There was a time in poker—and it really wasn't all that long ago—when men played cards like men, goddammit. A time before sponsorship deals and under-the-table cameras and sanitized modern-day casinos. In this earlier era, poker players honed their skills and filled their pockets working illegal games that could often turn violent, especially if players were armed. (And weren't they always back then?) Poker hall of famer Doyle Brunson knows something of those days. Brunson has been playing cards for more than half a century and, like most old-timers, has a few tales to recount.
He recently related one of them to World Poker Tour host Kimberly Lansing. It's pretty good. It's about the time Brunson busted a West Virginia moonshiner so badly that the hillbilly felt compelled to pull a pistol on Brunson. Which prompted someone else to pull a pistol. Which prompted, naturally, a pistol-whipping. Hoo boy. Dem was the days.
Brunson's tale reminded me of a story I once reported (but never published) when I worked at the newspaper in Clovis, N.M., a cattle-town on the Texas border with a rootin'-tootin reputation. A local card sharp named Kit Pettigrew had just won big in a poker tournament, and I went to the bar he owned to interview him. As one of the bar employees pulled thick bundles of $20 bills from a safe in the backroom, I asked Pettigrew about his poker dust-ups. He beamed and described a similar milieu as Brunson. You might enjoy:
"Since I was a kid I've been around all kinds of gambler and thugs," Pettigrew said. "I been around everybody from Titanic Thompson to every big gambler there ever was. I didn't know normal people. In the good old days, everybody carried a pistol."
According to Pettigrew, games could easily spiral out of control, especially when he was winning big.
"I've been shot in the head after I busted (some people). The bullet only grazed me," said Pettigrew, taking off his hat and pointing to a faint scar on his forehead. "The blood was running down my face and making a goatee on my chin."
Pettigrew escaped in the ensuing melee. He rounded up a few friends and a few guns and went back to the scene of the shootout. By then, he said, everybody had skipped town.
Eventually, the gambling clubs, too, skipped town. With them went the freewheeling, hell-raising poker element, said Pettigrew. "It's a completely different world now," he said.
So it is. Alas.