When Cadillac Jack Grimm bought $10,000 worth of chips and sat down at a green felt table in Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas two weeks ago, he had no real hope that he might stand up a couple of days later as champion of this year's World Series of Poker. If there is one thing Cadillac Jack thinks he is, it is sensible. Grimm is an amateur poker player—which means he plays poker for money but not for a living—and an amateur would have as much chance in the big poker game at the Horseshoe as Cadillac Jack would have of bringing in a wildcat oil well through the floor of the First National Bank building in Abilene, Texas, where the Grimm Oil Company is located. That is not much of a chance, of course, but Grimm has tried to find Noah's Ark and the Loch Ness Monster and will soon be in search of Big Foot, so it is not unknown for him to dream of pulling off an upset.
There were many cardplayers with similar dreams at the Horseshoe. Jack Binion, manager of the casino, had expected 25 players for the World Series. Instead he got 34, who put up $10,050 each (the odd $50 went to the house to pay the dealers) to sit in on the winner-take-all tournament. Four of them came from "over the rail," as Binion says, referring to strangers who walked in and paid cold cash for seats on the action side of the rail that separates the crowd from the poker players. Ten other players were known to Binion, but had never played in the World Series before. There are about 15 king poker players, and they all showed up at the Horseshoe, an old hotel-casino in downtown Las Vegas. Some of them, like the famous Johnny Moss, complained that the game was getting out of hand.
"If you got more than eight players at a table, you ain't playing the game right." said Moss, who runs the poker room at the Dunes, a big hotel out on the Strip, where heavy-money poker games are frequent. "I don't let more than seven sit down at a game," Moss said, "unless a rich drunk or sucker walks up, and then maybe he can have a chair." Moss, who has won the World Series three times, was clutching his personal check for $10,050, waiting to hear how many players there would be before deciding whether to play. "You get nine, 10, 11 players at a table, you got some kind of a bug contest," he said.
The reason that 11 or more players can sit at a single table is that the game at the World Series is hold 'em, currently called Texas hold 'em, a form of seven-card stud in which all the players share the same five up cards. Two down cards are dealt to each player at the start, followed by a round of betting. Three cards are turned up in the middle, and after another round of betting, a fourth card is turned up. A third round of betting ensues. Finally a fifth card is turned up, and the last bets are made. It is a game of fast action, and it is easy to learn to play at a mediocre level.
It used to be that stud poker—usually low-ball—was considered the game for serious gambling. "Most of the stud players are dead," says Jack Binion's father, Bennie, who opened the Horseshoe 25 years ago after a storied career as a gambler and scofflaw around Dallas. He thinks hold 'em might have started in Waco, Texas. Moss says he played hold 'em in Dallas in 1926, but doesn't know where the game came from. Moss and Amarillo Slim Preston went to London to gamble many years ago and wound up in a game called hara-kiri that was similar to hold 'em. Regardless of whether or not hold 'em started in Texas, it has become the most popular big-money poker game in Las Vegas, and 20 of the players in the 1977 World Series were Texans.
One of them was Doyle ( Texas Dolly) Brunson, formerly of Fort Worth, who happened to draw a seat next to Grimm's. Brunson is a professional gambler any way you care to define it. Mostly he plays golf and hold 'em. Last year Brunson won the Series—a victory worth $220,000—with a final-hand full house of 10s over deuces. Early this year he lost $186,000 playing golf with a businessman. He three-putted the 18th green from 30 feet, while his opponent got down in two from a trap. "A $10,000 entry fee is not that big a deal," Brunson says. "I win or lose more than that every day."
Professional gamblers, at least in Las Vegas, are not as reluctant to talk about their winnings as they were a few years ago when IRS agents were known to rush up to a poker or baccarat table and grab chips away from a delinquent taxpayer. "There're IRS guys watching us constantly." Brunson says. "But now they understand how money comes and goes. I pay taxes in the high bracket with no write-offs. I guess I could deduct an eye-shade or something, but I don't want to make them mad." And now that he is at peace with the IRS, Brunson admits that he has won millions at poker.
Grimm is a millionaire many times over, not from poker but from other forms of gambling, mainly drilling oil wells. He has sunk more than 300 and hit about half of them, even though he once had 25 dry holes in a row. His self-confidence was getting a little shaky until he hit the 26th. Grimm also has gas wells and silver and gold mining properties, owns some land and has a flagpole in his front yard in Abilene. He plays big-stakes poker for the fun of competing with the best. "They're a colorful bunch—Amarillo Slim, Texas Dolly, Saratoga Hank. Puggy Wuggy, Johnny Moss," Cadillac Jack says, reciting the gamblers' names as one might reel off a list of movie stars who happened to have sat at an adjacent table in a famous restaurant.
The king poker players regard Cadillac Jack as fairly colorful, too. As a poker player he is viewed as conservative, and that's how he looks as he sits straight up in his chair wearing a vested suit and a firmly knotted tie. He usually waits for the cards to fall his way, rather than trying to bluff, and he does not bet big the way Brunson bets big. But how many king poker players could turn up at the Horseshoe with a piece of Noah's Ark in their pockets?
When he was a boy scout in Wagoner, Okla. Grimm played poker for matches and pennies. And like all kids who grew up in the country, he heard tales of buried treasure. In the Southwest, the loot is usually said to be from a Spanish gold train that was ambushed by Indians and is supposedly hidden in a cave or under a big rock. At the age of 10, after listening to yarns told by his grandfather. Grimm bought half a case of dynamite, hitchhiked to Flat Rock Creek and blew a big hole in the creek bank looking for gold. He has been looking for treasure ever since.