Long before the poker explosion ever ignited, writers Michael Kaplan and Brad Reagan were chronicling the extraordinary lives of card players who made their names hustling on the road and in the back rooms of casinos. Now, the two Brooklyn-based journalists have joined forces for a fascinating new book entitled Aces and Kings: Inside Stories and Million-Dollar Strategies from Poker’s Greatest Players. Gaining unprecedented access to poker’s top pros right where they play in the biggest games–from the 2004 World Series of Poker to Manhattan‚Äôs legendary underground rooms to Europe‚Äôs most exclusive gambling halls–Kaplan and Reagan deliver a must-read book for both the neophytes and masters of the game who are looking for unparalleled insight into the minds, lives and strategies of their favorite rounders.
Recently, Wicked Chops Poker was able to catch up with Kaplan and Reagan to talk about their new book and the players they‚Äôve covered over the years. From Kaplan’s exclusive sit down with Stu Ungar just before his passing in 1999, to golden nuggets about Doyle Brunson and the Big Game and why Puggy Pearson and Amarillo Slim would never want to be Phil Hellmuth, Reagan and Kaplan share with us their thoughts on poker’s very best as well as where the game is today, where it‚Äôs been and where they see it going.
Wicked Chops Poker: There‚Äôs certainly no shortage of poker books on the market today. In what way do you see Aces and Kings as offering something unique to the poker reader?
Brad Reagan: I would add that it‚Äôs also just a good, juicy read. Positively Fifth Street showed you what‚Äôs like to be at the final table of a World Series and our book similarly gets behind the scenes like few other books have before.
WCP: Aces and Kings begins with the Godfathers of Poker‚ÄîPuggy Pearson, Amarillo Slim and Brunson. How important do you think it is for their stories to be told?
BR: You really can‚Äôt appreciate poker‚Äôs explosion without knowing their stories. Doyle, in my opinion, is indisputably the greatest player in history and Slim is almost certainly the game‚Äôs most colorful character. Puggy is less well known but he ruled Las Vegas when it was just emerging as the poker mecca.
WCP: In Aces and Kings, we get to see the gritty, often dark side of the poker lifestyle, and we learn that many of the greats came from rough and tough backgrounds. Do you think there‚Äôs something to the fact that so many of the greats have often been dealt bad hands in life, only to overcome them, and that they‚Äôre able to translate that to their play at the table?
MK: They definitely possess a certain degree of ruthlessness and recognize that they must win‚Äîor else. When you can‚Äôt go home and live in your parents‚Äô house if you go bust, or fall back on a Wall Street career, it imbues you with hunger, grit, and ambition. I think there‚Äôs also something to be said for having the imagination and emotional wherewithal to make the best of a less than ideal situation‚Äîat the table and away from it. Devilfish, who‚Äôs definitely had a rough-and-tumble life, might have put it best when he told me, ‚ÄúIt doesn‚Äôt help to be a mama‚Äôs boy if you want to make your living as a gambler.‚Äù
WCP: As Aces and Kings points out, Phil Hellmuth spends more time on the Hellmuth brand than actually playing poker while Puggy Pearson today is grinding it out on the $40/$80 table at the Bellagio. From talking with Puggy and Slim, did you ever get the sense that they are in any way bitter about missing out on poker‚Äôs mainstream popularity surge and its rewards (endorsements, book deals, speaking engagements, etc.), that it didn‚Äôt happen during their prime?
BR: I never did sense any bitterness, but I also never got the impression they feel like they ‚Äúmissed out‚Äù on anything. Neither would trade places with Hellmuth, who can‚Äôt beat the big cash games and acts like a fool on television just to extend his brand. Puggy made millions the old-fashioned way – at the tables. He probably never collected a dime that he didn‚Äôt have to hustle out of someone who was trying to hustle him right back, but I don‚Äôt think he would want it any other way. Sure, Puggy now plays ‚Äúcheap poker,‚Äù as he calls it, but there‚Äôs no shame in that for a man in his late 70s.
WCP: What are a few of the life lessons you think young players can draw from after reading about the lives of poker pros in Aces and Kings?
MK: Probably the biggest life lesson is that the game is rife with traps and pitfalls, and if you want to make it as a pro, you‚Äôd better be able to avoid them. Or at least survive them. Stu Ungar‚Äôs life is the greatest cautionary tale in the book‚Äîif not in the poker world‚Äîbut everybody has their challenges. Even the great, super-solid players like Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese had to deal with the game‚Äôs less savory elements. That they and other highly enduring players have managed to overcome those dark aspects of life on the circuit-whether in the form of shake-down artists like Tony Spilatro or the lure of drugs and pit games‚Äîsays a lot about the character of poker‚Äôs top players.
WCP: Brunson is still very much active in major tournament play as well as the Big Game in Vegas, and as we learn in Aces and Kings, he played 12 to 14 hour sessions for a month leading up to the WSOP and when he finally got knocked out in 53rd place he immediately went over to play the Big Game at the Nugget. In observing and interviewing him, do you get the sense that he‚Äôs on top of his game now more than ever?
BR: This was really fascinating. When we spoke with Doyle, he was playing in the Big Game at the Golden Nugget all day, every day, and getting killed. He told us he was down more than a million bucks, but we heard that figure might have even been a bit low. He said that ever since he turned 50, he‚Äôd been expecting the day to come when he couldn‚Äôt compete at the highest levels anymore and – even though he felt like he was just running bad – he‚Äôd started asking his friends if it was time to hang it up. Like Puggy, he‚Äôd watched Johnny Moss lose a lifetime of winnings in his final years and he didn‚Äôt want to do the same. A couple of months later, he won a WPT event and more than $1.2 million ‚Äì so much for him losing it! He knows he can‚Äôt play that high forever, but I haven‚Äôt talked to anyone who thinks he‚Äôs lost a step.
WCP: How do you see the game changing considering that the new breed of player is earning his or her stripes primarily by playing online in pajamas rather than in shady underground clubs or sawdust joints? Is poker at risk of ever becoming Disney-fied? Are we going to lose the true personalities of the game; men whose personas were shaped by the game on the road and underground?
BR: I really don‚Äôt think so. Poker will always attract strong personalities, because it takes a special kind of person to choose a life as a professional gambler. But we are seeing different sorts of personalities coming to the game and I think that‚Äôs a positive development. Chris Ferguson, for example, was never a road gambler but he is certainly a fascinating character. Same with Men the Master.
WCP: Michael, I understand you were sent to profile Stu Ungar in 1998 at the WSOP, an event which he failed to show up for. Were you ever able to sit down with Stu back then in order to do your piece?
MK: I was dispatched by a now defunct magazine called Icon. I spent the better part of the 1998 World Series being put off by Stu. He promised to speak with me, and I must have called his room 150 times over a seven day period. He‚Äôd always tell me to call back in 10 minutes, call back in an hour, call back later this afternoon. And I always did. Then the Series ended and he disappeared. Several weeks later, I found myself back in Vegas and took another shot at interviewing him. I managed to track him down and happened to catch him during a rare period of lucidity. He gave me an amazing interview at Arizona Charlie‚Äôs. Then we spoke for many hours on the phone afterwards. Unfortunately, by the time my article ran, Stu was back on drugs. And a few months later he was dead. Stu obviously squandered his talent, but I found out some interesting revelations about him and his playing style that made it into the book but were not included in the original piece for Icon. Chip Reese, Danny Robison, and Billy Baxter told me some things about Stu that made me reassess him as an all around poker player.
WCP: Brad, I hear that you gambled on a dot-com dream in Vegas several years ago only to cash your chips in so you could get back to writing full-time. From what you saw during the dot-com boom, what would you consider more nuts: investing your time and money in a dot-com start-up or risking your entire bankroll on a head’s up game against Ungar?
BR: Assuming we‚Äôre talking about Ungar at his prime, I‚Äôd say the dot-com would be a better investment for me. I‚Äôd have to get slapped upside the head with the deck to have much of a chance against Stuey. Actually, now that I think about it, even at his worst Stuey probably would wipe the floor with me.
WCP: Michael, you won the 2004 media event at the WSOP. Congrats! Were you playing the best poker of your life that day or would you say a lot of the media types out there really don‚Äôt know how to play hold’em?
MK: A combination of the two. There were nearly 200 people playing, and, honestly, a lot of them didn‚Äôt know much about Hold‚Äôem. On the other hand, though, the field was not completely soft. Jim McManus, Barry Shulman, Jeff Shulman, and Andy Glazer are plenty seasoned. I managed to get my hands on a decent chip stack early in the tournament and definitely got lucky on some coin tosses. But, over the years, I‚Äôve spent a lot of time interviewing top players. And there was a point during the event where I felt that things were coalescing. So, yeah, I probably was playing the best poker of my life. I won $10,000, but it had to go to charity (believe me, I begged Matt Savage to give me a seat in the Series instead, but, much to his credit, he refused). I wound up giving the money to my daughter‚Äôs public school. So that was a good thing.
WCP: What would be your dream 6-person table, living, dead, or ficticious?
BR: Amarillo Slim, Chip Reese, Elmore Leonard, Dan Jenkins, Bruce Springsteen and, oh what the hell, Heidi Klum.
MK: I‚Äôd start out six handed: Me, Bob Dylan, Harry Houdini, Jackson Pollack, Lenny Bruce, and Thora Birch (circa Ghost World). Then, about halfway into the night, Charles Bukowski shows up. He‚Äôs half-drunk, suffers a couple bad beats, and flips the table. Chips fly everywhere and pandemonium ensues.
– Aces and Kings: Inside Stories and Million-Dollar Strategies from Poker’s Greatest Players is out now and can be purchased at Amazon.com. Pick up a copy for yourself or get one for your poker playing dad this Father’s Day.