Hey, you. Yeah, you. Got a few minutes? Then c'mon over and pull up a chair. Dewey Tomko is holding court-and he's telling another doozy
With the sun setting over the Vegas desert, Tomko is happily ensconced at an eight-top in the back of a swank Chinese restaurant. The current story involves him, golf, a homicidal drug kingpin, several old-time poker mavericks and the wagering of "a bunch of money," which in Dewey-speak means anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. In short, a typical Dewey yarn. Around him sit four guys who, despite the bad hair, Windbreakers and gaudy jewelry, are no South Jersey tourists. These are serious shakers, including 1994 World Series of Poker Main Event-winner Russ Hamilton and world blackjack champ Ken Einiger. They have places to be and money to make, yet they're hanging on his every word, hypnotized by a 62-year-old with a crew cut and a lifeguard's tan.
Dewey Tomko is one of the world's top high-stakes gamblers. He discovered cards as a 10-year-old caddie at a suburban Pittsburgh country club and has gone on to make a record 33 consecutive WSOP appearances. On the links, he has established such a reputation for arctic veins that PGA vet Rocco Mediate is rumored to have said that if he had to pick anyone to putt for his life, Dewey would get the call.
In any event, the man is a product of the money he makes: more than $4 million from sanctioned card tournaments alone. But he is also the sum of his stories. Big stakes lend themselves to tall tales, and Dewey has navigated five decades of monster pots and colorful cohorts, sticky situations and strange circumstances. Better still, he'll gladly regale you with his feats and failures on the driving range of Southern Dunes, the Haines City, Fla., course he used to partly own. Or spin one over an unsweetened iced tea at Vines Grille and Wine Bar, his Orlando restaurant. Or yap away at the Horseshoe, his Costa Rica casino. You can catch a performance when he's driving or eating or hanging out. Just not when he's gambling. Never when he's gambling. That's work, and work requires concentration.
Turns out, what makes a good raconteur isn't so different from what makes a top athlete.
Natural talent. "Dewey tells a great story," says poker legend Daniel Negreanu. "And boy, he has a lot of them."
Practice. "I work hard at everything I do," says Dewey. "Does the heavyweight champ become the best overnight?"
Knowledge. A great yarn-spinner must know his stories inside and out. Dewey forgets neither names nor places. And he doesn't short the details.
Confidence. He doesn't rush or run on. His voice is as steady and sure as that of a ship's captain.
As with any top athlete, though, Dewey must be seen in action-doing what he does best-to be fully appreciated. So we asked him to share some legendary tales, and he was happy to oblige. "Heck, they're not even stories," Dewey says, channeling an inner Yogi. "They're just things that happened."
Or did they? They say facts should never get in the way of a good story, but in the world of high-stakes gambling, a rounder's rep is as important as his skill. Get colored lousy, and you'll be hard-pressed to find another game. Play too many bluffs, and you'll be forced to show your hand. So we did some double-checking. And you know what? If Dewey says it happened, it probably did.
Except when maybe it didn't.
"I'm a rounder, a guy who bets on anything-football, the stock market, golf. I once won $70,000 shooting free throws. I'll bet on whether it's going to rain. One time, I played poker for two straight days and pushed my bankroll to $98,000. I'm teaching kindergarten at the time-making $6,400-so this is a lot of money. I get a call from Doyle Brunson, inviting me to Nashville to play golf with him and Sam Sims, a numbers writer who typically lost $5-10 million a year playing golf. I fly up from Florida, and when Doyle picks me up at the airport, I say, 'I can't play today. I haven't slept in two days. I'm going to my hotel room to rest.'
"Brunson says, 'Aw, just come out for a bit,' and he takes me to the course. Again, I say 'I ain't playing; I'll watch and maybe bet some on the side.' But after nine holes, greed grabs me. I proceed to lose the whole $98,000. I pay Doyle, and he takes me back to the airport. I never even made it to the hotel. Back home the next day, I go to the teachers' credit union and borrow $300 so I can start to play poker again. Had to get my bankroll back." 1
"I'm playing golf at the old Desert Inn, and I'm getting buried. I have a putt, about a 12-footer, for like $30,000, all the money I have left in the world. I completely mishit it, top it about three feet. But something or someone kicks up some wind, and it starts pushing the ball, which keeps going and going and going-this isn't downhill, either-right into the jar. I'm telling ya, somebody intervened." 2
DIVINE INTERVENTION REDUX
"Then there's the time a butterfly saved me about $100,000. I'm playing Butch Holmes in Austin, about to get broke. On the ninth hole I make par, but he's got about a five-footer for birdie to win. Just as he's about to make contact, a yellow butterfly lands right on his ball. He blasts it six feet past, then misses coming back. I took him for about $300,000 after that." 3
"Most unbelievable game I ever found was in Wauchula, Fla. All farmers, cow and fruit people. Cowboy hats, guns-you'd think you were in the Old West. It's a dry county, so the only place to get a drink is the Elks Lodge. Inside, everyone's drunk. Guys have 30-40K in front of them. They ante a dollar, then lose 10 grand chasing that dollar with some goofy hand. I make so much money for two months, they finally bar me. They were real nice about it, though." 4
ON THE MARK
"First time I won a million was playing golf against a guy named Tyson Leonard. He'd get ahold of some dough, then gamble 'til he lost it. People would fly from all over to play him. One time, he suggests I come down to the Breakers West in West Palm. When I get there he says, 'I can't play you because I have another match, but I want you to lay a $15,000 Nassau on the other guys.' I say fine. I don't ask who he's playing or nothing, because I know he's testing me, to see if I got gamble-if I'm willing to lose money, which I am. Thing is, he loses the match, so now I'm up $45,000. But now he's mad at me. He says, 'You come here and win, and you ain't even picked up your clubs. You're gonna have to play!' I just say, 'I come to play.'
"Later on, we're in a scramble. I don't even know what a scramble is, but I don't care. I beat him for $240,000. Now he's really mad. 'You goddamn gamblers,' he says. 'You're gonna have to bet me a million!' He thinks I'll be afraid to play for that much, but I don't think twice. He winds up paying me in gold Krugerrands. Called them his 'little babies.' " 5
FRIENDS OF OURS
"The worst crowd I ever saw was at Redmans Club in Dallas, run by a guy named Cowboy Wolford. Brutal. We played with hit men, bank robbers-you name it. They'd get broke, go rob a bank, then come back with the stolen money and play. A couple of them eventually ended up on death row.
"One night my friend Dickey Carson is in the bathroom. A guy gets broke, goes to Dickey's stall, says, 'I hate to do this to you, Dickey,' then robs him. Dickey eventually comes out, figuring the guy is long gone. But there he is, playing with Dickey's money. What does Dickey do? Nothing. This guy was one of them real bad hit man guys." 6
"A couple of years ago, I'm out at the TPC course in Vegas, playing in a fivesome with some young poker players, when Negreanu comes up on the third hole and asks to join us. We say sure. Daniel sets up over his ball-he hasn't even hit a practice shot-and says, 'I don't have any matches.' In the old days, when we made a match for $100,000 or $200,000, it might take us a day to negotiate. But not Daniel. He turns to the first guy in the fivesome and says, 'Can I play you?' Guy says sure. Daniel asks, 'How many shots you give me?' Guy says five. Daniel asks if this is fair. The guy says yeah. Daniel says okay.
"Then he goes down the line and makes the same bet with all of us, like 50-100K a hole. I can't tell you how much he lost. These young poker players like Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth and Daniel, they got a bunch of money and don't know what to do with it. So they gamble. That's why I know it's time to get my golf game back in shape." 7
(1) "I remember playing with those guys," Brunson says, "plus Gene Fisher, a card player from El Paso, and Freddie Barnes, a bookie from Mobile. But Sam Sims, who has since died, wasn't a bad golfer; he was just a lousy matchmaker. We played 27, maybe 36, holes, and I probably shot in the mid70s. I do remember the dejected look on Dewey's face when I drove him back to the airport. But he's beaten my brains out ever since."
(2)We got Dave Tutelman, a retired engineering professor who consults for golf equipment companies, to do a few back-of-the-envelope calculations, and he determined it would take a 33 mph gust to push a golf ball nine feet beyond its estimated stopping point. "That's an awful lot of wind to be playing golf in," Tutelman says. "But some guys do play in those conditions occasionally."
(3) "That's accurate," says Butch (whose real name is Parris), although he doesn't recall the butterfly's color. "What difference does it make? When a butterfly lands on the ball, it's a distraction, to say the least." As for the money? "Let's put it this way: a decision for the day of about 300K? I see lots of those."
(4) Hardee County was indeed dry, up until April 12, 2001, according to county manager Lexton Albritton Jr. And the Elks Lodge's current Exalted Ruler, Tom Crider, confirms that it was a bottle club back then, so members could buy liquor at the county line and drink at the tables. Of the Old West vibe, "I've heard stories about things that went on 20, 30 years ago," Crider says. Adds Albritton, "When I was a kid, my parents didn't want me to have anything to do with the place."
(5) "Tyson is what amateurs call a fish. Pro gamblers call him It," confirms Billy Walters, a wellknown Vegas ace. "And it's true that Dewey took him and another player for a bunch of money in a scramble. They laid him, like, 3- or 4-1, when in fact, Dewey was about a 4-1 favorite to beat them. It was the biggest stickup known to man. The next day, Leonard, about a 30 handicap, teamed up with a scratch golfer against Dewey and me. We drew up a contract with a commitment to keep playing until one team won a million dollars. We beat 'em three days in a row, but then Tyson faked a heart attack, so he didn't fulfill the freeze-out. To his credit, he did pay up what he lost. And he did pay in Krugerrands. I have no idea why."
(6) "That's not the story," Carson says. "I mean, I did get robbed at Redmans one time, but the story Dewey's telling took place at an all-night joint in Dallas called the Cotton Bowling Palace. There was a guy by the name of Charlie Boyd, just a terrible person. I'm gonna say it was about 1966 or '67. I'm a pool hustler back then, and I have a little bankroll, maybe $800 to a grand. It's about 2 or 3 in the morning, and I lay my stick down to go to the bathroom. I'm sitting on the can, and there's a knock on the door. Then two knocks. This guy says, 'Dickey, slip off your pants so I can pull 'em out from under the stall.' I recognize the voice; it's Boyd. But my pants are already down, understand? I mean, I'm going to the bathroom. So I say, 'Charlie, what the hell?' And he says again, 'Dickey, pull your pants off. I've got a .45, and if you don't do what I'm saying, I'm opening the door.' Now, I know this man is crazy, so I do it. He takes my money and leaves my pants on the floor. I finish, put my pants back on and go out into the bowling alley. And there's Charlie, eating breakfast. I don't say a word. I just borrow $20 from somebody and go home. That stuff kinda went with the territory in those days. Charlie Boyd wound up getting killed in the penitentiary."
(7) "I actually caught up with them on the first tee," Negreanu says. "But I did ask them all how many shots they were going to give me. As for the money, let's just say I lost a decent amount that day."