Poker’s Long Road to Respectability

Poker’s Long Road to Respectability

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Road gambler Johnny Hughes on changing times.

When I turned out as a professional poker player in the late 1950s, poker was secretive, underground, stigmatised, and we were, by definition, outlaws. We did not ask the players their last names, where they were from or where they were going. When we’d get a phone call about a game, the word poker was not used over the phone. They’d say, “We are going to work at Morgan’s today.” We had the gambler’s knock, a fluttering of the fingers on the door, or the gambler’s tap, tapping a quarter or a coin on the window glass which made a distinctive sound. We kept our location secret from non players.

Most of the money coming into poker came from outlaws: bookmakers, bootleggers, burglars, loan sharks and such. At the early World Series of Poker, there were big, rich bookmakers from all over the country. The cash games were lucrative, high, and easier than now.

Jack “Treetop” Straus told me a revealing story. They were playing higher than a hawk’s nest and one guy would leave and go rob a bank and come back. The FBI followed him back to the game and arrested him. Treetop spoke for all poker players when he told the feds, “We don’t care where he got the money.”

As a college freshman, I made the dumb error of putting out football parlay sheets in the pool hall at Texas Tech University. Suckers could pick from three to ten games. The old lady that ran the pool hall told me that an undercover FBI man was hanging out there and asking about me. I walked out the door and did not return for two years.

For eight years, I ran a small poker game with a rake in the house or apartment in which I lived, taking advantage of a Texas law that allows gambling in your home as long as there is no rake. And who would snitch me off about the pot cut, the rake? When I started striking in the big games, I let the little game go, only to revive it when my bankroll looked like an elephant stepped on it. It was a chicken in the pot one day, feathers the next, up and down like a yo-yo. I moved from several little joints when the police came sniffing around and I shot over the head of one robber, and hit another with a gun, but I never got robbed or arrested at my own joint.

I was arrested several times for poker, though, and once for dice at the bigger games with the known road gamblers. The charge was vagrancy by association, meaning having no visible means of support and being in the company of other known gamblers. They’d put “KG”, for “known gambler”, on your arrest record. The police were very nice. They did not draw guns or use handcuffs.

My favourite arrest was with a group of well-known road gamblers. Bill Smith, the WSOP Main Event champ of 1985, James Roy, aka Tennessee Longgoodie, Odessa Red, Oklahoma Joe Barnes and Pat Renfro, Johnny Moss’s old partner, were there. At the jail, there was a laughing, party atmosphere. They got out old pictures of earlier arrests. It was the first time that I had heard Longgoodie’s real name.

Amarillo Slim Preston won the Main Event of the World Series in 1972 only because his old road partner, Doyle Brunson, dropped out at the last minute fearing all the publicity. Slim played with us in Lubbock a great deal and the house men feared his fame and high profile might attract the police, but it never did.

Once when the Texas Rangers, aka the Big Hats, raided a game, they asked who was Johnny Moss and Pat Renfro pointed him out, saying, “There ain’t no sense in all of us going to jail, Johnny.”

We were subject to arrest any day. Once, Bill Smith and Tennessee Longgoodie were having a sundae in an ice cream shop when the Texas Rangers arrested them for gambling. They explained they had just raided the wrong apartment and needed to make some gambling arrests. They pled guilty because we always cooperated with the laws to avoid more frequent arrests.

Doyle Brunson said, “There were five great fears a gambler had to live with: getting broke, getting robbed, getting arrested, getting cheated, and not getting paid.” All those things happened to all of us.

On my frequent trips to Las Vegas, I collected quite a few casino hats and casino coats, mostly from Binion’s Horseshoe. I did not wear them in Lubbock, my home town, until I was 64-years-old, and had retired from teaching at university. It was only then that I began to write and do radio interviews about poker and express my pride in poker. It’s through poker that you will make the best friends of your life.

One of my great friends, Iron Drawers Shaw, was murdered during a robbery about ten years back. A young guy we played with beat him and was searching his house when Iron Drawers called 911 and identified the young man. He came back and shot Iron Drawers. He was apprehended at the scene after being shot by police. At the trial, this was portrayed as an argument between gamblers which was termed like a drug deal gone sour. The killer got eight years. Iron Drawers was 79.

With the poker boom, the movie Rounders, online poker, and especially televised tournaments, poker entered the mainstream and the players became known, even admired. Now there is a big push for legalisation in varied states and nationally here in America. We are represented by great professional lobbyists, such as Rich Muny, of the Poker Player’s Alliance. Muny says, “The American Gaming Association is ramping up its push for online poker legislation, including bringing on Jim Messina, President Obama’s 2012 campaign manager.” The podcast of the interview he did with me is at

The main difference is that we now play in casinos and many of the problems, such as being robbed, loaning money, and being arrested, are less of a threat. There are still robberies and raids, but fewer of them. Texas Hold’em is still illegal in its birth place, Texas.

As poker seeks legalisation, the major impediment is the right-wing, religious, social conservatives. Europe has far less of a problem with this. Nolan Dalla, the Media Director of the World Series of Poker, wrote me this about the difference between America and Europe: “The European poker scene currently enjoys a number of advantages over their American counterparts. First and foremost, Europeans tend to be more liberal on social issues, including gambling. They don’t perceive gambling the way many Americans do, and therefore are more open to government legalisation and regulation. Look at sports betting, which is widespread throughout Europe but mostly outlawed here. Moreover, competing forms of gambling in Europe aren’t nearly as powerful in Europe as in the US (state lotteries, horse racing, land-based casinos). That means there’s little organised opposition to poker expanding. So, you have a much more poker-friendly environment over in Europe. That said, things are changing slowly in the US towards a more permissive market.”

Let’s hope so. Of all the things I have done in life, including being a college professor, I am the very proudest of being a professional poker player, back when it was harder and downright dangerous. There is no percentage in regrets, so I don’t have any.

Johnny Hughes is the author of Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories, on all Amazons.

Tags: Johnny Hughes, Road Gambler