The Rush by Johnny Hughes

The Rush by Johnny Hughes

Thursday, 5 May 2011

By Johnny Hughes

"The difference between a good player and a great player is that when a good player gets lucky, he'll win a big part of the table. When a great player gets lucky, he'll win the whole table." – Johnny Moss

When gamblers share favourite memories, we all talk about that big night when the cards danced as if only for you and luck blessed you in ways mathematics say are possible, but very rare.

In my youngest days, from the ages of 20 to 22, I had a real lucky streak playing with top professional poker players and road gamblers. One of the first nights I played with Bill Smith, Tennessee Longgoodie and Pat Renfro, I won $1,100. I was living in a $25-a-month room and had just won three year’s and eight month’s rent.

Texas Hold’em was played wilder and based on luck and lucky streaks more in its early years. There were no books, TV shows or odds calculators and anybody with a flush draw would move in. We'd often take our winnings from smaller games and move up, meaning we needed to get lucky in the first two or three pots we entered or be gone. The professional poker players really depended on luck, believed in luck and pressed their luck, whether things were going good or bad.

During this magic time, I bought lots of clothes, travelled a great deal and ate in fancy restaurants. There was a phenomenon I have often seen in Texas and Las Vegas. A young new poker player will just tear them up for a year or two and then embrace “gambler's ruin”, going broke. By the time I was 23, I was that guy, standing by the table in fancy clothes begging to play stake money.

The most famous lucky streak of all time was that of Archie Karas, who, in the early 1990s, went from broke, to $30 million winnings to back broke. He beat all the top poker players and Crandell Addington wrote me that Karas got so lucky folks wondered if he was on the square. He shot dice for the highest stakes at Binion's Horseshoe and finally lost the lot.

My poker life has definitely been dramatically impacted by the rush; that one big day when you hold more hands than any manicurist in town, the cards run over you and you catch them faster than you can string them. We’ve all seen it.

I like to walk around the casinos at night looking for that one hot dice table where the shooters are getting lucky, cheering, high-fiving, begging those galloping dominoes to jump their way. I enjoy that happiness, the shared euphoria, and get a contact high.

Once at Binion's I played in a $10-$20 limit game where only one guy could seem to win a pot, and it lasted over four hours. This was during the dark days in Las Vegas when it was all varied levels of limit poker. This was a big, tall, gangly, hippie-looking guy with a headband, drinking "another whiskey and coke" as fast as they could bring them. He wouldn't even look at his cards pre-flop, and would always raise and raise any raise. The game filled up with semi-professional Las Vegas poker players, several out of the bigger $40 limit. He flopped an amazing number of nut straights. He showed this impossible number of small sets or trips. If he had a pair or an ace, he'd stay until fifth street and he seemed to always get there. He had a drinking buddy who helped him colour change up to a bunch of $100 black chips, which he kept accidentally putting in the pot, from his massive, disorganised stack. There was quite a crowd and much comment about the luckiest streak ever seen. Finally, returning from the restroom, he ran into a wall and fell backwards on the floor loudly. Now the poker boss said to cash him in. The whole table of poker players, including me, were on our feet arguing to please let him play. Several chip runners helped him rack his stack and stumble to the cage.

I went to the World Series of Poker most years after 1975, but not every year. A one-day rush in most of those years was mystical to me, and still is. It happened most of the time. I have this history of doing great in bridge or poker travels the first one or two days and then not doing much after that. I don't lose it back, but one big day determined my trip over and over.

In 1975, I'd been playing very high and winning lots of poker money, but not getting paid most of it. I was playing on the halves for this outlaw called the Senator who was running a poker game.

When I got to Binion’s for the World Series, I sat down in a $1/$2/$5 no-limit Texas Hold’em game with my suitcase beside me and no room reservation. The cards started to run over me, with many big pairs that turned into top trips. The Shop was this legendary poker joint in Lubbock that lasted 35 years and my friends from the Shop were watching the action and cheering me on. I'd move in and one of them would sing out, “He's not smart enough for two bets.” In a game where players had $300 to $500 in chips, I won $4,000. However, I stayed in Vegas four more days and played higher, rocked back and forth and left town $4,000 winner.

That was to be a pattern almost two-thirds of the time. I'd make one winning of $3,000 to $5,000 in the first one or two days and that would be my result for the World Series. I played a few satellites, but stuck with no-limit Texas Hold’em cash games. There were three years that I lost, one in which I didn't win a single time, not one sit-down.

One year, I lost steady for four days. I packed all my clothes in the suitcase and got a flight reservation for the next morning. Then I decided to play poker until I lost one more time. My clothes were horribly wrinkled but I won every day and night for the next eight days.

A few years after that, with that one big rush day thing nagging at my brain, I again won around $4,000 the first afternoon at the $1/$2/$5 blinds. That was not such an exceptional score to tip over because the game was bigger. My strategy is to place my winnings all on the table. That night I played a long time in the $5/$10 blinds and finally lost all my winnings, going to sleep dead even. We Texans talk about “being on velvet” when you are playing on your winnings.

The next day I repeated that, winning $3,000 in the afternoon, and losing it in the bigger game at night, and still dead even. The third day, I won $4,000 in the little game and sat down with it that night in the big game.

In those days, bookies wandered around the poker tables making insurance bets. When folks were all in, they'd show their hands and be offered insurance bets, and there would be side bets from bookies not in the poker game. I got my chips up to $7,000 and flopped top set, three of a kind, the nuts right there. I got all my chips in against this fast-action player who was drinking heavily and wearing sunglasses, rare in those days. Back then you could split pots and make verbal propositions. I showed my hand and said, “If you have a straight flush draw, I will split the pot with you.” I kept my eyes on the deck. He did have a straight flush draw, refused to split it and hit a straight. I went to bed dead even again. An old Swedish proverb says, "Luck never gives; it only lends."

On my last day in town, I caught quite a rush in the $1/$2/$5. It was a smaller game but I was moving in on straight and flush draws and hitting way more than my share. I left for dinner about $4,000 winner. That night I had my name on the list for the $5/$10 game but there was a long list and I never got in the game. I broke about even in the smaller game. It was only after I got back to the reality of my beloved West Texas that I realised I had won $15,000 in this one poker game and lost $11,000 in this other poker game.

For a time, there wasn’t any no-limit at the World Series side games that was not at nosebleed stakes. Some great players were in the $40 limit, but the $20 limit and the $30 limit were easier. One year, I made a nice little $1,500 in the no-limit Texas Hold’em in the afternoon and got to drinking. I'd put all my money except $200 in the cage and walk around, sometime playing the $6 limit at varied casinos. One year, I tried the $20 limit at Binion's when I was really blasted drunk. It was my first time to play it. I went on the weirdest rush of my life. I started out winning almost every pot I was in. I'd have connecters and a straight draw. I'd miss the straight and make a mid-size pair and win the pot. I'd say, "Two eights." and four or five people would throw their hands away. I thought it might be like Candid Camera or some kind of joke. A crowd formed and I was beginning to expect to win on marginal hands. I won $2,300 in an hour.

Being a card player, sometimes it is just magical. In bridge, as in poker, I'd have my big day early. Part of that was I drank too much until fifteen years ago, when I stopped completely.

I believe that everyone has the same luck gambling in the long run. I also believe that, in life itself, luck plays a huge role. Democritus said, "Men have made an idol of luck as an excuse for their own thoughtlessness."

My favourite and weirdest pot was at Bellagio in the off-beat $16 limit. The dealer flashed the Ac and shuffled in a way I could track. I could guess it would be on the board but not in any of the ten hands. I had the Kc4c and the idea the Ac might be a board or a burn card. The small and large blind were playing partners. I was on the button. The pot was capped, three raises, and all ten players called! The flop came Q-J-4 with the Q-J being clubs. Since I knew the Ace of clubs was not in any hand, I had the nut flush draw and a pair. Again, the bet was raised three times, and eight people called. Fourth street brought a blank and again there was a bet and three raises, and eight called. What could they possibly have?

Fifth Street brought the beautiful, most welcome and expected Ac, giving me the nuts. There was a bet and three callers and I raised. The pot had more chips, $1 and $5, than any pot I'd ever won. Two chip runners brought several racks. Shuffle tracking is most rare, but sweet.

I'd had my share of rushes at limit Hold’em, but play like I expect them against strangers in casinos at no-limit Texas Hold’em. I like to straddle my first chance, and make a massive raise if anyone just calls. I announce this is the most money winning hand in Hold’em and raise two hundred dollars and then show 9-8 off suit. This gets strangers ribbed to gamble. If I can make a few hands, I can sell them better than any man. I love that conning part of poker. During a rush, I play an intuitive, emotional, big-pot game as if I expect to get lucky. And talking is part of my act. Isn't that the day poker is the most fun you can have with your clothes on? Wilson Mizner said, “The only sure thing about luck is it will change.”

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

Tags: Johnny Hughes, Columnist