November 04, 2009

A Young Man and Road Gambling

By Johnny Hughes © 2009

In my early twenties, when I went on the road gambling, I usually limped home scratching a broke man's ass. Lubbock was a real poker and gambling center. No need to travel, but we did, often. Johnny Moss moved to Lubbock in 1938 for the poker for a while. In the late 1950s, and early 1960s, many big gamblers moved to Lubbock, and the poker was fantastic. Dallas/Ft. Worth had gambling turf wars with many killed, grand jury indictments, law crackdowns, and vicious hijackers.

Big gamblers would live in a town, and play square there, but on the road, they only got the suckers one night at an Elk's, Moose, Eagle's, Country Club stag, or gambling night, so anything goes. I learned about all the cheating moves with cards and dice from Curly Cavitt, one of the top road gamblers in Texas, and the world. He worked with Titanic Thompson, Johnny Moss, Red Harris, and Pat Renfro to name a few.

Every form of imaginative dice came in and out, moved by the top magicians. Card cheating was expected. And yes, Dr. Pauly, they always had strippers. Two kinds. All those guys older than me that came out of the great depression knew how to cheat, but not anything at all like Curly and Titanic. Without a bankroll, losing is not an option. Speaking of the depression, Benny Binion said, "Tough times make tough people."

The big open, always no-limit Texas Hold 'em game at "the Shop" in Lubbock, Texas lasted thirty-five years. There were a steady supply of "road gamblers" coming and going. Nearly all lost. We called them "cross-roaders" or "scufflers", which implied cheaters. After winning the World Series of Poker at different times: Amarillo Slim, Sailor Roberts, and Bill Smith came to the Shop, and lost. Same with Bobby Hoff, who was at a few main-event final tables. Far better were the really slick, all-out con men in hot Cadillacs and nice, hot clothes. Tell 'em you like their hat or watch, they say "It's for sale," and mean it. The con men just could never handle the square poker, but they tried, and tried, and tried. They could always pump money, and how was none of our business. I knew many of them with incredible cons, but most were almost child-like at the poker.

The road gambler/con men slicks stole on the road, but not at the Shop. The biggest poker games were honest, because everyone knew the moves, and of course, some killers were ever present. Houdini would have been afraid to hold out a card. We knew nearly all the home and road poker players, and we welcomed any well-dressed stranger. The Shop was West Texas outlaw central for all manner of traveling thieves. I loved it. I wish it was open. It was my favorite place on earth, Binion's in Las Vegas second, and Texas Tech third, a weak third.

The road was way cheaper than it is today, even counting inflation. I stayed at the fanciest, legendary hotels. They had an off-room, cheap-price, or commercial-rate room. The Adolphus and Baker in Dallas. The Texan in Fort Worth. I stayed in the same suite at the Cortez in El Paso that President Kennedy had stayed in a couple of days before his assassination. They charged me $9.

I'd travel to bridge tournaments and play with clients a few sessions, and get paid. We'd bet all the old ladies $5 a piece, a gift. I was a Life Master, the highest rank, in my early twenties. We'd bet higher, but only good players took the action. But we still seemed to limp home broke. I left a lot of towns broke: Ft. Worth, Dallas often, Acapulco, Mexico City, Longview, El Paso, Joplin, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Austin, Del Rio, Los Angeles, Nashville, San Francisco, and more. Being broke on the road brings out one's inner creativity. As Benny Binion said, "I'll tell you the truth, but I won't tell you everything."

Nobody wanted to miss the big July 4th Regional Bridge tourney that alternated between Dallas and Ft. Worth. One year I was flat broke, and hitchhiked there. My golf hustler, bridge expert, complete con artist, then and now, mother passed me three times with her rich, lady friends. I had spent a fortune in poker money taking her to bridge tourneys. Often we'd fly someplace and take the long, long overnight bus home. I could sleep anywhere: buses, trains, planes, jail, back seats. I slept in a gambling joint until I was twenty-six, often while the chips rattled.

But on this trip, I was relegated to the Ft. Worth YMCA. I railed, kibitzed the bridge great, Oswald Jacoby, hit the buffet, played a few sessions, got drunk often, and had a big time. Bridge tourneys were very big, like poker tourneys now. Mother promised a few bucks walking around money, but no. On the last night, I get way to drunk to remember that my pockets were dry. I start marching back to the YMCA about 4 a.m. Being July the 4th, there are large flags everywhere. I stole one on a big, heavy pole. Now, I'm really marching. Some Ft. Worth rowdies stopped and hassled me, but I had the flag pole, the zeal of patriotism, and firewater courage. A cop car came my way, but I ducked into an alley. And I never abandoned Old Glory.

The next morning, I woke up broke on the third floor of the Fort Worth YMCA, and owe them for several days. I put the flag in my old suitcase and threw it to the street, far below. It sounded like a bomb when it hit. The suitcase broke open, and the flag unfurled on the sidewalk. I ran on down. Caught a great ride who bought me breakfast. Kept that big flag for years, as a bed cover.

Another time I go on the road with one of America's very best bridge players, Butch Adams. We drive 500 miles to Tyler, where the bridge tourney is canceled. We drive to Dallas, and there is a Calcutta. You bid on the pairs, and a pot forms with big cash prizes. The most famous bridge player of all time, Oswald Jacoby, bought us cheap. You buy half and split the winnings. There is a huge amount of richie, Dallas popularity bidding and the pot got large. We blew it on the first few hands. Amazing, Butch won everything, with everybody. We had won often. That same year, Johnny Moss staked me. So, I had the best-known men in bridge and poker as stake horses, then and now, stake me, and I lost for both of them. I was not a stake horse. i was a stick horse.

So, now Butch and I head north to Oklahoma City in time for the tail-end of a big bridge tournament. In the large open pairs, we knew only three pairs to bet with, so we got down for all the money we had left. There were hundreds of people. We placed fifth, and lost all three bets, to 1st, 2nd, and 4th. Broke again! We drove 1500 miles or more to get broke, when we could have gotten broke much cheaper in Lubbock, Texas.

Once a major sucker catches two aces, and my partner did too. They moved it to the center in the middle of winter. My man begged for a split. Sucker said no. He hit a flush, and flew to Dallas. We flew after him, and found a triple-draw low ball game with thieves. Dallas and poker thieves went together for decades. The next morning, I am walking down Commerce Street, when a slick grabs me by the arm. He says he is a colorologist with a college degree, and he had a perfect sports coat to match my "ruddy" skin color. So, I follow him into this fancy men's store, and he breaks me for my half of the traveling boodle. Coat, pants, shirts, belts. However, when I was broke, I was one of the best dressed gamblers in all of Texas.

When I went in the Army at age twenty-two, I had to tell them about my string of gambling arrests, and they listed me as a professional gambler. They told me if I played in the barracks poker game, I'd go to the stockade. It was a six-month active duty, six years reserves program. I didn't want to play in those nits and lice games anyway.

When I got out, right before Christmas of 1962, I had only my Army dress uniform to wear. I bought some fancy Signal Corps adornments, and a garish, orange sash for my shoulder, which I was not supposed to wear, bloused my boots like the paratroopers, and headed to Ft. Worth for another regional bridge tourney. This time I was staying at the Texas Hotel, like the quality folk.

With a pint of bootleg booze behind me, I went to the legendary Cellar, a beatnik, coffee house joint run by Pat KIrkwood, the son of one of Ft. Worth's biggest gamblers, Pappy KIrkwood. He had owned the fabled Four Deuces, the 2222, a full-tilt casino on the Jacksboro Highway when the gambling ran wide open, with the help of the law.

The Cellar sold fake booze. Syrupy rum and coke without alcohol. I raised a loud fuss, and they threw a United States Army soldier in uniform out. From Kipling, they let a drunk civilian in, but had no room for me. I have been thrown out of a lot nicer joints than that.

Joe Ely, a singer I later managed, worked at the Cellar, as did ZZ Top. They'd rotate playing all night. Ely said that Pat Kirkwood pointed a pistol at him rather than pay up.

At nineteen, I toured towns around East Texas with Curly Cavitt, the most legendary Texas gambler of them all. Palestine, Gladwater, Longview, Lufkin. Curly was on the road sixty years, and never went broke. His cheating skills were fantastic. I tried to fade open craps, but had no real bankroll, and lost. We went to a horse race, where I bet on a two-horse race, and lost. We went a massive Elk's Stag. There were five open dice tables, and two poker games up stairs. I got busted at five-dollar limit, seven-card stud by an old man doing an over-hand stack. Curly watched and laughed. Part of my education. He was there to stake Johnny Moss and Pat Renfro, and play in the big poker game. Two future Hall of Famers, Johnny Moss and Sarge Ferris, were battlling it out. Sarge's road game was razz, and they were playing it higher than Rush Limbaugh. I sat up in a high shoeshine stand watching big pots when players had $1000 and $500 bills in play, and there I was, broke again. Curly and Johnny Moss cut up the sweet score they tipped over.

One time coming out of Mexico with my pals, we had the cash stashed for the 300 plus miles home. Smuggling rum brilliantly, we had the backseat floorboard covered in bottles of rum. It was brutally cold, and we had our coats over the rum. The guys in the back had their knees up real high, and we got caught. It was only a $40 smuggling fine and the rum or my car, an easy choice. Case forty, oh lordy, broke again!

Two of my best friends, and first two partners and I opened a little gambling joint. We had pot cut Texas Hold 'em poker, and we dealt fast, very fast. Previously, college-age folks played dealer's choice, but Hold 'em makes the rake stronger than a garlic milkshake. We had blackjack (21), and we dealt fast, very fast. We bootlegged beer and sold mixed drinks, whiskey and coke. We'd have to run 110 miles to get beer, and we'd lose to parties when the joint was closed. When we got drunk, the hangers on got drunk. Once we made a light score, and decided to go to Juarez, Mexico, as we were prone to do. Being only 320 miles, we took no suitcases, clothes, or whatever. We did take the little joint bankroll. When three people share a road bankroll, you tend to spend.

In Juarez, we went one block past the international bridge to a favorite bar, San Felipe's. We drank a long time, and hired this band to play songs at 50 cents a pop. Every fourth song, we requested La Cucaracha, the Mexican Revolution corrido, and we sang loudly in fake Spanish, but on key. Finally, we went broke to La Cucaracha. We didn't eat in the fancy restaurant where each guy gets twenty-seven waiters, and five courses. We saw no dancing girls. We just sang La Cucaracha. We went in only one bar. Broke again.

Later, we slept in the car awhile, and headed home. We saw two giant strippers standing by the road. Their car is broken down. If we will take them to Hobbs, New Mexico, they will get us into an Elk's Stag with food, booze, and a show. Only we have to take the carnie-talking promoter, and they go in the car in front of us. Bummer. In Hobbs, we last four minutes inside the Elk's Lodge, and are thrown out. Broke again!

During my youngest years as a gambler, my folks moved around, especially Daddy, looking for oil. The Phillipines. Colorado. Michigan. Indiana. The boom towns of Texas. Once Daddy was in Ozona, Texas near the border. I got Buddy the Beat really drunk, and headed there to take Daddy my 1954 Ford. He gave me $20, and we hitchhiked on to Villa Acuna, Mexico with that our total bankroll. Some whores beat us up in the Number Eight bar, and threw us in the mud. We got separated, and I caught a flop house in Del Rio to wash my clothes, and sleep. The next day I found Buddy in Acuna. He had organized a minor search for me. Touching. We headed home broke. He was terrible to hitchhike with, even though he had more miles than anybody. I have hitchhiked away from the Mexican border a couple of times, and nobody trusted you, even back then.

When I was twenty-one, a buddy and I got a job shilling at the poker at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas for the great Bill Boyd. The shills signaled, the rake was incredible, and no one ever won. Boyd would "stake you" to your first five dollars free. As soon as they got broke, the suckers would grab for their billfold in a real sawdust, bust-out prop. Seeing broke around the corner, I wrote to my con-artist mother, recalling the time they actually gave me four silver dollars when I was nine to go the the Sorth Plains Fair. I pleaded for a loan. There were many con artists and gamblers in her family, and many upright, successful professionals.

Finally, a letter came to General Delivery, Las Vegas. There was no money. There was only one sentence from mother. It said, "The only thing worse than being a gambler is thinking you are one when you are not."
Spanish lyrics:
La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
ya no puede caminar
porque no tiene, porque le falta
marihuana pa' fumar.

English lyrics:
The cockroach, the cockroach,
can't walk anymore
because it doesn't have,
because it's lacking
marijuana to smoke.

Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom.


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I have to amid that it sounds better when you sing it in Spanish. I think that it is because you are used to listen it in Spanish.

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