Billy Baxter arrived in Las Vegas in 1975 looking for a game. Baxter, an experienced gambler, was no stranger to this place. He was already, at the age of 35, a veteran high stakes gambler. He once ran his own underground casino in Augusta, Georgia, a club he won in a gin game from the previous owner. He spun that little club into gold, running table games and making book on sports until he had amassed a sizable bankroll for himself.
But being a bookmaker and casino kingpin in Georgia, while lucrative, was not without risk. His club was raided by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation during the 1973 Masters, when it was filled to the brim with high rollers in town for the tournament.
“Sonny Jurgenson, a famous football player, was holding the dice in his hand when the doors come down,” Baxter told me, referring to Washington’s Hall of Fame starting quarterback. Baxter faced a slew of charges, so he and his new wife Julie made a bee line for Nevada to wait out the appeals somewhere Baxter could ply his trade legally. He eventually was sentenced to a year and served several months in the Richmond Correctional Institution in North Carolina, but it was only a small bump in the road to his success.
A criminal record isn’t a detriment to a career as a professional gambler. In fact, if this year’s inaugural inductees into the Sports Gambling Hall of Fame at Circa Casino are any indication, it might have even once been a prerequisite. The induction ceremony and banquet for the newly-christened Sports Gambling Hall of Fame, which took place over the summer, included Baxter among ten men being honored. Nearly all of them had similar run-ins with the law over the years.
Vic Salerno, in his speech at the event, joked that instead of black tie they should have required orange jumpsuits. Baxter invited me to his home that night, and upon my arrival he greeted me in a bathrobe and gave me a tour of his various awards – seven World Series of Poker bracelets, two Super Bowl of Poker trophies, a number of magazine profiles, and a landmark court victory against the IRS among them. They decorated his office, along with works of art and ephemera that included an original Leroy Neiman and a first-edition copy of Doyle Brunson’s Super/System. As he sweated his golf bets on television from a recliner, Baxter answered a barrage of questions about his many adventures in the world of gambling.
Baxter’s path from a Georgia jail cell to this desert palace is in some ways incredible, while in other ways it’s the kind of thing that can only happen in Las Vegas. He has made his fortune here since the 1970s with stints as a professional poker player, a bookmaker, a sports bettor, and a boxing promoter. He has made much more than just money. He has made headlines the world over for his association with world champion boxers and athletes, infamous mobsters and criminals, politicians and civic and corporate leaders, and some of the most brilliant and colorful gamblers Las Vegas has ever known.
Baxter’s time in Las Vegas began, as stated, back in 1975, when he arrived in town without an income to speak of and a fat knot of money burning a hole in his pocket. And the first calling he felt upon his arrival was poker.
“I had never really played a tremendous amount of poker, but through having the casino and the bookmaking and all, I had the financial wherewithal to play big limits, more so than probably anybody in poker at the time,” said Baxter.
After asking around, Baxter found the biggest game in town was at the Dunes, where two of the owners of the casino, Major Riddle and Sid Wyman, hosted a regular No Limit Deuce-to-Seven game.
“I see these old guys, Sid and Major, they’re playing this big money, I mean, they were playing $1,000 and $2,000 blinds. This is in the seventies. Their own money! This is giant money compared to the stakes today.”
Baxter was new in town, but Riddle, Wyman and every other gambling bigshot in Vegas knew him. He had been handing off his biggest customers back in Georgia to Las Vegas casinos for years, so getting into the game was no trouble. Playing it, however, was a different story. He had played very little Deuce to Seven before, and never played poker for anything close to those kinds of stakes.
“I watch and I see all this going on. I says, ‘gee, surely I can play poker with these old guys,’ you know?” Baxter said. “So I decided I’m going to give it a whirl.”
Despite his lack of experience, Baxter was successful right off the bat. Some of the best poker players in the world were regulars in that game, including Brunson, Chip Reese, and Bobby Baldwin. But the game was built around Wyman and Riddle, who loved action yet lacked any serious skill. Since they owned the joint, their pockets were deep. Almost infinitely so. When one of them would go broke in a hand, they’d simply walk into the casino cage and write a marker for themselves for $100,000 or more, and come back to the game with a fresh rack of chips.
According to Des Wilson in Ghosts at the Table, Riddle alone lost over $100 million in today’s dollars in the game, and eventually was forced to sell his stake in the Dunes.
Baxter did his part to help rid Riddle of his money. He honed in on the mogul’s obvious tells (tossing his chips carelessly with a bad hand, setting them carefully with a good hand, and taking too much time studying the card whenever he drew a paint). But more importantly, he made sure to never be on Riddle’s bad side.
“He liked me a lot because I did the little things that he liked,” said Baxter. “He had a lot of peeves, like he didn’t like people to ever quit him. He was a very busy man. He was on bank boards, this, that, and the other. Many, many times he would leave the game to go to a meeting or something and if you weren’t there when he came back – if it was 10 hours later, 12 hours, whatever he took – he didn’t wanna play with you no more.”
Whenever Riddle left the game for a meeting, rather than break the game up, the players would continue to play, waiting for him for as long as it took. Baxter would pay the massage therapists to put cold towels and ice on him to keep him awake and alert. Sometimes the wait would go on for days, with Baxter sitting up waiting with towels wrapped around his head while Riddle slept soundly in his bed.
On one occasion, Baxter was in the game in late February, which was the week of both his wife’s birthday and their anniversary. She naturally expected him to celebrate with her, and he had every intention of doing so. But Riddle left the game without any indication of when he’d return.
“I didn’t get home for either one of ‘em,” Baxter confessed. She wasn’t very happy, but Riddle was, and keeping Riddle happy became Baxter’s profession. “I learned very quickly what he liked. And then he became a customer of mine in sports and all. And we became very close. And so it was like everything worked out for me. In short order, I found that I might be the best player in the game.”
In case there was any inclination that Baxter might be exaggerating, he retrieved his 1975 WSOP Deuce-to-Seven bracelet, which he won within months of arriving in Vegas and playing in the Dunes game. In 1977 he came in second to Bobby Baldwin, and in 1978 he won the bracelet again. Even more impressive, Baxter didn’t enter any other events. He only played the lowball events, because those were the games he played the most. All seven of his bracelets are in lowball events: Deuce to Seven, Ace to Five, and Razz).
“I wouldn’t even go down there during the World Series except for the lowball events, because I didn’t wanna encourage hold’em.” Baxter worried that no limit hold’em, the game that was played in the main event, was catching on, and he didn’t want Riddle or Wyman to catch hold’em fever and change up their game. “So I basically boycotted the World Series of Poker.”
In case you’ve never played No limit Deuce-to-Seven, otherwise known as “Kansas City Lowball,” here are the basics: Each player is dealt five cards and the goal is to make the lowest possible five-card hand, with Aces only counting for the high end and straights and flushes counting against you. There are only two betting rounds interspersed with one draw round, where you can exchange anywhere from zero up to five cards. Betting is no limit, and the best hand is 2-3-4-5-7 with mixed suits.
The appeal of Deuce-to-Seven, at least to Baxter, was that the game was highly psychological. The key to being successful at it was to be good at bluffing, and good at picking off bluffs. Bluffing, Baxter explained, is really the fundamental element of the game. “The reason it’s the biggest bluffing game of all is this, first off, it’s the only game where you’re faced with a bluff every single deal.
“Let’s say somebody opens a pot and they raise, and you’re pat and the guy draws one card and he leads. You got a 10. You either got him beat or he is bluffing you. In other words, you’re faced with the bluff every single deal in deuce to seven. It’s just the nature of the way the game is structured.
“Usually when a guy draws a card, your hand’s either good or ain’t good. You just don’t know. Like a 10 is an 8-to-5 favorite over any draw. They can catch Jack, Queen, King, Ace, that’s four cards. So there’s eight bad cards for him and five good, so you’re an eight to five favorite with any 10. But maybe he made it. So you have to make this decision. You’re faced with the bluff. And if you just fold when people bet, they run over you.”
In Deuce-to-Seven, bluffing isn’t only limited to betting. Players even bluff in the way they choose to draw or not draw cards each round.
“You can stand pat. If I catch, like, two nines, two sevens or any of the five good cards, you can bluff with those hands, ’cause that’s five of the cards that people try to catch. And so that’s less winners for them to have if they draw,” Baxter says, describing a version of what modern poker players call “blockers.” Players may choose to stand pat with bad hands to induce fear in their opponents, and to give their opponents less information to deduce what they might be holding.
One of Baxter’s greatest triumphs with this type of play was in a side game during the World Series of Poker in the late 1970s at Binion’s Horseshoe.
“We were playing very high, very deep. Everybody has two or three hundred thousand in front of him. I think I had the button. It was up to me. I opened the pot and Doyle raised it. I opened for like $6,000 and Doyle made it like probably $15 or $20,000 to go. And then I raised him like 30,000 and he called. He drew a card. I stood pat. He led out, I think he bet probably $50,000. And I said, ‘I’m all in.’ I had like $150,000 or something like that.”
As Doyle considered what to do, he spread his hand across the felt. He had 3,4,5,6,8. “Which is a very big hand,” Baxter explained. “And he said ‘this hand ain’t worth a shit.’ And he folded the 8-6.”
Baxter turned over his hand to show Doyle the bad news. He held four deuces, an unlikely hand to be dealt and one of the absolute worst hands he could have. But while quads beats nearly nothing in deuce-to-seven – only other quads and straight flushes, equally unlikely holdings – the hand still had a lot of power for Baxter. That’s because by holding all of the deuces, he blocked all the best low hands.
“It’s impossible for him to have a seven,” Baxter said. “Because he doesn’t have a deuce.
“That’s what makes it such a great poker game. It’s real poker. It’s the only true, real bluffing poker game there is.”
Next up: Billy Baxter discusses two of his toughest opponents: one who killed people at poker, and another who simply killed people.