Billy Baxter is into boxing now. Better hold on to your wallet, boxing.
Actually, Baxter has already made a lot of money out of boxing, and most of it was legal, as he would be the first to admit. For more than half his 43 years he has been betting the hell out of boxing and just about everything else gamblers traffic in. And he has the record to prove it, if you'll pardon the expression.
High-stakes poker, for example, is something Baxter had his fingers in even before he moved from Augusta, Ga. to Las Vegas in 1976. He has won many legitimate poker championships—including a "Super Bowl" and three "World Series"—and some of his side bets could balance the budget of a small country. Doyle (Texas Dolly) Brunson, himself a multititled poker player, got to be Baxter's good friend in those wee small hours gamblers spend together in the never-ending search for a full house. "I'd be a lot richer if I hadn't," says Brunson.
Brunson says Baxter "gives you that country-bumpkin smile and that good old Georgia-boy accent and gets you laughing and having a good time, and you look up and he's got your money." Baxter's strength, says Brunson, is that he isn't afraid to lose. "Money was never anything but a tool to him, even when he didn't have much. A man like that is dangerous."
Brunson recalls a time when they were locked in a big deuce-to-the-seven lo-ball game (five-card-draw poker, lowest possible hand wins). "Lo-ball" has Southern derivations and is Baxter's specialty. "We were playing table stakes," Brunson says, "but the guys playing with us didn't have that much on the table, so Billy and I were betting on the side. On this one hand I get an eight-six [the 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8], which means he can only beat me with an eight-five or a [deuce-] seven.
"The pot's only about $20,000, but I get our side bet up to around 30, and then, without batting an eye, Billy raises me $50,000. I think about it a long time and come to the logical conclusion that he has to have the deuce-seven. So I throw my hand in. And when the other guy calls, Billy's got four deuces! I say, 'How the hell can you run me out of that hand with four deuces?' He says, 'Well, I knew you didn't have any.' "
Baxter lives in an elegant Spanish-style villa on the stark, fried, southeast edge of Las Vegas, in a walled-in enclave next door to Robert Goulet and down the street from Wayne Newton. Las Vegas is the one place in America where people might say it's the other way around—that Robert Goulet lives next door to Billy Baxter. Baxter wears designer warmup suits that never know the stain of sweat, sips imported white wines and drives his lovely, bejeweled wife, Julie, and their three handsome children, Nathan, 9, Tiffany, 7, and Ashley, 2, to church in the family Mercedes 380 SEL or Cadillac Seville. He's on a first-name basis with the most haughty maître d's in town (that is to say, he knows them on a first-name basis; they know him as the generous "Mr. Baxter") and was considered one of Las Vegas's softest touches (for wildcat pizza-parlor promoters, karate dojo entrepreneurs, etc.) until his accountant put a stop to it, instructing him to tell prospective borrowers that he'd made a deal with the bank—"I won't lend any money, and the bank won't gamble."
Before, in his native Georgia, Baxter did some time more or less for doing modestly what he now does sensationally in Nevada. For a while there, he ran his own little casino, a kind of gambler's 7-Eleven, popular at Masters golf time (when the Calcuttas are in bloom), not only for some of the area's prominent citizens, but also for visiting sports dignitaries. He ran it with such candor that a partner in the venture distributed leaflets all over Atlanta describing how to get to the place. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation could read, too, and arrived with axes. "They didn't have to break the door down," Billy pouts. "I woulda let 'em in."
As a consequence, Baxter was in a "correctional institution" in Richmond County, where his wife's grandfather had once been the warden, from December 1975 to September 1976. But since he "never considered it morally wrong to gamble, except when you can't afford it, or against people who can't afford it," the only correction Baxter made when he got out was in his address. He moved with Julie to Las Vegas, where winning wagers go on your tax return instead of a police blotter.
Until his interest in boxing blossomed a few years ago and he started managing fighters as well as successfully betting on them, gambling was Baxter's full-time occupation. "You get a call for a poker game at 2 a.m.," Baxter says, "you can't be like a doctor. You gotta go."