The Tall Poppy

I attended the private services of Doyle Frank Brunson Saturday May 27th, 2023, in Las Vegas.  The appropriately named “Godfather of Poker” passed away on May 14, 2023, at the age of 89.  Attending were many notables of the Old Guard in the gambling world along with family and his children Cheryl, Pam and Todd.  His best friend Jack Binion and his wife was in attendance as was Dewey Tomko, his golf hired gun.  The two Billy’s Baxter and Walters were there.  Then for the 2nd generation, there was Mori Eskandani, David Grey, Eli Elezra, Frank Kassela, Barbara Lewis, Marsha Waggoner, Terry King, Max Pescatori and Matt Savage.


Marsha Waggoner’s Birthday Dinner at Café Roma Jan. 11, 2022, Seated L-R Yosh Nakano, Steve Iino, Kathy Matsuoka. Doyle Brunson, Pam Brunson, Steve Parton, Terry King. Standing L-R Tim & John Esposito, Todd Brunson, Marsha Waggoner.

The Beginning

When our 1st attempt to spread hold-em at the Bike in 1987 failed, I realized that the key was to play half hold-em and lowball much as we had combined hold-em and stud in Las Vegas to increase the action.  I almost crashed and burned in the 1st mixed game when I was in my bankroll of $40k plus an additional $20k I had borrowed.  It took 3 days, but I finally broke even to live another day.  Things got a lot better after my initial burp.

The Diamond Jim Brady was the flagship event of George Hardy and the Bicycle Club held in August.  It was during that event that Chip and Doyle came swooping in.  Their reputations preceded them, but the regular line-up of Mark Weitzman, Johnny Chan, Hamid Dastmalchi, and Jack Lewis were no pushovers either.  All the adages that I say to young players currently came from Doyle after I would make fancy raises but then get lucky on him.  His favorite was “Linger long sucker but die you must.”  I heard, “Stack it up, son, like it belongs to you,” many times also.  Once I said I was just trying to help you.  “Son, if you’re walking through the woods, and you see me fighting a bear, help the bear.  His other sayings were “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” and “He wants to fly with the eagles, but squawks like a chicken.”

One of Nostradamus’ predictions was that a cataclysmic earthquake was going to hit California.  It made no sense to me, but Tommy Franklin had sold his limo to Chip and moved his family to Adelaide in southern Australia in spring of 1988.  That was on the direct opposite side of the world from Los Angeles.  Tommy discovered there was poker in Adelaide.  He convinced management that he knew the best players in the world, namely Chip Reese and Doyle Brunson and talked management into setting up a tournament.  He talked Chip into coming for the US-Australia Poker Championship. Of course, Chip wouldn’t be going anywhere if there wasn’t a guaranteed game, so he enlisted Doyle, Eric Drache, Johnny Chan and myself to make this long trip.  The write-up in the press was tremendous.  Tommy missed his calling in P.R. because he could exaggerate anything.  In the paper, he claimed he had lost a $700k pot.  Eric figured out that he was in the Main Event at the WSOP where $700k was 1st place but he was knocked out.

It was in Australia, either in a published interview or just at the dinner table, he declared he was the “Tall Poppy.” He explained to me that in Texas there were huge (everything is huge in Texas) fields of poppies and there will be one poppy that is taller than all the rest.  I asked what about Chip who was the acclaimed the best all-around player?  “Chip?” Doyle scoffed.  “He has the heart of a peppercorn.”  I don’t know if that was when he coined that description, but he liked to rub it in Chip’s face whenever Chip was unwilling to gamble.  Doyle would sometimes take the worst of it because he always thought he could overcome any adversity, but Chip usually had the best of it or an ulterior motive if he was giving up an edge.

“Hmm, I think I can play that.”

What is the punchline to Tommy Fischer’s question, “Do you know when you’re in trouble with a match with Doyle?”

I never won playing my own ball.  Everyone always shot their “career” rounds, and I could never get enough strokes.  I had given up playing my own ball by the time the Tall Poppy decided he had better get in on the action in 1989.  A group had gathered at Tustin Ranch and matches were made during the Diamond Jim Tournament.  Afterward, Doyle challenged my brother Wally and I to a low-ball match.  He yelled, “what’s better than 1 Nakano? 2 Nakano’s!”  He answered his own question and laughed at his own joke.  We played the following Monday.  It was a close match that could have gone either way.  It all came down to the 18th hole which was a par 5 with a 3 tiered green protected by bunkers on all 3 sides.  The pond was about a 40 yard carry with water around the front 3 sides.  The flag was on the right side of the middle tier.  We were all laying the same with Doyle 100 yards out and me slightly behind him.  Wally was about 70 yards out.  I dumped my shot into the middle of the water.  Doyle skulled his into the water after me.  It was now up to Wally.  It was cart path only, so we walked back to our carts.  From there we watched Wally set up for his shot.  He took a smooth swing, and the ball sailed high into the air and landed in the middle of the green.  It was beautiful.  He raised both his arms victoriously into the air.  He 2-putted for par and $25,000.  Doyle was introspective.  He said he didn’t realize Wally was as good as he was.  He then asked where I was off to, and I told him I was invited to Mark Tenner’s private game in Beverly Hills.  He warned me to be very careful, which is another story in itself.

The 2nd Annual Yosh Nakano Invitational Golf Tournament

I was a VIP player at Caesar’s Tahoe, and this was the 2nd golf tournament they hosted for me at the Edgewood Country Club bordering majestic Lake Tahoe.  Dealing with poker players meant dealing with golf hustlers.  It wasn’t easy but I managed to have 8 teams that were reasonably matched for a 4 man scramble tournament.  We had a practice round the day before and this was my next match against Doyle.  I knew I was playing with fire, but I enjoyed the challenge and although I was naïve, my teammates weren’t.
When My Team Puts A Tee in The Ground We Finish – Yosh Nakano

Industry Hills

After the tournament we went back to L.A., but Doyle was already planning his revenge.  He flew in his hired gun from Florida, Dewey Tomko.  The first thing Dewey did was complain about being forced to fly out for a bad match.  He was a scratch, but his drive was 250 maximum.  “Champ”, David Roepke was also a scratch but significantly longer at 280 yards.  Gary Lundgren and David Baxter shot in the high 70’s.  I was dead weight, but they needed me to bet enough to attract Doyle.  The rest of Doyle’s team was Chip who used to shoot in the 70’s and Rich Dunberg who shot in the low 80’s.  They had simply “upgraded” their A player from our match in Lake Tahoe.  My team said we were good favorites because they thought Champ was longer and better than Dewey.  The only contribution Doyle or I would make was in putting so that put us even.  David and Chip were close in weight and about similar in golf.  Gary was better than Rich.  We agreed to a $15k per team 5 bet 2-day contract with the option to double the back of which I covered $11k.  If a team was skunked with a double on the back, a team could lose $105k per match.

We agreed to play both matches at the challenging Industry Hills golf course.  A scramble is only 3 things.  The tee shot, the approach shot, and putting.  We were 30 yards further off the tee and our approach shots put us 10-20 feet from the hole.  Unfortunately, our putting was atrocious.  We couldn’t make putts as a team from 12-15 feet.  That’s something that is critical on a 4 man scramble.

After the 1st day, we lost 4 bets or $60k.  Licking our wounds at the 19th Hole, I asked Mike Sexton, who had walked the entire course to sweat the match, his opinion.  He said in the same analytical manner he used years later as the commentator for the WPT, “In my opinion, the team that is closer to the hole in regulation is the better team.  You guys were inside them every hole, but you couldn’t make a putt!”  I had a room there, but I had to go to the Bike to meet Mark Tenner at the Bike but came back to spend the night there.

The 2nd match didn’t go better.  A key hole was the 460 yard par 4 #7.  The green is shaped like a kidney bean with a pit and then a bunker to the left.  The approach to the green is about 20 yards wide with the pin in the back left.  Champ has hit a great approach shot and we’re 15 feet out but again we can’t make the putt.  They have over 200 yards and their 1st three approach shots do not find the green.  Dewey is their last chance, and he barely catches the front of the green by a foot and the ball rolls about 20 feet.  They still have 90 feet to the flag.  Again their 1st putts aren’t close.  Rich’s putt rolls up and down following the undulations of the green and goes in.  Champ and I are watching from atop the hill, and we can’t believe our eyes.  Champ curses, “Dammit we’re so unlucky!” as he bangs the cart very hard.  Again we ended up losing 4 bets and another $60k.  We were now down $120k. I tried to negotiate another match, but they said they had to head back to Oceanside where Chip and Doyle were partners in the Oceanside Card Club to sweat football for the weekend.  “Call us,” chirped Doyle.  They were in the driver’s seat and laughing all the way to Oceanside.

Busted and Disgusted

We had a beautiful 2 bedroom suite on the penthouse with a large jacuzzi on the patio.  The view was panoramic but none of that improved our spirits.  What was worse was that my team was broke, which was going to make a rematch difficult.  I called Doyle and offered a property I had that was worth $125k.  He said sure, but when I tried to offer a match, he said, “Here talk to Dewey.  We’ll play whatever he agrees to.”  To help you understand how tough it would be to make a fair match with Dewey, I once shot my true career round of 86 at Bay Hill from the blue tees.  He was giving me 6 ½ shots a side and I broke even.  He exhibited no signs of a guilty conscience.  “No we can’t play that,” exclaimed Dewey, “and we’ve got to go.  Call back tomorrow.  We’ll be back for the pros.” The winners can be very choosy on the next match, which is what I tried to get Ralph to understand almost 2 decades later.

The next day, I called and offered another match to Dewey.  “Naw we can’t play that,” he said.  My team were all there as I shook my head hanging up the phone.  We went back to brainstorming.  I was going to hear “Naw we can’t play that” 3 more times.  Finally, he said, “What was that again?”  I repeated the match and he said, “ok, we’ll play that.”  We were going to form 2 2-man scramble teams to play each other.  Each match would be $10k 5 ways plus the overall lowest score for each team would be match play for $10k 5 ways.  5 ways means there is a match play Nassau bet and a 2 down automatic press on each side.  There are 3 different team bets going on.  If a team were to lose every bet, they would lose $150k if no one doubled the back.  Dewey later claimed that they were in the midst of losing $400k in football, and just wanted to stop being bothered when he agreed to the match.

Champ and I were playing Dewey and Doyle and David and Gary were playing Chip and Rich.  Basically my match was Champ playing Dewey except Doyle was a better putter than me.  On the 10th tee, Doyle slumps down on the bench sweaty and exhausted.  We’re up 3-1 meaning we are 3 ahead on the 18 hole match and had already won 2 bets.  “Doyle, we’re drawing dead.  Let’s pay it off,” whines Dewey.  In gambling, to prevent negotiations from taking too long, the losing team can pay off the bets lost in the front and the overall and not play the back if they think it’s a mismatch called “paying it off”.  “Huh?” Doyle responds.  “I told you we’re drawing dead,” repeats Dewey.  Doyle thinks and then defiantly retorts, “We’re doubling the back!”  “What?” screams Dewey in disbelief.  “I said, we’re doubling the back,” Doyle replies.  “On all 3 matches?” I asked.  “Yep,” he says.  Dewey keeps shaking his head and says, “ok, it’s your funeral.”

The back is close, but Champ and I managed to win by one hole.  We won $50,000.  Our other team didn’t fare as well.  They were up 2 in the back but after an argument about a ball, they fell apart and were flipped 0-2.  They had won 2 bets on the front and the overall for $30,000 but lost $20k on the back for a net of plus 10k.  For the team bets, we won 2 bets in the front, 1 bet for overall and a double bet in the back for $50k total.  After losing $120k the previous week, we had won back $110k.  Making a comeback in gambling is almost as good as winning.

The 3rd & 4th Annual Yosh Nakano Invitational Golf Tournaments

The next 2 years, I had a great deal to play at Poppy Hills, Spyglass, and Pebble Beach and then I switched to Poppy Hills for the Links at Spanish Bay the 2nd year.  It was $450 to stay at the Inn at Spanish Bay for double occupancy and $450 for the golf on those 3 courses.  Those were fun times, but I don’t recall matches against Doyle.  There was much bigger action because Bobby Baldwin and Butch Holmes had joined the tournament.

Gamblers use grease on their clubs.  When I first started, I didn’t realize it was against the rules and I remember Jack Ryan went berserk when he realized I was using it.  I tried to get Chip and Doyle not to use grease, but Chip always said you have the option not to use it.  The serious gamblers take a glob of Vaseline and put it on their cart.  When the carts were being returned at the end of the day, I chuckled to myself when I heard the cart attendants sounding puzzled asking, “what’s all this greasy stuff on the carts?”  I guess they had never dealt with gamblers.

Doyle nicknamed Phil Hellmuth “Pouting Phil”, Huck Seed “Howling Huck”, and Mike Sexton “Moaning Mike”.  They played in a foursome with Gabe Kaplan.  At the end of their round their forecaddie asked Gabe if we were returning again next year.  Gabe, thinking he wanted to caddy for them again, said probably.  “Good,” said the caddy.  “That’s when I’m taking my vacation next year.  I ain’t no “f**king babysitter.”  Gabe and I both laughed when he told me this.

The 5th Annual Yosh Nakano Invitational Golf Tournament

This year in 1992, the setting is the Ojai Valley Inn Golf Course.  This small venue was ideal for a tournament.  There was a breakfast buffet where we could gather to negotiate matches for the day.  This year we had more A players and a few sandbaggers.  Jack Ward, who was a low 80’s shooter or a B came in as a C player which are players in the low 90’s.  Jimmy Adams and Chip Slavin were both excellent golfers along with the Usual Suspects of Puggy Pearson and Tommy Fischer.    I set up the tournament as a 4 man scramble the 1st day.  The 2nd day, the teams would split into 2 man scramble teams so they could match up and play with each other.

There were many bets on the 1st day, but it all came down to the final team captained by Puggy Pearson.  The 18th green is nestled into a quarter circle hill where 30 players were sweating his team.  They had a 40 foot putt for birdie.  I was standing next to Mike Sexton and remarked that we were in good shape.  The 1st 3 players missed.  As Puggy went up to address his putt, Mike said in a low voice, “this is the one I’m worried about.”  Puggy stood over his putt and as soon as he stroked it, he immediately took his hat and held it up in the air and yelled, “Sexton, what’s my name?”  As the putt broke 2 feet from left to right and dropped center cup, Mike yelled, “The Ayatollah.”  I could only shake my head thinking this is the stuff of legends.

I had learned my lesson about Puggy when at an earlier golf gathering, I had been crushed by Puggy and Doyle against my A player and I to the tune of $30k.  When you can’t beat them, join them and I later took Puggy as my partner on many winning matches.  Puggy’s golf stories are infamous but, in his day, he was better than 60% of the touring pros.

Doyle had flown in his college roommate as his A player.  I believe his name started with an H.  On the 2nd day, H and Doyle were playing against Jimmy Adams and Jack Ward.  Doyle bet on his team against everyone for about $40k.  I bet $5k against him.  “Doyle’s something isn’t he?” Chip said to me.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “He knows he has the worst of it, yet he’s still betting everyone,” noted Chip.  H may have been great in college, but he was no match for Jimmy and Doyle did lose but it was peanuts to the Big Time Gambler.

After everyone had left, Gary Lungren and I stayed to play against Chuck Sharp and Ralph Rudd for a week.  We woke up early every morning and after lunch we would play a 2nd 18 hole match.  Chuck had just started golf, so he and I teed off from the whites and played even though I was slightly better.  Gary and Ralph were playing from the blues.  I thought I could hold my own against Chuck, but I thought Gary was better than Ralph.  We finished in the total dark a few times.  We didn’t have flashlights in our phones or phones for that matter, but you would think one of us would think to buy a flashlight.  Gary missed a 1 foot put that cost $6k but I still won about $40k.

Other Matches

It takes broad shoulders to carry me in a golf match.  One of the broadest was Mike Sexton.  He’s deceptive with his short backswing and his 220 drive, but the rest of his game is solid.  I’ve broken down a +4 but we beat Chuck Sharp and Jimmy McHugh 3 straight matches until death threats ended that.  We also beat Chip and Doyle a couple of times which is no easy feat.  He’s cold-blooded and when we went out for a friendly match, he killed me giving me only 3½ a side.  “You’d do this to your own partner?” I exclaimed.  He could only grin.

“Big Al” Decarolis and I played against Chip and Doyle.  I didn’t realize that Chip had used to shoot in the 70’s.  He had his A game that day.  Although we birdied the 1st hole, it was downhill after that.  They had also brought the “Skipper” who was excellent at reading putts to increase their edge.  On one hole, I had whiffed my tee shot.  Al skulled his and it hit a large rock about 30 years to the left and bounced back over us and into the rocks.  We played my whiffed ball for our next shot.  We lost $25k as a team on that match.

Opportunity Knocks

I was unable to hit my drive over 170 yards, so I had quit golf for about 3 years.  Someone told me I should try these new drivers with the 460cc heads and told me to try them.  They’re much more forgiving.  I tried them and I couldn’t believe that I could consistently hit the drive about 220 yards and occasionally even further.  This was 2006 and the heyday of the online poker boom.  Mike Sexton was now a multi-millionaire from Party Poker and a super high roller.  There was a gathering of players down in La Costa.  The big match was Bobby Baldwin, Butch Holmes, and Hilbert Shirey playing $100k Nassaus.  In the lounge we were trying to make matches and we agreed on a 4 match contract between Sexton and Doyle against Ralph Rudd and me.  Doyle would always get to hit from the red tees but his drive although straight was too short to be used.  He also couldn’t swing or hit the ground, so he was allowed to tee it up everywhere.  We would play 1 match from the blue tees, whites the next, everyone from the reds, and a match with only woods.  We agreed to play for $45k Nassau per team with 1 2 down autopress on each side.  My tee shot, which had been a non-factor in the past, was now leading the pack.  Mike still had the better iron game, but it was 2 against one as Doyle’s shot did not elevate and these greens were well bunkered.  A key shot was the bunker shot on the 1st hole.  Ralph hit his shot to 1 foot, and we never looked back.  We won 4 bets for $180k.  The only reason we didn’t win 5 was because of an unlucky 125 yard par 3 across a lake.  We were on the green from 15 feet.  Doyle’s shot didn’t get up and ended up in the lake.  Mike choked and skulled his shot low over the water and I thought we had won the hole.  Instead at the end of the lake, the ball hits a rock and flies about 50 yards into the air.  It landed just off the green.  They made their birdie putt and we missed from 15 feet.

I had a meeting scheduled in Las Vegas with a foreign group over my online poker site PokerBlue and this was their only night in town so despite my apprehension, I had to go.  “Ralph, I have to go to Vegas for a meeting, but I’ll be back in the morning to play.”  “We have the nuts, and we have to finish the contract!” I said emphatically.

About 9 pm, I called Ralph hoping for the best, but full of dread.  Ralph was very drunk and slurred, “We’ve got a match and we’ve got the super nuts!”  Without allowing him to continue, I said, “Ralph, we already have the nuts!  We won 180 thousand today and we have 2 more matches to finish.  Let’s win this first and then we can make new matches.  I’ll be back first thing in the morning.”  “No, they said we didn’t have a contract,” Ralph answered.  “We have a contract,” I said emphatically.  “We 100% have a contract.  They are playing you,” I repeated.

I returned to La Costa the next morning.  The “nuts” was we would play the white tees and Doyle from the reds.  Doyle is allowed to tee up his ball everywhere and our match was we would be allowed to do the same and for that we would be giving Doyle 3 ½ shots a side for $10k nassau with one 2 down auto press a side.  Ralph also bet $30k that after 9 holes, he would be 4 up.  The front nine was a bloodbath and we were the ones bleeding.  I was down 4-2 and Ralph was 5 down.  I said we’re drawing dead and we need to pay it off.  Ralph decided to continue.  I paid it off and played Doyle even on the back for a new bet.  I struggled to break even on the back and the bloodbath continued for Ralph.  He lost $300k and I lost $50k.

Hindsight is 20/20 but I should have sent someone else to the meeting which didn’t amount to anything anyway.  I knew it was dangerous to leave Ralph alone within the clutches of 2 experienced and great golf hustlers.  They played him until he got drunk.  Then as Tommy Fischer predicted, Doyle said, “Hmm, I think we can play that.” My opportunity to finally get the best of Doyle and Mike was gone due to their gamesmanship that enabled them to escape our trap.  I knew better and should have somehow followed my instincts.

Einstein said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.”  I must have a wealth of knowledge from competing against Doyle, not to exclude the other rounders like Chip Reese, Puggy Pearson, Tommy Fischer, and Mike Sexton.  They were all tough but, Doyle is “The Tall Poppy”.

On a side note, I did finally beat Tommy once.  I had walked up to a game and Tommy said to me, “and you can have 100-1.”  “What are you talking about?” as I shook my head confused.  “I’m giving Huck 50-1 even from the red tees, and I’ll give you 100-1,” said Tommy.  It was only a thousand dollars to take although I didn’t think I had much of a chance.

The day we were playing at Primm, it was very windy.  Primm was closed and so I said I guess we’ll have to reschedule.  He called Sunrise and they said they were open, so Tommy wanted to go there.  I thought Tommy was making a strategic error.  Primm is a well designed golf course with trouble from the back tees or the reds.  Many courses the reds bypass the trouble.  There is a par 5 that goes around the lake.  From the red, a good player can go directly for the green across the lake where it’s shorter.  Sunrise is just a basic straightforward course without too much trouble.  I guess Tommy just wanted to pick up his $2k and get to the poker game.

The wind hurt me less than the long hitters.  I’m short and my shots are low.  I also shot my career round of even par on the front.  Huck shot about 2 over.  Tommy had the ability to shoot under par, but he was struggling with the wind and the pressure.  He even missed a few short putts which was uncharacteristic of him who had played on the mini tour.  After 9 holes, I was 4 up and Huck was 3 up.  Tommy offered me a settlement for $60k and Huck $30k.  I thought I could easily lose 4 holes in the back, so I took the $60.  Huck took the settlement also because without me there would be less pressure on Tommy.  We played the back for $500, and I lost by 5 holes on the back.  It could have been because the pressure was off, but I had my once in a lifetime opportunity to beat him, and I was very satisfied.

The Legend of Poker

Among all the legendary poker players past, present, and future ones, Doyle will remain “The Tall Poppy”.  His career spanned successfully through the 3 eras of poker-“The Wild West”, “Legitimacy”, and “The Boom”.  Billy Baxter is also in that category, and I have nothing but respect for him also.

“The Wild West” These are the early years of poker in the days of the rounders.  A rounder was a professional poker player that made the “rounds” of games around their territory.  I started playing in that era but Vancouver, WA had legal poker rooms by 1975.  A rounder had to get invited to the game, not get cheated, cash out before the houseman blew the rake, and get home with the money.  I was a college student but the rules for the private games were the same.  I don’t know the level of violence in other parts of the country but in Oregon, I had a sheet of players that owed me money and every now and then I would scratch someone off after they were murdered or died of unnatural causes.

Doyle has a famous story about being in a game that was hijacked.  The hijacker asked, “Who runs this game?”  No one answered, but when he put the long barrel of the weapon to his head, Doyle said he didn’t hesitate to point out the proprietor.

Another story he told was about Corky McCorquodale.  He had traveled to Tennessee and got all his money in with pocket aces against poker kings.  He asked for insurance.  The reply was we don’t do insurance here.  He asked to split the pot.  The reply was we don’t split the pot here.  Corky asked, “Can I get gas money home?”

I’m not going to judge on the ethics of this era, but it was a different time with different standards in the high stakes games.  I became “friends” with many of them.  Danny Robison, who brought Chip Reese into town as his partner, told Frank Thompson and I many funny stories over dinner.  He laughed as he said, “Do you want to hear how I got over on Doyle?”  Doyle was backing Jack Straus in the gin contract to play until someone won $150k or an agreed number of hands.  They were coming with short cards, but Chip and Danny had set up a peep.  I asked what short cards were and told it was a deck where the small cards were slightly shaved so one could feel them as there was dealt out.  Of course, the peep is stronger.  With the peep, you drill a hole over your opponent and message your partner by sending an electrical impulse inside their shoe.  Danny was winning about $50k when he gets called by an angry, cursing Doyle accusing him of cheating.  Danny says, “Doyle, I don’t even like this match.  I’ve been getting very lucky and I’m ready to end it right now.”  “Huh?” responds Doyle.  After a short silence, he agrees to carry on, but not before telling him in no uncertain terms what he will do if he’s cheating.  “No Doyle, I swear I don’t even like this match and ready to call it off,” Danny answers.  Danny laughs as he said they won over $130k.

This is Chip’s version of the story about playing gin at the Country Club.  Every day, Doyle would be winning against Chip and Billy Baxter.  When it was dinner time, he would quit saying, “Mama’s got dinner on the table.”  This went on until one day they had Doyle stuck at dinner time.  Chip asked what’s Mama got cooking tonight.  Doyle said, “Shut up and deal.”  Doyle kept losing and when he was down about $750k, he had them strip down while he searched them for drugs.  He still claims he was drugged.  Billy was his partner in booking, and he broke that partnership up.

The high limit players also had to contend with the ruthless and cold-blooded killer Tony “the Ant” Spilotro in that era brought to the big screen in “Casino”.  He terrorized and extorted the players.  There are many stories but at the funeral reception at Café Roma owned by Todd Brunson, Billy Baxter told us a story involving him and Doyle that I hadn’t heard.  When Billy and Doyle were partners booking, Billy got a call at his home late at night.  It was Tony telling him to come meet him.  Billy said it’s late and I’m at home with my wife and asked if he could see him in the morning?  Tony yelled, “I don’t care where the f**k you are or who the f**k you’re with.  I want you to come right now!”  As Billy was leaving his home, his wife asked if he had to go tonight.  “I think I have to go,” answered Billy.  When he got there, Tony was in the back in a booth and Billy asked, “What can I do for you?”  Up until then, Tony had been a good customer that paid.  “Starting this minute, I want 25% of your action,” demanded Tony.  “That’s a little high,” replied Billy and tried to negotiate a lower percentage.  “I want 25% right now and if you book another bet, I’m going to stick 12 ice picks into Fatso’s belly,” snarled, “Tony the Ant”.  Doyle called immediately after, but Billy said he couldn’t talk about it on the phone. The next day they meet and Doyle asked what Tony wanted?  Billy said, “Tony said he wants 25% of our action or else.”  “Or else what?” asked Doyle.  “He says he’s going to put 12 ice picks in your belly,” replies Billy.  Doyle starts poking Billy’s belly and retorts, “What’s wrong with your belly?”  They decided to talk to Benny Binion who agreed to talk to Tony.  “You brought in that old geezer, huh?” commented Tony.  “What can I do for you Benny?” asked Tony when they meet in the Horseshoe.  “Well Tony, these are good ol’ boys from back home,” said Benny.  “Can you give these boys a pass this time?”  Billy said he and Doyle felt relieved when Tony said, “Just for you, Benny, I’ll do it for you this one time.”

Years later in the late 80’s, Doyle posed a rhetorical question at the table asking who would you go to if you had a problem in Vegas?  After no one answered, Doyle said, “I would go to Jack Binion.”  I didn’t realize he had already used that card.

Amarillo Slim, Puggy Pearson, & Doyle Brunson playing while Benny Binion is watching while standing.

Billy Baxter standing behind Johnny Moss.

“Legitimacy” When Danny Robison returned to Las Vegas around the mid-80’s he had become a born-again Christian and married.  He had overcome a terrible cocaine addiction and started the players going to Bible study.  Johnny Moss would say, “Chip and Doyle stole all the money in town and wants everyone to get religion, so no one steals it back.”  “I don’t need Bible study.  “I wasn’t in them cold decks,” was Tommy Cress’ quip.  It wasn’t just the born-again movement that caused games to become more honest.  The players I played with in Lake Tahoe and Reno were very honorable.  When I moved to Las Vegas in 1982, there were honorable players like David Chew, Cissy Rousseau, and Don Zewin although we played at the Stardust which was a mob joint.  Eric Drache is the “Father of Modern Poker”.  As cardroom manager of the Golden Nugget he instituted “dealer procedures”.  That was a novel concept.  Squaring up the deck and releasing it before cutting prevented cold decks.  Marking cards is a potential problem so he also had the set-up changed every 30 minutes.  “If someone is marking the cards, I want them to have to do it every half hour,” Eric told me.

George Hardie and Mike Caro helped to clean up L.A. poker by establishing something like a blacklist for known cheaters.  George also hired ex-cheats for surveillance but that didn’t prevent their major cheating scandal in 1988 that involve a floorman named Danny from bringing in marked cards for Larry Smith and Rick Riolo who called himself “Just Rick”.

“The Boom”  Chris Moneymaker winning the Main Event in 2003 and the World Poker Tour along with online poker started the poker boom.  Doyle was right in the middle of it with Doyle’s Room along with partner “Big Al” Decarolis and my brother COO Wally Nakano.  They were doing $2.5 million in revenue monthly.  It came to a crashing halt when the Republicans passed the UIEGA in the fall of  2006.  No one was allowed to read it and it was attached to the Safe Ports Act which was a necessary piece of legislation.  The platform for Doyle’s Room was a public company in England and they had to immediately withdraw from the U.S. market.  My had a Canadian base and with a hedge fund investing $50 million.  Even after the passage of the UIEGA, the hedge fund was fine, and I made plans to bring Doyle’s Room back into the U.S. with our platform.  We were going to be the software company with my CTO Alex Hwang, a friend from Kubasaki High School who had developed the first Chinese to English translator.  The software company receives 25% of the revenue so we had a built in revenue of $500k a month.  In early 2007, the Federal government shut down the multi-billion dollar Neteller which was our funding source.  Worse than that, the hedge fund decided to pull out.  Doyle continued to compete in the $3000-$6000 mix games against the Young Guns.  A game with 4 betting rounds will cost $18,000 if there aren’t any raises.  He also kept hustling golf against the nouveau rich from online poker.

There can never be another Tall Poppy!