Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Old Timey Road Gamblers 

Sweet. I'm buried right now but Johnny Hughes came through with another fine poker memoir, never before published.




by Johnny Hughes.

The old gamblers I write about are very dear in my memory because they all helped me go to college. Now young Dudes like Iggy drag down thirty dimes in a few days and it is no big deal. Scratching out a living as a gambler was harder than the third grade on Sarah Palin. It was an outlaw lifestyle forced upon us by society and the law. The law labeled us "characters" and the old gamblers were characters in every sense of the word.

These were three Texas professional gamblers who never worked for wages or had to nine-to-five it like the square Johns. They all three ran dice games and poker games. However, they were terrible poker players. In order to run a dice game, circa 1960, you needed a bankroll somewhere north of $10,000. Many of the stories, especially about Stinky and Moody, had to do with them throwing off a bankroll.

When Bill Smith and James "Tennesse Longgoodie" Roy moved to Lubbock, it was to run a poker game with Sherman "Stinky" Davis. Sherman got a third of the tea, house juice or five per cent on the chips. That all sounds great but Sherman was the all day sucker, the legendary live one. Jerry, my best pal, and I were always on short bankrolls in the big no-limit Hold 'em game populated heavily by traveling road gamblers. Sherman made it really hard on the short stacks because as he said, "I have a lot of gamble in me. If you want to play me, you have to play for all my money." Poker games boiled down to how you did in a big pot against Sherman. I remember a hand when Goodie re-raised Sherman before the flop. They both had about $2500 in front of them. A trashy flop came and Sherman fired at it. Goody smooth called. On fourth street, Sherman fired another barrel. Goody beat him into the pot with his call. Before the fifth street card stopped bouncing, Sherman moved all-in. Goody called rapidly. Sherman said he didn't have anything and Goody announced he had "the no-pair nuts." He'd called all the way through with ace-king, Big Slick.

In the Fall of the year, cash on the wood made gambling good in West Texas. The farmers were harvesting tall cotton, the college students had pockets full of Daddy's money, and everyone big enough to carry money was betting on football. Half the poker players were bookies, knee deep in money. I'd always pump up a fat bankroll in the Fall and go on a spending spree for lots of new clothes. We'd eat in fancy restaurants and take some nice trips. The big games were easier to beat in the Fall. When I did embrace gambler's ruin, it was always in the summers. I was stuck with some expensive winter clothes that shouted out gambler. One summer, I was down to a brass watch and a big smile. My only saleable items were a diamond ring I had paid $600 for and a little pistol, easy to hide. I sold the ring back to the jewelry store for $150 and soaked the pistol for $40. I put in all in a poker game and caught two aces the second round. Sherman re-raised me before the flop and I moved it all to the center like I did last winter. He had a queen, jack off-suit and busted me with three queens. It'a a hard go for case dough.

Moody, Sherman, and the Reverend were all in their fifties when I met them but they seemed old as the hills to me. They constantly squabbled and ribbed each other and told stories in which the other guy was the rube. There is a correct Texas way to do this but they sounded like old married couples bickering. The Reverend was very much like the insult comedian, Don Rickles. He ridiculed almost anyone he talked to. He also went by the name Reverend in public places. He was most profane.

One time, Moody and Sherman started playing heads-up Hold 'em for the craps bankroll they had been partners on. The word spread magically. When I got there at 8 a.m. there were about six players. Moody and Sherman were both skinny old guys in baggy sports coats and full-brim hats. They deserved some serious bird-dogging. I played about two rounds and won $400, chicken feed, and quit. You had to play Sherman for all your money on any pot you entered. He'd out bankroll you. When I'd quit when I was ahead, Sherman would always say the same thing, "That boy just won't let himself win anything." There had been a top road gambler in these parts called Sporty James. When I played him, he'd keep pulling white envelopes full of hundreds out of his suit pockets until he just overwhelmed the game with a sea of God's good, green money. When Sherman was forcing the action, they'd say, "He's speeding like Sporty James." I wanted to hang around to see how it all came out but sweaters were really frowned on. Never in our wildest dreams could we imagine that anyone would want to watch a poker game. Play? Sure. Watch? It didn't figure.

Another time, Sherman had called Moody on the phone. Moody asked what time it was and Sherman told him. Moody's watch was broken. They bet the craps bankroll on what time it was and Sherman won. When I was just turning out as a gambler, it was hard for me to understand why professional gamblers had so many leaks, especially gambling leaks. These great dice men were suckers for the poker and the horses. They'd both booked the horses and would jump on the other side of the window and bet on the horses. They were often partners and often opponents but they were always gambling at something. The time in New Mexico is one hour earlier than Texas. Sherman knew this and Moody did not. Sherman made Moody some big bets on some horse races in Ruidoso after they had already been run. This is called past-posting. Old gamblers would religiously pay off a wager whether it was on the square or not.

Whether I was going to a big game where they were welcome or a businessman's game where they were barred, I could always go over to Sherman's or Moody's house and get stake money. I nearly always won and I always cut up square. I was like Hyman Roth from the Godfather. I always made money for my partners.

When times were really tough in the summers, I could be a shill at the dice game for the Reverend Pruitt. It was a rather easy gig. The game was in the same apartment house where I ran a pot cut Hold 'em game for the college crowd. I suspect the Reverend was not the most efficient businessman around. There were often as many house men as there were shooters. There was the Reverend and his partner who put up the bankroll, a stick man who sang out the corny sayings, and a payoff man. Part of the Reverend's hustle was that all expenses came out of the bankroll so the ice box was packed with good food and there was plenty of beer and liquor. My pay for pretending to be a customer and getting the game started was $10 a day, $15 if the house had a good day, and all the food and drink I wanted. I'd been a poker shill at the Golden Nugget for the great Bill Boyd and let me tell you, shilling is boring.

We played poker and craps with paper money. In the dice games, they waxed the new money to make it flow quicker. Fanciness of the payoff man in flashing the money all around was this humongous part of the game, analgous to today's chip tricks. The craps bankroll was a six inch high stack of currency with the ones on top and the fives on bottom and the twenties and hundreds in the middle. The dealer would pay bets fast, dealing from the middle and the bottom of the stack of money in his hand. Sherman was down on his luck and was working for the Reverend and complaining non-stop. It was the first time he had worked for wages for thirty years, he said. Sherman was a gifted stickman, singing at the galloping dominoes, "Four. Little Joe. The hard way. Same shooter coming out. He is highly recommended but not fully guaranteed. Get a hunch and bet a bunch." When we'd open the spread and go to work, Sherman's mood would change and his eyes would light up. Talking to the live ones is an art form.

Before the game, we'd play gin rummy and I'd always win a little something, about as much as my day's wages. One day, the Reverend and Sherman, my mentors and dearest older friends, tried to run in a deck of ace-king strippers on me. These are usually for five stud or Hold 'em. These are cards where some of the cards, the aces and kings, have beveled or rounded edges. You can "pull" the strippers to the top. Either they are dealt or you know where they are. If they are on the top, you either catch two kings, two aces, or you both catch ace-king and the owner of the rounded deck knows it. Curly taught me to always pull on the deck to see if there are strippers. I caught them the first time I caressed the deck. These were industrial strength, big, round strippers which you could see with the naked eye.

Part of the Reverend's persona was that he was a Casanova, befriending herds of young girls. He walked all around the apartment house meeting all the girls. After the game got started, some beauty would come in and say hello to everyone and promise to be back with a couple of her wilder friends to party. The Reverend was always telling girls how much he had spent on other girl's buying them clothes. The Reverend didn't actually do much. All dice games needed a lookout to watch for the Texas Rangers aka the Big Hats. When you saw those big hats, you were supposed to get the door open or they would kick it in. The Reverend was mostly the lookout laying up on the couch.

For a while we had a Cajun stickman whom you could barely understand singing out the numbers. We could all read the dice but he would say, "Boxcars" or "Snake eyes" or "Nine's the line, the cockeyed line" or "Yo-leven." He'd carry his money in an east-side bankroll, with a hundred on the outside and lots of ones on the inside. One night he took a cab home and the cab driver robbed him. He left him with the cab and ran away on foot with all the Cajun's money. When the cops arrived, they couldn't understand the excited Cajun's speech and they put him in jail for stealing a cab.

Getting arrested for gambling rather often was just part of it. Early on they would lay a charge of vagrancy by association aka vag on us for a poker game. Later, the Supreme Court threw that law out. We'd go down to the jail and pay a $15 fine. If you lied and said you were sweating, the fine was $20. One night we were arrested at a big poker game and it was like a party. The identification officers got out all these old arrest photos and there were Sherman and Moody, really young, dressed up like characters out of the Untouchables.

The Texas Rangers ran in on an apartment where they thought that Sherman was running a game at the Stardust Apartments. They got the wrong apartment and were embarrassed. Later, they saw Bill Smith, Longgoodie, and Sherman having a sundae in an ice cream shop. The Rangers came in and arrested them for running a dice game and suggested they should pay the fine. They did.

Finally, the Rangers raided the Reverend and we knew they would sooner or later. For a dice game, you used a table with a plain green felt cover, no layout or spread. That was a more serious gambling paraphenalia charge. You marked the point with playing cards: 4,5,6,8,9,10. The dealer would pull the point over in front of him. The Reverend yelled it was the Texas Rangers coming and we tore down the spread and hid the dice. The Reverend stuffed the craps bankroll in my back pocket under my shirt tail. Sherman and one of the Rangers, I think Razz Renfro, had gone to high school together in Tahoka, Texas. Sherman offered them a beer. The Ranger said they were on duty but could have a beer if we'd all plead guilty which would make him off duty.

The Reverend got them a beer and pleaded with the Rangers to be allowed to stay open at the same spot. The Rangers said there was heat from the neighbors and he had to move on. The Rangers got everyone's real name and the Reverend promised to come down and pay all the fines. It was hard for the Rangers to believe that Sherman was a lowly stick man. The Rangers decided that I should go on home. I left grinning with the craps bankroll. Everything was done by custom. At the poker games, the players paid their own fines. At the dice games, the house paid the fines.

The Reverend often insulted his major producers and crew of inside men. Once when I was late for work, he told a full room that,"he saw two dogs doing it in the road and stopped to tell them how to do it better."
He threatened mayhem in a joking way but he had a short fuse. Once the laws arrested him out in his alley in his underwear with a shotgun. He said he was chasing a hijacker.

Sherman would say,"the Reverend has to drink."

Once when the Reverend was asleep on the couch, our major producer came in with this huge side-kick we did not know. This guy was a giant of a man. The producer starts teasing the Rev and goosing him. The Reverend came up swinging and hit the guy several times. It was very tense in the joint waiting to see what the big guy might do. There was a pistol under a opened magazine on the little table next to me. The Rev and the Stickman kept signaling me to get the pistol. I kept signaling that there was no way. Finally, that storm passed and the big guy had a drink but insisted on paying fifty cents for it..

The Sheriff's department sent a trustee out of the jail up to the Reverend's door asking if he could come in and shoot dice. It was night and the Reverend was alone with his girlfriend. The Reverend cracked the door a little bit and a real deputy sheriff pushed his way in, knocking the Rev back on the floor. The Reverend fired the gun he had in his hand once and hit the deputy in the stomach. The other deputies whipped up on the Reverend something awful but the gal jumped in to save him.

His picture was in the paper with his shirt off and in cuffs. It said he had $3100 on him in the article. The lawyer came down to the jail and said he would need $3100 up front which he could get from the property deposit. The Rev had to go down to broke dick farm as the old folks part of the prison at Huntsville is called. He was only gone a few years.

Johnny Hughes is the author of a novel, Texas Poker Wisdom. www.JohnnyHughes.com

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