Although a professional gambler's life is precarious, fraught with robbers and runs of luck, one gambler, Puggy Pearson, has worked out a philosophy that allows him to maintain an even view of the world. Leaning on the fence beside the right rear poker table at the Dunes, chewing a cigar, wearing a straw hat and a golf shirt and watching stacks of black chips piling up in the middle of the table, Puggy explains how a man can adjust himself to the swing between fat and broke:
"Your body is just to carry your head around, that's all. Your head can get too far ahead of your body, but your mind don't know it. When you start losing it's because your head and your body ain't together. You got to quit for a while and cool yourself off. Like a guy can sit there for a week at that table, living on coffee and cigarettes, and he can get into a mental state when he don't know his body can't carry his head no more without some rest.
"Gambling is two things—knowing when you got the best of a 60-40 proposition and knowing how to manage yourself. Suppose you got no eyes or ears and you and me are gonna pitch pennies at a line. First I spin you around so you get dizzy and don't know what direction the line is at. Then if I've got $1,000 and I bet it all on one throw you could still toss your penny in the air and it might roll onto that line and break me. That's bad management. What I got to do is divide my $1,000 into 10 bets. Since I got far the best of it, I'll probably win all 10. But if I lose one you won't break me. There's thousands of good players who don't win. They don't know how to bet."
In the case of Johnny Moss, however, his specialty is knowing when to shove out all the chips. "No-limit poker is my game," Moss says. "Playing limit, even a high limit, they can always stay in and call you. Playing no-limit, you can win a big pot without even drawing all the cards. You can win a lot of money just by winning the antes if you know what you're doing. I'll show you what I mean. One time I heard this boy trying to borrow money on the phone, and a few minutes later we got tangled up in a big pot and I knew he couldn't get no more money. So I moved on him and took it. You got to do that. You can't allow no sugar in the game. If it was my own brother I would of broke him. If you want to be gentle to a fellow you can give him his money back later. Be easy on somebody during the game, they'll tear you up. You know your man, you look for a 'tell' that will show you what he's thinking, you move your checks right, and you bust him. That's the game."
But there is a way to hedge even then. It is called "insurance." An insurance broker will hang around a big game. Before the last card is turned he will offer odds on the best hand. An example of this was in a hold 'em game one recent night at the Dunes. With $70,000 in the pot, it was figured that Player A was 10 to 1 to win the hand over Player B. The broker offered 8 to 1, and Player A took it for $5,000. Player B drew a lucky card and won the pot. But Player A still picked up $40,000 from the insurance broker.
Hold 'em is a game in which two cards are dealt to each player and three are dealt facedown in the middle. The hole cards are bet, then the three in the middle are turned up and are bet as if in the hand of each player. Finally two more cards are turned up and bet on, making it a seven-card game. Hold 'em is a wild, high-gambling game, back in fashion with big bettors after almost dying out. Another popular game now is razz, a seven-card stud low game. They also play ace to five and deuce to seven, five-card draw games with the low hand winning. Sometimes there are five-card stud games, high or low, or seven-card high stud, but these classic games are somewhat out of style at the moment.
"People don't play so much stud anymore," says Red Wynne, who is in his 70s and has been known as one of the country's best stud players for 50 years. "It's because stud is too hard a game. You got to be a good, strong player. With razz or hold 'em, there's a lot of luck, anybody can win. Just like everything else these days. It used to be that kids wanted to gamble and make something of their-selves. Now they just want to smoke weed and take the easy way."
It is nearly midnight now, although the same soft, dull light fills the casino. Johnny Moss is standing at the bar, drinking coffee from a glass with a napkin around it. He is talking about the time he was in a car wreck and a couple of friends were killed, and he awoke in the hospital with a deacon praying beside the bed. Moss says he asked the deacon if gambling was a sin. The deacon replied, "You trying to find out something for nothing?"
Everyone laughs. Another gambler named Sarge is standing there. They are waiting to see if Joe Bernstein will show up again. Earlier, Bernstein had lost a bit to Moss playing pitch and then had stomped out of the Dunes in a rage after making a point at the dice table that didn't count because the dice hit the dealer on the hand. They talk about Bernstein's voice and remember how loud it was the night the IRS agents rushed up to the poker table and confiscated his chips. Bernstein had followed the agents out to the car, waved one chip at them and bellowed: "You forgot this one, you bastards!"
Moss is restless. He wants to play. A game had almost started at the right rear table, but one player had demanded they play razz with a $300 limit, and Moss got up and walked off. "Them yellow checks hurt my eyes," he said, referring insultingly to $5 chips. He takes off his glasses and puts them into his sweater pocket. His eyes are still sharp, but with the glasses he says he can see a fingernail flick on a card from across the room.