Thursday, April 10, 2008

GHOSTS AT THE TABLE

SAM SMITH, PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - Long time Review subscribers may remember our British correspondent Des Wilson. Obviously bored by that less than time filling task, Wilson became president of the Liberal Party, later ran Patty Ashdown's campaign for the new Liberal Democrats and became an official of the England and Wales Cricket Board, which post he resigned in protest over the England team touring Zimbabwe.

Wilson had left New Zealand as a teenager, coming to England where he started the housing program Shelter, served as a columnist for the Observer, ran Friends of the Earth, organized and led the campaign to get the lead out British gasoline, and served as public relations director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and later the British Airports Authority.

In recent years, Wilson has reincarnated himself once again, this time as a professional poker player. His second book on the subject, Ghosts at the Table, is now available in the U.S.

Your editor gave up poker years ago, but nonetheless found the first half of the book - which deals with the history of poker in America - to be completely enthralling. No one who professes to understand American history should miss Wilson's book. The role of the rogue in the development of our country is generally underrated or denigrated by conventional historians, but you can't know a land well without knowing its hustlers and scoundrels. Wilson understands their story and their game and writes about it extremely well.

DES WILSON, GHOSTS AT THE TABLE - Nearly all the big names in poker history, the legendary fraternity who in the 1950s to 1980s achieved world-wide fame as 'the Texas road gamblers' and went on to dominate both the World Series and the game's Hall of Fame, were outlaws, their nomadic and often dangerous lifestyles not that dissimilar to their 19th century Wild West predecessors, except that the Texans traveled by car rather than horse.

For them poker was not just about playing cards; it was about endless hours driving country roads, "fadin' the white line" from gas station to gas station, town to town, motel to motel, and game to game. . . It was about identifying and beating cheats, coping with police raids and arrests, and surviving hijackings and shootings. Winning at poker was the easy part; getting out of town with the money was the real challenge…

Unlike those who today play in front of attentive crowds and television cameras, the Texas road gamblers played in dark corners and dangerous places, protected only by the way they handled themselves (and, if necessary, their guns). "Fadin' the white line" demanded courage, an acceptable personality, and stamina. While there were some big games and sometimes some big wins, often the pickings were relatively small, and from them expenses had to be covered, and, by some, families kept. As well as the long, tiring journeys and countless days spent waiting in soul-less motel rooms for the game to begin, there were sometimes crushing defeats. To survive they had to be hard men, capable of doing whatever they had to do to survive in hard times.

Amarillo Slim says that to be a road gambler you had to do four things: 1. Find the game 2. Beat the game 3. Not get arrested 4. Not get robbed.

In the 50s and 60s most towns had a game if you knew where to find it, and a man known as "the boss gambler" to control it. He was a tough character in a world of tough characters - it was he who decided who could play in town, it was he who kept order, and it was he who paid off the police and the judges. If he didn't like you, at best you would be frozen out of the game, at worst you could get arrested by his friends in the force. If you were approved, you played poker untroubled by the law. Often he had a respectable front: the only way that poker could be played legally while allowing a house charge or 'rake' for the promoter was if it were licensed to be played in a club with a charitable purpose, so AmVets, Elks, and Redmen clubs were all used as fronts for poker.

Sometimes the games would be in a shady den, out the back of a bar or liquor store, or in a barn; usually they would be in the boss gambler's or houseman's home, with good home cooking and plenty of liquor for the few who liked a drink while they played. . .

There were about 30 or 40 road gamblers in Texas, nearly all of whom were world class players. Some stuck to their own territory - east or west or south of the state; others traveled the length and breadth of Texas, sometimes beyond it, some with partners, some alone. All were looking for a 'good game' and that meant one with serious money and that, in turn, called for at least one, and hopefully more, significant 'producers' at the table. . .

Hijackings were an accepted hazard of the business. Poker players were an ideal target because they were outlaws; they couldn't call the police for help. If they were halfway clever, the hijackers couldn't lose. Where else could they find piles of cash sitting on the table and no protection from the law?. . .

The door would just burst open, the hijackers would be masked and carrying guns, and usually they would force the players to undress and leave them in their underwear so they couldn't easily follow them to the getaway cars.

ANTHONY HOLDEN, BIGGER DEAL.COM - The passion he brings to everything he takes on is evident from the opening pages of this book, when he visits Deadwood, Dakota, in search of the truth about Wild Bill Hickok and that famous 'dead man's hand'. Were they really aces and eights? How do we know? What was the fifth card? Des, as you might expect, finds all the answers.

Casting himself as the Sherlock Holmes of poker, he proceeds to Tombstone, Arizona, to investigate the role of poker in the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Only Des Wilson, in the process, could find himself caught up in a re-enactment, braving mean streets 'full of Wyatt Earps and Doc Hollidays'. . .

Only Des Wilson, you might also suspect, could wangle himself an invitation to to the Texas ranch of Amarillo 'Slim' Preston, or bother to visit the now defunct Redmen Club in Dallas. With the help of Slim, Doyle Brunson, Crandell Addington, T.J. Cloutier and other revered old-timers, Wilson tells hair-raising stories of life on the road in the Fifties and Sixties, re-evaluating the reputation of Johnny Moss – was he really 'The Man'? – and especially Benny Binion, whose early crimes Wilson finds hard to forgive, however important Benny's role in putting poker on the map by launching its annual World Series. . . ).

He chums up with the genial Bobby Hoff, who still hasn't recovered from his heads-up defeat in 1979 at the hands of the first amateur to fluke his way to the world title, Hal Fowler – since listed as missing believed dead. This was only my second summer in Vegas, covering the World Series for the Sunday Times, so I have always wondered what happened to that weirdo Fowler. It should by now come as no surprise to learn that Des leaves no stone (literally) unturned in finding out.

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