Inside the World Series of Poker

"When you're talking poker, you're talking Texas," bragged one contestant; but the big winner was a man from Tennessee.

Them Texas fellers, hmmh? Hell. Ah guess they prob’ly made this town, y’ know.…

THERE’S MAYBE A DOZEN OF them left now, men like Ned, wandering through Vegas like Banquo’s ghost in dusty gear, living artifacts of the Pre-Neon Epoch. They were prospectors back then, solitary seekers after Fast Money, picking their way across the Nevada hills in much the same manner as their spiritual descendants plumb the crystal canyons of the Strip in search of the same end.

Las Vegas indulges them fittingly, bestowing on Ned and his cohorts a kind of invisible carte blanche: the freedom to amble in and out, come and go, eat and drink, all on the house, wherever they go. If it’s done in atonement for the broken souls, a karmic redemption for those who paid-their-money-and-took-their-chances, then it’s done in typical Vegas fashion, brassy and ballsy, shoot the works.

Tom Wolfe once observed that when Monte Carlo made its debut as a gambling resort, a world-renowned architect was retained to design the opera house and Sarah Bernhardt read poetry; when Bugsy Siegel inaugurated gambling in Vegas, he hired Abbott and Costello. That, averred Mr. Wolfe, says it all about Las Vegas.

The coffee shop in Binion’s Horseshoe is crowded earlier than normal for a still-dull Vegas afternoon, with prosperous-looking, sports-shorted men milling around, going from table to table to say hello and reminisce, trying to kill time until the four o’clock start of The Game. Just a silver dollar flip away, on the other side of the double row of blackjack tables, the grand finale of the Fourth Annual World Series of Poker is set to take place and gamblers from across the country have homed in on Binion’s like art collectors at a Sotheby’s auction.

In a corner booth an ominous-looking sort, with a Johnny Cash kind of blocky face, deep cleft chin and wavy dark hair, is furtively scribbling on a placemat, buttonholing passersby to ask their opinion on something. At a small table a few feet away, “Treetop” Jack Straus is drinking milk, chatting amiably with a visiting journalist and whoever else stops by. He’d been declared co-champion of the Kansas City Lo-Ball tournament the day before, one of the preliminaries to the World Series, and he remarked as how he was “feeling great and ready to play. Only problem is I lost my glasses. Got propositioned from the rail last night and couldn’t even read the damn note.”

The suspicious placemat scribbler calls over, “Hey, Jack, will you take five to one on yourself?”

Straus, without a moment’s hesitation, replies tiredly, “Naw, I’m feelin’ pretty worn out, give me maybe 12 or 15.”

“How about eight to one?” tries the Johnny Cash look-alike, sporting a monster red ruby on one finger.

“Naw, I don’t think so,” answers Straus, returning to conversation with the much confused journalist. The other man, the suspicious one, arises from his booth and flourishes the placemat while other men crowd around. He is Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, it turns out, protean oddsmaker and Vegas’ town crier, and the placemat doodlings are the official line on the Poker World Series; Straus is the favorite at nine to two.

Like most high-stakes professional gamblers, Jack Straus is from Texas, Houston in his case, and he folds his angular six-five frame around a glass of milk while pondering why that is so: “I think Texans just got a lot more guts has a lot to do with it, most other folks just don’t take the heat when you start playin’ real poker. In Texas you grow up playin’ poker, it’s a Texas game. Jews are generally better at gin rummy, for example, ‘cause they’re better at mathematics, but when you get ‘round poker, you’re talkin’ about Texas.

I learned how to play from my daddy and been playin’ cards since I was six or seven, just like the rest of these Texas boys. I can remember when I was a kid they’d be shootin’ craps out in the woods. They’d lay a four-by-four piece o’ plywood on the ground and you’d get 50 or 60 cars pulled up in there, people sittin’ round drinkin’ beer and throwin’ dice. At night they’d turn the car lights on and they’d go all weekend.”

Straus is a gambler’s gambler, widely thought to be one of the best all-around card players in the world, equally adept at everything from gin rummy to blackjack and a dozen variations of poker. He was a basketball player at Texas A&M and then taught school until he decided teaching couldn’t support his penchant for betting, and he’s been a professional gambler for the second half of his 42 years. He lives hard, manfully, in the apocryphal tradition of the Texas wheeler-dealer; he has hunted and fished, gambled and gamboled, all over the world, spent his money

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