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The Good, The Great and The Ugly: Legends of Poker

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Over the last century, card gambling hasn't changed a whole lot. Oh sure, new games have appeared and the skills required to beat them have become more and more fine-tuned, but the great players of of back then share something fundamental with the greats of today - the need to find action.

In the 19th century, the Wild West was a gambler's paradise. Every town had a saloon that pulsed with card sharks and moneylenders, while the riverboats of the Midwest and deep south were kept running on the fuel of high society gamblers who cared less about their return and more about putting on a good show. As the twentieth century loomed large, names like Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were the stuff of lore, but it was James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickock who would become the world's first great poker legend. Wild Bill was a scout in the Civil War, a lawman in Kansas, and later a touring sharpshooter with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He's said to have found himself on the wrong end of a firefight against three men, the brothers known as the McCanlies, on one occasion, but rather than turn tail and run he put all three of them six feet under. While Wild Bill was a legend, the West was the last place you wanted to be if you were renowned. A string of pretenders came after Wild Bill, from gunmen to card sharks, and he turned them all away, one after the other, until he was shot in the back while playing poker in a South Dakota saloon, at age 39, by 'Crooked Nose" McCall. When he died, Hickock was holding two pairs - aces and 8's - known to this day as the 'dead man's hand'.

As the Wild West became the west coast, the saloon action dried up and gamblers found themselves traveling to Nevada - specifically Reno and Las Vegas - to get their fix. Early Vegas produced a number of high profile poker identities, many of which invested much of their winnings into the Las Vegas itself. These men, such as Syd Wyman, a high stakes gambler who at various times actually owned the Sands, Riviera and Dunes casinos, went far beyond just gambling and spent a large part of their lives (and fortunes) making high stakes gambling a legitimate event. When Wyman died, casino play actually halted for two minutes out of respect to his achievements.

Then there was Corky McCorquodale. Known for his 'no limits' assaults on Vegas card rooms, McCorquodale brought Texas Hold'em to Vegas in 1963, a game that has flourished since - another cowboy, Benny Binion, came to town to play poker and ended up building Vegas' legendary Horseshoe Casino and creating the World Series of Poker tournament.

As respected and lauded as these icons are, precious few could ever compare to the legend that is Nick "The Greek" Dandolos, a household name for much of his gambling career. Nick the Greek liked to bet and bet big. He had the biggest players of his time in fear of his sky-high wagers, but ran into a string of bad luck and, late in his life, was found betting for $5 chips in a southern California room. When asked how he could play at such a low level, he's reported to have said, "Hey, its action!"

Several of the great poker players of the 20th century died doing what they loved. When Tom Abdo suffered a heart attack at the tables, he didn't rush to hospital to save his life, instead he turned to the player next to him and asked him to count his chips down and save the seat. Abdo was determined to come back and finish the game, but instead died later that night.

Jack "Treetop" Straus, a 6'6" mountain of a man, noted for unorthodox play and a legendary teller of poker-related tall tales, had a heart attack at the tables at the age of 58. It's claimed by some that his last hand was a huge bluff; the kind one makes when you know it's the last hand you're going to play. He didn't win the hand.

Some legendary gamblers are quiet and keep to themselves. Others are the opposite. When fast-talking Texan "Amarillo Slim" Preston won the world poker title in 1972, he actually toured the TV talk show circuit talking about his victory, the first gambler to ever actually seek such notoriety. When Puggy Pearson, who grew up barefoot living in a shack in Tennessee and discovered his talent for gambling while in the Navy, won the 1973 World Series of Poker, he actually bought himself a bus and traveled around the country taking bets on anything from golf to pool to cards. On the side of his bus was painted the words, "Puggy Pearson: I'll play any man, from any land, any game he can name, for any amount he can count". Underneath that, in very fine print, he added, "Provided I like it." Pearson is still a supremely gifted gambler, a man simply born with the ability to take the pressure, no matter what. So too is David Edward "Chip" Reese, who arrived in Vegas in 1974 with $400 to his name, hit the $10 limit tables and enjoyed a winning streak that saw him become one of the nation's best high stakes gamblers, leading to his induction into the Poker Hall of Fame at the age of 40 - the youngest inductee ever.

But not every great gambler leads a life of winning streaks. Fred "Sarge" Ferris enjoyed some notoriety as the 1980 deuce-to-seven draw champion, but three years later had $46,000 worth of chips taken off him during a game by the Internal Revenue Service. Six years after that, he was dead of a heart attack.

And then there's Stu Ungar. A three time world champion, five time World Series winner and a winner of ten major No Limit Hold'em tournaments (he only ever entered 30), Ungar is perhaps the poker world's most tragic figure. In 1980, with almost no experience at all with No Limit Hold'em, Ungar entered a $10,000 buy-in World Championship event. He won it, and then successfully defended his title a year later. At the age of 25. Barred from nearly every blackjack game in town and unplayable at gin rummy, Ungar would move from game to game, always conquering it quickly and tipping large. He was the quintessential gambling addict, going from millionaire to broke at least four times according to reports, and allegedly couldn't even sit through a meal without stopping halfway through and returning to the tables for more action. Not know for being a good loser (he's said to have stated on many occasions, "show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser"), Ungar's penchant for fast living led to drug abuse, financial ruin and an early death at the age of 42.

What do all these people share? Among other things, their love of the green felt, their passion for the game, their need to know what the dealer's holding, their ability to psyche out the guy next to them, the ability to turn a handful of hundreds into a million or more, and cajones the size of watermelons.

Next time you're in Vegas, surrounded by little old ladies flipping $5 chips across the table, take a look at the high stakes tables and picture them… cigar chomping, high-rolling, green-visor wearing champions of the game.

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