RIP “Wizard”

RIP “Wizard”

Monday, 28 October 2013

Remembering Bobby Hoff – 1939-2013

Bobby “The Wizard” Hoff, who died last month after a 55-year poker career, was considered by many to be one of the best live cash game players in the world. Like his friend, Stu Ungar, he was before his time in terms of technical ability – a pure, natural talent in an era before books and training sites and equity calculators. And like Ungar he had his demons, in drink and drugs, and yet he was able to remain in the game at the top level until his autumn years, getting it quietly from his seat at the high-stakes tables in the Commerce Casino, LA.

Hoff was a legend in the live NLH cash games in Southern California and had little interest in courting celebrity or playing tournaments, but once upon a time he was nearly World Champion. In fact, he really should have been the 1979 World Champion. All that stood between him and the title was a goofball-popping drunk, who somehow contrived to stage the greatest upset in poker history.

Bobby Hoff was born in Victoria, Texas, in 1939 and in 1958 studied at the University of Texas on an athletics scholarship, where he was a scratch golfer. Golf soon fell by the wayside, as he found poker easy and more lucrative. Consequently, he left university with the suspicion that he was the best poker player in the world and so headed to Vegas, where he discovered he wasn’t. He got a job as a poker dealer and eventually formed a blackjack card-counting team. The team made good money but, after about five years, found themselves barred from every blackjack table in Vegas and Reno.

The Horseshoe Casino had just opened a poker room, so Bobby headed there and started playing seriously again. Here, he ran into the top players of the mid-sixties – Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss and Puggy Pearson – and the healthy bankroll he’d made from card-counting gradually disappeared. “Sailor” Roberts, one time road gambling partner of Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim, took the young Hoff under his wing and staked him. Gradually, Hoff began to beat the games, honing an aggressive style that had much in common with the modern game. Bluff’s own Johnny Hughes describes Hoff as “a creative, aggressive, deceptive, hold’em player, impossible to put on a hand and hard to play against.”

“I knew Bobby Hoff pretty well and for a long, long time,” says Hughes. “We started out about the same time and played some in smaller games with younger guys. We were “Outside Men”, gamblers who made their whole living from poker rather than “Inside Men”, gamblers that also ran dice games or were bookmakers. After he became well known, Bobby played in the big, legendary game in Lubbock that lasted 35 years, at ‘The Shop’.

“Before there were poker books, there were a handful of guys that just seemed to be natural talents at hold’em – Johnny Moss, Bill Smith, Bobby Hoff, Crandell Addington, Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson, Tennessee Longgoodie, and they had universal respect.”

By the time of the 1979 WSOP Main Event, Hoff was one of the most respected players in the world. Names at the final table included Johnny Moss and Chip Reese. The table also included a wasted marketing guy, with only a vague idea of the rudiments of poker, Hal Fowler, who seemed to be munching valiums “like they were candy”. He was also hitting every gutshot in sight. Doyle Brunson once said that never, before or since, had he seen such a concentrated display of good luck. Hal Fowler was the poker world champion who check-called his way to victory.

Heads-up was billed as a David and Goliath match. Somehow it lasted ten hours. In the final hand Hoff’s Ah Ac was outdrawn when Fowler hit another gutshot on the turn, with 7s 6d on a board of Js 5h 3c 4s 10d. You can watch that hand on YouTube. Hoff looks dismayed. Fowler looks, well, stoned. Bobby confessed to having bad dreams about the final hand for weeks afterwards. The outcome, he said, haunted him for years. Maybe that’s why he didn’t play too many tournaments.

Despite having the full respect of his peers Bobby earned his nickname “The Wizard” for his propensity to drink too much and make large stacks of chips disappear. He had a wild side to his personality and battled with drug addiction. “Downtown Las Vegas was knee deep in cocaine in the mid seventies,” recalls Hughes, “and it took its toll on poker, including Stu Ungar, Hoff, and Hoff's dear friend and sometimes backer, Sailor Roberts.”

When he was he was ultimately diagnosed with Hepatitis C, however, Hoff cleaned up his act and effected a complete lifestyle change. “He became clean and sober and an expert and fanatic about health foods, supplements, and herbs,” remembers Hughes. “He travelled with all these and a blender. He could be seen in the early mornings taking long walks around downtown Las Vegas.”

As Hoff grew older, he was constantly able to adapt to the changing dynamics of the game and, unusually for one of his generation, was quick to embrace online poker, playing high-stakes in the mid-noughties under the moniker “DaWiz”. He was cheated in the UltimateBet scandal and received a large amount of compensation.
At the time he said: “It never occurred to me [I’d been cheated] and don’t think I’m that easy to cheat. Whoever took that money off, they were very good. When you know everyone’s hole cards, you have to be careful; you can’t even come close to playing it flat out. You have to make some bad calls and you have to be careful how you take the money out. I lost 140k in one downturn but never felt a thing.”

In 2008, Hoff contributed a chapter to Harrington on Cash Games: Volume II, but for the most part remained under the radar, at the Commerce, playing deepstack NLH cash. He suffered a stroke in 2010, but, after a short convalescence, was back at the tables laughing and joking, as was his wont.

Following the news of his death, tributes began flowing thick and fast. “So sad to hear about Bobby Hoff,” tweeted Erik Seidel. “He was a true NL artist + always such a pleasure to see at + away from the tables. #RIPwizard.”

Johnny Hughes remembers a “funny, courteous gentleman [who was] fun to be around.

“The early gamblers knew that being entertaining is part of our job,” he adds.
Bobby Hoff is survived by an extremely healthy bankroll.

Tags: Bobby Hoff, Johnny Hughes, Doyle Brunson