Give Harrah’s Some Credit

Corporate poker giants have been good stewards of the game

by , Jun 26, 2011 | 2:50 am

Johnny Hughes


At the World Series of Poker, they announce the event and coveted bracelet winners and then play the national anthem of the country they come from. Play stops at all the cash games and the players stand and remove their hats. When an American won, my table stood with their hands over their hearts and sang. I looked out over that vast sea of poker players and was overcome by emotion. The song always gives me tingles but there was also a love and astonishment at how wonderful the playing conditions have become for this sport. Yes, it is a sport.

The players’ manners are terrific today compared to the past. Johnny Moss was known for being abusive to dealers. Puggy Pearson was worse. He pissed on one once. Another Hall of Famer, Joe Bernstein, bit a dealer.

I cannot sing enough praise for the poker management of Harrah’s. I had long conversations with Bill Sattler, Director of Poker, and aslo Jake Reville, Cathy Klufer, and Carrie Jacobs. For twenty years, I taught management subjects at Texas Tech. The magnificent professionalism of Harrah’s management makes me wish I could go lecture on how great they are. I played in the cheap no limit where you only buy $300. I’ve never lost at the Rio, but only played there seven times. I’m not trying to beat the best in the world anymore. I’m too old.

My first trip to the World Series was in 1975. I first went to Las Vegas in 1960 to work as a shill in the poker room at the Golden Nugget, playing poker on house money. When I would look out over that poker heaven called the Rio and thousands of players, I’d remember when there was only one poker table in downtown Las Vegas where the player had any chance at all to win. There was one $6 limit razz game with a 25 cent rake. The rest were “snatch games.” The rake was stronger than Grandma’s breath. I never saw a poker winner. We shills cheated by signaling when we had a pair. We’d sat our two cards in five stud at a forty-five degree angle. Benny Binion got me the job for Bill Boyd, as I was “vouched in” by Curly Cavitt.

At the early World Series, and Binion’s cash games there seemed to be very regular squabbles, and the floor man was making constant obvious rulings. We called them the “famous Binion’s five dollar squabble” because they were holding up the game. The Rio is almost void of that. One reason is that early players often blamed the dealer for bad luck and bad beats. No matter how tough the Binion’s were, and they were even tougher than you think, they allowed verbal and even physical abuse of the dealers. Hall of Famers Johnny Moss and John Bonneti were legendary for their verbal abuse. When Bonnetti made the final table in 1990, his acid-tongued aggression did not stop. Puggy Pearson actually pissed on a dealer once. Another Hall of Famer, Joe Bernstein, bit a dealer. Puggy wore costumes. Once he came as a Native Amercian, with a full war bonnet with feathers to the floor, and war paint. At the time of the first Gulf War, he came as Saddam Hussein. Puggy parked a motor home outside Binion’s back door. On the side was painted, “I’ll play any man from any land any game that he can name for any amount that he can count.” He meant it. Puggy was a neighbor of my cousin’s, Bill Stapp. Given poker’s stigma, he told the neighborhood he was a school teacher.

I have only played at the Rio seven times, but have never seen behavior even close to the way players acted in those days. The players’ manners are terrific today compared to the past.

Bad behavior included frequently tearing up the offensive bad beat cards, throwing cards, especially at the dealer. In a home game, Gene Bass put an ace in his sandwich and ate it.

The old regular retirees who came in the early morning like shift workers would tip the dealer fifty cents. They might throw a dollar chip, and say, “Half back.” Once at the Mirage, Bill Gates played the three–six limit. He’d throw a dollar and say, “Half back.”

Late one night, back when I was damn fool enough to drink, I was ridiculing the half back crowd, and palming all the fifty cent pieces in the game and taking them off the table, which is technically rat holing, and against the rules. I now rat hole hundreds when I’m off winner and play on velvet. After a while, I looked behind me, and there was a plain clothes Binion’s tough. He gave me a really scary look, and opened his jacket to expose a big semi-automatic pistol. My behavior improved in a heart beat, and they were coming fast.

My all-time favorites of the early Hall of Famers were the gentlemen, Crandell Addington and Doyle Brunson. Both have given me dynamite quotes for my Bluff Europe articles. Crandell was younger than the rest. He still holds the record for the most main event final tables in the early days. He’d dress fantastically with boots, a perfect Stetson, and always a tie. He won a big prop bet that he would not loosen his tie during the long, long main event. Crandell looked like Hollywood’s idea of the leading man, a very handsome road gambler. He was one of the biggest road gamblers in many states by his mid-twenties. Look up Crandell Addington on google images.

One of the greatest things about the early World Series, were the stories I’d collect. For over fifty years, I’ve collected the stories and old gambling and West Texas sayings. At the Rio, I got on a really lucky rush, my best sequence of cards all year. I said, “I’m holding more hands than any manicurist in town. That hand was as big as a foot.” After fifty years, the table still laughs.

Paradise Found?
I wore a hat with my novel title, and on it. After awhile, someone would ask if I was Johnny Hughes. I’d reply,”Do you think I”d wear this stupid hat if I wasn’t?” At this World Series, I met Lance Bradley, editor of Bluff, and the legendary Kevin Mathers, another Bluff editor. I ran into Toupee Jay at the Cardoza booth manned by a young man with the great name of Casagrande. I talked with Nolan Dalla, who I remember a little as a loud and funny drunk at the poker table and the coffee shop. He was their press guy and he was with Benny Behan, the owner’s son which made it even funnier. He was that rarity, a charming drunk, like me. One thing that has not changed, but only grown much richer, are the stories poker players share. Now there are top writers like Al Can’t Hang, Dan Michalski, and Paul “Dr. Pauly” McGuire documenting poker’s history as it happens.

Jack Binion was the real leader and major brain behind the growth of the World Series. When he left, his sister Becky Behen, oversaw a steady decline. Once there was a dealer walk out, and she badmouthed them in the newspaper. She didn’t pay the floor staff the agreed on amount. The world class buffet went to plastic eating utensils.

When Binion’s Horseshoe closed, I went to downtown Las Vegas and peeked in the front window. One lone lamp illuminated the ghost like dice tables, and slot machines. It reminded me of a dark theater, which it really was, and the work light. That was poker’s darkest hour, and Harrah’s rode to the rescue like John Wayne and the U.S. Cavalry. Hear the bugle?

I’ve been robbed and arrested several times because of poker. I’d have to move or the game would have to move. I’ve played poker many places. Once in the basement of a Catholic hospital, an angry nun broke up the game. In the dorms, the athletic trainer broke up the games. We played in a car lot with only four chairs. Late arrivals had to sit on a tire. Once we played very high above a cold storage facility. We wore coats, our teeth were rattling, and we played seven-five low ball very fast to keep warm. I played regularly in a whore house and most with outlaws: bookies, loan sharks, thieves, many ex-convicts, lawyers, and pimps. Poker was a lot of trouble.

In going to the World Series, I’d go watch the Lady’s event, seven stud on Mother’s Day. I was there when Poker Hall of Famer Barbara Enright was the first woman at the final table.

The contrast with the ideal playing conditions at the Rio is striking. There was very little waiting time. The people from all over the world were friendly conversationalists.

The dealer training and employee courtesy add to the enjoyment. Harrah’s saved poker and made it what it is today. Their corporate culture produces skilled leaders like Bill Sattler, Jake Reville, Cathy Klufa, and Carrie Jacobs. That culture can be felt on the felt. Good vibes! Poker has come a long way. Harrah’s deserves a lot of the credit. I stay at the centrally located and reasonable Imperial Palace, another Harrah’s property with a nice, small poker room. I’ll be back!

Johnny Hughes is a columnist for Bluff Europe and the author of Texas Poker Wisdom, a novel. He has been around long enough to be excused for not calling Harrah’s by their new name. You can find his collected writings at