The world of poker is populated by colorful personalities galore, so it’s no wonder that you can probably find more nicknames in poker than in every other sporting activity combined. Such nicknames might be based on birthplace, age, appearance, dress, behavior, occupation, you name it. So let’s look at a few and see how they came about.
Perhaps the two most famous nicknames in poker, both partially derived from their Lone Star State origins, are “Texas Dolly” Brunson and “Amarillo Slim” Preston. The “Dolly” came about when Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder misread “Doyle,” and it stuck. And Preston, now in his 80s, is still as slim as ever. Another noted player with a cool location moniker is “Miami” John Cernuto. Marcel Luske, one of the most gentlemanly players in poker, got his “The Flying Dutchman” nickname because he’s from Holland. Then there’s “Oklahoma” Johnny Hale who, despite a joking remark in one of my Card Player columns, was not really born in Brooklyn.
Carlos Mortensen is called “El Matador” because he’s from Spain. Jim “Minneapolis” Meehan is from, well, Minneapolis. Oh, and let’s not forget the colorful, the one and only Paul “Eskimo” Clark. No, he’s not really an Eskimo, but he once lived in Alaska, hence the name.
Poker has had two very famous “kids,” Stu “The Kid” Ungar and Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu. Ungar, considered by many to be the best poker player of all time, was only 21 when he arrived in Vegas, soon had to turn to poker when nobody dared challenge him in gin, eventually becoming the only player to win three WSOP championships. (One of Johnny “The Grand Old Man”) Moss’ three titles came from a vote.) And Negreanu was hustling cards and pool when he was only 16, began playing poker professionally in Vegas when he was 22, and a year later became the youngest player until then to win a bracelet. (Of course, given today’s crop of Internet kids, 23 would be almost ancient.)
Players with occupational nicknames include Bryan “Sailor” Roberts, who used to travel the country with “Slim” and “Dolly” looking for games, and who won the WSOP Main Event in 1976. “Sailor” came from his serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. Of more recent vintage is Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari, a former professional magician. Howard “The Professor” Lederer was never an instructor, though he was raised in a family of academics and looks the part of a scholar. His father, Richard, a well-known author, linguist and teacher, in fact was the one who tutored him in poker. Men “The Master” Nguyen, on the other hand, is well known for tutoring fellow Vietnamese players, and it was one of his students who bestowed the name “Master” on the four-time Card Player “Player of the Year” winner.
“The Robin Hood of Poker” is the most praiseworthy nickname in poker. It was bestowed on one of the most humble and unassuming men in poker, Barry Greenstein, when he began donating his tournament winnings to a variety of charities, primarily Children, Inc.
Some less complimentary nicknames would include Phil “The Brat” Hellmuth and Mike “The Mouth” Matusow, neither of whom seems to mind and in fact have managed to expand their reputations by playing off their monikers. Hellmuth even has a line of clothing called “Poker Brat.” (No, not baby diapers.)
Even scarier nicknames belong to David “Devilfish” Uliot and Phil “Unabomber” Laak. The giant, deep-sea manta devil fish (one was found weighing 5,000 pounds) is a very frightening creature of the sea. And the “Devilfish,” with his super-aggressive and unpredictable style of play, can be just as frightening a creature at the poker table. The “Unabomber” derives his name from his hooded sweatshirt, similar to an F.B.I. sketch of
Ted Kaczynski, who terrorized this country for many years with letter bombs.
Tall, slender, long-haired, his intense face framed by a beard, it’s little wonder how Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, the scholarly Main Event champion with a Ph.D. in computer science, earned his nickname. Similarly, it’s easy to see how Jack “Treetop” Strauss, rising six-foot-seven in height got his. It was Strauss, incidentally, who spawned the phrase “A chip and a chair” when he won the 1982 Main Event after being down to one chip.
The celebrated Sam Grizzle has had any number of interesting nicknames bestowed on him by opponents during his lifetime in poker, but the list is too long to include here, and besides, the names would probably be censored out.
Johnny Chan, the only player to win back-to-back championships, gained the nickname “The Orient Express” early in his poker career, but it hasn’t been used much of late. One nickname that people have puzzled over is Ken “Skyhawk” Flaton. He supposedly got it after he spread his arms and raked in a pot during a tournament, whereupon Stu Ungar was said to remark that Flaton “swooped down on his chips like a skyhawk.”
Some nicknames are just derived from players’ given names. T.J. Cloutier insists that “T.J” is a nickname, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and include him in. And while “Bono” is obviously shorthand for the unforgettable John Bonetti, some think it might have something to do with perhaps the most questionable play in WSOP history.
In the 1993 Main Event, he and Jim Bechtel had more than a million in chips, while Glenn Cozen, with 60,000, was on the verge of elimination. Instead of waiting for the inevitable, Bonetti got involved in a pot with Bechtel, went all in after he flopped a king to his A-K, and busted out against Bechtel's flopped set of sixes, finishing third and giving up $300,000. But he defended his action, saying he always played to win, not finish second.
Most people think that “Super” Mario Esquerra got his nickname from the game called “Super Mario.” It’s more likely based on the fact that Mario, now near 80, is still built like Superman, has 12 children, flexes his muscles every chance he gets, and allegedly fought off knife-wielding muggers in casino parking lots on two occasions.
The list goes on and on. Mike “The Mad Genius” Caro, who used to put on a screwball act to mislead opponents; Greg “Fossilman” Raymer, who collects fossils and used a small one as a card protector on his way to winning a championship, “Action” Dan Harrington, who gives anything but action at the table (or so he’d like you to believe), Andy “The Rock” Bloch, etc., etc., etc. And, of course, there's Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi, who just won over $1.5 million for capturing the $50,000 "Poker Players Championship" event.
All these great nicknames convinced me I should have one too, so I went to a site called Pokernickname.com that generates appropriate monikers. I answered some questions about myself, picked a few cards, and lo and behold, I was granted an "appropriate" nickname: “Grape.”
GRAPE? Hey, just call me “Max the Ax” and add my name to the list.