The O’Malley Family Tonic
Thursday, 3 March 2011
By Johnny Hughes.
Saratoga, New York, 1925. A fictional memoir
“The hardest thing in the world is to find an honest partner in a skin game." – Arnold Rothstein.
Sean O'Malley pulled his new $3,150 Pierce Arrow Coach up in front of the American Hotel. He limped slowly into the busy lobby, leaning on his cane and stopping to rest every few paces. His left arm and leg weren't aligned right, as those of a stroke victim. His neck was twisted to the left and his face seemed pinched in agonising and heroic pain. Sean could only make it as far as a couch near the front desk. On the other end of that couch sat Mrs Clarice Biddle, the single most prolific gossip on the East Coast. Sean summoned the desk clerk with a slow, tortured motion.
"I'm Sean O'Malley. I have a suite reserved and paid for. Will you check to see if a parcel has arrived for me? It’s my family medicine. It is urgent."
His voice was strained and he seemed not able to raise his head.
"I'll go check. So, you are Sean O'Malley, the man who will play any card game. I've heard the gamblers talking about you."
In the 1920s Saratoga Springs, New York, was the gambling capital of America in August, with the horses, the spa waters, large and ornate casinos and America's wealthiest citizens in a gilded age, when money and wine were treated like water.
"I need to rest here. Go see first about the family tonic. Has it arrived? I can't play any one until I get my health back."
Sean O'Malley had bribed this desk clerk through his cousin Patrick, who was persona non grata in New York due to his successful stock scams. They were part of five generations of the Travelling O'Malleys: gamblers, conmen, musicians, medicine show owners, carnival barkers. For generations, O'Malleys were around hotels, conventions, county fairs, golf courses, country clubs, and racetracks, selling little bottles of O'Malley's Family Tonic: Secret Irish Herbs.
After explaining to Mrs Biddle that the tonic was not for sale, Sean spoke knowingly of holly, fennel, oak, hemp and secret herbs that bonded the rest. His dear grandmother Grace grew the herbs in Duke, Oklahoma, he said, but they had been grown in his family in Ireland and America for 800 years. Telling the hard of hearing Mrs Biddle something was much like radio advertising. She would repeat it all throughout the day.
"Now, I know and can prove the family tonic helps to heal by changing the blood. But in Ireland, there were secret herbs that led to good fortune and luck. I can't prove that, but I believe it, and that is why I am a gambler. I am living proof it works."
That afternoon, Sean limped up to a croquet game on the lawn. Nearby some men were pitching washers, quite animated in their gambling pleasure. One of the men asked Sean if he would like to join in and he declined, due to his health. Now Abner Cosden asked directly, "So, you are Sean O'Malley, the man who will play any card game?"
Sean told them he was a travelling gambler who would bet on almost anything, if his health came back.
Harold "Mike" Vanderbilt, from one of America's richest families, asked, "Do you play bridge? We were looking for a fourth."
"I'd play for mild stakes. At the Biltmore in Atlanta, I ran into three of them playing in together. My partner would bid high, get doubled, and go down as much as possible. The card room manager said I did not have to pay. I like one-on-one games, any form of poker, rummy. I'd throw those washers, if I was well. These other fellows look like they are on the square, but I'm not so sure about you."
The desk clerk came running across the lawn with the earth-shaking news. The tonic had arrived. He took Sean's arm and helped him back to the hotel. A pitiful sight. He stopped twice to rest on his cane.
The next morning, Sean O'Malley, athletic and amazingly cheerful, bounded down the stairs and into the lobby, the very picture of robust health at 33. His thick, curly, auburn hair had been pressed flat the day before. He jumped into the air and clicked his heels. He sat with Mrs Biddle and repeated often his thanks for her kindness before the tonic worked its expected and proven rejuvenating magic. Sean confided to her that he was a betting agent for New York's biggest gambler Arnold Rothstein. He would be betting only the fourth and fifth races the next day and then leaving town. He sold her two quarter-pint bottles of the tonic at $100 a bottle, but told her he only had a tiny supply.
That afternoon, Sean purposelessly ran into Vanderbilt, Cosden, and their group at the racetrack club house.
"I've got me health back, and I can beat any of you guys at anything," Sean said, almost up in Vanderbilt's face.
Vanderbilt was six years older, 40 pounds heavier, and three inches taller than Sean, who was cocky at best. Again, Harold Vanderbilt started a discussion of bridge and then gin rummy.
Sure enough, right before sundown, a messenger woke Sean from his nap with a knock on the door of his suite at the American. Mr Vanderbilt wanted to play some cards. Sean took all the money he had in the world, $32,000.
Sean didn't know they made hotel suites the size of Vanderbilt's. There was a card table with padded leather chairs and they played cards with blue and red Bicycles and decks with Rembrandts and Titians. They played high draw poker at first, using no chips, just money. Vanderbilt sent this silent, pained hulk of a manservant for plenty of ten and 20-dollar bills and he stayed out in the hall. Sean knew an O'Malley principle: With a rich man, don't let him get off winner. Keep him behind. He cares about the win or the loss, not the money. They played stud.
When Vanderbilt suggested deuces wild, Sean said, "I'll play a children's game, but I'd rather try gin rummy. You aren't any good at anything we’ve tried yet. So far, it doesn't look like you could beat Rin Tin Tin."
Sean took off the coat of his tan silk suit and put it on the back of his chair. Harold walked the length of the room and hung his coat in a closet, turning his back on Sean, who could have peaked at his hand.
When Sean shuffled, he would do so very, very slowly, with lots of slow cuts to make it apparent his hands were easy to see. He was not cheating, in case they had heard of his cousins. Sean never cheated, but he sure knew how.
Soon, Sean was calling his new friend “Mike” and telling colourful stories of his family, admitting they did the shell game and sold gold mine stock, but he swore the tonic was not part of any con. He would get passionate about only the tonic. He told of an uncle who went nearly crazy, finally believing he actually could make it rain, driving and driving, and always hitting rain sooner or later. He told of the time he had hopped freight trains from Dallas to Kansas City in a race for a $300 bet, and lost. He said he'd never cheat, citing the time his own father was thrown from a moving train nine miles from Albuquerque for suspected cheating at high draw. Mike was laughing so hard he stopped the game when Sean told of being a failure in his three-week career as an Irish tenor in vaudeville.
When Mike dealt he'd put Sean's hand on the bottom, flash cards and shuffle poorly, against a man with this skilled, practiced, most amazing ability to memorise the card locations from another man's shuffling. When he was two games of gin rummy ahead, Sean knew he could beat Mike like a broke drum, anytime he wanted. They both sipped Irish whiskey over ice, slowly. Mike played his hand. Sean played both, knowing what cards Mike needed and playing defense masterfully.
The next time Sean won a hand he called Mike "yacht boy”. Now Mike was angry for real and Sean picked up on it. It was in the newspapers telling of all the major yacht races Vanderbilt had won.
When they talked of all the things they could bet on, they agreed to throw washers, shoot pool, and putt on a golf course, but not play the course. Sean travelled with horse shoes, washers, a pool cue, a bowling ball, and a golf putter. He was too busy around the club house to go for the full course. He had mastered prop bets, which usually involved making a putt two or three times. Mike would talk about bridge and bidding systems for bridge, which bored Sean. They ordered Porter House steaks with all the trimmings, wine, Irish whiskey, beer, oysters, chocolate ice cream, and pheasant as an afterthought.
Mike would mention knowing Jack Dempsey, the Astors, President Coolidge, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice and talk about having his own private railroad car in town, as well as the number of railroads the Vanderbilts controlled, in a matter of fact, non-bragging way. Sean acted like he was talking about the weather.
When Mike said, "The unions and the coal strikes hurt the working man. They hurt our railroads. They never help anyone..." Sean interrupted.
"Now you've discovered a subject on which we will always disagree, and for the sake of our new, dear friendship, we should not discuss unions, because I am firmly for the West Virginia coal miners, and the unions, and wonder why one man needs the whole top floor of a hotel."
His voice was rising. The alcohol fuelled a real anger.
"One time my family had more ships than yours. Grace O'Malley, the pirate Queen's own family had a fleet that traded all over the world, around 1500. She was bright red-headed and is well known in Irish history. She had lands, fleets of ships, castles and lost them to the English, all but one wee ship. She sailed to England itself and talked to Queen Elizabeth. They freed her brother and son who they held captive, but they never returned her estate, as promised. The English were grabbing off Ireland little bits at a time. There is always a Grace in our family. My grandmother, Grace, grows and mixes the herbs. Conditions on the ships coming over from Ireland were terrible. Many were sick. Many died. Not one O'Malley even got sick."
"Why don't you sell that stuff mail order? Everyone is into health. Half the Whitneys eat Fleischmman's Yeast each day. It tastes horrible. They advertise Grape Nuts as a cure all in the Saturday Evening Post," Mike said.
It was after 4am and the alcohol had loosened tongues. They stopped to throw quarters at the wall again to wake up and stretch their legs. Sean offered a proposition bet, saying he could throw 40 playing cards in the hat out of a 52-card deck. Drunk as he was, he was finally gambling, since he was not sure he could do it. He measured out 16 paces from a large, leather chair and placed the Homberg there. They agreed on $3,000 as the wager. While Sean was in the bathroom, Mike moved the hat out another nine paces. Sean missed the first two throws, then realized what had happened. He let up a sequel. Mike was triumphant, gloating, laughing. An O'Malley principle: We are entertainers. Let the marks have a big time.
Finally, with the hat back in place, Sean won the bet with the O'Malley signature, one card to spare.
The two men played until 6am and Sean won $32,000. The next morning, Sean sold 17 bottles of the tonic in the lobby, thanks to Mrs. Biddle and the desk clerk. He stayed three more days, and never won another horse race bet with his bet them to place system.
The first time Mike invited Sean to visit and stay at his legendary estate, Idle Hours on Long Island, Sean said no. He'd just won the Pierce Arrow in Dallas, and heard of a huge open poker game at the Palmer House in Chicago. Later, he showed more interest, realising Mike was obsessed with a bridge.
A month later, Sean O'Malley arrived for a two-day visit. He stayed nine days: playing bridge, gin, poker, pool, throwing things, as well fishing, swimming and yachting, the latter only once. Harold Vanderbilt invented contract bridge, developing many of his ideas playing with Sean O'Malley. They played in bridge tournaments as partners for several years. Sean had a lifetime pass on several railroads.
One day he ran into Vanderbilt on a Manhattan sidewalk. Vanderbilt took him to his tailor for a fitting, and ordered fourteen suits for Sean, in an array of fabrics and conservative designs. Both won national bridge tournaments, but never together, as partners. They were known for yelling at each other, but also for betting on every thing they could think of. Mike would call with bets on Ivey league football, major league baseball, horses, boxing matches, elections. Sean always knew Mike's preference in advance, and he coppered the odds.
In 1934, a sign was posted above a massive guest bedroom at Idle Hours that read SEAN O'MALLEY'S ROOM. The two were inseparable. Sean ran large, honest poker games at Idle Hour during the worst of the depression for some of the richest Americans, many when Harold and his wife were at another estate. He married Mary Kerns, a table servant he met at Idle Hour, and the Vanderbilts put them on the invitation list for all manner of parties they rarely attended.
Sean promised Mike that he would not sell the O'Malley Family Medicine: Secret Irish Herbs at bridge tournaments, or to the Vanderbilt's society friends, or on any of the Vanderbilt railroads, and most especially not to the guests and staff at Idle Hour, but Sean could not stop. When Time Magazine did a cover story on bridge tournaments in 1936, it quoted Harold "Mike" Vanderbilt as saying, "My closest friend and advisor, Sean O'Malley, is the best all around card player in America."
From his side of the table, it sure looked that way. Both men lived until 1970, and remained the very best of gambling friends.
Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom, available on all Amazons.