If you think poker games in Las Vegas are tough now, imagine sitting down at a table with half-a-dozen cowboys and ranchers, all of whom have a holster and pistol! Way back when, about a hundred years ago, the players had cowboy hats pulled tight to their foreheads, hiding their eyes, and they smoked continuously so your eyes watered in the hot, sticky, dim rooms of early hotels. There were no security officers, no casino manager, and nobody drank anything but bourbon and whiskey, at 10-cents a pop if the club had a bar.
Early games were mostly deal-your-own, five-card stud. Clubs had non-denomination chips in several colors (with plenty of cigarette burns), and players set their values and limits. You were either asked to join, or you didn’t play.
Although gambling wasn’t legal in Las Vegas for a time, poker continued, and nobody from the Sheriff’s office ever seemed to mind unless there were complaints from the losers, and they were, after all, losers.
The same was true with Prohibition, which stopped the easy-flow of alcoholic beverages from 1920 until 1933, but not in Las Vegas, where speakeasies flourished. Customers got all the booze they wanted if local suppliers were willing to bring the stuff in from Canada, or Mexico, or perhaps a nearby home where some bathtub gin had been cooked-up.
Hometown Poker Heroes Fail
Bootlegger Tony Cornero used innocent businesses like a local shrimping fleet, to smuggle Canadian whiskey into Southern California. Cornero was so successful; he was a millionaire at 25. And, with Prohibition soon to be repealed, he turned his attention to Las Vegas and casinos, which were approved in 1931.
Tony and his brothers, Louis and Frank, bought 30-acres of scrub desert outside Las Vegas city limits and opened The Meadows Casino and Hotel, the seventh licensed casino in the Vegas area. It featured lavish luxuries city folk weren’t used to in early Vegas (sorry, no air conditioning), such as beautiful tile work, fancy windows and tapestries, rugs, and workers in suits.
The casino was an instant success, and Tony liked to offer private poker games to the town’s locals, most of whom were pretty fair players. Cornero had grown up in California, and like thousands after him, came to Las Vegas as a hometown poker hero. And, like most, he left in a hurry.
In Tony’s case, it wasn’t because he got run over by the local players. Cornero didn’t want to split his newfound fortunes with Meyer Lansky, who was an old business associate and knew the Mob deserved a taste of the Vegas profits. When Cornero declined to share, his club had a sudden and devastating fire. He and his brothers hit the road for Los Angeles the following day and didn't come back to Las Vegas for fifteen years. And then, he still wasn’t liked in town.
He opened the SS Rex club in the Apache Hotel but was shut down by the city council. His club became the El Dorado – which became Binion’s, the biggest name in poker in 1949, and then again in 1971 with the beginning of theWorld Series of Poker.
Benny Binion and Poker Promotion
Truth be told, Benny Binion was the greatest early Vegas showman of all time. He continuously brought new ideas to his casino and drew crowds that played very high stakes. Although many of the downtown clubs in the1940s had low limits (often 25-cent blackjack) that topped-off at $50, Benny allowed much higher action at his casino. He liked to say, "Your first bet is your limit."
In 1949, Benny asked Johnny Moss, a traveling poker player with a huge bankroll, to stage a high-stakes game at this club, near the front door. Moss agreed, and although players came and went, there were three or four who sat at the game for days on end and enjoyed the luxury of RFB: free Room, Food, and Beverage. The two mainstays in the game were Moss and Nick the Greek Dandolos.
Nick was known as an itinerant gambler, always moving on to the next big game, but he met his match in Las Vegas. From January until May, Moss and Dandolos played every day, sunup to sundown, and if no one else joined the game, they went heads-up no-limit. They played lowball, five-card draw,five-card stud, seven-card stud, and anything else they could think of.
When Moss got tired one evening after 30 hours of playing, he went to bed, as most people would. When he awoke and came down to the casino to get breakfast, he ran into The Greek shooting craps, where he was asked, “What are you going to do, sleep your life away?”
In the end, after losing more than $2 million to Moss, Dandolos finally conceded, saying, “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”
Downtown Poker Games
Other casinos like the Golden Nugget sporadically offered poker games in the '50s and '60s, but they weren’t always on the up and up. At least in the eyes of tourists who stumbled upon the games, and those who came to wage war against the country’s best players. Few won and even Doyle Brunson admits he came to town in the early ‘60s and got busted.
Other players recalled snatch-and-grab games where the dealers took the rake out of each pot and put it in their tray, instead of the way it's done today, with the chips placed on a dropbox until the end of the hand when it's dropped. One old-time dealer remarked, “I had two players on the game and both were drunk, so I raked more than the winner had in the pot. He got less back than he bet!”
That doesn’t mean the games were all rigged, but man they were tough. And, when players came to town and tried to learn new games like Texas Hold’em, they didn’t stand a chance. At the Golden Nugget, Texas Hold’em finally became more popular than Seven-Stud in the 1970s, but that wasn’t enough!
Bill Boyd, Director of Operations at the Golden Nugget from1946 to 1982, is credited with introducing Robert Turner's game of Omaha Hold'em to the masses. It, too, was tough on inexperienced players with the locals swarming like vultures night and day.
It was even tough for Boyd, who was a super player. He won four World Series of Poker bracelets, one each in ’71, ‘72, ‘73, and ’74. None were for Hold’em. They were all in Five-CardStud. Las Vegas locals ruled the tables for years, and hometown heroes went home broke.