High rollers and heavy hitters

Racing Post Magazine, Summer 2005

Boxers who love to gamble and gamblers who love to box

Las Vegas, the gambling world’s mecca, has hosted a number of notable fights, not least the rematch for heavyweight title in 1963 between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. A week before the fight, Liston was taking time out from his workout at the Thunderbird hotel to play craps with the hotel’s “athletic director,” Irving “Ash” Resnick. A huge man and fixer for the Mob, Resnick had a soft spot for boxers; between him and Liston sat former champion Joe Louis, employed by Resnick as a casino greeter.

Liston’s fortunes – he was some $400 down – were about to take a turn for the worse. Across the casino floor the young pretender, Cassius Clay, was striding around, looking for trouble. Putative contenders are supposed to attend title fights in a respectful manner, but not the Nation of Islam convert who subsequently became Muhammad Ali. Seeing Liston, one the hardest punchers of all time, down on his luck, Clay decided to wind him up. “Look at that big ugly bear, he can’t even shoot craps!” he shouted. Liston was not impressed. He left his dice and confronted Clay. “Listen, you nigger faggot,” he said, “if you don’t get out of here in ten seconds, I’m gonna pull that big tongue out of your mouth and stick it up your ass.” For good measure, a day or two later Liston slapped Clay across the face, again on the casino floor. Poker players talk of finding ‘the action’ in town, but this was rather more than they had expected.

‘Action,’ in both boxing and poker, is what it is all about. And yet, for all that boxing and gambling have been linked since the days of bare-knuckle fighting in England to Mob control of the American fight scene, pugilism and poker appear to have little in common. In poker, one is sedentary for hours at a time, usually in an atmosphere of unremitting smokiness, artificial light and fast food. Poker players talk of the stamina needed to play hand after hand, but few of them look as if they have adopted a physical fitness regime to give them that extra edge. In contrast, boxing is the physical discipline par excellence; it is, as George Foreman once said, “the sport to which all other sports aspire.”

But to listen to boxers and poker players talk about their calling is to hear a common language. Strip away the jargon – of left hooks, bad beats, ducking and weaving and positively Fifth Street – and the essence is the same. Cue Barry Hearn, boxing and poker promoter as well as amateur boxer in his teenage years and regular fixture at poker tables around the world: “The feeling when you sit down to play poker is like that when you climb off your stool to begin a fight. There’s a massive rush of adrenaline.” For Hearn, who helped set up PokerMillion.com five years ago and is now arguably the biggest promoter of poker events worldwide, the similarities between boxing and poker do not stop there. “There are times in the ring and at the card table when you’ve got to go for everything, when you might have just been floored or be short-chipped and yet you’ve got to haul yourself back into contention. Both sports reward the players who can dig deep and find a greater level of aggression.”

Hearn travels to Las Vegas every two months to get his fix, playing in cash games, but also plays online every day. His comments are endorsed by Nicky Piper, the former Commonwealth light-heavyweight champion who went on to win 28 of his 35 professional fights, 24 of which were by knock out. “I started playing online poker about two years ago,” says Piper, who narrowly lost to Nigel Benn in a WBC super-middleweight title fight at Alexandra Palace in 1992. “I was invited to play in a celebrity tournament, got bad cards and was first out, but I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Piper sees similarities in the strategies deployed in boxing and poker. “You look for tells in both. Boxing is a physical form of chess, and poker is the closest card game to chess.” He says also that poker is more enjoyable than boxing: “The adrenaline surging around when you play poker is incredible. From the moment you sit down to play, you enjoy yourself, and you continue to enjoy yourself until you win or fold.” This was a little different to his experience boxing. “I never really enjoyed fighting. I didn’t enjoy being hit. But the feeling of superiority when you knock another man out is amazing.”

John Gale is a semi-professional poker player who pulls no punches in describing the feeling of winning. “It was better than sex,” he says, of his $865,000 victory in the PokersStars ‘Caribbean Adventure’ tournament. Not bad going for a game of poker, but better than sex? “Definitely,” affirms the 51-year-old Gale. “When the final card was turned over on the river, when I knew I’d won, the rush was unbelievable. There is nothing else like it in life.”

Gale drew heavily on yet another cigarette as we spoke in the Renaissance hotel, in Vienna. He was there to compete in the penultimate leg of the European Poker Tour, a series sponsored by online operator PokerStars.com. The cards had not been running well for him, but he exuded the high-roller’s laissez-faire confidence, a phlegmatic sense that all is somehow right with the world even as his chips are being eaten away. And win or lose in Vienna, he was convinced that yes, winning a very large sum of money in the Bahamas is better than sex.

There will be those for whom such an assertion is, at the very least, ungallant. But I had an inkling of what Gale meant. I explained to him that I had felt similarly euphoric after a boxing match at York Hall. It had been a bruising encounter, leaving me with a broken nose and black eye and my opponent with a swollen face. Both of us had loved it. It was not a huge cash win, still less a boxing match of any serious import, but as soon as it was over I wanted the experience again. The three two-minute rounds in which my opponent and I battered the hell out of each other produced a sensation – of adrenaline running riot - that was as good as, perhaps even better, than sex.

Gale seemed to be enjoying our brief digression into boxing. He eyed me attentively, with a twinkle in his eye and a faint smile. It was then that I noticed his nose. It was a little bulbous and misshapen: a boxer’s nose. Sure enough, Gale used to box: “I had 15 or 16 amateur fights in London when I was a teenager. I broke my nose loads of times but it was fantastic.” He is not in a hurry to rediscover his skills as a pugilist, saying that gambling provides the adrenaline kick he craves. Besides, he smokes so much now that, as he admits, “I’d have to land one pretty damn quick – I’d be out of puff after 20 seconds.”

A man still more than capable of ‘landing one pretty damn quick’ is ‘The Clones Cyclone,’ Barry McGuigan. The wiry Irishman has kept himself in shape since the glory days of his world featherweight title, though he admits he cannot claim any expertise in the card rooms: “My father, brother and uncle all play poker,” says McGuigan, “but I know nothing about the game.” McGuigan is the boxer who has emerged with everything, and more, from his boxing; not for him the fate of ‘The Brown Bomber,’ the great Joe Louis. After an extraordinary career as a heavyweight, holding the world title on a number of occasions before retiring in 1949 and then, after the inevitable comeback, being floored by the new ‘Great White Hope,’ Rocky Marciano, Louis sank into a troubled life of cocaine addiction and paranoia. Few would have credited it, but Mob man Resnick restored some of Louis’s dignity in taking him to the desert air of Vegas, where he spent his last years as a paid greeter outside Caesar’s Palace.

For all that the Vegas tourists loved to shake hands with Louis, being a glorified doorman was, surely, not the most dignified end to his career. At least, though, he did not end up like Sonny Liston, who was found murdered in his bedroom in Vegas, and for what it is worth, Louis got to lie in state on his death in a boxing ring at Caesar’s Palace before his funeral – in the hotel – on 17 April, 1981.

There was never a chance that McGuigan would slide, like Louis or Liston. If he decided to join his family and take up poker, there is a chance that he might one of these days find himself up against Al Alvarez, climber, poker player, schoolboy boxer and author not merely of the classic on Vegas and poker, ‘The Biggest Game in Town,’ but also one of the most unusual and compelling analyses of risk, ‘Feeding the Rat.’ In this, an understated ode to legendary Welsh climber Mo Antoine, Alvarez – who still plays poker regularly, though he says he is currently “on a bit of a downward spiral” - describes how Antoine used to say he had a rat inside him, quiet for most of time, until it would wake up and start gnawing. There was only one answer: a serious climb. Sated from the exposure to risk and by oodles of adrenaline, the rat, once fed, would leave Antoine in peace. Until the next time.

I think it is the same for boxers and gamblers. We need to feed our rats. Starving them is no good – they will simply eat us to death. The trick is not to feed them too much – and to know when to stop.

Biogs

Joe Louis – ‘The Brown Bomber.’  Louis earned $5million from his fights, but all of it disappeared thanks to his generosity, love of illegal substances and the IRS.  He coined the immortal words “He can run, but he can’t hide” of his impending fight with Billy Conn, and developed one of boxing’s more unusual friendships with German fighter Max Schmeling, who was unwillingly co-opted by Hitler as an exemplar of fascism.  His role as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace was ironically echoed in The Simpsons, when ex-fighter Gerry Cooney provided the voice of a casino greeter in Springfield’s Burns’ casino.

Sonny Liston.  Liston used to work out to James Brown’s ‘Night Train’ in the Thunderbird Hotel.  He was hounded by the Mob throughout his life, famously floored by Ali in 1965 and found dead by his wife Geraldine in Vegas on 5 January 1971. Joe Louis was a pallbearer at Liston’s funeral.  He was late, having been playing craps at Caesar’s.  “Sonny would understand,” he said, as he threw the dice one last time.

John Gale.  51-year-old management consultant and semi-professional poker player Gale confesses that after winning $865,000 earlier this year in the Bahamas he is thinking of turning pro.  A former boxer, Gale looks tough but he is universally regarded as the nicest bloke on the European Poker Tour.  Likes a cigarette or thirty.

Nicky Piper.  Piper has yet to hit the big time in poker but says his online account is “$2-3K up”.  The Welsh light-heavyweight was known as ‘The Mensa Man’ as a boxer and so should rack up the chips the more he plays. 

Barry Hearn.  You name it, Hearn has promoted it.  From boxing to poker, via snooker, there is little that the co-founder of PokerMillion.com has not done.  Hearn came second in the European Open to net his biggest poker win – $70,000.  He enjoys regular trips to Vegas, where he is pleased to note that smoking is banned from casino rooms:  “It doesn’t go with the sport,” he says.