I was chatting with an old timer from the club days a while ago, when something occurred to me. In just about every sense of the word, the old poker joints were a unique community, although I doubt that any sociologist has done an in-depth study of this underground subculture. Fellow players knew a little something about each of their opponents in this community, which led to many colorful nicknames.
In much the same way that old gangsters had handles like “Lucky” and “Pretty Boy,” just about everyone in the poker club clique had a handle of some kind. Surnames were hardly ever used. Instead, a nickname of some kind was tacked onto the beginning of a person’s first name. This was due in part to keep all of the Daves, Johns, and Petes straight when somebody would recall a story about one of the boys (make no mistake about it, this was testosterone territory).
Perhaps the reason that last names were hardly ever used was that it is a lot easier to remember “Soldier Dave” or “Draw-Dead Ned” than to remember everyone’s last name. There are some world famous players with nicknames - Men “The Master” Ngyen, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, and Dave “Devilfish” Ulliot - whose handles are after their Christian names, but this was not the case (for the most part) in the clubs.
So, where did these nicknames come from in the first place? Well, they all had descriptive properties of some kind or else there wouldn’t have been any point in using them. After another trip down memory lane, I discovered that players seemed to get their nickname in one of five ways: physical characteristics, style of play, occupation, hometown, or by a prop of some kind.
There were at least a couple of guys named Larry, so “Gold-Tooth Larry” had to be differentiated from “Electric Larry.” Predictably, “Beluga” and “Buffalo” weren’t exactly svelte, although neither seemed to mind his nickname. “Chewy” got his name from the fact that he decided to play in a tank top one day; he was so hairy that if there were any wookies in heat nearby, he would have been in serious trouble.
“Pretty Willy” wasn’t exactly photogenic, and “Shaky Steve” really did shake when he put his chips in the pot – when he had a monster hand, and this tell hold up for most “shakers.” “Flat-Nosed Barry” used to be a boxer, so that one was a no-brainer (as was he). As you can imagine, “The Prince of Darkness” was a charming fellow who lightened up the game to no end. And, now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever knew “Starsky’s” real name.
Style of play
“The Bomber” had a habit of playing in one gear - overdrive. “Whiner Pete” had a pretty appropriate handle, although he was one of the unluckiest guys I’d ever met.
There was also a “Gentleman Pete” who was the polar opposite of “Whiner Pete.”
Players even got a handle due to their favourite swearword after losing a pot: “Cock-Ah-Roach” was one such player. I’m sure that every city had a “Fast Eddie,” but guys who got this handle were usually complete rocks, not pool players. “Yippy” used to yell, “Ala Masa!” before he ploughed all of his chips into the middle of the table.
“Mark the Shark” was a fish wholesaler, “Linen Lenny” was in the restaurant supply business, and “Elevator Barry” left the game on more than one occasion to rescue someone from a stalled elevator.
If a guy had been working at a particular company for years, he might have received a handle such as “Safeway Sam” or “Volker Vinny”. There were always a number of “Docs” kicking around, so sub-categories of categories were devised, such as “English Doc,” or “Dick Doc,” which I always thought was a humourous handle.
Although highly descriptive, “Grifter Grant” and “Quick-Change-Artist Charlie” were some of the least flattering handles. Other occupation inspired nicknames included “Hairdresser Harry,” “Auto body Rick,” and “Shoe Store John.”
Taxi Drivers had to be the most common occupation of guys that called the clubs home, probably because they could come and go as they pleased. Among the celebrity cabbies were “Boris the Cab Driver” and “Jack the Hack.” Years later, one of the casino pit bosses gave “Road kill Ritchie” his handle, and it’s stuck ever since.
This was probably the easiest way to categorize players. There was never a hint of racism if someone was tagged with the nickname “Singapore Mike” or “Iraqi Nick.” If a player picked up the handle of a whole city, or even state, then this player was a guy to be reckoned with.
If an old-timer picked up a nickname like “Oklahoma Johnny Hale,” then he was likely the best player in his entire state. Some players wanted to remain anonymous, so they had handles like “Mark X” or “X12” (which I think was part of his dealer’s license number when he dealt in Vegas.) I must have run into at least ten “Frenchy’s” on my travels too.
Some players didn’t really fit neatly into any of the above categories. They were not prop players as you might think, but some kind of prop set them apart. There was “Umbrella Stan,” “Jaguar James,” and “Cinnamon Fred” (who must have been trying to quit smoking for fifteen years, as he was always sucking on a cinnamon stick).
On the other hand, “Slow Moe” could devour a smoke in two drags. There was also “Suitcase Gus,” who got his name because he didn’t bother checking into a hotel; he just headed straight to the club when he got time off from the rigs. “Handcuff Harry” was never in law enforcement, so I shudder to think how he picked up that nickname.
However, there was a particular group of people that didn’t have a handle - in the somewhat warped logic of the clubs these fellas were revered enough. These guys were the bookies - everyone knew them by their first name, perhaps out of a sign of respect. To an outsider this may seem strange, but these gentlemen were the alpha males in the poker club community.
So there you have it, a quick column on nicknames and where they came from. To end, I’ll leave you with a quick interview from Eric Drache, famous professional player and long-time poker room manager. A reporter asked him what he would ever do if he won “The Big One” (The World Series of Poker), to which Drache replied: “I’d pay off some debts.”
Then the reporter asked him what he’d do with the rest. His deadpan response was a classic: “They would have to wait.”
Ceri “Poker Broker” Jones is a pawnbroker, poker player and avid writer.