A couple of old school gamblers are trying to show the kiddies how it’s done. Event #3 ($1,500 Pot Limit Hold’em) is underway, and two of the names that have emerged amongst the chip leaders are harkening back to the days of old.
Dewey Tomko and Billy Baxter aren’t just historic poker players, they’re historic gamblers. Both men have made millions in poker and hundreds of millions in other gambling pursuits. In an interview with Amarillo Slim a couple of years ago, the 1972 world champion said there were only five successful gamblers in the world. When asked who they were, Tomko’s and Baxter’s were the first name to escape Slim’s lips. They’ve both been around the tournament poker scene since the late ‘70s and the tournaments were the side shows to the monstrous cash games that helped them attain wealth and prestige in the community.
Tomko was born in Pennsylvania in 1946. He owns three WSOP bracelets to go with 39 WSOP cashes and in addition is one of only three men (with Crandell Addington and TJ Cloutier) to have made the finals of the main event twice without winning it. If the cards had gone a little differently, he’d be revered in this game.
Tomko’s been playing poker for a living since young adulthood. He famously found himself making more money playing nights than at his job as a kindergarten teacher and when the going got good enough, felt obligated to leave the civil job for poker’s greener pastures.
A legendary Tomko story appeared in Steve Rosenbloom’s “The Greatest Hand I Ever Played”. It was there Tomko recounted the story of a cash game from his youth in which he faced off against R.D. Mathews, a stone cold killer who served as Benny Binion’s bodyguard for some 50 years. Matthews was a mean drunk and when the two got into a pot in which Tomko, on a bluff, had invested half of his roll. Matthews, holding a pocket pair to Tomko’s ace-high, informed the young gambler “You’re going to show me that hand after we’re done and if you’re bluffing, I’m going to kill you,” with a gun in plain site. Tomko still managed the courage to bet the rest of his chips, then pushed the hand in the muck before Matthews could get a look. He’d won his life back along with the pot.
For all the money he’s made in poker, Tomko’s probably made more playing golf. Many professionals won’t play him on the links and he’s been known to take home millions in a single match.
Baxter is a different kind of poker player. Born in Georgia back in 1950, he may well be the best sports bettor of all-time and the best lowball player in WSOP history. Seven times he’s left the series with a bracelet, and all seven times the wins came in lowball formats. He’s one of only two players (along with Jay Heimowitz) to have won bracelets in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s.
A gambler from his early teenage years, Baxter’s poker and Vegas affiliations started back in 1975. Stopping here on the way home from a Hawaiian honeymoon, he ended up staying for nine months and played poker the whole time.
In the time since, Baxter has become one of the most influential gamblers in history. Stu Ungar’s primary backer, it was Baxter’s landmark case of “William E. Baxter Jr. vs. the United States” that cemented his status as one of the most influential poker players of all-time. The ruling in the case declared Baxter's poker winnings should be classified as "earned income" and thus not subject to the up-to-70% taxation that “unearned income” is. The case provided equal tax status for professional poker players to citizens in other lines of work.
The case was amongst the reasons that Baxter was featured in a 1984 Sports Illustrated story titled “Look Up and He's Got Your Money”. It’s amazing he’s not better known in poker now, but to history hounds, he’s a true classic. Both of these men are.
There’s a long way to go in event three and there’s no telling whether these Baxter and Tomko will survive the tide of the masses, but that’s merely a financial proposition. As far as their places in history are concern, this is only another notch in the belt. It’d be nice though, if those notches ended up being big enough to remind the world of these two great careers. Here’s to the good ol’ days.
Gary Wise is covering the WSOP all summer for WorldSeriesofPoker.com, espn.com/poker and in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.