Before Poker Was Cool, Part 1: Jack Binion and Steve Wynn

Binions-Nugget

Before Chris Moneymaker and what we know as the modern age of poker, there were several gentlemen who elevated the game before poker was cool. It’s debatable who did the most for poker, but it’s undeniable that it’s close. I was lucky enough to have a personal relationship with four of these legends, and I actually worked for two. My connection with these four men helped shape my career, and I will always be indebted to all of them.

Jack Binion, while president of the Horseshoe Casino, showcased poker twice a year and made it his main marketing tool with the Poker Hall of Fame and the World Series of Poker. He hired Poker Hall of Famer Eric Drache. Drache, in turn, worked with Jack McClellan as his tournament director. Together these three grew poker every year and made the WSOP the premier poker tournament in the world.

In the early days, I found myself short of money. I told my friend Ray Hall I wanted to play a tournament, but I was broke. He said, “Go see Jack Binion, tell him you’re a poker player, and you’re broke.” I thought this was unusual, but what did I have to lose? I went to Jack and explained my situation. He replied, “Go to the cage and tell them I said to give you $2,500.” He took a poker player at his word and gave him a bankroll, no questions asked. That’s how it was in those days. We were like a big family.

When he was trying to grow the WSOP to a hundred players in 1982, there were only 96 players signed up. I had not won a satellite to get in the Main Event that year. Another friend of mine said Jack Binion wants to get it to 100. Tell him you’re not in. I went to Jack, and he said he would put me in the tournament. There were 4 of us he put in to reach his goal. This is a man who put his money where mouth is. How could you not love a guy like this? I like to call these the Golden Days, and it was all because of Jack Binion who continued his father Benny’s legacy.

Jack hired PR firms to promote the WSOP, had professional photographers document it and provided free rooms and food for poker players for years. He surrounded himself with his closest friends who happened to be poker players. His love of the game and the people who played it changed poker forever.

Steve Wynn needs no introduction. I went to work for Steve around 1977 as a poker host at the Golden Nugget. He had just put in the most beautiful poker room in Las Vegas. Before that, card rooms were just an afterthought in most casinos. The two major poker rooms in the late 70’s were the Stardust and the Golden Nugget. The Golden Nugget had a better reputation for poker than the Stardust for two reasons: one was Bill Boyd, a legend in the poker industry, who was the poker room manager at the Golden Nugget and two, the Stardust had an underworld reputation.

In the early 80’s the Stardust expanded poker and hired a tournament director named Bob Thompson who created the Stairway to the Stars and gave Steve a run for the money. Not to be outdone, Steve created the Grand Prix of Poker. This friendly competition caused Steve to create one of the best poker tournaments in the world at the time.

Not only did Steve have to outshine the Stardust, he had to outdo his friend Jack Binion. He decided to give away prizes for the best all-around players. One year he gave away a large boat. The next year he gave away a Corvette.

Steve was the first one to bring poker and Hollywood together. He brought glamor to the game. Like Jack, he surrounded himself with poker players. His president at the time was Bobby Baldwin. Steve did something else no one else had ever done before or since–he put on a fashion show for the wives that was second to none. He spared no cost on the production.

But there is one thing I will never forget. Before the main event of the Grand Prix, he turned off all the lights in the casino. Giant screens came down from the ceiling, and he showed video highlights from the series. Steve is a showman, and he continued this tradition at the Mirage when he put poker dead center in the casino and made it a showplace.

Binion and Wynn had taken poker to the next level. Everyone has been playing catch up ever since. In Part 2 I will write about George Hardie and Lyle Berman who added their own flair to the game.

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and casino and billiard marketing expert. Robert is most well- known for introducing the game of Omaha poker to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. He created Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002, and he also created Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino and the National Championship of Poker for Hollywood Park Casino both in 1995.

In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He has spent over 30 years in casino marketing and player development and has served as an executive host at the Bicycle Casino and MGM. He is currently working with his new companies Crown Digital Games developing mobile apps and Vision Poker, a poker marketing and managing group.

Find Robert on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thechipburner and on Twitter @thechipburner. Robert Turner can also be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting, marketing and teaching.

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Minnesota Fats, the Hustler: Part 2

Minnesota Fats 2

Fats made several more visits to the Bicycle Casino, and on one particular visit in December 1994 the Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Jim Murray wrote a feature about him for the Los Angeles Times called “Cue Music, ‘Hustler’ Is in Town.”

I can’t improve on Murray’s description of Fats, so I won’t even try: “The things Fats could do with a pool cue were works of art. He could put a cue ball in your ear as well as a corner pocket if you wanted. He did with a pool cue what Babe Ruth did with a bat, Red Grange with a football, Magic Johnson with a basketball, or Ben Hogan with a two-wood.”

Meeting a character like Fats can’t help but leave a life-long impression on you. After I wrote the first article I was fortunate to receive some amazing stories about how Fats touched other people’s lives as well. Here are a couple of highlights:

Earl Burton, a writer for pokernewsdaily.com, shared how his parents owned a truck stop in central Illinois in the early 70’s that had a good pool table. He recalls, “I don’t know how it happened and don’t know how he had heard about the games that had occurred on that pool table, but one night a gentleman pulled up in a huge Caddy and entered the room. In he strolled, coming to the counter to ask my mom, “Where’s this big game at?” My mom immediately knew who he was and sent him to the pool room, where the game that was going on immediately stopped. I was doing homework at the time but, interested, I headed back to the room to see what was going on.”

Earl continues: “It was Minnesota Fats, as I was to learn from watching ‘Wide World of Sports’ over the next couple of years. He shook hands with some of the players, and then announced a challenge. “Who wants to take on the best player in the world?” Some of the men in the room pulled out $20, a couple pulled out a $100, but Fats said, “No less than $500 a game, boys. Otherwise I’m gonna go eat.”

Two men ponied up the money and, while he proceeded to wax both of them, Fats constantly talked. “You know, I could be in Decatur tonight. Probably would earn a lot more.” Another roll of hundreds came out and, surprisingly, Fats lost his first game. “Gotta be something wrong with the table here,” he said.

After that loss, another couple of rolls came out and Fats went back to beating anyone who came in front of him. After a couple of hours of play, no one was left. I had watched it all and was amazed at how he commanded the table, not only through his play but through his personality. As some of the men left the room, Fats saw me sitting on the side. “You want to learn how to play?” he said. I immediately jumped up!

For the next hour, Fats showed me masses, jumps, the angles to the game and tried to teach me how to “talk the talk,” as he put it. “Anyone can play this game, you just got to make it interesting for some,” he said as I struck a shot.

“You’re gonna do OK, kid,” he said to me as he tossed my mom a $200 tip. “He’s gonna do you proud,” he said to her as he left. To this day, I still shoot a decent game of pool. And, I’d like to believe, it was because of Fats.”

I’m sure many others can say the same. Pool enthusiast Scott Kennedy is another such person:

“1971, I was 18 years old and was about to see Minnesota Fats play pool at a pool hall in Cudahy, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. So here’s the Fat Man in front of maybe 50 people and he says, “I understaaaaand (he talks just like W.C Fields really) there’s a young maaan in the audience who thinks he can shooot pool. His naaaame is Scott Kennedy.”

Oh no!!?? Fats calls me down, and we shake hands. He says “Mr. Kennedyyyy, I will let you breaaak ’cause it may be your onlyyyy shot.” I broke very nervously and got something in and maybe made a ball or two. Fats gets up, runs the table and does some trick shot on the 8, and the cue balls goes around the table and scratches. “Wellllll, Mr. Kennedyyyy, looks like I lost.” I just had the thrill of a lifetime.

After the exhibition was over, a crowd gathered around a small table where Minnesota Fats was sitting and signing autographs. I was not prepared and got a small piece of paper from someone and approached Minnesota Fats. He used a rubber stamp instead of a pen to sign. I asked him to please sign this for me because none of my friends will believe I met Minnesota Fats, let alone played pool with him. He signed the paper, “I played pool with Scott Kenedy, Minnesota Fats.” He spelled my name wrong but I didn’t care.”

Now for the story how Minnesota Fats changed my life forever.

After he passed away on January 15, 1996, I received a call two years later from Fat’s widow T-Bell who said she missed the pool tournaments and asked if she could visit for a few weeks. A few days later, she asked if one her relatives named Charity, who loved pool, could come, too. I said, “Sure.”

I ended up marrying Charity, and we had three beautiful children who are now my life. And it’s all because of Minnesota Fats. Our paths were destined to cross, and my life is better for it.

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and casino and billiard marketing expert. Robert is most well- known for introducing the game of Omaha poker to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. He created Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002, and he also created Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino and the National Championship of Poker for Hollywood Park Casino both in 1995.

In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He has spent over 30 years in casino marketing and player development and has served as an executive host at the Bicycle Casino and MGM. He is currently working with his new companies Crown Digital Games developing mobile apps and Vision Poker, a poker marketing and managing group.

Find Robert on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thechipburner and on Twitter @thechipburner. Robert Turner can also be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting, marketing and teaching.

Money Breeds Money: Minnesota Fats, Pool Hustler and Showman, Part 1

Minnesota Fats

Minnesota Fats changed my life. I first fell in love with pool at the age of 15 when a friend invited me to a pool tournament in Tennessee. It looked like something out of a movie. The pool room had two sides, one where we were watching the tournament and a practice side. We were in the middle of nowhere watching these pool sharks in a tournament betting and gambling when all of a sudden the room exploded with excitement.

Everyone started yelling, “Minnesota Fats is here!” and rushed over to the practice area. Fats was standing there doing what seemed like a stand-up routine talking about gambling, and what came out of his mouth just amazed me. He was saying things like, “I can’t believe I’m in this dump in Tennessee.” Though he was insulting people, they loved it. He continued his tirade, “I’ve busted kings and queens and sultans all over the world, and now I’m in this dump where no one has change for a $20. Does anybody in this joint have ANY money at all, or did I just waste my time?”

He was unrelenting: “I’d like to play for $500 if you brokes can come up with the money. I know you’re scared because I’m Minnesota Fats, the world’s greatest pool player. But that’s ok because when I leave this joint I’m going to bust every single one of you. So call your friends, gather all your money and give it to the Fat Man.”

When a waitress walked by, he’d leer and say, “Wow, what a tomato!” He went from bragging about his pool game to his other game: “Women follow me all over the world with a mattress strapped to their backs.” He was a character I had never seen before or since.

Fast forward nearly 30 years later to 1993 when I was the marketing director for the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles. I was starting to promote pool at the time. I often wondered what happened to Fats. I asked Mike Massey, one of the world’s greatest trick shot artists, about Fats. He told me he was living in Nashville and that he had his number. I asked if he thought he would come out to our pool tournament in Los Angeles. He said he’s pretty old but give him a call.

I did just that and spoke to a woman named T-Bell who said she was his wife. I asked her if I sent two airline tickets, would they come out and do an exhibition. She agreed. I will never forget the first thing he said to me when he walked into the Bicycle Casino, “Robert, nice place you have here. What kind of groceries do they have?” I had to think for a minute, then I realized what he wanted and said, “Are you hungry?”

Over lunch I realized I had a problem. Looking at his hands, I noticed he had a severe tremor. I had invited television stations to come that night and wondered if he could perform, but it was too late to turn back now. We went back to meet the news crew, and boy, was I in for a surprise.

Even though he was in the later stages of life, he was still the showman I remember from my youth. With the cameras rolling, he prepared to do a trick shot where he was going to bank the ball from one end of the table to another.

He missed the first three shots. He then looked up at the sportscaster and said, “You better not show this on TV because they won’t believe that I missed a shot.” Everyone burst out laughing.

He continued, “Nothing in life is free. Someone put some money on the table, and I won’t miss.” Sure enough, someone pulled out a twenty, and Fats shot the ball right in. He made the next two shots, the crowd went wild and it was on the news for the next two nights.

He told me the Bicycle Casino put on one of the nicest pool tournaments he had ever been to. He said, “Money breeds money, and you are doing the right thing here. You have all these people gambling, and the groceries are good. What’s not to like about this place?”

I took him to a few pool rooms around Los Angeles during that stay, and everywhere we went he was like a magnet. As soon as people heard he was in the room, people would come running, and if it was an empty room, it would be full in 15 minutes. He regaled them with stories and mesmerized the crowd.

After this trip, I invited him back to the Bicycle Casino for the next tournament, and this visit would change my life forever.

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and casino and billiards marketing expert. Robert is most well- known for introducing the game of Omaha poker to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. He created Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino and the National Championship of Poker for Hollywood Park Casino both in 1995. He also helped create Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002.

In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He has spent over 30 years in casino marketing and player development and has served as an executive host at the Bicycle Casino and MGM. He is currently working with his new companies Crown Digital Games developing mobile apps and Vision Poker, a poker marketing and managing group.

Follow Robert on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thechipburner and on Twitter @thechipburner. Robert Turner can also be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting, marketing and teaching.