Earlier this month I wrote about the Mayfair, New York's historic card club that has spawned the careers of so many professional bridge, backgammon and poker players. If you read that article, you know that it wasn't just mystique that made it great, but a culture of shared knowledge and learning that led its contingent to untold heights and success.
As much as the Mayfair and its operators fostered that environment, the reality is that none of its players could have achieved what they did without talent, skill and dedication -- qualities possessed by the individuals rather than the whole. The players you see on TV today couldn't have gotten there without one another, but they also needed to possess drive, determination and talent for you to know their names today.
The listing that follows isn't of guys such as Stu Ungar, who played a little bridge at the Mayfair but never a hand of poker. Nor is it about Henry Orenstein, who played in the place but didn't find his inspiration there. The names you're about the read are men who spent 12 hours a day playing the game and the three hours after that discussing what had transpired. They did it seven days a week. They made one another and they made themselves.
Mickey Appleman: Unlike guys such as Jason Lester and Billy Horan, Appleman wasn't so much a gamesman as a pure poker player. Primarily a cash game player, Appleman's first tournament cash was a bracelet win at the 1980 World Series of Poker. He has won three more since, along with 36 other cashes. That's leaderboard material.
While Appleman's poker career has been a successful one, it pales in comparison to his reputation as a sports bettor. Amarillo Slim once said, "There may only be five truly successful gamblers in the world." And when he was asked to name them, Appleman was on that list.
Dan Harrington: When "Action Dan" made his way to New York to play at the Mayfair, he was already a step ahead of most of the competition. His experience in competitive chess gave him a fundamental understanding of how to approach poker, and the profitability he found in those early Mayfair games didn't hurt.
While Harrington wasn't as constantly present as most on this list, his forays into the club left an impact. "Harrington is brilliant and super disciplined," Lester said. "One of the most disciplined game players and human beings I've ever known. That's his ultimate strength."
That strength has translated into success in life and poker. The author of many successful business ventures, Harrington is most known in poker circles for his books and his remarkable twin main event final tables in 2003 and 2004. The 1995 World Champion was enshrined in the WSOP Hall of Fame alongside Erik Seidel in 2010.
Jay Heimowitz: Only two players have won WSOP bracelets in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s: Hall of Famer Billy Baxter and renowned "amateur" Heimowitz, who has won six bracelets in total. Heimowitz, living in upstate New York, would drive to the city to play and was the Mayfair's most advanced player when he was there. As a result, he mostly listened while the others talked.
"It was a great breeding place for creative game theories amongst the players," Heimowitz recalled. "I watched them grow. I watched them learn. I really was holding my cards close to the chest. I was of the mentality of not giving out information that could hurt me. I loved to listen and learn, but hardly gave up anything. Why give someone something they could hurt you with?
"Also, I was more ready to go home after the game."
While Heimowitz wasn't as much a part of the discussion, the players learned from the lessons dealt by his hands. "He just played poker," Lester said. "He was terrific, disciplined, astute. He was sort of like he came from the poker world and people learned by watching him." Heimowitz was the model for their success.
Billy Horan: Probably the one guy on this list you've never heard of. Horan is an all-around games player whose recent health issues have kept him away from the live felt. Those issues, however, haven't stopped him from winning two World Championship Of Online Poker titles and thriving in poker. Horan opted to keep his focus on all games when the poker boom came, but the general consensus is that he could have thrived even more if had taken a step in the other direction.
Horan's role in the collective was an important one. Living for a time at the Mayfair, it was his alpha personality and desire for the party to go on that led to so many of the group's late night discussions. When asked about Horan, the club's last manager, Ingrid Weber merely said, "Billy was never girlfriend-less," and left it at that.
Howard Lederer: You've probably heard the stories about Lederer sleeping on park benches and sweeping floors to get his next buy-in, but by the time he arrived at the Mayfair he was five years removed from that stage. "I'd gone from a losing $1 to $2 player to a winning $5 to $10 grinder," Lederer recalled. "I'd matured as a player by the time I was playing regularly at the Mayfair."
Lederer's work ethic and curiosity loaned themselves well to the Mayfair collective and to his time afterward. In 1987, Lederer became the youngest player up to that time to make the WSOP main event final table and has been a staple in world poker ever since. With over $6.4 million in winnings, two WSOP bracelets, two WPT wins and a number of successful poker business endeavors, he seems likely to eventually be enshrined next to Seidel and Harrington in the Poker Hall of Fame.
Jason Lester: You probably best remember Lester from the final table of the 2003 WSOP main event, but what you don't know is he almost looks at poker with contempt. "There's no artistry in the game," explained the man who'd rather be playing bridge, gin rummy or even lost games like Clobyosh. Despite only making occasional forays into the poker world, Lester's winnings total over $2 million, including $550,000 for his 2006 bracelet win in $5,000 pot-limit hold 'em. He's cashed in the last four WSOP main events and six of the last eight. He may not love the game anymore, but he's definitely great at it.
"Jason is the epitome of what the Mayfair was," Lederer remembered. "None of us hold a candle to Jason as a true renaissance games player. World champion 'gammon player, world class bridge player, world class gin player. Phenomenally good Scrabble player and oh, by the way, he made the final table of the WSOP main event. If you were to ask all of the players who embody what the club was about, it was actually Jason."
Erik Seidel: Seidel made his way to the Mayfair in the wake of Paul Magriel. "X-22" was the best backgammon player in the world in the 1980s. He was revolutionizing the game and when he started making his way to the Mayfair Seidel was inclined to follow. The rest is only part of a tremendous script that's still being written, as evidenced by Seidel's $3.4 million in 2011 winnings thus far.
When Seidel found poker, backgammon was losing its popularity and he seemingly never looked back. In 1988, he finished second to Johnny Chan in the WSOP main event, firmly putting himself on the map for good. Since then, he's taken home eight WSOP bracelets and over $13.7 million in live tournament play alone. In 2010, he was enshrined in the WSOP Hall of Fame, and calling his career one of poker's top 10 seems more than reasonable.
Steve Zolotow: Another renaissance game player, Zolotow found success in sports betting, business, backgammon, an assortment of other games and finally poker. With 36 cashes and two WSOP bracelets (one in Chinese poker), his games acumen could almost be underrated. He's regarded by his fellow Mayfair denizens as the master of no game (except for Chinese) but a solid player of all. It's when he offers to play his opponent in his strongest and weakest games that the opponent knows he's in trouble.
While the origins of poker's admission to the Mayfair are mottled, there are some who credit Zolotow with its emergence. He'd use it as a balance against the great backgammon players, issuing challenges in both games and winning more often than not. It was Zolotow with whom Lederer and David Grey got involved in sports betting. He's allegedly one of the best in the world.
There are others. Grey, Magriel, Wendeen Eolis the list of names with some involvement goes on. They learned from their mistakes and the mistakes of others and built on their collective individual talents to truly become ahead of their time. With the inductions of Seidel and Harrington into the WSOP HOF, and more sure to follow, the legacy of the Mayfair lives on. It's a legacy built by the players.