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A circle of about 300 spectators gasped and pressed in closer to the table. In the center of it, $220,000 in burnt-orange chips lay on the blue felt. Robert (Red) Bone, a burly man with deep-set blue eyes, bolted up from his seat with both arms trembling and began to haul in the chips. "Hot dang," he shouted. He nervously lit another cigarette and plopped back into his chair.
To Bone's right, George Huber sat motionless, staring blankly at the table. He is young and slender and has long, wavy hair and a droopy mustache that reveals the barest trace of a mouth. He is a professional gambler; Bone is an amateur. Huber tilted back in his seat, his right hand fingering his chips as he counted them. Just $60,000 left. One bad hand and Huber would be dead.
Two days earlier, on Tuesday of last week, 30 gamblers had sat down at four tables in the Las Vegas Hilton to begin the main event of the $1 million (actually, it was only $760,000) Amarillo Slim Poker Classic, which, in essence, had been a two-week series of mini-tournaments with different games and different stakes for folks of different means and different sexes. But the $200 seven-card stud for women, the $1,000 ace-to-five loball and all the other events had been mere preliminaries to the finale, in which a participant needed 10 grand just to sit down. Most of the players in the big game were full-time gamblers, including such king poker players as Johnny Moss, Sailor Roberts and Texas Dolly Brunson. Four participants were unknowns, at least to Amarillo Slim, the tournament host. But he was certain of one thing about them: "They have enough $100 bills to burn up a wet mule." There were nine other amateurs—insiders' lingo for gamblers who also hold regular jobs—and one mysterious woman.
"In poker, women are like polar bears," Slim said the night before the final event started. "They're on a cold, lonely trail. They should be home having babies." He neglected to mention that two nights before, the woman in question, Betty Carey, had challenged him—and taken him for $50,000.
Born in Cody, Wyo., where her mother owns an auto-body shop, and now a resident of Houston, Carey is 25 and no polar bear at the table. She plays odds, not intuitions, and calculates the risks of drawing two cards to a flush quicker than you can deal. "Poker's a living," she says abruptly. "I play for the money."
In the Classic finals, when a player's stake was gone, so was he or she. The last one left at the table would have won $300,000 and would get to keep $150,000, the other half going in graduated amounts to the next five finishers. The game was hold 'em, a form of seven-card stud. Each player is dealt two cards face down, and bets are made. Then three cards, called the flop, are dealt face up in the center of the table. More bets. The sixth and seventh cards are also dealt face up, with bets after each. The player uses his two hole cards and the five community cards to put together his or her best five-card hand.
Play had hardly begun at the Hilton when Roberts and Brunson, two of the pre-tournament favorites, found themselves sitting behind short stacks of chips. With only a $10,000 stake, it doesn't take a very long run of weak hole cards for even the shrewdest gamblers to find they've been wiped out, and Roberts and Brunson were finished long before the opening session concluded. And just two hours into the play, Carey was gone, the sixth player to drop out. Against Huber's pair of eights, she held the king-10 of diamonds, the "overcards" if she paired up, and four cards to a flush. But the last two cards were an off-suit jack-six. "Going in I knew that he held the high hand," she moaned, "but mine was the favorite to win."
By Tuesday night, after 10 hours of play, the field had been reduced to 15, seven of whom were amateurs. This was the kind of competition in which one expects to find only the pros with the quickest minds and steeliest nerves. "A tournament is tougher than a ring game because you can't make mistakes," says Bobby Baldwin, a pro who won the 1978 World Series of Poker. "In an ordinary game, if you go bust, you just get another bankroll and sit down again." Baldwin, 28, has already written his autobiography. It tells of a $180,000 triumph in Las Vegas while he was a freshman at Oklahoma State. He enrolled there, instead of at Oklahoma, because he got wind of a weekly poker game in the dorms. Ah, there's nothing like a college education.
Meanwhile, Brunson and Billy Baxter, a former casino owner from Augusta, Ga., were each selecting his favorite from among the remaining players for a $10,000 side bet. Baxter picked Baldwin to win the big prize; Brunson chose Moss. At 5:40 p.m. on Wednesday, Baldwin became the game's 19th casualty, aces and nines to Bone's trip jacks. Moss stood and shook Baldwin's hand. Baldwin then slid over a few tables to start one of those easier ring games.
Soon it was Moss' turn to fall. He ran into the highest hand of the tournament, not to mention a perfectly executed trap. Moss caught a three-five of hearts in the hole, and after the flop—heart queen, heart jack and diamond seven—he bet $11,000. Junior Whited, a seasoned pro, simply called. The sixth card was the 10 of hearts, giving Moss a flush. Whited, who had the king-nine of hearts in the hole, giving him a straight flush, checked and called another bet by Moss. Whited knew he had the best hand either of them could have, but he waited until the next up card, a meaningless diamond four, before making his move.