In the first part of this travelogue, I described my arrival at the World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe in 1994...
To set the scene properly, I must remind you that 1994 was long before the Internet inserted itself into every aspect of global life. In the poker world, that meant that there were no Internet whiz kids in the WSOP. In fact, there were few “kids” at all—the demographic was pretty much “grumpy old white men.” Most of whom smoked, it seemed.
Which made Satellite Lady a breath of fresh air. Not only was she a woman, but she was pleasant— in a job that must have made pleasance difficult. She called you “hon”, even if you were signing up for the cheapest $40 satellite. She also had a particular magical power for which I will always worship her.
She had tickets to the buffet.
Stay with me here, because what I’m about to describe is going to sound incredible. By which I mean “not credible” or “unbelievable”. In the Binion’s Horseshoe days of the WSOP, the buffet was simply a party favor that came with participating. Not a $10 credit at an overpriced canteen. An honest-to-goodness buffet, with piles of shrimp.
I don’t remember how I got up the nerve to ask her for a buffet ticket, but I do remember she was very gracious about giving me one. Roy and Ken got theirs too, and we made our way up there. It was like the dining hall at Mecca. Poker players—even the legendary ones—don’t turn down free food, so at various times, the heroes and would-be heroes would make their way upstairs, and eat a sumptuous meal courtesy of the Binion family. If you were at the buffet, not only were you eating for free, but you were queuing behind Johnny Chan to get your roast beef.
We made extra trips back to the buffet just so we could rub elbows with Jack Keller and TJ Cloutier. I think we ate two meals up there and it was the second night that I saw Jack Binion presiding over the scene. I mean, this guy was the scion of the family that ran the place. His dad, Benny Binion, had passed away five years earlier, and this was before family squabbles in 1998 tore the whole thing apart.
No, in 1994, Jack Binion stood in the middle of the buffet that pretty much came out of his pocket, and just looked happy to have all the poker players there having a meal on him. Trying to remember my manners, I paused by him. “Mr. Binion...” “Call me Jack, please.” “Well... Jack—I’m proud to be here and I so appreciate everything you do for poker and your generosity.” “I’m glad you’re here—enjoy your meal.” “Yes, sir.”
I’m glad I got to say thank you to Jack Binion. Poker wouldn’t be the same without him.
That wraps up the stories I got from Binion’s during the 1994 WSOP, but there’s one more story from that weekend that I need to share.
If you know Vegas, you know about the Gold Coast Casino, out on Flamingo Road. It’s pretty much a locals’ joint, and their demographic runs a bit older, to put it mildly. Its current claim to fame is that it (and its hotel) are a quick walk from the WSOP at the Rio. But back in the day, they had a jumping poker room, and an active tournament schedule. Best part about those tournaments was that they were cheap.
Which is how Ken, Roy, and I came to be at the Gold Coast on that Sunday afternoon. I think I busted out pretty early, I’m not sure when Ken busted out. But Roy. Roy had alligator blood in him and he stomped his way through the field and ended up heads-up against Bill Smith.
Bill Smith was a bit of a legend. In 1985 he had won the WSOP main event, beating TJ Cloutier, the only person who’s ever come second in the main event twice. Smith was never seen at the poker table without a Budweiser, and he was rarely seen anywhere except at a poker table.
Now, you might wonder what a former WSOP champion was doing in a $65 Sunday afternoon tournament at a locals’ joint a 20-minute cab ride away from the WSOP. I don’t know and it wasn’t important. What was important was that our friend Roy was heads-up with a former WSOP champ, and both were enjoying the experience.
At some point, Ken and I had ducked over to the ice cream shop just around the corner in the casino from where they held the tournaments. So there we sat, watching the two battle, eating ice cream cones.
“Ken, does it get any better than this?” Short pause. “I’m not sure how it could.”
I wish I could tell you that Roy beat Bill for the day’s title. But Bill Smith’s superior skill and/or the fall of the cards went in his favor and eventually he got all of Roy’s chips. But both had big smiles as they shook hands, and it was a grand finale to the whole weekend. I just wish it had been in a day where we all had camera phones in our pockets and could have memorialized it. Bill Smith passed away just two years later—sadly, the Budweiser took all of his chips.
It was one of those times where we waited at the gate at McCarran planning our next trip back to Las Vegas. Roy would be back the next summer, with a vengeance, but that’s a story for a different blog.
I appreciate you reading, and thanks for sharing my visit back to a different time and place.
Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.