Billy Baxter is into boxing now. Better hold on to your wallet, boxing.
Actually, Baxter has already made a lot of money out of boxing, and most of it was legal, as he would be the first to admit. For more than half his 43 years he has been betting the hell out of boxing and just about everything else gamblers traffic in. And he has the record to prove it, if you'll pardon the expression.
High-stakes poker, for example, is something Baxter had his fingers in even before he moved from Augusta, Ga. to Las Vegas in 1976. He has won many legitimate poker championships—including a "Super Bowl" and three "World Series"—and some of his side bets could balance the budget of a small country. Doyle (Texas Dolly) Brunson, himself a multititled poker player, got to be Baxter's good friend in those wee small hours gamblers spend together in the never-ending search for a full house. "I'd be a lot richer if I hadn't," says Brunson.
Brunson says Baxter "gives you that country-bumpkin smile and that good old Georgia-boy accent and gets you laughing and having a good time, and you look up and he's got your money." Baxter's strength, says Brunson, is that he isn't afraid to lose. "Money was never anything but a tool to him, even when he didn't have much. A man like that is dangerous."
May 27, 1984
Brunson recalls a time when they were locked in a big deuce-to-the-seven lo-ball game (five-card-draw poker, lowest possible hand wins). "Lo-ball" has Southern derivations and is Baxter's specialty. "We were playing table stakes," Brunson says, "but the guys playing with us didn't have that much on the table, so Billy and I were betting on the side. On this one hand I get an eight-six [the 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8], which means he can only beat me with an eight-five or a [deuce-] seven.
"The pot's only about $20,000, but I get our side bet up to around 30, and then, without batting an eye, Billy raises me $50,000. I think about it a long time and come to the logical conclusion that he has to have the deuce-seven. So I throw my hand in. And when the other guy calls, Billy's got four deuces! I say, 'How the hell can you run me out of that hand with four deuces?' He says, 'Well, I knew you didn't have any.' "
Baxter lives in an elegant Spanish-style villa on the stark, fried, southeast edge of Las Vegas, in a walled-in enclave next door to Robert Goulet and down the street from Wayne Newton. Las Vegas is the one place in America where people might say it's the other way around—that Robert Goulet lives next door to Billy Baxter. Baxter wears designer warmup suits that never know the stain of sweat, sips imported white wines and drives his lovely, bejeweled wife, Julie, and their three handsome children, Nathan, 9, Tiffany, 7, and Ashley, 2, to church in the family Mercedes 380 SEL or Cadillac Seville. He's on a first-name basis with the most haughty ma√Ætre d's in town (that is to say, he knows them on a first-name basis; they know him as the generous "Mr. Baxter") and was considered one of Las Vegas's softest touches (for wildcat pizza-parlor promoters, karate dojo entrepreneurs, etc.) until his accountant put a stop to it, instructing him to tell prospective borrowers that he'd made a deal with the bank—"I won't lend any money, and the bank won't gamble."
Before, in his native Georgia, Baxter did some time more or less for doing modestly what he now does sensationally in Nevada. For a while there, he ran his own little casino, a kind of gambler's 7-Eleven, popular at Masters golf time (when the Calcuttas are in bloom), not only for some of the area's prominent citizens, but also for visiting sports dignitaries. He ran it with such candor that a partner in the venture distributed leaflets all over Atlanta describing how to get to the place. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation could read, too, and arrived with axes. "They didn't have to break the door down," Billy pouts. "I woulda let 'em in."
As a consequence, Baxter was in a "correctional institution" in Richmond County, where his wife's grandfather had once been the warden, from December 1975 to September 1976. But since he "never considered it morally wrong to gamble, except when you can't afford it, or against people who can't afford it," the only correction Baxter made when he got out was in his address. He moved with Julie to Las Vegas, where winning wagers go on your tax return instead of a police blotter.
Until his interest in boxing blossomed a few years ago and he started managing fighters as well as successfully betting on them, gambling was Baxter's full-time occupation. "You get a call for a poker game at 2 a.m.," Baxter says, "you can't be like a doctor. You gotta go."
Four years ago, Billy phoned home to say he was into a game that he couldn't up and leave and would be a little late for an elaborate birthday celebration planned for Julie that evening. The party went off on schedule the night of Feb. 19. Billy called regularly to say the game was almost over and arrived home the morning of the 21st. "But although I was two days late for Julie's birthday party, I was right on time for our anniversary, which is February 22," he says brightly.
And though poker may be his first love, Baxter owes much of his affluence to skillful exploitation of the various "lines" on football, basketball and baseball games—"sports betting," it's called in Nevada, where it was legalized 22 years ago. Baxter's phone lines are open to the betting houses that specialize in sports. He bets millions every year on football, he says, "but it's not win-or-lose money, it's money that keeps moving around. I might, for example, bet eight or nine college games at $20,000 to $30,000 apiece, but all I really hope for is to win one more than I lose. But if I lose one more than I win, that's still only $20,000. You see what I mean?"
Baxter salvaged a so-so 1983 season (his expanding boxing interests "distracted" him, and he was in the red for the first time in football) by winning $130,000 on Miami's upset of Nebraska in the Orange Bowl last Jan. 2. How could he possibly bet against unbeaten Nebraska, a prohibitive 11½-point favorite, celebrated as the most awesome force in college football? First, he said, he "took the points for $90,000. That was the lock of the year. Miami has a great coach and was too good at the skill positions." (He says he gets this kind of information by "makin' phone calls" to people who know more football than he does.) Then, as the game drew nearer, he had an even brighter vision. "I figured Miami would win. I got 4-to-1 odds and bet $10,000." Miami batted away a two-point conversion pass in the last minute to preserve its 31-30 victory. "I never had a doubt," says Baxter.
And those are the words Baxter lives and bets by. He'll wager on anything: the sex of unborn babies, for example (he won $18,000 betting that Tiffany would be a girl; six months later Brunson, one of the losers, asked if it wasn't "about time you took the dress off the boy?"), and the life-span of old men. When Major Riddle, the legendary Las Vegas hotelman, failed to reach 80, Baxter lost $10,000. "I thought he had more stamina than that," Baxter says sorrowfully. Baxter took Brunson for another $5,000 by betting he would lose at least 35 pounds while being "corrected" in Georgia; he lost 38. He shrank from 200 to 162 pounds, then regained most of it after he collected.
Baxter hasn't been loath to wager on his limited athletic skills, either. He wielded the cue stick, in fact, for profit before he was much into his teens, primarily during trips he took with his mother, Ann, on her statewide rounds as an insurance agent. (Mr. Baxter, William, who ran a supply center at Fort Gordon, Ga. army base, died in 1982.)
When Ann gave little Billy movie money in Vidalia or Wrightsville or Waycross to pass the time away, he hustled to the nearest pool hall, and kept on hustling. Billy's improvement at the game escaped notice until his grandmother found his bankbook under his bed, with a four-figure balance in it. He was advised to stop it right this instant. He was 15 then. He became more discreet and didn't get discovered again until his picture appeared in the Augusta papers publicizing his exhibition match with Willie Mosconi. At the time, Baxter was 16.
But back to the matter of how Baxter found a new life, or at least half of one, in boxing—the part where he came/to manage two eventual world champions, WBC junior welterweight Bruce Curry and WBA junior lightweight Roger Mayweather, both of whom have since lost their crowns. He now talks about "making one last stand...a bet everybody will feel," before going home to Augusta to live quietly ever after. (Quietly, but of course never more than a few hours removed from the poker tables. "That's what they made the jet airplane for," he says.)
Here was Baxter in February, leading the conversation of a small but influential group of boxing people over the debris of a seafood dinner in a Beaumont, Texas restaurant three nights before Mayweather was to defend his title against Rocky Lockridge. Mayweather was there, and so were his trainer, Jesse Reid, and a few of promoter Don King's functionaries. Baxter was the one man in the group who didn't look as if he belonged.
Around fight people—gamblers, too, for that matter—Baxter blends in like a 300-pound Rockette. From under the generous overhang of his tailored brown hair, his pale blue eyes neither shift, dart nor narrow, but shine with warm good humor. If there was ever a man born to be named Billy, Baxter is clearly it. His affluent paunch and the two or three chins that fold into his neck give him a comfortable, sedentary look, and his face is so handsomely youthful you doubt it was ever crossed by a five o'clock shadow. When he smiles, he doesn't just smile, he smiiiiles. Sitting there in his lobster bib and matching beige Fila sweats and Pony shoes, he looked more like a country club tennis hustler than a fight manager.
But as boxing people have found—something gambling people already knew—appearances are for people who judge football teams by the bustlines of the cheerleaders. Many cynical observers of boxing (which may be a redundancy) were impressed when Baxter took May-weather, a 21-year-old who was so tough that no one wanted to fight him, to the top in 15 fights. But his handling of the faded 25-year-old Curry was a tour de force. Curry was used up from trying to fight welterweights, so Baxter moved him down seven pounds to the junior welters, boosted his confidence, and Curry won the title. In a business known for 103° bravado, "Billy pees ice cubes," says Mel Greb, a former pit boss at Caesars Palace who now works for boxing promoter Bob Arum.
"Aw, shucks," says Baxter. "Taint nothing. If you can manage yourself, you can manage anything, and that's what good gamblers do best—manage themselves." He smiiiiles. "And what good poker players do best is size up the competition."
He says they shouldn't take it "personal," but he has found that most people in boxing are "guys with tunnel vision who only see the blows their own fighter lands." He says he has been sizing up "both sides" since he put $20 on Carmen Basilio against Sugar Ray Robinson 27 years ago (Basilio won the fight and the middleweight title) and realized that handicapping—as well as the business of life generally—isn't done well with the heart. "When it's your eating money," he says, "you learn the difference." That being the case, he says, when he officially got into boxing in 1977 by buying the contract of a junior middleweight named Rocky Mosley Jr. (he retired in 1981), it turned out to be "not only a fun challenge, but profitable. Now I was getting the real inside information. I wished I'd found boxing a long time ago."
For his appreciative restaurant audience, Billy launched into a description of the ringside fun he has in Vegas, betting the bouts of his and other fighters. Mayweather, having heard the stories before, was casting about for more to eat and looking sullen over the pickings. Baxter watches Mayweather like a hawk, fussing over his diet and training regimen. He says he even "runs with Mayweather"—which, in the managerial plural, means he dons his sweats and sneakers and drives alongside him.
Mayweather, a onetime street punk, says he listens to every word Baxter says because he "sees what Billy made of himself," and because after getting nowhere in Grand Rapids, Mich., he is now the proud possessor of a $160,000 house in Las Vegas, two cars and a $100,000 tax-free bond.
Baxter, of course, never looks sullen. Eyes glistening, Baxter mentioned that he and Tommy Fischer, another Las Vegas gambling man "and a good all-round hustler in his own right," routinely bet the prelims on a fight card at the Silver Slipper, whether they know the boxers or not. "It's a standard $300 bet, and the way it works, one of us has to make the price [set the odds] after the first round. This one night, it's Tommy's turn, and in the first round of a fight that was scheduled for four rounds, one fighter gives the other a terrific beating, knocking him down twice."
Between rounds, Baxter said, "I pester Tommy for the odds. Finally he blurts out, 'Oh, I dunno—200 to 1, I guess.' At that price, you don't hesitate. 'I'll take it!' I yell. Now Tommy starts thinking about it and scratching his head. He says, 'Gee, Billy, that's $6,000.' 'Uh, no, Tommy. That's $60,000. If your guy wins, you get $300. If my guy wins, you owe me $60,000.'
"Tommy is beginning to look sick. And in Round 2, my fighter makes a great comeback." Baxter got up from the table, danced around, making a facsimile comeback. "At the end of the round, I still see little hope, but Fischer is paranoid. He sees the fight as even. Between rounds he runs over to his guy's corner and yells, 'I'll give you a thousand bucks if you win this fight!' I see him, so I go over to my guy and I say, 'I'll give you a thousand bucks if you win.'
"So now we got two preliminary fighters who at best are in there for a couple hundred bucks apiece, fighting for over a thousand. Round 3 is a war. His guy's still getting the best of it, but Fischer can't see that. He's really paranoid now. He's walking back and forth, holding his head." Billy walked back and forth and held his head. " 'Sixty thousand bucks. Gee-zuz!' So he tries to settle the bet. 'What'll it take?' he says. I tell him, 'How about $20,000?' He says, 'Make it $15,000.' I say, 'It's a deal.' "
Billy sat back down, pleased with his performance and smiled broadly. "And, of course, his guy wins the last round and the fight. Which means Tommy not only has to pay me $15,000, he has to pay his fighter an extra grand as well."
Everybody laughed. But Baxter, holding up his hand, cautioned that a man shouldn't be too quick to count his chickens. He said he had $75,000 "won" on the November 1979 Wilfred Benitez-Sugar Ray Leonard fight on an odds bet that it would go the distance. "It was late in the 15th round," he said, "and Benitez was hanging in there. I was watching for the corner lights to go on. When they do, it means only 10 seconds are left in the round. In Vegas, you get knocked down inside 10 seconds of the 15th round and the bell can save you.
"Leonard had Benitez on the ropes but wasn't really doing much damage. The corner lights went on. I jumped and spread my arms—'Seventy-five thousand! How sweet it is!'
"Four seconds later the referee stopped the fight. A TKO and Leonard's the champ. I couldn't believe it. A good referee, too—Carlos Padilla."
What'd Billy do then? he was asked.
Billy shrugged. "Nothing, really. I sat there for a while. I moaned a little. It's the gambler's life. You win some, you lose some. But I never had a worse loss."
A middle-aged man with soaked red eyes and a doughy middle that strained the buttons of his plaid shirt appeared at the table. He had a restless, flicking gaze, and he hovered over Baxter.
"Aren't you Billy Baxter?" the man said.
Baxter looked up apprehensively. "Yeah, what can I do for you?"
"You don't remember me, but you broke me in a gin-rummy game in Augusta, Georgia, 15 years ago."
"Yeah. Me 'n' my brother came in there, and you broke us, and we had to wire for money to get back to Texas. My brother went on home, but I took what they sent me and played you again. You broke me again."
"Well, say, I'm sorry."
"No, hey, Mr. Baxter, don't apologize." The intruder was smiling. "I'm just proud to have played you. You're the best."
Baxter relaxed. He extended his hand. "Well, all right," he said.
When the man left, Baxter's thin lips disappeared in the stretch of his smile. "Don't that beat all?" he said. "I don't remember that guy, but he sure is the kind of loser I like."
Later, going into the arena in Beaumont with the Mayweather entourage, Baxter said he had been able to get down only $20,000 on the Lockridge fight, and all of it before he left Vegas. The entourage brimmed with confidence. Mayweather, Billy said, "is already the best, and he's going to get better. He'll beat everybody. He'll be the lightweight champion, then the junior welterweight champ. When we fight [WBC junior lightweight champion] Hector Camacho, I'm gonna bet so much money I can retire on it. My last project in life."
In the first round of the fight, Lockridge looped a classic how-to overhand right past a drooping left lead and detached Mayweather from his faculties. The knockout came so fast it stunned the entire Mayweather group. It was as if Lockridge had hit them all one huge punch. "This isn't exactly what I had in mind," said Baxter. But in Mayweather's locker room he was pep-talking and consoling. "Back to the drawing board," he told Mayweather, who was still pie-eyed. "Don't worry," he said, "we'll get a rematch." He told Mayweather's disconsolate mother, "I hate to tell you how many times I got knocked down in life." She nodded and closed her eyes reverently.
A visitor commiserated with Baxter over his double loss—the fight and the $20,000.
"Hey, listen, it's O.K.," Baxter said. "If we'd been in Vegas, I'da lost $200,000."
Billy Baxter is sitting at the control center of his betting operations. Dressed in a navy blue and red warmup suit, blue and white running shoes, the bottoms of which are fully treaded, he's slouched on a green corduroy couch in front of a massive oak coffee table in the den of his villa, making notes on a piece of hotel stationery. On the coffee table a silk floral arrangement competes for space with a scattering of papers and a beige telephone with three lights that blink urgently as Billy conducts business.
Today Baxter is betting college basketball, but he isn't crazy about it. "First of all, I don't like to watch it," he says. "Too much running up and down the floor. Too many teams, too many leagues. How much can a man know about the Yankee Conference? The history of basketball tells you you oughta be a little scared of it, too, but that really doesn't bother me. It's something to bet on."
He says he prefers football; then, in order, boxing, golf, baseball and finally basketball. Hockey is "out," and the horses "never interested me." He says he "coulda made a living just betting golf. I traveled the tour for two or three years. I'd walk 30 or 40 holes a day, then go to the big board and see if somebody's score mighta been influenced by a bad hole or two, maybe by hitting a rock, and who was coming on, finishing strong, and who was fading. What a guy does on the last few holes tells you a lot about how to bet the next day. I won a lot of money on Hubert Green and John Mahaffey doing that. Calvin Peete, too."
Baxter has two color television sets flickering in the den to monitor the day's games. Through the window at his back, the Nevada sun glistens off a large, stark-white $10,000 satellite dish he purchased for that purpose. "I cannot be blacked out. If you're up there," he says, pointing to the heavens, "I'll get you." He says he often sits around in his pajamas the entire day, watching games, making bets, first before the games and then when the football lines "adjust" at halftime.
Julie is in and out of the adjoining dining room, overseeing lunch. She is blonde and quite beautiful, and the house is a reflection of her elegance, which falls just short of being overstated. The house has every convenience known to American man and has carved and gilded moldings, outsize doors and windows, a baby grand, a spiral staircase, hand-painted bathroom fixtures, etc. Nathan, Tiffany and Ashley occupy quarters fit for royalty, and the master bedroom has spacious His and Hers baths. Julie says the only thing they don't have is a place apart for Billy's work, where the kids don't have to see him suffer. "But he'd still want to be in the living room."
The phone rings. "Yeah, what you got?" says Baxter. He scribbles the line on a bet sheet that lists the day's games. He stabs at another button and starts reciting his selections: "Florida plus two-and-a-half, Texas A&M minus a half, Kansas minus seven, Southern Miss minus seven-and-a-half....
"At the half of football games, the sports books keep me on open lines because I guarantee 'em another bet, but it's to my advantage as well as theirs. A one-point mistake in the line can make the difference. You gotta be quick 'cause they'll change on you," he says, cupping his hand over the receiver and punching another button. "You gotta get down before they can think about it too much. You're always looking to find a team that's overrated by five or six; then it's easy. But that doesn't happen much. Over the year, a point or a half point can mean lots of money.
"It's my handicapping ability against theirs. For me to justify betting $11 in order to win $10 [the $1 difference is the book's 'vigorish,' or handling fee], I've got to think my line is better." He rattles off nine bets to a second house, varying them in size from $10,000 to $15,000. "This is peanuts, really. On football, I might bet $400,000 a week, six or seven million a year—it's on my tax returns. In a good year I'd hope to net three or four hundred thousand from that. I do, usually. But this boxing thing has shifted my priorities. I've gotten lazy."
The phone rings, but the call is for one of the children. He says he has been betting by phone for nine years, or since it became legal in Nevada, so he's no longer seen going in and out of the grubby little sports books on the strip.
"We're never seen anywhere, except at the boxing matches," says Julie.
"We go to restaurants, we go to the shows," says Billy, slightly wounded.
"Yes, but outside of that, what can you do in Las Vegas? I like tennis, but Billy doesn't bet tennis, so we don't go. We really don't go anywhere much. I've never even been to New England."
"Japan. We went to Japan."
"Yes, for a fight."
"Don't knock the fights. They take us places," says Billy. He grins. "In Osaka the Japanese Mafia picked us up in a limo. You could tell they were Mafia because their little fingers were cut off at the first joint."
"Japan, but never New England."
"If you get too far from the action," says Billy, "you'll lose your shirt. Gambling's not for everybody. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to my son. I've been robbed at gunpoint. One night I had to grab my money and jump out a second-story window when a guy put a .38 on the table in a gin game. I've been betting since I was in the fourth grade, playing marbles for keeps. I got myself a Champagne Velvet box full of marbles doing that. And that's what this is all about, really—playing for keeps."
Early on, he says, he knew he wanted to play only for the highest stakes, "not with guys who couldn't pay the milk bill." Pool hustling was out—"the biggest waste of time there is. You may learn a little about life from pool, but you'd be better off spending the time on the golf course, with people who have lots of money. When I was still a youngster, I'd get invited to the country club to play golf and into the back room of the country club to play poker. And that's not bragging, that's just a fact. You don't get invited to the country club to play pool."
His mother wanted him to be a doctor or a dentist. There were three doctors and a dentist on his father's side. Billy wanted to play poker. He tried college—Augusta College—for a year and a half, but it didn't take. His mother helped him get a job selling The Book of Knowledge encyclopedias. Soon enough, Billy was the best Book of Knowledge encyclopedia salesman in three states, and bored stiff.
Coming home in the afternoons, he would stop off at the Alpine Club in downtown Augusta, where Robert Dickens, his friend and mentor, was the proprietor. Billy played gin on the bar and poker in the back with a group of regulars. "When the encyclopedia people tried to take away half my territory I took a leave of absence and started gambling full time," Baxter says. "My first year I made $40,000. I was 22. I never looked back."
Dickens, who now owns the Purple Onion Lounge, a two-wood from Augusta National, says that Baxter "could have been anything he wanted to be, with his mind and his personality. He was bound to be a great gambler because he was a genius at numbers—he remembered every card played. He'd play dealer's choice, $20 limit, and he'd win at that, and he'd win at gin and betting on sports, and everybody liked him, so when he started making book on his own around Augusta, everybody wanted to bet with him. He was honest, and he trusted people. One afternoon he came into my place and tossed a paper bag over the bar—'Here, hold this for me.' It was $70,000 in small bills."
"Robert Dickens taught me a lot," says Baxter. "When to fold 'em, when to hold 'em. At first you go crazy for the action, but as you gain control, you lose some ego and you realize it isn't personal, and that the essence of gambling is winning. When you learn that, it isn't gambling anymore, it's making a living—like owning a shoe store. I don't get the dry heaves if I can't make a bet. I just know I've got to do it to make a living."
The casinos, he says, "thrive on the guy who can't control himself. A guy loses $20,000 at poker, then, instead of going out to dinner with the family, he goes to the blackjack table and blows another $50,000. 'Eating like a bird and crapping like an elephant.' You got to learn to put some in the bank when you're winning, and to walk away when you're losing. You got to learn that tomorrow really is another day. I learned that early, from Robert Dickens."
He says Dickens also tried to teach him to be a little less flamboyant, a little more careful, "but I still got busted for bookmaking three times. It didn't make much of an impression on me because I felt gambling wasn't bad. Even when I went to jail, I didn't feel guilty or anything. I used to introduce myself, 'Hey, I'm Billy Baxter of the Richmond County Correctional Institution.' My first month there I played poker, with a dollar limit, with all the black guys, took all their money and then gave it back to them. I got along fine after that. Eventually the warden let me go home weekends. I even got to go see the Foreman-Frazier fight on closed circuit. I have no regrets. I'm a gambler. It's what I do."
His sports betting, says Billy, was something that accelerated only after he got to Las Vegas and the poker began to fade. "I came out here to play poker with the right people," he says. "If I'd gotten here sooner, I'da made a fortune. It was a paradise. Sometimes the pots would go as high as a million dollars, and there were a lot of big hotel and casino owners who loved to play but couldn't play very well. Now the big corporations own the hotels and the big fish are mostly gone. Major Riddle, who was president of the Dunes, and Sid Wyman [who was chief operating officer at the Dunes under Riddle] are dead. Jimmy Chagra [who was a drug dealer] is in prison. To win at poker, you've got to have somebody you can beat. You gotta have fresh money. Larry Flynt [the former publisher of Hustler magazine] was here for a while. I took some of his money. But they don't stay like they used to. Chagra came out of nowhere one day and sat down and said, 'Deal me in.' And he stayed, and he lost a lot of money. I beat him out of $100,000 once. Turned out his money was in drugs.
"All that's left now are the piranhas, the guys who beat you as often as you beat them—Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Stu Unger, Bobby Baldwin, guys like that. There's no percentage in it."
Only the poker "tune-aments" keep Baxter's interest up. In that circle, Brunson, Baldwin and "Bluffin' Billy" Baxter are known as the Three B's. In 1981 Baxter bluffed Baldwin out of a $38,000 pot and a World Series championship in lo-ball with a pair of sixes, as Baldwin tossed in with a king high. In '82, when he won another "Series" title, Baxter's match with Baldwin took seven hours.
The private games, however, "are a lot tougher—you can go two, three days easy, 50 hours plus without stopping. To stay alert you get up, wash your face, walk around, go to the bathroom, do anything. Except take pills. I never took pills. They make you fearless, and you always should have a little fear in a high-stakes poker game. That's what keeps you awake, the bigness of it."
Luck, he says, is never a factor over a long period of time. "I never rely on luck, not in anything. The secret is to get the best of the bet. If you play scratch golf and I'm a four, and you give me three shots a side, it's not hard to figure that I've got the best of it." And in poker, he says, it takes skill to read the opposition. "If Major Riddle had a bad hand, he'd toss his bet in, just kinda flip it. If he took a good hit, he'd place his bet on the table. If he drew a paint [a face card], he'd look at it and look at it.
"The other side of that is, you worry all the time the other guy is picking up things, too. Like football scouts do. Then you're wondering if you're showing any blood—if the veins in your neck are popping out or your ears are turning red. You know your heart's pounding, but they can't see that. But if you talk, you could have a lump in your throat. The eyes are the biggest giveaway. You have to look at people without showing anything."
His style, Baxter says, "is to always be consistent. Don't do anything different. The heart of it, though, is you can't be afraid to lose. I know guys who play well until there's $40,000 or $50,000 in the pot. The collar gets tighter and tighter. It's just something you have to cope with. You know you're getting it done when you still have money and the other guys don't."
He's on the phone again, collecting scores. From the dining-room table, Julie calls him to lunch—chicken salad, fresh asparagus and hearts of palm.
"Y'all go ahead," says Baxter. "I'll be there in a minute."
Julie makes a face. "Par for the course," she says. "Sometimes you have to wonder—how much entertainment does it take to satisfy a man?"
Baxter looks up from his figures. "You call this entertainment?" he says.
Julie says at least it's better than when they first came to Vegas and lived for nine months at the Dunes. "The poker players would drop by and stay for four or five days," she says.
Baxter, joining in from his operations center, says it was a matter of being polite. "Sid Wyman ran the Dunes then, and he put us up in the Cary Grant Suite and never sent a bill. I won so much I got to feeling guilty about it, so once a week I'd go down to the casino and play blackjack or craps. Ordinarily I walk right through a casino without looking left or right. Casinos are for the tourists. But I'd go down out of obligation and lose forty or fifty thousand. I'da been better off paying the hotel bill."
The gambler's wife learns not to count on anything, says Julie. "I even had the decorator fly to Reno to go over a few things because Billy was there for a tournament and said he couldn't get home. When I went to see if he'd be done in time to be able to make dinner with us that night, he was down to his last $130. But he didn't show up for dinner. When he finally got to the room, he'd won the tournament and more than $100,000. One afternoon he came walking through the door carrying two grocery bags. I thought, 'Oh, good! At last he's being domesticated. He's brought home the groceries!' But instead of going into the kitchen, he took the bags upstairs. They were full of cash."
"Some people would consider that bringing home the groceries," says Billy, smiiiiling.
Dipping into the chicken salad, he says it's all academic anyway now, because he'll be retiring soon and moving the family back to Georgia. Julie rolls her eyes. "I want my kids out of here before they get to thinking this is the only way to live," he says. Be someplace where you can smell the flowers, and where he and his boy can hunt and "start enjoying the games by going to them."
"Oh, I'll still gamble," he says, waving his fork. "I'll still want to come back to play in the tune-aments, maybe bet the bowl games. But, hey, I'm in boxing now, and I enjoy that, and I'm good at it, and I could do it anywhere." He smiles. "Maybe I'll even do a little promoting. I could promote fights. It'd be fun. Wouldn't Don King love it?"
A few days later, Brunson is asked if he thinks Baxter is serious about giving up the bright lights and the big pots and going home to Georgia. Brunson says you have to understand that "Billy's from the South. People from the South are more sensitive. Nicer, I think. This is a cutthroat place. You come here, you lose confidence in people. I don't think Southern people ever get used to that. They're always talking about going home."
Yes, but does Billy really want to? Brunson is asked.
"We all do," says Texas Dolly.