A card shark’s tour of Dallas poker games

BY NOW THE TWO MEN were accustomed to their seats across the table. The judge looked off, trying to seen disinterested while the former mayor pondered his cards again and again. The game had lasted four hours and would end promptly at the pre-appointed hour. This was a class game at Preston Trails Country Club, free of the “deal-again” bad losers, and the chuckling booze hounds ahead out of sheer dumb luck. The judge and the ex-mayor are two above-average players and they would split this pot, a tidy little rake-in of more than $1,000. (The game is run with checks and credit: no cash on the table.)

To sit down at this exclusive country-club game, one needs not only a Preston Trail membership or invitation, but also the $2,000 buy-in. A noted builder-developer will take your check or put you “on the books,” and then give you the money minus his gratuity, an extra $150 a player. The $150 is for “banking” the game, a process best described as “guaranteeing” the money at the table, a questionable need considering such players as the judge and the former mayor. But for this $150 the players are assured of their money, even if they were never worried in the first place. Plus, the players are supplied with catered food served by an attentive waiter who treats the men with the respect to which they are accustomed.

A corporate lawyer, not a member at Preston Trails but a periodic player in the game, says it’s good poker-a chance to win some big money with not too tough competition: “Those guys are just screwing around. They’re not bad, but they’re not great either. Think, what does $5,000 mean to either one of those guys? Nothing. To me it’s decent, respectable money, you know?”

The poker at Preston Trails is $300 to $500 limit and the most popular game is something called Fort Worth Hold ’Em. It is a high-low game, odd for such high stakes, not what your grandfather used to play. The unusual game, the lawyer’s words – maybe it is not the money that attracts the personalities in this competition. Where else could the judge go one-on-one with the ex-mayor? And after butting heads on the golf course for five hours, how else could the contractor win back any of the money he lost on the links to the real estate man? The stakes are high, but it’s the battle of egos, the game of wits, that attracts the local richesse.

If powerful figures choose to battle it out with hundreds and thousands of dollars, other prominent people/players do not. There is an on-running game in the Lakewood area where the money is nothing compared to some of the bigger games in Dallas. The participants, however, are anything but small fry. A city councilman and a prominent financier often play in the game, one in which the stakes are 1-5-10 -and that’s pennies, not dollars.

Dallas is a poker horn of plenty: big games, small games, friendly games, friendly big games, non-friendly big games. Players are everywhere.

It’s probably a safe bet to say that every locker room in every country club in Dallas has been the site of a poker game at one time or another. Some of the games are better organized and better run than many regular house games. One current big country club game runs according to formula, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noon until 9 p.m. And they quit right at 9. “Some of the same guys are there every time,” says one player. “But some of the members stop by from time to time, lose a couple of hundred and leave.” In this game the house takes no rake and the players simply “take care” of the waiter. It is easy to see why some serious poker players would rather gamble at the country clubs even with the dues and initiation fees, just to avoid the grimy atmosphere and uncertain outcomes of some of the house games.

As a rule the country clubs are more immune to robberies, a consideration in big-money games. But not always. A few years back the now-defunct Glen Lakes Country Club was the site of a regular fast-action game frequented by some of the wealthiest and best players. Late one night a trio entered and leveled two handguns and a machine gun at the table full of players. Not getting what they wanted – money and respect -two of the robbers took a prominent restaurant owner outside and attempted to muscle him out of more money. But the additional time allowed the police to arrive: One of the robbers was killed by a policeman and another was apprehended after a chase across the golf course.

There are big-money, respectable house games, too. Every Thursday night (if enough players commit) one of Dallas’ biggest games begins with customers from all areas and social strata. How big? The winner might take home more than $100,000 for his night’s work. Initial buy-in is around $5,000.

In August, two former world Series of Poker champions, Pug Pearson and Doyle Brunson, were in town and dropped by the game. The results are not a matter of public record, but the fact that the two were even there points up the quality of the play and the amounts of money involved. One local player says the game is one of the toughest in town, or anywhere, for quality of play: “I’d heard about the game and knew that most of the guys were good players, but I also knew that if I hit a streak, and played okay, I could win large. Well, I sat down, bought in for a dime [$1,000] in cash, and the banker flipped me two chips. I felt like I was bothering them. I played for a while, lost my thousand, thanked ’em, and 1 haven’t been back since, and don’t want to. I’ll stay with my quarter [$25] games.”

It is not necessary to go to a house game or belong to a country club if you really want to play. One Dallas law firm has a set game every week: same time, same place. No one in the game excels as a player and though a good player could come in and win a respectable $300 to $400, the lawyers are guarded about letting strangers in. “Of course, we let a few guys play, but no one any good plays,” explains one lawyer. “Why should we? We know we’re all horrible.”

Then there are the other “house” games, those games that border on the illegal, charge customers and make a profit. In order to play in these games one has to know someone who knows someone, but unless you’re wearing a ski mask there’s usually not too much trouble getting in the front door, or back out again if you win.

These games are as unseemly and shaky as those at Preston Trails and North Dallas are glamorous and adventurous. Most are private games run by a strange collection of individuals. The games most often are short of life and long on addresses. The reason for this constant movement is the characters who run the games. Running them guarantees both profits and headaches. Usually there are three tables in action, four to nine people at a table. With each of these players paying a fee to play, from $2 to sometimes $8 an hour, the figures add up for the boss. But of course he has to worry about the police, his players, competition from other games, food, cards, tables and the neighbors. The profits may look juicy, but the troubles brought by the professional gambling clientele tend to make the game a short-term concern. The players are not the Preston Trails golfers in their $90 slacks who just stopped off after leaving the course.

Instead, the tables are surrounded by bookies, salesmen, golf pros, coaches and the aforementioned and nebulously termed “professional gambler.” Usually the good players are quickly separated from the pack. The tough competition and the burden of the fee usually means the poor player is not a staple fixture unless he or she owns a string of oil wells in West Texas. This causes a problem for the house man, for he must have players to have a game, and he can’t make money unless there’s a game. To combat this, the house man finds himself forced to give credit just to keep the game running. It is not at all unusual for the house to make a considerable sum of money over a period of time and then find out its profits are all in the accounts receivable.

The average Dallas poker game, like the average poker game anywhere, combines the social with the macho with the monetary. The players drink beer and make fun of the “serious” player trying to win an advantage by sipping only Dr Pepper. These average players know they would stand a better chance of winning if they would stay sober, but winning is not that important to them. And what about the other popular chemical mind-alterers? If the sober, decent player at a table full of drunks has an advantage, what about the same player surrounded by men snorting cocaine and smoking marijuana?

In some house games the principal owner and banker is also a player and often as not is a loser. One such game is run in Mesquite by a stereotypical little old lady. “Cousin Beth” presides over a strange medium-sized poker game. “It sure is way the hell out there, but the game’s big enough to make some money,” says one satisfied customer. Does Cousin Beth charge her players? “If she’s winning, she’ll only take a dollar or so out of each pot,” answers our friend, “but sometimes she gets really hyper and forgets. Of course if she’s losing she cuts a little deeper. We usually play straight Hold ’Em and she puts the money right back in the game. Every time I’ve played she has lost a bunch.”

On another side are what might be called the “public” house games. The last few years in Dallas there were continuous poker games operating at the American Veterans Club (AmVets) on Greenville Avenue, and at the Redman’s Club, at various addresses. At the AmVets, it did not matter that you were not an American veteran, or even that you were not a male, but as long as you could pay the initiation fee ($10 or so), and come up with the yearly dues (approximately $5), you were welcome to play in any of the continuing poker games.

Depending on the fluctuating volume, between one and five games were usually running simultaneously. One might be a 24 split-pot game attended by pensioners and another would be the no-limit Hold ’Em game where one could find the serious poker players: a 25-year-old whiz kid, a doctor, a real estate agent and the “experienced” poker professional.

The big game drew the best players, attracted the most attention, and, for the club, it was the most profitable. Each person at each table paid an hourly fee to play -as little as $2 from the small tables to as much as $8 for the big game. It was a business, professionally run with doormen, waitresses and cooks. And if the player was known as a good risk, credit was available.

The club prospered until late 1980 when a series of circumstances forced it to close. Different reasons are given for its demise: “When we got busted playing last year the cops told us that when certain people bought into the AmVets, they decided to shut their [the club’s] bullshit down, and they did,” says one regular. “[They] said their rent got too high and whoever the money was behind it said forget it. Another guy has all that no-limit action now.”

Another house game, one that was in direct competition with the AmVets, was the Redman’s Club. A stable poker landmark until recently, Redman’s was situated downtown for years before moving to Mockingbird. It did well there for a while until circumstances forced a move to far North Dallas, where the game finally came to an end. Redman’s was the site of some of the largest games Dallas has ever seen. Stories abound of one night when a local gambler/car dealer played head up with Bobby Baldwin, then World Champion of Poker. In fact as many people claim to have witnessed that showdown as now claim kinship to the late Howard Hughes. The legend is that around $100,000 changed hands. And, what is more remarkable, only two people were involved and all the money was cash.

The competition between the AmVets and Redman’s was fierce. They both cut into the other’s trade: One would slash rates and gain customers, thus making the other drop its rates. It was a real price war. The games in both locations ran continuously, so naturally they overlapped. Then, spin-offs of both games evolved. Some enterprising soul would rent an apartment, open up his own game, invite players from the public house games and thereby create even more competition and more dilution. Former players say this constant battling was instrumental in the deaths of the public house games and the migration to the private house games.

Though the conditions may change theorganizers and bankers and locations ofthe games, the poker games still exist inDallas. Gambling is a constant, whetherit’s by the pro, the big-time stockbrokerwho likes the change from his day-to-daybusiness of chance or the guy who justwants a night out and the possibility ofwinning $10. The players always want toplay. “1 never turn down a good game,”says one longtime Dallas poker player,”and there’s always a good gamesomewhere.”


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