Freeze-out innovator Pearson warmed poker world to his concept


April 18, 2006|By BILL ORDINE

At last year's World Series of Poker main event final table, a bewhiskered older gentleman in a straw hat took center stage at the game he loved for one final time.

Walter Clyde "Puggy" Pearson, who had won the main event in 1973, commandeered a microphone and sang his trademark tune, "Roving Gambler," and I'm sure there were quite a few folks watching who wondered: Just who is this guy?

It was this quirky old fellow's contribution to poker that probably led to more than 5,600 people gathering to play in last year's championship and millions more developing an infatuation with the game over the past few years.

Pearson, who died last week at 77 in Las Vegas, is largely credited with coming up with the concept of "freeze-out" poker. Freeze-out is the tournament style with which poker fans have become familiar in which all players start with the same number of chips and competitors are eliminated until one person has accumulated the entire stack.

Often repeated is the tale of how Pearson told his freeze-out idea to another legendary gambler, Nick "The Greek" Dandalos, who, in turn, passed it on to poker World Series founder Benny Binion.

Pearson won the WSOP main event in its fourth year, after Johnny Moss had taken the first two and Amarillo Slim the third, pocketing $130,000. Back then, the $10,000 buy-in championship was winner-take-all, so there had been just 13 starters. Last year's winner, Australian Joe Hachem, won $7.5 million by besting a field of 5,619.

Pearson was a gambler from the old school, betting not just on cards but pool and golf.

"I remember at what used to be the old Sahara golf course that Puggy and [fellow poker players] Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese would play in these 10-man golf tournaments," said Gary Thompson, an executive with Harrah's Entertainment. "Everyone had their own cart and they'd be all over the course playing for tens of thousands of dollars. ... They might be on the fourth fairway when they were supposed to be playing the third hole."

Pearson, a Tennessean, won four World Series bracelets and was known for his famous challenge that he would play anyone from anywhere for any amount in any game - but with one qualifier.

"Provided I like it," was his sly disclaimer.

CBS gets in on action

Another poker pioneer of sorts, Henry Orenstein - who patented the concept of the rail camera that allows TV audiences to see players' hole cards - is producing the first poker series for CBS.

The Intercontinental Poker Championship featuring 21 players from 21 countries is scheduled to start its TV run at 5 p.m. on June 17 and continues through seven more weekend shows, June 24 and 25, and July 1, 2, 8, 15 and 22.

Among the most familiar players are Brunson (United States), Daniel Negreanu (Canada), Sam Farha (Lebanon), Dave "Devilfish" Ulliott (England), Johnny Chan (China) and Humberto Brenes (Costa Rica). The tournament was played last weekend at the Palms casino in Las Vegas.

The freeroll tournament pays $350,000 to the winner and $150,000 for second place. The game, as usual, is No-limit Texas Hold 'em.

The field begins with three tables of seven players, with each table winner getting a bye into the semifinal round. The next six highest players start with varying chip stacks determined by their order of finish in the first round, and the top three advance to the semifinals. Similarly, the semifinal table winner gets a bye into the heads-up finals and the remaining competitors, again with weighted starting stacks, vie for the other spot at the championship table.

Poker picture show

Not surprisingly, poker is finding its way to the big screen.

In the works is a poker-themed movie, Deal, starring Burt Reynolds as the old-time poker mentor to young hot shot Bret Harrison, of TV's The Loop.

If that sounds like Paul Newman and Tom Cruise in The Color of Money, well, yeah, it sure does.

And even James Bond will be going all-in for the latest 007 movie adventure, Casino Royale.

In the 1953 Ian Fleming novel, Bond and the villainous Le Chiffre square off in a critical game of chemin de fer, a variation of the stylish card game baccarat. In the movie, though, the two will be going to the river in Texas Hold 'em.

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