of the second day Grimm started to get hot, and his pile increased to $12,000. But by dinner he was back down to $4,000. The ante was now up to $100, and the player to the left of the dealer had to bet $400. That is called "the blind." Cadillac Jack had a 10 and a seven of spades in the hole. Those are notably weak down cards, but Grimm called the "blind," was raised $900 and called again. The three flop cards were nine, three, two. Then a seven turned up, giving Grimm a pair. He put in his last $2,300 and was called. He lost to a pair of aces, becoming the 13th player that day to be knocked out of the field. He got up, dusted off his pants and walked out of the card room.
The next afternoon only three players remained in the game: Brunson, Bones Berland and Milo Jacobson, a former nightclub owner from Sioux Falls, S. Dak., who claimed never to have played in such a big game before or even to have had any experience at hold 'em. Berland knocked out Jacobson with a straight against three fours. A while later Brunson caught 10s and twos and got a mental flash of the hand he had won with last year. Sure enough, Brunson filled it, even though his two pairs would have been good enough to beat Berland's eights and fives.
By the time Brunson had cashed in his chips for $340,000 in neatly bundled cash, Cadillac Jack had gone across the street to the Golden Nugget to catch the Las Vegas singing debut of Larry Mahan, the former world champion cowboy. After the show, Cadillac Jack fretted in Mahan's dressing room about the sorry turns of the cards and said his luck was bound to change. He hurried back across Fremont Street to the Horseshoe and sat in a game of hold 'em. At dawn, he was still there.