The Debutant

This was a very eclectic dinner table.  To Phil’s left are Cindy Robertson and Kenny Jones, aka ‘Clone’ due to his uncanny resemblance to David Sklansky.  Cindy’s cousin had a slot team and she had made a lot of money being on the team.  Kenny was a rounder in Reno that was always hunting for profitable propositions but not a very good poker player.  A couple years earlier in Reno, he had a thousand dollars, and I started playing him heads-up.  He kept beating me so I kept changing the game trying to find one in which I could win.  Between my cash and my tab with Kenny I was in $40k.  I told him he could win my house and he bragged about it to everyone that came by.  Reno did not have any big games, so this game was unbelievable to the regular players.  He was in his glory and holding court as many players came by to pay homage.  He never stopped chirping, but I didn’t care just as long as he didn’t quit.  We played non-stop for 5 days.  When I finally busted him, I had lost $2k for the session.  That means we had paid about $3k in collections and tips.

Yosh Nakano and Phil Hellmuth

Poker Cruise in the Caribbean Jan 1989 L to R circular: Tommy Fischer, Paula Fischer, unk couple, Yosh Nakano, Marsha Waggoner, Robert Turner, Phil Hellmuth, Cindy Robertson, Kenny Jones dinner table.

Kenny was always willing to gamble it all on the slightest advantage.  If the count was plus 2, he had been known to bet his entire bankroll.  Despite going broke many times, he finally hit a score with slot machines and blackjack.  With a $300k bankroll, he had a complete makeover.  The transformation was unbelievable.  He got a haircut and trimmed his beard.  I don’t know who did his shopping, but he upgraded his wardrobe dressing very expensively and tastefully.  Sporting a high-end light tan leather jacket, he started dating attractive girls.  This was a major contrast to someone who always appeared ungroomed in an old t-shirt and jeans.

Tommy Fischer was an OG.  He was the purported character in “Casino” that was Tony Spilotro’s bookmaker.  In the movie, Tony had lost a $5k bet.  When the bookie tried to collect, Tony claimed he had bet the other side and got paid.  Tommy never verified that story, but he did tell me that Spilotro was very difficult to deal with.  Many players are tight lipped about the mob days of Las Vegas except to speak in generalities.  He was an action player in a poker game but in the gambling world he was very talented.  I never bothered to try to learn gin because most of the poker players were already world-class gin players.  The learning curb would be too expensive.  Of course, Stuey was heads and heels the best player but after that Tommy was in the top 5.  He had also played in the mini tour, so he was a top golf hustler.  He once asked me, “Do you know when you’re in trouble with a golf match with Doyle?”  I replied, “No, when?”  Tommy would give a sly smile and said, “When he says, hmmm, I might be able to play that.”  The implied meaning is that if Doyle played a match, you were in trouble.  He was also the “Expert” in boxing handicapping.  Everyone followed his picks.  Paula was his 3rd wife and was living the dream playing golf every day retiring as a beautician.  Tommy would try to hustle me in a match against his wife. I was a sucker but even I was not that foolish.  His standing prop to me was that he would play me hitting the ball on his knees.  I respected his game too much and knew how bad I was to ever accept that prop.

Marsha Waggoner and Robert Turner were partners running the hold-em games at the Horseshoe Casino.  A couple of years later we all became housemates.

I think I had met Phil a few months earlier through my friend ‘Big’ Al who was also from Wisconsin.  In fact, I might have been the one that told Phil about the cruise but either way I wouldn’t be surprised.  After all, it was 31 years ago.  The others at the table were not party people so Phil and I would go to the discos after the poker games shut down to have a few drinks and enjoy the night life scene.  He was very engaging and straight forward coming from a good family in the Midwest.

The days at sea were spent in the poker room.  Another OG on the cruise was Puggy Pearson.  I wasn’t that friendly with Puggy yet because I was very wary of his reputation.  Something came up where Phil wanted to play Puggy a $10k freeze-out no limit hold-em  and spot Puggy the button every hand.  All the big games in LA were limit as no limit was primarily played in tournaments and by Texans.  Phil wanted credit but Puggy is too old school to extend that to someone he didn’t know.  Phil asked me to guarantee him.  He told me don’t worry, you will get your money as soon as we get back to LA.  He seemed honest and it was only 10k so I told Puggy I would guarantee the money.  Puggy won but when Phil wanted to play another one, he refused.  Puggy was a steamer, but when he was ahead, he loved to lock it up.

Tommy Fischer said he would take the offer but again he said I would have to guarantee it.  I said ok, but when Tommy won, I said that was enough for me.  I figured if these guys wanted to win Phil’s money, they should take the risk themselves.  I had nothing to gain.  If I had been smart, I would have asked for a small freeroll to guarantee the money.  Phil did pay me promptly as he had promised but I had made a mental note to myself that this kid’s ego was too big for him to last in this business.

One of the conversations that came up at the dinner table was the World Series of Poker (WSOP).  Phil stated that he would win an event at this years WSOP.  Here was a newcomer who had no tournament credentials stating he was going to win a tournament at the WSOP.  At that time, there was only 4 big tournaments.  In addition to the WSOP, there was the Horseshoe’s Hall of Fame in the fall, the Diamond Jim at the Bicycle Casino in LA and the Amarillo Slim Tournament which moved around but it would be in Lake Tahoe coming up shortly after the cruise.  Tommy said I’ll bet that, and they agreed on a $3k bet.  Robert Turner couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so he also bet $3k.  I was thinking this reinforced my earlier assessment about his huge ego.  I was also tempted to bet but I figured sweating the $20k was enough.

At Lake Tahoe, during the Slim tournament I was playing in the regular poker room.  I got a call on the house phone from Chip.  He said who is this kid Phil?  He wants credit and he said you would vouch for him.  I wasn’t going to make the same mistake and guarantee him, but I said he owed me $20k from the cruise and I got paid immediately.  I said he’s got a big ego, but I think he’s honorable.  I heard Phil lost up there but as good as his word, he took care of his debt.

The next time I saw him was at the Bike just before the WSOP which was April or May in those days.  I was playing in a $400-$800 mix game when Phil sauntered in.  I said to Stuey, hey do you know that kid.  Stuey turned around and turned back and said no why?  I smiled as I gave him my punchline.  “That kid has a bigger ego than you.” He turned back around for another look, whirled back and gave me an angry dirty look as if to say I’m a two-time world champion with many other tournament wins, the greatest gin player of all-time and the best poker player in the world.  Who is he?  I chuckled because I got the reaction I expected.

Phil had not won a tournament as of the Main Event.  It looked like Tommy and Robert were going to win $3k each but then it came down to Phil and Johnny Chan.  Johnny was the “Master”.  He had just won the last 4 Horseshoe Main Events- 2 Hall of Fames, and 2 WSOP’s consecutively.  I had saved 10% with Johnny so I was rooting for him as well.  I was watching it on tv from the Golden Nugget when Phil said call, turned over pocket nines and stood up.  Johnny had A7 of spades, but I fully expected Johnny to catch an ace.  No ace came and Phil Hellmuth was the new World Champ.  I thought that was unlucky for Tommy and Robert.  My tournament record sucks so I asked Johnny why he made that play as he was giving me $30k in cash.  He simply said he just got tired.