Las Vegas Sun

December 18, 2018

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Legendary gambler Boyd dies

One night in the late 1920s, Bill Boyd stopped at a Montana bar and sat down at a poker table with his last $13. After a marathon session, he cashed out $1,300, and a legend was born.

For the next 50 years, Boyd carved out a career as a gambler and cardroom manager that was rivaled by no one.

William Walter Boyd, the longtime Golden Nugget poker manager whose table demeanor and policies brought respectability to once-raucous cardrooms in both California and Nevada, died Friday night at Valley Hospital of complications from a stroke. He was 91.

Services for the 51-year Las Vegas resident and member of the Poker Hall of Fame are pending.

Boyd was no relation to the Boyd Group gaming family, which includes William "Bill" Boyd, the son of Sam's Town founder and late gaming pioneer Sam Boyd.

Boyd suffered a stroke four years ago but recovered by 1996, the year he made a surprise -- albeit nonplaying -- appearance at the World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe. Last May, he attended the induction of gambler Roger Moore into the Poker Hall of Fame at the Horseshoe.

Boyd, who operated the Golden Nugget cardroom for 36 years, is regarded as the greatest 5-card stud player in recorded history, having won the title at the World Series of Poker five consecutive years.

He also is credited with such innovations as instituting house dealers, promoting limit games to encourage a broader base of players, starting regular monthly poker tournaments and establishing codes for card dealers' conduct that are still used today.

"He was one of the most respected players and cardroom managers of all time -- no one was more loved than Bill Boyd," said Jim Albrecht, longtime director of the World Series of Poker and an employee of Boyd's at the Golden Nugget in the late 1970s and early '80s.

"From an organizational standpoint few, if any, have done more for poker than Bill. And I can't count the number of his ex-employees who are now managing cardrooms across the country."

Shannon Bybee, a Gaming Control Board member of the early 1970s who later became a vice president and a co-worker of Boyd's at the Golden Nugget, remembered Bill as a straight shooter.

"He was a real gentleman who understood poker operations well and ran a good shop," said Bybee, an attorney who also is director of the UNLV International Gaming Institute and a professor at the hotel college.

"As a gambler he made early assaults on the tax laws. He once showed me his daily journal of wins and losses that he used in dealing with the IRS."

Today, a vast majority of professional gamblers keep such records.

"My father made poker a fair game," said Brad Boyd, a Las Vegas investor, who noted that Bill discouraged him from becoming a gambler because of the hardships of the profession.

"The idea behind establishing the house dealer was for fairness. Before that, the players dealt each hand, and there was a lot of cheating going on. The decision to change that was radical for its time because it meant hiring people to deal the cards. But it also added legitimacy to the game."

In a 1996 interview with the SUN, Bill Boyd said that while there is more poker being played today, the size of the wagers in the bigger games, in some cases, are not as big as they were in his day.

"We sure played some big games back then," Boyd said. "We have quite a few real good players today, but not the big games like we used to have."

Born Jan. 27, 1906, in McNeil, Ark., Boyd was the son of a general store owner who was deeply religious and would not allow Bill and his four brothers and sister to even touch a deck of cards.

After completing 10th grade, the 16-year-old Boyd hopped on a freight train to see the country. He learned to play poker in the National Guard.

Boyd then drifted from oil jobs in Arkansas and Oklahoma to wheat harvesting in Kansas to auto making at the Ford Co. in Detroit, to dam jobs in Missouri and Montana -- playing poker everywhere he went.

At the insistence of his friend Warren Doing, the two headed west. Doing founded the Searchlight Nugget casino, which his family still runs today.

At age 24, Boyd was running cardrooms in San Francisco, where he was a regular in no-limit 5-card stud games.

On Labor Day in 1946, Boyd became manager of the four-table Golden Nugget cardroom -- then the largest in Las Vegas -- and was dealt the ceremonial first hand. Forty-three years later, he was dealt the ceremonial first hand at The Mirage poker room.

In 1970, at the first World Series of Poker -- then a combination weeklong convention and poker binge -- Boyd was voted "most respected poker player" by his peers.

However, he was aced-out in the balloting for 5-card stud champion by his good friend, Oklahoma gambler George Barnes.

Boyd never again would lose a World Series 5-card stud crown. He won the event in 1971 and repeated as champion the next four years.

Legend has it that World Series officials stopped offering the game after 1975 because Boyd couldn't be beaten. The truth, however, was that the popularity of 5-card stud died amid the quick growth of hold 'em games, which can seat more players because of the use of community cards.

In 1981, Boyd was enshrined in the Poker Hall of Fame. He retired from poker management in 1982. Six years later, the Golden Nugget cardroom was closed.

During his storied career, Boyd played some of the 20th century's greatest gamblers, including fellow hall-of-famers Nick "The Greek" Dandolos and three-time world champion Johnny Moss, both of whom are deceased.

Boyd once won a $100,000 pot from Jimmy Casella with a pair of deuces in a no-limit 5-card stud game. Casella became the first world 7-card razz champion in 1970.

In addition to 5-card stud, Boyd was adept at other forms of poker, including Texas hold 'em, razz and deuce-to-7 lo-ball, which also is known as Kansas City lo-ball. In his younger days, Boyd was known in poker circles as "The Kansas City Kid," though the nickname did not stick.

He had a lifelong respect for other gamblers, often telling folks: "I'd rather have a gambler's word than a preacher's note."

Brad said his father's powers of observation were key to his success as a gambler.

As an example of his ability to observe and remember even the smallest of details, Bill was playing poker in the back room of a Kansas City bar when a hooded gunman broke in and robbed the players. Boyd could only see the robber's eyes and eyebrows behind the mask.

Several years later, however, in a card game in California, Boyd was playing at a table with a man he thought he recognized. After learning that the man was in Kansas City at the time he was held up, Boyd exclaimed: "You robbed me!" It indeed was the robber.

When Boyd began to lose his keen observation skills in the 1980s, he retired from professional poker.

"I think what most people will remember about my dad outside of gambling was that he treated everyone with equal respect, whether the person was the owner of the casino or the porter," Brad said. "And, in return, he got respect."

In addition to his son, Boyd is survived by his wife of 50 years, Ruth Boyd of Las Vegas, and a sister, Elizabeth Hardy of Eldorado, Ark.