Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Johnny Hughes Poker 

Another Johnny Hughes post.



BY: Johnny Hughes

You ask how did "Ole 186" get his road name? Road names were common. The bookmakers gave each customer a code number. E.W. asked for the same number with all the bookies. The bookies had pagers. You would call and give your number and they would call you back on a pay phone or a safe phone.

The Shop was this wonderful outlaw hangout in Lubbock, Texas for thirty-five years. Road gambers came from all over to play no-limit Hold 'em higher than cat's back. Rounders came strutting in from all over licking their chops. They limped away licking their wounds . E.W. would call and you would hear him on one of the bookmaker's pagers. He'd always say, "It's ole 186." This would start people telling E.W. stories. Some of the bigger bookmakers worked front office--back office. They could hear the incoming pager calls as could the front office phone man. They would know who was betting but would not return the call unless it was a big special player like a Judge or something. Once while Toots was being arrested, a Judge did call and the cops told him they were in the middle of a raid. The Judge said he didn't care and told them to tell Toots he would take $500 on the Cowboys.

The Shop and outlaw gambling in general had more rules than the Post Office. You didn't use any real names over the phone. E.W. was a real loner. He didn't hang out with the other gamblers. The Shop had this schedule. It would open up in the early mornings for coffee and old stories, the best part. Several of the big bookmakers went there every day. They were competitors not partners. In the mornings, there was a very cheap domino game. They would play for $1 or $5 and yell and get very emotional and angry. They would slam the dominoes down with great force and insult each other freely. I might not have told you but $1 then was like $10 now. The same guys who yelled at dominoes showed no emotion at poker. If someone trash talked or celebrated as they do today, one of the old guys would have shot them and all anybody would have said would have been, "Seat open."

E.W. would skip the old stories and the early part of the game to walk around the Mall. He'd read the Thrifty Nickel, the free shopping guide. He seemed to have no concept of time, never having to show up any place at a specific time. He was an outside man, someone who made their whole living from poker. The inside men ran poker games, dice games, loaned money, and were bookies. They didn't go broke, no romance to it. We outside men exchanged information when we met away from the poker game. E.W. and I would talk about how the other guys played, who had a temper, when there was heat from the law, what road gamblers were in town, and who had been on a winning or losing streak. The house man or lady would not tell you how everyone was doing as a matter of professionalism. You were not supposed to wake up the suckers giving poker lessons at the table. You just did not discuss how to play a hand. The one thing that did teach people about the math of poker was laying insurance. When there was a draw about to happen, the players would show both hands and the various bookmakers would quote a price or the odds on the draw. They did this in Las Vegas also. As money management, E.W. would often take the insurance bets when he had his case money on the table. You could bet on the insurance bets even if you weren't in the pot. When he was striking and pilling, E.W. would bet on every hand he had a chance to.

Because we had staked each other and loaned each other, we became friends. E.W. was broke more times than the Ten Commandments but he always ironed it out. He would go to Big Fred, who ran the game, for loans at 5% interest or juice per week if his pockets were dry. Once E.W. soaked his small portable T.V. to me. I loaned him $200 on it. When an outside man borrowed money, there usually wasn't a specific deadline for repayment. You'd always say truthfully, "I'll pay you when I win." I didn't hear from E.W. for awhile and I gave the TV to this young couple who were getting married. We'd win all kinds of things: rings, watches, clothes, car titles, rubber checks, and guns. E.W. got back on his feet and he wanted the TV back. He was really insistent that I had broken a rule moving a soaked TV. I had to go get it back Indian giver style.

E.W. and I rarely discussed anything but poker and poker players. He did tell me he had been 4-F during World War Two. He said he drove a bus and the soldiers harassed him. He was a little guy about 140 pounds. He always wore slacks, a nice shirt, and a hat with a full brim. Never trust a man in a narrow-brimmed hat. He's sit up at the table with his coffee, menthol cigarettes, and a big stack of money. One night he went broke and Bill Smith said, "Turn your hat around E.W." If you were going to sit at the poker table broke, you had to turn your hat around backwards where the dealer would know not to deal to you.

Someone might say, "I saw E.W. downtown and his hat was on backwards." That meant he was broke. E.W. would sometimes slip speed into his coffee while we played. You would never see him doing this but his speech would change and he'd get pretty crazy. If someone else did something weird, they might say, "I musta got a holt of E.W.'s coffee."

One night when we were playing higher than a hawks's nest and E.W. was that high also, he was dealt a blank card. We played with diamond back Bee's. He freaked out. He just sat there staring at the blank card. He called the first bet and then stopped the action to ask for another card. He thought it was some sort of trick. He jumped up and ran out of there like his horse was tied in a red ant bed.

When I first met E.W. we played in the back of a car lot at Wilbanks' place. Wilbanks was the primary producer and he would stake two or more players. In the Fall, in West Texas, there is a ton of money around. The farmer's have the cotton harvest and the college students come back which perks up all business. However, the big factor for the poker economy was the football betting. The bookies were knee deep in money in the Fall.

By summer, guys like me and E.W. might be scratching a broke man's ass. We'd play in poker games where Wilbanks had three of us staked and we'd still try to break each other.

Shortly after I met E.W. he was at a late night game with the tough crowd of other honky-tonk pill heads when he got robbed, again. I avoided those places. The robber ran in with a bowling pin in one hand and a pistol in the other. He hit E.W. in the head and shot out the light. Neither move were called for. Pill heads make terrible hijackers. This same guy came over to my little poker game. We just quit rather than deal with him. He told one of the college boys, "Ole Bennie won't let me sleep." Later, the same guy robbed a poker game and was killed for it.

The Shop was the safest place I ever went in America. In the whole thirty-five years I went there, I never saw a robbery,fight, or an arrest which makes you wonder. The Shop had been an auto repair shop. It set on an acre of land surrounded by a chain link fence topped by three strands of barbed wire AKA the Devil's rope. There were two big bay doors that were left open in the warm weather. Darral, Fred's brother, worked the phones and loaned a little money but mostly he was the lookout. There were a couple of shotguns hidden which I was told about after fifteen years. The poker was in a room in the back.

Once this one bad Detective came walking up and everyone ran. It was hot, hot summer and I dove into some tall careless weeds. Slap Happy Max and Housemove followed me. There were millions of bugs. Later we found out that Big Fred had this mysterious friendship with the big detectives. They'd come around every once in a while to whisper in corners. The went hunting together and the detectives came around Christmas for a drink. Fred ended up buried just a few feet from one of these detectives. A pal said, "He probably is gonna want Fred to give him a little something."

The only time they closed the game early was because this bad outlaw sat down to play. I never knew who he was. He kept asking about drugs which were not allowed at the Shop. He commented on several of his traveling companions. Finally, Darral came in and said the game is over. I asked if it was the law. We all cashed in very fast and did the old heel and toe. Later that night, I was "riding around and counting the cars." This meant you would go by various gambling joints to see how many and who was there. You tried to learn the cars of the other players, especially the all day suckers.

I was surprised to see that several of the old timers were at the Shop. I went in the poker game and took a seat. There were two shotguns and two rifles leaning against the wall behind the players. A couple of them had pistols showing in their belts. As was the iron-clad custom, I didn't ask any questions. We were playing pretty high and I tipped over a nice little score. The next day, I read in the newspaper that one of the top ten most wanted criminals had passed through town. I wasn't sure that was him. A long time later, I asked Fred about it. I said, "Were y'all afraid of that guy?"

He replied, "We're not afraid of anybody." I could tell the discussion was over.

E.W. loved the actual paper money itself more than what it might buy. He would sit there riffling though and counting and playing with his money all through the game. I once asked him what he really wanted in life. This seemed to puzzle him and he thought of it awhile. He said, "I'd like to have one room of my house filled all the way up with twenty dollars bills. From the floor to the ceiling, with twenty dollar bills." . E.W. taught me to always respect the house man. If it wasn't for the house, we could not play. E.W. always brought these weird presents for Fred and Darral from those trinket shops on Fremont Street. Who wouldn't want a clock made out of dice?

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