Poker Game Robberies Then and Now

Poker Game Robberies Then and Now

Thursday, 29 July 2010

When asked if he had ever killed a man, Johnny Moss said he didn't know, as he had shot a robber and didn't know the outcome.

By Johnny Hughes

Road gamblers were coming to Lubbock from all over for the poker. It was 1963, and I was 23-years-old. It was ten-handed. We played with cash money rather than chips because of police raids and robberies. An old man sitting by the open kitchen window, spoke softly. "There is somebody in the back yard." A big pot had ended and everyone was talking. Most did not hear him.

I jumped to my feet, folded my money and rammed it into my pocket, and ran for the front door. The barrel of a shotgun punched through the window screen pointed at all the poker players. A man yelled, "Freeze!" I saw the front door knob turning, and knew another robber was in the front. I put up my hands and walked very slowly back into the room. When I ran, Big Ed Bradford, loan shark and bookie, threw his billfold behind the refrigerator. Seeing that, my friend Larry threw his billfold with $5 back there also. It was his first high-stakes poker game.

The robber ordered Oklahoma Joe Floyd to unlock and open the back door. Joe said, "I am going to open the door now." His hand moved as if in slow motion. There were three masked robbers, one with the shotgun and two with pistols. They ordered us to stand against the wall and not to look at them. Everyone complied. It was very silent throughout the robbery. The shotgun man punched Larry with the shotgun and asked where his money was, since a search found nothing. He said he was broke and just watching. The man said, "Who runs this joint?" Larry said it was his first time there and he did not know. The robber now sounded very threatening, "Somebody better tell me who runs this joint!" No one spoke.

Bill Smith stood on the couch and his hands almost touched the ceiling. Dale the Mule lay down on the floor. E.W. "Ol 186" was next to me. My greatest memory is how frightened these hardened men were. They had all been robbed before.

One of the robbers reached in my pocket and got less than $200. A few minutes later, he came back and reached in my pockets again. I said in an ordinary voice, "You already got me once."

He said, "I am sorry." The whole thing was over in a few minutes. They did not take jewellery, billfolds or credit cards.

As soon as they were gone, a couple of hotheads wanted to organise a chase party. Most had guns in their cars. The toughest, wisest old road gamblers I will ever know decided to comply with the armed men and not to give chase. There was never any thought of calling the laws. If a poker game is robbed, I strongly advocate cooperating with the robbers. The house man should say, "Take all the money. Don't hurt anybody and we will not call the law."

We gossiped for years about the finger man, the inside man who gives the robbers the information. There is always, always a finger man. Many thought one of the robbers was George McGann. T.J.Cloutier has written that George robbed a Dallas poker game. He came back the next day and played. He was so tough nobody said anything. (See George McGann, Bluff Archives,

Every old gambler's biography has tales of poker game robberies: Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, Johnny Moss, Titanic Thompson and Minnesota Fats. Bobby Baldwin was once sitting next to a poker player who refused to cooperate with robbers. The man was shot dead. Titanic Thompson killed five men who were trying to rob him at different times. He went straight to the law and was never charged. Amarillo Slim and Doyle were both robbed and injured at an advanced age. Doyle Brunson has been robbed five times. In his excellent biography he tells of forgetting $90,000 in his pocket while he and his wife were being robbed in Las Vegas. Doyle was with Red Harris and Curly Cavitt in San Angelo, Texas, when hijackers tried to get them, but they shot their way out of the motel. Red and Curly had both shot robbers in self-defense. When asked if he had ever killed a man, Johnny Moss said he didn't know, as he had shot a robber and didn't know the outcome.

Lubbock was known for robberies in the old days. A couple of guys called the Ski Mask Bandits robbed gamblers all over town. Ed's cousin and another guy were in their apartment down behind a couch with rifles when they came home. They killed them and got off.

One hijacker robbed a couple of poker games and shot Sharptop. A very fine man killed him, went to prison, and later received a full pardon from the Texas Governor.

I have heard, but do not know if it is true, of another poker game robber killed. They took his body in a private plane and dropped it outside his home town.

A card player I knew travelled the bridge tournaments. He was known as the Kissing Bandit. He'd rob couples at gunpoint, give them half their money back, and kiss the woman. After a long prison sentence, he returned to Lubbock. Somebody killed him.

I strongly believe, however, that the current poker game robberies are far more dangerous than they were in the old days. There have been many poker game robberies around the world, especially in Texas. You would typically face three masked robbers with AK-47 assault rifles or shotguns. They might fire the weapon or assault players. They would take money, jewellery, billfolds, car keys, and cell phones. Most outlaw game operators would not call the police. However, the new and escalating danger is armed poker players or heroes who start a gun fight. In Texas, people have concealed handgun licenses and can legally carry barking iron. We also have the "castle law." You may use deadly force to protect your person, house, car, friends, bankroll or poker game.

Like my heroes, Johnny Moss and Benny Binion, I carry a hammerless, snub-nosed, light-weight, .38 caliber revolver. It won't jam or stick on your pocket coming out. With black, pleated slacks, it is the perfect pocket pistol. It is legal to have a gun in your car or motel room in the states I travel by car: Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. However, it is not legal to have a gun on an Indian reservation where all the casinos are located. I stay in a safe, upscale motel and lock my gun in my suitcase while I'm gone. I carry a gun to all poker games for the robbers after the game. I never carry a gun inside another man's joint.

Most poker robberies go unreported; however there have been a string of robberies in Texas' major cities: Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Houston. In both Houston and Dallas, poker players suspect the same robbers have struck multiple times. They guess the finger man knows the local poker scene well.

A few years back, I'd receive emails announcing Dallas underground games and tournaments. Now all the robberies and police raids have sent the players an hour's drive north to Winstar Casino in Oklahoma. It is the third largest casino in America and has 50 poker tables.

In a recent robbery near Dallas, a robber pulled a pistol. The house man unwisely jumped him and was shot to death. Another player had a concealed handgun and license. He killed the robber.

In Houston, three masked gunmen held up a poker game. One of the players started shooting, killing one robber and wounding another. One poker player was wounded. The live robbers fled. Dan Michaelski of keeps detailed reports on Texas poker robberies. When discussing this on his blog, the mother of the dead robber weighed in to defend her son.

In an Austin poker robbery, four men had AK-47s. They assaulted the players for no reason. One has now been caught using a stolen credit card. They face up to life in the penitentiary.

Since we Texans are so used to guns, Las Vegas is a place we are unarmed and frightened. European players must realise there is danger. A poker player left Bellagio and was murdered across the street at the Imperial Palace. In 1985, when Bill Smith won the World Series with Dale the Mule staking him, the Las Vegas police warned them someone was pretending to be Bill's uncle. They feared robbery. They put the $700,000 in paper sacks and chartered a jet for Lubbock. Another time, Bill was robbed in an elevator. Greg Raymer fought off a robbery attempt in his hotel room. The most common form of robbery is for prostitutes to drug and rob suckers.

In my novel, Texas Poker Wisdom, I describe my own caution in downtown Vegas,

"Matt deposited a little over $7,000 and kept $800 walking around money. That was enough to sit in the no-limit games at the Plaza or the Golden Nugget if something appeared attractive. He had a lock box at the Plaza with ten thousand dollars in traveler's checks. Matt went in the restroom and stuck his long, bushy ponytail down inside the back of his shirt. He put $600 in his shoe. He took off his fedora and put it in the plastic Binion's gift shop bag he carried for that purpose. He put his coat collar up. He put on his sunglasses. Finally, with his appearance somewhat altered, he walked to the gift shop and out the side door.

Matt walked into the Golden Nugget and walked all around furtively, in and out of rows of flashing, noisy slot machines. He left through the west door and made haste for the Plaza Gift Shop, as he always did. Matt bought both Las Vegas newspapers and a couple of cans of Ginger Ale which he put in a plastic sack to use as a weapon. He watched the elevators to the South Tower awhile to make sure he could take one up alone. Matt took the top off his felt tip pen and held the pen in his hand like a dagger. With weapons in both hands, Matt boarded the elevator alone for one more uneventful trip. In forty-five years of visiting Las Vegas, no one had stolen a plug nickel from Matt or tried to. Still, caution, a precursor of paranoia, comes in mighty handy for a gambler on the road. "

With the unemployment in Las Vegas the highest in the US, the crime rate is jumping. When he was robbed in his home, noted poker author, David Sklansky handled it perfectly. He said, "This is something I have visualized over the years. I always knew this was a possibility. I actually played it over in my mind of what I would do if it happened. I realised the most important thing was to keep him calm. During the time he was there, my main focus was to make sure that he didn’t think that I was panicking or that I would do something silly."

In Texas, poker games often have TV cameras on the door and parking lot. They have steel reinforced doors, and there are guns inside. I would rather lose the money I have on me than risk being shot by "friendly, if drunken" fire. When I travel, I carry the bulk of my bankroll in traveller's cheques. I never carry an ATM card for withdrawals. They lead to kidnapping. In any casino, I go meet the security. They usually have a golf cart to drive you to your car. I never tell anyone where I am staying. All this hyper vigilance is stressful.

I have been arrested for gambling several times. The police were courteous and very friendly. No guns were drawn or handcuffs used. The money was not confiscated. These days, SWAT teams burst through poker room doors screaming and brandishing automatic weapons. There is the danger that armed poker players will shoot before they know it is the police.

I'm not worried about losing my money. Give up the money. Save your life.

Johnny Hughes, author of Texas Poker Wisdom, a novel available on all Amazon.

Tags: johnny hughes, columnist