Never play cards with a guy named Doc.
—Nelson Algren

WHEN I FIRST WENT to Las Vegas forty years ago, I saw Nicholas “Nick the Greek” Dandolos shooting craps at the Sands. He was the world’s most famous gambler before Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston took over. At Binion’s World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, Slim does scores of interviews with the international press. Benny Binion was called the Cowboy. Plato was a nickname for broad shoulders. The use of an alias has been around forever. After 45 years of Texas poker, my collection of gambler’s monikers is a colorful history, evoking, for me, wonder and nostalgia.

Housemover, Treeman, and G-Man all refer to occupations. Iron Drawers plays tight and has infinite patience. So did the Mule. Poor ol’ Ignorant Ed is one of the wisest men I have known. Curley was bald. Moody was moody. The Kid is young. Red? Sarge? Sure. Horsey bet the ponies. The Reverend was an irreverent comedian. Treetop was tall. Sailor was in the Navy. Dolly ran the game. Tuffy was tough. Billy the Kid came from the same place as the other Billy the Kid. White Jim caught that tag because there was already a Jim White. The Wizard is now a top pro. White Eyes has them. There were two Oklahoma Joes, often playing pardners in the same game. They would steal a hot stove. Mad Dog, with a constant cigar stub, looks like one of those ubiquitous poker-playing dogs. Suspenders is known in card rooms coast to coast for his colorful collection of suspenders. There are Sonny, Sleepy, Skeeter, Stormy, and Domino John.

People coming to Texas in the early days often took new names. The cowboys called them summer names or bunkhouse names. It is impolite to ask too many questions about where people are from or where they are going or their job or their real name. Many Texans in the military have been called Tex. There is Tex Ritter. Babe Zaharius was called the Texas Tornado and the Terrific Tomboy. Texas politicians included Sam “the Raven” Houston and John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner, also called Poker Face. Farmer Jim Ferguson became Pa when his wife, Ma, took over as governor. There was Pappy Lee O’Daniel and now there is Dubya.

In the late 1800’s Texas’ most famous poker player was Lottie Deno (for “dinero“). She was also called Mystic Maude or the Angel of San Antonio. Bet-A-Million Gates started off selling barbed wire. Now we have CB handles and e-mail names. Any rapper or serial killer with any self respect has a nickname. Nicknames can be descriptive, derisive, or complimentary. Some are tagged by others. Some rename themselves. There were early names for gamblers: tin horn, sharpie, crossroader, and mechanic. They worked sawdust joints, hotels, carnivals, saloons, and car lots. That was the kind of thing that could give gambling a bad name. Now gambling is called gaming and the suckers are called recreational players.

In movies, television series, and literature, gamblers have memorable nicknames like the Cincinnati Kid, Mr. Lucky, Bama, Worm, Sky, Big Julie, Harry the Horse, Fast Eddie, Minnesota Fats, Lady Fingers, Poker Alice, Bat, and Doc. Wild Bill Hickok was holding aces and eights when he was shot. The hand is named after him and his name comes up any time any one holds the hand.

A nickname is a tag, label, moniker, epithet, or street name. An elaborate nickname like Amarillo Slim is a sobriquet. Writers seek to remain anonymous with a nom de guerre, pen name, or pseudonym. And my road name? I have been called some things that I will be keeping to myself.

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