From 1975 until 1979, the biggest game in all of Las Vegas, and possibly all of America, was the No Limit Deuce-to-Seven game at the Dunes. The game was hosted by two of the Dunes’ owners, Sid Wyman and Major Riddle, who both loved to play poker and were two of the wealthiest men in the city. They played with blinds of $1,000 and $2,000, and the game ran around the clock.
The lineup was a real who’s who of poker royalty: Doyle Brunson, Jack “Treetop” Strauss, Puggy Pearson, Bobby Baldwin, and eventually Chip Reese. The man who is thought to have won the most money out of these multi-million dollar games, someone Amarillo Slim Preston said was the best player in the whole world, is Billy Baxter, a lifelong professional gambler and recent inductee into the Sports Gambling Hall of Fame.
The game ran until Major Riddle’s death in 1979, and during that time everybody in America who fancied themselves a top-tier poker player tried their hand at it. The stakes were so high it was irresistible. Many players came through the game over those years. Most of them were chewed up and spit out. Few had the chops to hang in there with the sharks or the deep enough pockets to last as long as Riddle and Wyman. But there were a couple who gave Baxter some trouble.
“In my opinion, Fred Ferris was one of the great players of all time,” Baxter said. Ferris, known as “Sarge” to those who played with him because of a stint he served in the Air Force, was from Shreveport, Louisiana and came up through the 1940s and 50s playing in road games across the South. Sarge made his way to Las Vegas in the 1960s to play Five Card Stud, and at one point may have been the best Five Card Stud player in the country.
But when the big Deuce-to-Seven game got going at the Dunes, he set his mind to figure that game out, and like Baxter he became a regular fixture. In Doyle Brunson’s autobiography he wrote that Sarge said that “when he started his car up every day, it just went straight to the Dunes. It drove itself.” That’s because Sarge discovered, similarly to Baxter, that Deuce-to-Seven suited his skill set.
“What made him such a fearless Deuce player was the fact that he had such a big heart,” Baxter said, though he didn’t mean “big heart “ in the sense that Ferris was kind. He meant heart as in courage. “Sarge, he was a bulldog.”
Ferris would buy in for all the money he had in the world and he wasn’t afraid to lose it. Where Baxter and others could use big all-in bets to their advantage by putting maximum pressure on their opponents, Sarge was immune to such leverage. “He wasn’t afraid of money,” Baxter said. “And there’s not a lot of gamblers like that. I mean, he was just fearless. And you know, I think he was the toughest for me.”
Ferris gambled at more than just Deuce to Seven and Five Card Stud, too. He’d gamble on any and everything. “He was around everywhere. If there was any game, he showed up. He was like an animal.”
“Just the toughest guy to gamble with, no matter what it was. If you were betting on ball games, if you wanna bet a hundred, he wants to bet $200. If you wanted to bet $200, he wanted to bet four. If he had $200,000, he bet it all. He’d have to borrow the juice to have enough to make the bet. But he bet it all.”
When Ferris had money, he wasn’t just willing to gamble every penny; he was also willing to lend it out to keep a friend in action. In the Texas road circuit days, Sarge loaned Doyle Brunson hundreds of thousands of dollars to help him out whenever he went broke. And in 1980, Ferris put up the $10,000 entry to the World Series of Poker main event for a 27-year-old kid named Stu Ungar who had never played No Limit Texas Hold’em before. Ungar went on to win the event, and then did it again in 1981 and 1997. But more on him later.
Back in the Dunes game, Ferris and Baxter were constantly locking horns.
“We were adversaries, but we were friends, too,” Baxter remembered. “I was never happy when he showed up. It’s just more competition. And good and tough competition.”
There was plenty of other tough competition in that game, including Brunson, but Baxter never had to fade the other players the same way he did Ferris, because Ferris was a force to be reckoned with. “Sarge was more adversarial,” said Baxter. “He was the kind of guy who was like ‘You think you’re so good? Come on big boy, let’s play some poker.’ You’d be in a ring game and he’d call you out. ‘Let’s go to another table, me and you heads up. Come over here and play a real man.’”
“He had gone broke many times, but he didn’t care. He was talented enough, he would come back. And that made him even more fearsome, because he’d find money and come back.”
But while Ferris struck fear in the hearts of most of the poker players and gamblers of Las Vegas, there was one man who Ferris feared more than anything: Tony Spilotro.
In the 1970s, there was nobody more feared in Las Vegas than Spilotro. He was the Chicago mob’s enforcer in the 70s and 80s, notorious for his violent tactics. He was a suspect, according to the FBI, in at least 20 murders when he was killed. One way that Spilotro made money in Vegas was shaking down high stakes gamblers and cheating high stakes games. He and his gang rounded up card cheats and put them to work for them in the various poker rooms of Las Vegas.
“They had, like, teams. There was a guy named Shoeshine Nick, a guy named Lou. They all worked for Spilotro in the Razz games. They were all partners and they were very good at what they did. They had a way of signaling what everybody had.”
Spilotro’s gang was headed up by Shoeshine Nick, whose real name was Nick Simponis. Simponis had a similar path to Vegas as Baxter. He once ran his own illegal gambling club and came to Vegas after a stint in San Quentin. But unlike Baxter, Simponis was connected to the mob, and once Spilotro arrived in Las Vegas the two of them grew thick as thieves. Nick’s gang did most of their work at the Stardust, but they tried many times to infiltrate the big money games at the Dunes, to varying degrees of success, depending on who you talk to. In Baxter’s game, their scheme was stopped cold.
“We changed the rule. I come in one day, I’m the one, I changed the rules.” Baxter and the other pros caught on quick to what Simponis and others were doing as they signaled their cards to one another. So Baxter proposed a new rule for the game. “ You couldn’t look at your hand until it was your turn.”
This rule seemed fair enough. Who could possibly object other than someone who was signaling? After a bit of hemming and hawing, the cheaters quit the game and never came back. But despite not being able to cheat in the Deuce to Seven game, Spilotro and his crew’s presence was still felt across the city. When they couldn’t get their gang into games to cheat, they’d shake down poker players for a piece of their action.
When Spilotro found out that Baxter had partnered up with Doyle Brunson to book sports bets, he demanded a cut of their profits. He called Baxter on the phone late one night and demanded that Baxter meet him at a donut shop. Baxter told his wife he was headed out to meet a very bad guy. When she asked him why he would go, he told her “I think I have to.”
When Baxter met Spilotro that night, Tony got right to the point. He demanded 25% of Baxter and Brunson’s profits. “And you tell that fatso partner of yours that if he takes one more bet in Las Vegas that I don’t have 25% of, I’m gonna stick 12 ice picks in that big fat pustule gut of his.” The next morning when Baxter relayed Spilotro’s message to Brunson, Doyle leaned over and grabbed Baxter’s own ample stomach and asked, “What’s wrong with your stomach?”
Despite Brunson’s good humor, the two of them were afraid. Spilotro was nobody to take lightly. Still, they knew if they let this camel get its nose under the tent, Spilotro wouldn’t stop at 25% of sports bets. He would eventually want a piece of their poker winnings, maybe even try to force them to cheat for him. They couldn’t go into business with him. So they turned to Benny Binion, then the owner of the Horseshoe, for advice.
Spilotro was a formidable figure in Las Vegas, but so was Binion. Benny Binion was no ordinary casino mogul. He was a Texas roughneck who came up through the rackets and had killed a few people himself along the way. Binion had a take-no-prisoners approach to life and business, and he was by all accounts a success. In addition to owning the Horseshoe, Binion was a towering personality in Las Vegas life and politics in the 1970s. There was a 15-foot statue of Binion astride a horse erected downtown. A visitor who didn’t know any better might mistake it for a monument to a war hero or a statesman, rather than a violent Texas gambler who never attended a day of formal schooling in his life.
According to The Godfather of Poker, Binion’s advice to Baxter and Bruson was that they should murder Spilotro. But Baxter and Brunson were gamblers, not killers. So Binion offered to talk to Spilotro on their behalf. He asked the mobster to give them a pass as a favor to him, and Spilotro agreed. Not everyone would be so lucky.
“Tony had Chip, and he had Sarge,” Baxter said, referring to Chip Reese and Sarge Ferris. Both of the men had given in to Spilotro and were paying off to him. “Sarge come to me in the seventies, ’cause we played head up a lot. He says, ‘Billy, I need you to do me a favor.’ I said, ‘What’s that Sarge?’ He says, ‘I wanna play you this afternoon. It won’t take you too long. We’ll play $500,000 freezeout. You just beat me. It won’t take an hour or two. I’ll give you a hundred thousand to do it.’”
This was an unusual proposition. Who would pay someone $100,000 to pretend to win $500,000 from them at poker? “I figured it out right away,” Baxter explained. “He’s wanting to just create a loss for Spilotro so he can cover some of the money he wins when he don’t have to give him nothing.” In other words, Ferris wanted Baxter to beat him out of $500,000 in public so that Spilotro and his gang would see the loss, and Ferris could claim fewer winnings when paying Spilotro his cut.
It was a hell of an offer. $100,000 for doing nothing at all. But Baxter thought better of it. “He might take Sarge up and shake him and Sarge say ‘Oh, Billy did it!’” Baxter didn’t intend to stake his life on the proposition that Ferris wouldn’t fold under Spilotro’s questioning (and anyone who has seen Joe Pesci’s portrayal of Spilotro in the movie Casino knows what that could entail). “I said, ‘I’m going to pass. Things have been going pretty good for me right now. But stay in touch!’”
With gangsters and cheaters everywhere you turned, poker was a tough way for most people to earn a living in the 1970s.
“That’s the way it was. It was like the Wild West back then,” Baxter said. “These kids today couldn’t survive.”
Baxter, however, seemed to walk between the raindrops. He had dodged Spilotro and he had found a cash cow in the Deuce to Seven game. You’d think that the last thing Baxter would need was for the largest drug trafficker in the United States to show up at the Dunes and take a seat in the game. But somehow that worked out pretty well for Billy Baxter, too.
Next up: Jimmy Chagra comes to Vegas.