THE 68-YEAR-OLD rookie is showing great promise. At just past noon in Las Vegas on this early June day, 2,305 hopefuls took their seats at the World Series of Poker's $1,500 No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em event. Now the clock has struck midnight, and more than 90% of the field, including some of the biggest names in poker, T.J. Cloutier, Chris (Jesus) Ferguson and Daniel Negreanu, have been ousted. But Cinderella--to use a term with which Denzel (Denny) Crum is more than a little familiar--is still dancing. Not that it has been easy for the man who, during a recent recess, noted, "Of all the people still remaining, I've probably played the fewest hands." Luck hasn't been with him. ("I haven't been dealt better than pocket queens all day," Crum moaned, "and that was just once.") Nor has he enjoyed the support of some hecklers in the Brazilia room of the Rio, who view Crum as just another charlatan chasing the poker boom. "You gotta learn how to play the game!" one called out a few hours ago. And later another added, trying to find a sore spot, "Pitino's my boy!"
But through it all the newcomer at Table 140 has remained focused and calm--the kind of competitor whom late Marquette coach Al McGuire dubbed Cool Hand Luke.
Crum's capacity to exceed expectations without breaking a sweat is well known in the world of college basketball. When he arrived at the University of Louisville in 1971, the program was reeling from the sudden retirement of coach John Dromo after a heart attack. Crum lost his first game, at Florida, but, employing a low-key style and an uncanny command of strategy, he led the Cardinals to a 26-5 record and became the first rookie coach ever to take a team to the Final Four. Though Louisville was never ranked No. 1 in his 30 seasons there, the Cardinals reached the Final Four six times--and, behind the Doctors of Dunk ( Darrell Griffith, Rodney McCray and Derek Smith) in 1980 and freshman sensation Pervis Ellison in '86, won a pair of national championships.
Crum, a high school hoops star in San Fernando, Calif., began to play poker in earnest at UCLA, where he was a reserve guard for coach John Wooden. He proved to be a quick study at cards. "We intimidated our frat brothers," says Len Miller, a former UC Irvine and Arizona State track coach who has been Crum's best friend and poker buddy since their days at Phi Kappa Sigma. "Intimidated 'em?" says Crum. "We beat 'em every dang week. I made all my spending money that way."
Crum and Miller had a nonstop 27-hour session at the Stardust in the mid-'60s, but the NCAA will no doubt be pleased to know that, aside from the occasional off-season pilgrimage to Vegas, Crum curtailed his poker habit while he was coaching. "I just never had the time to play," he says. "And you couldn't play on the Internet back then."
Retirement, and technology, have brought poker back into Crum's life. He and his third wife, Susan (Crum has three grown children from his earlier marriages), have remained in Louisville, where every weekday morning he cohosts a two-hour radio program with ex-Kentucky basketball coach Joe B. Hall on WXXA. But poker is Crum's overriding interest. He has standing games on Monday and Thursday evenings, and the Internet has him in its thrall. "I missed church one Sunday to play online," he recalls. "I started playing at 10:30 in the morning. I was still playing at 3:30 the next morning."
When Crum was preparing to marry Susan in 2001, he asked Miller, his best man, to hold a poker tournament in lieu of a bachelor party. Are Crum's loved ones worried about him going over the edge? Not Miller, who owned a card room in Oceanside, Calif., from 1986 to 1997 and is a regular at the renowned Commerce Casino in Los Angeles. (He won Crum's prenuptial tournament.) Miller says Crum has all the qualities a player needs to win the World Series of Poker.
"Denny is the most competitive person I've ever known," says Miller. "He's also the most patient person I've ever known. And he's always thinking two plays ahead." When Miller encouraged Crum to enter the WSOP--volunteering to be his mentor--Crum did not need much persuading. "We came out to Vegas in December to callous Denny up," says Miller. "Played four straight days, about 14 hours per day, at the Bellagio. And Denny came in second in one tournament at the Golden Nugget. That's when I knew this was not a lark."
In the months leading up to the WSOP, Miller, who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., e-mailed Crum a mammoth amount of poker information, including scouting reports on 300 different players.
Crum says the material made him realize that in poker as in basketball, there's a difference between instruction and execution. "It's like when we lost to Arkansas [in the second round of the 1981 NCAA tournament]," says Crum, who steered 23 Cardinals squads to the Big Dance. "I told my guys in the timeout that they were going to give it to U.S. Reed. And I knew he couldn't go to his left. I'd studied the scouting reports. But we failed to deny him the ball, and we let him go right."