Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Upping the Ante
LOS ANGELES, January 11, 2011--When I traveled with the old St. Louis Hawks, during the NBA'a Cro-Magnon age, the poker they played on their chartered DC-8s was silly and harmless, hardly more than a way to kill time, not a means to an end. The game was dealer's choice, and when Jack McMahon, one of their guards, got hold of the cards he would say in his New Yawk accent, "All right, let's play dimestore--5s and 10s wild." Which is not to say McMahon wasn't a gambler, through and through. The year after the Hawks won their only title, he flipped a coin with the owner of the team, Ben Kerner, to determine whether McMahon got the paltry raise he was asking for. (McMahon won the toss).
Now those card games among NBA players are dead serious affairs, because payrolls are obscene and many of these pituitary cases have more disposable income in their back pockets than the average person will earn in a lifetime. They have to spend it somehow. The game of choice is no longer poker, it's boo-ray, which was a diabolical game I learned the hard way during my wastrel period. I quit playing boo-ray while I still had my shirt.
I called Kenny Church, the retired rider, to ask him what kind of stakes they played for during those card games in the jockeys' rooms at the tracks in California. Their game was something called, appropriately, racehorse rummy, and the regulars were Church, Bill Shoemaker, Don Pierce and a few others. Before the races, Bob Kerlan, the noted orthopedic surgeon, would stop by for a head-to-head pinochle game with Shoemaker.
Church, who retired in 1967, had never heard of boo-ray, a game of tricks that's been likened to spades and euchre. That's as much help as I can give you. If you really need to know, find an unabridged copy of Hoyle at Amazon and throw another stick on the fire.
"I can't conceive of that much money changing hands in a couple of minutes," Church said. "Thirty-thousand? When we played,10 or 20 bucks was a lot."
Pierce, a Hall of Fame rider, played racehorse rummy, but the game he preferred was pinochle, and he said that he, Shoemaker and Hans Beck, the jockeys' masseur, would play three-handed after the races.
"Pinochle is a thinking man's game," Pierce said. I had heard that he turned a nice coin in the game and I asked him about that. "I was the best," he said.
Pierce said that in the rummy games, they might have played for 25 cents a point (low score wins), but on days when they were all feeling reckless, the game might escalate to a dollar a point. "Even at that, if you had a real bad day, you might blow $150," Pierce said.
Bruce Walker, former Woodbine executive, remembers some high-stake games at the Canadian track that included Avelino Gomez, Nick Shuk and B.J. Bailey. "Bailey didn't ride much," Walker said. "He was in the room to gamble. He was a roly-poly type who didn't like reducing and was overweight much of the time. A perfect day for him was just one mount, but in the last race. That got him into the room, and he could play cards for hours before it was time to go to work."
There were no replacements in the California jockeys' card games after first Church, then Shoemaker and finally Pierce retired from the saddle. But I do remember a semblance of a game in the 1980s at Hollywood Park. To complete a foursome after the races, though, they needed to draft Bill Hartack, who could ride the hair off of a horse but was not a card player who'd make you run for cover. Hartack, who became a placing judge before going on to a career as a steward, might have been holding cards, but his mind seemed to be someplace else. One day the phone rang near the card table with a question from the press box for Fernando Toro, who had won both halves of a split stake.
The room's custodian shouted the query in the direction of Toro's locker. Without looking up from his hand, Hartack muttered, "Who wants to know?"
"The press," the custodian said.
Hartack, who despised most journalists, flipped a discard into the pile. With his head still down, he said: "Tell 'em to go (eff) themselves."
After the St. Louis Hawks, I traveled with the Pittsburgh Pirates for a while. Roberto Clemente and many of them broke up into two separate games on the planes. The Pirate owners were not robust spenders, and sometimes they flew what was called a split charter, the club in the back of the plane and the general public, separated by a partition, occupying the front seats. Jim Bunning, the Hall of Fame pitcher who became a U.S. senator from Kentucky, thought the stakes were getting out of hand, and wanted to shelter the players from the public, who might be passing on the way to the toilets. Bunning, who never played in the games, brought his own set of chips from home, and acted as the banker for one of the games. "That way," he said, "the public won't know what the chips stand for and won't know how much they're playing for."
Church, who is 80, moved to Nevada with his wife Nancy 10 years ago. He still plays cards, but there's not a racehorse rummy game in sight. Reno's Tuesday Night Cribbage Club is his speed. "Don't kid yourself," he said. "There are some real tough players in there."