Question of the Day July 25, 2016
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Q:There are reports periodically about how lottery winners have fared, often tragically, after winning a large sum of money. With the 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event final table approaching, I'm curious how past winners of this event have fared with their new-found multi-million dollar prize. Any parallels with lottery winners?
A:That's an interesting, and timely question, since the 2016 "November Nine" final table has just been finalized. We'll start with some general observations before we get into details.
One obvious distinction between these two types of "cash windfall" is that the lottery is a recreational pastime with no skill involved, whereas poker is very much a game of skill and one that many entrants into the annual World Series of Poker play for a living -- in other words, winning the lottery is random flash in-the-pan event (yes, we know some people at the far right of the bell curve have hit the lottery or equivalent more than once, but that's not the norm); conversely, a glance down the list of WSOP Main Event winners will reveal that the same names have a habit of popping up more than once over the years -- an indication both that poker is a way of life for many players and that for the most skilled among them, it has the ability to continue delivering significant paydays on a recurring basis.
On the other hand, poker players have a reputation (and again, we're aware that this is a generalization) for a "boom-and-bust" type lifestyle that will often see a top player living the life of a millionaire one day, and flat broke the next. In addition, the winner of the WSOP could very well have been sponsored into the event by an outside financial backer and, hence, might not actually be entitled to anything like the full amount of the advertised first-prize total. The details of those back-room deals are not generally made common knowledge, so in most instances we have no idea how big of a payday the win was for the champion. The best we can do in what follows is give a brief bio of each winner and their life before and after their WSOP Main Event victory, whenever such information is available, supplemented by whatever personal anecdotal insights or inside info we may be privy to.
While the first unofficial World Series of Poker is generally regarded to be a game that took place in 1970, which was won by legendary player Johnny Moss, a.k.a. "The Grand Old Man of Poker," and for which he was awarded with a silver cup, we'll consider the first official Main Event as having taken place in 1971. This was also won by Moss, who went on to win the 1974 WSOP, too, and would play in every annual event until his death in 1995, at the age of 88. During the course of his WSOP career, he won five gold bracelets and more than $800,000 in prize money (and bear in mind that in 1971 first place paid just $30,000). He still holds the record for the oldest WSOP bracelet winner and while we know nothing of his personal finances, we're going to guess that Johnny Moss had money in the bank (or wherever his preference was to stash his cash) when he passed away.
In 1972, the victor was Thomas Austin Preston, Jr., known better as Amarillo Slim. A Texas hustler and notorious proposition bettor, Slim played poker with with the likes of Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Mickey Rooney, and Larry Flynt who, so the story goes, he took for $1.7m in one sitting. Slim appeared 11 times on the Johnny Carson show, addressed the US Senate, and was a personal friend of George Bush Snr. But he was also robbed multiple times, including several times toward the end of his life, when he was also accused of molesting a young teenage relative -- a charge he denied but pleaded guilty to, and which certainly tarnished his image in the latter years. Again, we don't know how Slim was with money, but prop bettors tend to lead a roller-coaster life and when he appeared once on the TV show "I've Got a Secret," his confession concerned losing $190,000 on one night in a poker game.
The 1973 Main Event title, and $130,000 first prize, went to Walter "Puggy" Pearson, with whom the current writer was well acquainted. Working from the age of 10 to help support a large family, and in the Navy at 16, Puggy was a larger-than-life character right up to the end of his life, driving around Vegas (and elsewhere) in an SUV nicknamed The Roving Gambler and emblazoned on the side with his famous slogan, "I'll play any man from any land, any game he can name, for any amount I can count, provided I like it." Puggy was a true gambler and not afraid to go broke, as he did many times during the course of his life. He won three other WSOP bracelets, although never another Main Event, and in 1987 was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. He lived in a very comfortable but not particularly lavish home in an "old-Vegas" neighborhood when we knew him and didn't seem to hurting any for cash, although his family was doing a good job of spending what was left, which was a source of stress and frustration to the poker legend. Puggy died in 2006 after years of heart problems, still a popular notable in the poker community.
In '74, Johnny Moss took the title again, followed in 1975 by Brian Roberts. An old Texas rounder who'd been on the same cash-game circuit as Amarillo Slim and Doyle Brunson, "Sailor" Roberts had won his first bracelet the previous year in the Deuce to Seven Draw event, but we confess to not knowing much else about this winner, who died from cirrhosis caused by hepatitis in 1995, but get the impression that his WSOP Main Event win was almost certainly the highlight of his career; whether or not the win was a blessing or a curse, history does not relate (or at least has not to us).
Doyle Brunson took the title two years in a row, with victories in '76 and '77, and was the first player to amass $1 million in poker-tournament wins. He went on to win another eight bracelets, but never again the Main Event (although he made the final table on a total of four other occasions). To date, his life tournament winnings total more than $6 million and while more recent years have seen both health and legal problems for The Godfather of Poker, and while we're sure he's gone bust a few times in his life, the only reference we came across to any complaints in that department was Brunson's contention that by publishing his acclaimed SuperSystem poker-strategy book, he'd wised-up the opposition too much and cost himself a lot of potential money.
1978 WSOP winner Bobby Baldwin -- the youngest ever at the time at just 28 -- is one of those rare examples of a professional gambler who wound up on the other side of the gaming tables, having been Steve Wynn's right-hand man first at the Golden Nugget, then the Mirage, and then Bellagio (where the high-stakes "Bobby's Room" is named for him). Known as "The Owl," today Baldwin remains CEO of CityCenter, among other high-level responsibilities within the MGM Resorts International empire. But Baldwin is no stranger to big gambling losses. As a student at Oklahoma State back in 1970, he and friends came to Vegas with a $5,000 bankroll and promptly lost it all. Baldwin apparently persuaded the Aladdin to extend him a $500 line of credit, which he promptly ran up to $180,000, took back to Tulsa, and blew over the next three months betting sports, hustling pool (another passion of his), and playing poker. Baldwin is generally considered to have been the player that notorious hustler and cheat Archie Karas beat at pool in a local bar to begin his legendary run in the early '90s (Karas went on to win some $17 million playing poker and craps at the Horseshoe, before blowing the lot). Assuming it's so, he certainly was in a position to afford it, but from that period until 2007, we understand that Baldwin quit playing high stakes poker at any of the rooms with which he was associated professionally. He's still known to play from time to time these days in public rooms, including the one named for him, although not for the elevated stakes he was known for a couple of decades ago; what may go on behind closed doors, of course, who knows?
We'll round out this first part with 1979 winner Hal Fowler and what is considered one of the biggest upsets in the history of the event, this relatively unknown player became the first acknowledged amateur player to take the title, emerging the victor from a final table that included Bobby Baldwin, Johnny Moss, and other professional luminaries. The rumor goes that Fowler hadn't even been able to afford the entry fee and had borrowed the money from Benny Binion. Sadly, Fowler suffered ill health from the effects of diabetes and was forced to quit playing poker not long after his win. He died in a nursing home in 2000, according to Wikipedia.
Next time we'll pick up the story in 1980 and the first win by Stu "The Kid" Ungar. Stay tuned!