Texas Poker: The Early Days Part II by Johnny Hughes

Texas Poker: The Early Days Part II by Johnny Hughes

Thursday, 6 January 2011

By Johnny Hughes, author of Texas Poker Wisdom, available on all Amazons.

"We didn't ask a man his last name, where he was from or how he made his living. We didn't care."

It was around Dolly's poker game that I met Bill Smith, the Main Event champ of 1985. I was 20, he was 26 and one of the best poker players anywhere at the time. I learned a lot watching Bill and talking with him. Those professional poker players living in Lubbock – Bill Smith, James "Tennessee Longgoodie" Roy and Pat Renfro – taught me the culture, customs, traditions, slogans and behaviour expected of the pros. Any cheating would ruin it for everyone. Dress very nicely and be overly courteous to the producers or losers. They want to be entertained and expect a humorous, light-hearted environment. There was zero gloating, celebrating or slow-rolling. Show up early in the afternoons to get the game started. Do not give poker lessons or discuss outs at the table. Do not brag on winnings or tell how much you won. We didn't ask a man his last name, where he was from or how he made his living. We didn't care. I found the regular losers were often successful small business owners or farmers who were used to risk.

Back then, there was more angle shooting and short cons. Even though Bill Smith and I were great friends, he'd con me. Once there were five spades on the board. He showed the four of spades, lower than any card on the board and called "flush", and took the pot from me. We'd ask to see one card or show one. We'd ask to split the pot at any time. If someone was about to fold, we'd talk up a call. Bill said that I had a lot of con in me. So did he.

There were several other poker games. Often I'd get up in the mornings and drive by poker games to see if they had run all night. We'd go to the golf course, bail bond offices, the Texas Tech Student Union and car lots looking for gin rummy games.

One of the regular poker spots was in the back of a car lot run by Wilbanks. He was a big producer, playing lots and losing often. He'd stake one to three players to keep the game going. Once the police busted down the door and came running in. A lookout, himself a former policeman, tackled the lead cop. Curly Cavitt palmed two decks of cards. Finding no gambling evidence, the police decided not to arrest us.

Historically in Texas the vice, gambling, prostitution and bootlegging were confined to a special section of town. In Ft. Worth, it was Hell's Half Acre and later the Jacksboro Highway. In San Antonio, it was the Sporting District; in Austin, Guy Town, and in Houston, Happy Hollow. In Lubbock, vice was expected to stay east of Texas Avenue. Near Dolly's motel was Morgan's whorehouse, where we played poker every Tuesday night. Dolly forbade alcohol. Morgan sold beer and it was a rougher crowd but the money was loose.

Morgan was 5'9" and weighed 300lbs. He wore a Stetson, fine boots, a starched shirt and bib overalls with a large diamond as a stickpin on the overalls. Morgan carried as much as $5,000 cash and would get drunk and lose it all on occasion. He played poker somewhere every day and was a steady loser. Because he was a pimp, and maybe a police informant, he was very unpopular. He didn't talk much and no one talked much to him. Shortly after I started playing at Morgan's, his wife Belle shot this other fellow once on purpose and Morgan twice by accident. A few weeks later the game was back in full swing.

One night I caught two kings and Morgan had K-3 and the flop came K-3-3. With our full houses we got it all in, nearly a $1,000 pot. He was drunk. He yelled that I had cold-decked him and told Belle to get his lead pipe. I had a small gun in the car out front. I just left the pot in the centre of the table. Finally, Carney Neal, who was broke and drunk asked, "Will you loan me forty dollars, kid?" I agreed and he said, "Sit down, Slim Jim," to Morgan. A little later Morgan said he wasn't mad at me, just himself. I left quietly.
Another time, EW "Ol' 185" Chapman shot Morgan in the foot and threw the air conditioner out of the window after I had wisely left. EW was higher than a hawk's nest from pills to miss a 300lb man across a poker table.

One night the police raided Morgan's. We all went to jail for “vagrancy by association”. The very next night I was raided again at the bigger poker game at Dub Barnett's house. Everyone there was a professional gambler: Bill Smith, Pat Renfro, James Roy, Sherman Davis, Joe Floyd, Joe Barnes, Odessa Red and me. The police had a grand time bringing out all the old arrest photos. My first arrest at 14 for popping firecrackers in a movie theatre deserved some teasing.

One Thanksgiving, Belle invited me to dinner at the whorehouse. The table included Belle, Morgan, four working girls and me. The food was perfect, traditional turkey and all the trimmings. One woman said her kids were staying with her mother. She said, "If I'm not arrested by Christmas, I'm gonna buy them a new TV."

Another said her fantasy was to rent a bus and fill it with a bunch of characters, what police and outlaws called outlaws. She said they'd get a lot of whiskey and a big ol' wash tub full of pills and just ride around.

Prostitution seemed to be centred in Ft. Worth. The women would move around varied towns on what was called "The Wheel”. Some of the police detective’s cars were at Morgan's some mornings and rumours were that the girls exchanged favours with the police.

In the biggest poker games, we played mostly Texas Hold’em with a $100 buy-in, although folks often bought in for $500. When they played seven-five draw lowball, the game would get much higher.

The catered food at the big games was great. I went to a big low ball game once when I was broke and a guy staked me. The standard staking arrangement is that if a man puts up $100 and you lose, you owe him half. If you win, he gets his investment back and you split the winnings fifty-fifty.

I got off $1800 winner and explained I needed to take a little money to pay the $25 a month rent on my dumpy room, and $15 for cleaning and laundry. At first they wouldn't let me take that small amount off the table but finally they relented. I paid the rent and came back and went broke.

There were rarely disputes or arguments. One night we were playing in a motel when two bootleggers came in. One held a gun on us while the other pistol whipped Dicky Beggs severely for allegedly stealing a load of booze. Another time, when I was running my own little game, Dickie was smuggling in alcohol which I prohibited. He and another large guy were fussing and it had violence potential. They both went broke and were playing each other on credit. Finally, I pulled my gun and made them leave. In a minute, there was a loud knock on the door. They wanted to borrow a deck of cards to continue their game. I gave them a deck.

Another night, a guy climbed onto my balcony and I heard him. I marched him off at pistol point. Later, when running a game alone, I'd had some really rough visitors. I came in roaring drunk late at night to see someone walking in my backyard. I opened the backdoor and fired two shots over his head and he began to run. I laid the pistol on the kitchen table and went to bed, leaving the door open. The next morning I woke up and it was freezing and there were cuts on my hand from the .25 caliber semi-automatic.

In 1960, my buddy and I went to Las Vegas. We'd turned 21 and wanted to work in a casino. Curly Cavitt had told me to use his name with Benny Binion, who sent us across the street to work for Bill Boyd in the poker room of the Golden Nugget as shills, playing house money. Mostly we played 5-stud, dollar limit with a massive rake. The dealer would take a few nickels and dimes with his fingers and palm some quarters. Often at the end, if you bet a silver dollar and got it called, they cut a silver dollar. We shills signalled each other if we had a pair by sitting our cards at a 45-degree angle. That was the only time we ever cheated. Boyd would get me to sit in a six-dollar limit razz game that had only a single 25 cent rake. He'd sit behind me and coach me. There were regular players that could win, but I didn't get a penny of my winnings.

When I got out of the Army, broke, in 1962, I moved into a small poker game in a duplex. I slept on the couch until one roommate went broke and I got a room. I ran poker games a couple of years with this same partner, a fraternity man who could really recruit the players. We moved to a fancy apartment and later a two-bedroom house. I'd also play in the larger games. One of our policies was that we would play heads up poker or gin rummy at any time, day or night, and drunks came by that always lost. Living in gambling houses for several years had one big downside in that the place and my clothes often smelled like cigars and cigarettes, but I was too lazy to work and too nervous to steal. So I became a gambler.

Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom, available on all Amazons.

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