Texas Poker: The Early Days by Johnny Hughes

Texas Poker: The Early Days by Johnny Hughes

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

By Johnny Hughes, author of Texas Poker Wisdom

Gambling and cards seemed to always be a big part of my life. Great uncles, uncles and cousins were gamblers. We played poker and gin rummy around the house. My mother always had a bridge game going and my brother's first words were "I pass”. At Christmas, the family would have a poker game. The children would always lose their savings.

Once, Dad had a poker game at our house and these professional gamblers came. Dad got in over his head and was big loser. Mother demanded to play with her money stash that Dad was unaware of. She won all the money back and then some.

In high school in Lubbock, Texas there were regular poker games, usually in the 25 cent limit to $1 limit range, dealer's choice. One guy I played with was Buddy Holly before he became famous. After he gained fame, we got up a game but he wouldn't play above 50 cent limit.

When I entered Texas Tech in 1957, there was a lot of gambling at the Student Union on poker, gin rummy, pool, snooker and ping pong. They had a 25 cent limit poker game where marks were made on pieces of paper. My first semester, I showed up broke, and won $5 playing gin rummy.

I’d heard of a poker game near campus. I put my $5 on the table and had it all in with a nut full house in seven-stud high low split when this big, tough guy bet $100 and said if I did not call all of it, I was out.

They played with cheques and I asked for a bank draft. The nuts does not need a bank account. They agreed to regular table stakes where short stacks go potted after that. I left the next morning with a $300 winning and went straight to Coach Brown's for a sports coat, shirt, and slacks. Buying clothes was to be my custom. That poker game lasted five days and nights. We also began to play regularly in the dorms. Those games were always no-limit. A problem was often cheques. We'd go to one or more banks when they first opened in the mornings to get our cheques cashed first.

The next year I opened my first rake or pot cut poker game with two partners who are still two of my best friends. We had a house dealer, one player and one guy to deal blackjack and sell beer or mixed drinks. Our only game was no-limit Texas Hold'em because it was very fast. As I was to do for the next eight years, we cut 25 cents from the pot and another 25 cents when the pot got above five bucks. The police came around asking our neighbours questions so we moved to an apartment.

In order to bootleg, we'd have to drive 110 miles to get the beer. This was a losing proposition because we and our friends would drink it up when the joint was closed.

While we were at the apartment, some really tough outlaws came over, and we'd just close down the poker game. A couple of cheaters came, but we closed the game. One got in bed beside me when he thought I was sleeping and tried to get my bankroll from my Levis.

In some radio interviews I have done about early Texas games I emphasise that cheating was very rare and violence almost non-existent. We got robbed and arrested but both were just part of the life we chose.

About this time, I was invited to a large poker game made up of the young rich guys of the town, all around 30. The money began to flow in. They played at a variety of business places and private homes. There was no rake and the cheques were good. I began to travel a lot to bridge tournies, bought a load of expensive clothes, ate in fancy restaurants and treated others, and even took a taxi to the poker games. I had styled hair and polished nails and a new $660 diamond pinkie ring.

We played Texas Hold’em and Kansas City, seven-five low ball. A certain degree of angle shooting was allowed. You could split pots or ask people to split pots. I was good at that. If someone bet at you in low ball and you'd missed your hand, you could threaten to call if they did not split. Often they would. You could also use that to get a read.

There was a health club where the gamblers hung out. One time I walked up to the steam bath and they were talking about me. I listened and got the most important poker lesson of my life. One said I was obnoxious and a poker pro and they should bar me. Another said my name was always in the newspaper for winning bridge tournaments. Another said I was from a poor family and they could not win anything from me. One said I was "loose as a goose" and predicted I would get busted. I started to act very nice. I was only 19, and I was learning.

I went back to running the small pot cut games. In all my years at this, there was never a fight or police raid or robbery, or cheating at my games except once when I was not there. A guy threw in a cold deck of red cards when they had been playing with blue cards. To run a game, I'd buy two new decks, a red and a blue, of Bee Brand playing cards and open the seal in front of the players. The house always leans over backwards to avoid cheating because that will kill the game and the gambler's reputation and ability to get in other games. I'd let players take the old decks home. I'd shuffle slowly to make sure no one suspected cheating. I'd get $20 worth of quarters, and eighty dollars in singles to start.

At 19, my partner and I moved up to the mid-level games held several places, the most prominent being Dolly's. Dolly was a woman who ran a poker game for thirty years without any cheating, fights, or police raids. She was the only poker game operator I ever new who did not play. Dolly ran the game in three locations. She moved from a house to manage an old motel on the edge of town with her husband. Here the game got even bigger. Lubbock was one of the few places with "open" poker meaning all the road gamblers could play. The game was hard and no one was barred.

Dolly came each hour to get $2 per player and that is all she did. You could buy terrible food. Her infamous Vienna sausage plate was this wretched canned meat, crackers, cheddar cheese, pickles and onions for $1. It was that or a ham sandwich. Dolly was always saying, "I hope y'all all win."

The dealer put up $1, the blind was $2, and sometimes there was a $4 straddle. Texas Hold’em was the only game allowed. The buy-in at Dolly's was only $20. In those earliest days, we might take $40 from our smaller game winnings and shoot it on a long shot. Pots were raised often to $20 before the flop, so short stacks had to win their first pot.

Around Dolly's, I'd loan money to the regular losers. One night I loaned $300 to this tough guy, Carney Neal, a bookie. He was persistent in asking me to bet the $300 on a football game, which I did. A few weeks later I ran into him, and he paid me for the loan and the football.

One night at Dolly's, we'd played all night and it was down to four of us, Tennessee Longgoodie, two rich guys, and me. There were big stacks of paper money. The two rich guys got in a big pot against each other. After the cards were dealt, they both stood up and left, talking to each other. The pot was still there. We watched them talk outside a while and leave. We split the pot and agreed to give it back to them if they asked. They never did.

We played with all cash because chips were considered gambling paraphernalia by the police. Many of the people in the games were outlaws: poker pros, bookmakers, loan sharks, dice men and conmen. Some had been to prison. Some had killed people. Many knew all about cheating and did cheat other places, but having such experienced and tough men meant there were almost no disputes. We all had guns out in our cars. Often some road gambler would stay here a few months playing poker every day and then vanish never to be seen again.

In these mid-level games and those larger here in Lubbock, all the poker stars of the day came to play: Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Bobby Baldwin, Amarillo Slim, Jack "Treetop" Straus, Sailor Roberts, and Bill Smith, just to name the early World Series Main Event champs. Most played in a higher game where they played with chips. The buy-in was $100 and the house took five per cent of that. The lowest chip on the table was $5.

After thirty years or so, Dolly's was robbed. This conman, Eddie, came to the back door with an armed robber behind him. They made everyone remove their clothing. Dolly gave up running the poker.

Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom, available from Amazon

Tags: johnny hughes, columnist