Wednesday, June 3, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
The bustle of the World Series of Poker was only 5.7 miles away, but it might as well have been in a different galaxy.
At a coffee shop on Fremont Street, Tony Shelton was reflecting on the poker tournament he used to know.
For the better part of four decades, three of them with the World Series, Shelton has been a consummate Las Vegas poker industry insider.
Now “semiretired,” Shelton is known to a generation of poker players as a World Series dealer and supervisor. He also trained employees and ran the high-stakes cash side games that spring up at each World Series.
Shelton’s World Series of Poker was a more intimate affair, a gathering of the gambling tribes hosted by Benny Binion at his Horseshoe club on Fremont Street.
“Old Man Benny liked it because he got to see all the old rounders from Texas, all his good old boys,” said Shelton, his trademark walrus mustache and Appalachian drawl still prominent as ever. “We were like a small, elite cadre, the people who played it and the people who dealt it.
“We had no idea back then that one day every yo-yo in the world would get himself a baseball cap and some sunglasses and wear a hood and try to get on TV.”
Though Shelton policed the biggest poker games in Las Vegas, routinely settling disputes by making decisions with tens of thousands of dollars at stake, he came from the humblest beginnings.
In the tiny Kentucky and West Virginia mining burgs where he grew up, the joke was that you could spot the richest guy in town because he actually had two pairs of Levi’s.
“You hear all those horror stories about those places, and they’re all true,” said Shelton, 71. “My grandmother was an avid reader, so I was lucky we had books in the house.”
Gambling was prevalent, whether it was flipping for quarters or playing 5-card stud for a few dollars. His father was a talented stud poker player, Shelton recalled — but only until they started passing around the game’s second pint of whiskey.
Shelton’s first stop in Las Vegas came in 1959, when the Golden Nugget still had sawdust on the floor and 5-card stud was about the only game in town, but it took a couple of more visits before his connection with Vegas clicked.
He moved to Las Vegas in 1969, after he had saved up his stake playing poker at a hotel in Vermont, hustling bartenders, waiters and cooks in a soft game. One guy went broke but settled his gambling debt with a copy of “Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse and a pound of what Shelton described as high-grade marijuana.
“He said, ‘I don’t have any money but I think you’ll really like this book,’ ” Shelton said. “He was right.”
By then, Texas hold ’em had been introduced to Las Vegas, and Shelton became immersed in the poker scene.
In 1979, Shelton dealt at the World Series of Poker for the first time. He secured a recommendation from his boss at the Tropicana and was told to show up at the Horseshoe the next day.
His first assignment: a pot-limit Omaha cash game with blinds of $25 and $50, a big poker game by any standards, and huge at the time.
The lineup included Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson and other high-stakes gamblers.
“It was about six or seven of them,” Shelton said. “Right there sits Doyle. Right there sits Steve Wynn. Right there sits Puggy. They said they were playing Omaha. At the time, I didn’t know what Omaha was. I said, ‘Mr. Brunson, how many cards do I give these people?’
“Well, everything stopped. Doyle sat back, he looked at me and he pushed back his hat. He said, ‘Here’s what we’ll do, son. You give us each four cards. Deal ’em low, deal ’em slow and deal ’em off the top, and I’ll help you run the game.’ Doyle was a very nice man. If he had been a real (expletive) and said get this (expletive) out of here, I would have been finished before I started.”
Shelton would go on to run tournaments in Lake Tahoe, Louisiana and Mississippi. Through 2007 he worked every World Series of Poker save one. “Something happened at the Four Queens that was odd and I got blamed for it,” Shelton said, cryptically.
He returned to the tournament after a group of players, including Brunson, lobbied for him to run the big $2,000-$4,000-limit cash game.
He befriended many world champion poker players, including Jack Straus, who won the 1982 World Series title and was known for his heart and generosity.
One day Straus was walking down Fremont Street when a busted-out gambler came up behind him and asked to borrow $200.
“Jack reached in his pocket and pulled out two hundred-dollar bills and handed them to the guy back over his shoulder. He didn’t even look to see who the guy was. He told me, ‘Oh, hell, if I saw him he might think he has to pay me back.’ ”
Shelton recalls the time Binion asked Sailor Roberts, the 1975 world champion, if he could play a few hands for Roberts in a no-limit Texas hold ’em game at the Horseshoe.
“Now, nobody could refuse Benny,” Shelton said. “So Sailor says, ‘Sure.’ He goes to get a coffee and smoke a cigarette. He comes back and Benny has all Sailor’s chips in the middle. I don’t know how much it was — $10,000, $6,000, whatever. Sailor leans over and he says, ‘Well, son, you got all my money in the center, whatcha got?’
“And Benny says, ‘I don’t know. I left my glasses at home. I just didn’t want all these son of a (guns) to think they could bluff me.’ ”
Years later, Shelton was about 10 feet from the table when Chris Moneymaker bluffed Sam Farha out of a big pot and held on to win the 2003 World Series, almost single-handedly launching what has come to be known as the “poker craze.”
“Sammy said, ‘Tony, I made that one big mistake, but you have to give the man credit,’ ” Shelton said. “Sammy wasn’t going to moan about it. His attitude was, ‘OK, we’ll play some more poker tomorrow.’
“Remember, none of us had any idea back then that because of some guy named Moneymaker this thing would get so big. We had no idea it was going to become Hollywood, none of us.
“For so many years it was hot, smoky rooms, dealing to rounders, pimps, drug dealers. And if you made a mistake dealing, Lord help you.”
The Binions did have a creative solution for addressing incidents of verbal abuse in the tournament, Shelton said. He remembers a near-mutiny at a tough table with a female dealer who was losing control of the game.
“Ten minutes later, Jack Binion comes to the table,” Shelton said. “He says, ‘Boys, I can’t have you giving my dealers a hard time. If you do it again, I'll send the Man with the Patch over.’ ”
They didn’t have to be told that the Man with the Patch was R.D. Matthews, a friend of the Binions who was long reputed to be a Texas underworld figure.
Characterized by Shelton as “the man who handled the muscle in Dallas” and “a gen-u-wine tough guy,” Matthews, who wore an eye patch, was notorious enough to merit a mention in the Warren Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination, where he was described as a “gambler” and a “passing acquaintance” of Jack Ruby.
After Binion threatened to send Matthews to the out-of-control table, “nobody said another word to the dealer,” Shelton said.
Another time, the Man with the Patch approached Shelton as he was working the floor during a World Series tournament at the Horseshoe. Their ensuing brief conversation suggests that perhaps, after all, things aren’t so different today from the way they were.
“He said, ‘Tony, what about this poker? What's this all about?’ And I said, ‘Well, R.D., it brings a lot of people into the old joint. These people come in, they play cards and they watch. Their wives come with them. They eat, they drink, they play the slots. It brings a ton of people to the joint.’
“He said, ‘That’s just what I wanted to hear.’ And away he went.”