Poker’s Tall-Tales, Folklore, and Legends

In this article I’ll share with you my five favorite stories from the poker felt that have been told, retold, shaped and reshaped over the years. Before I get started, let me first explain that the inclusion of these stories doesn’t mean I believe them (I’m a skeptic at heart) and it’s hard to know if these stories are accurate or even if they occurred at all, but one thing is for certain: These stories are filled with suspense, comedy, and intrigue!

After the summary of each story I’ll also offer my thoughts on the veracity of each event: Enjoy!

Stu Ungar calls with Ten High

According to legend, Stu Ungar’s hand reading abilities and sheer guts were the stuff of legend, and perhaps no Stu Ungar story symbolizes this like his call with Ten-high. According to the story, Ungar was engrossed in a high-stakes poker game, a $50,000 heads-up tournament, against 1990 WSOP Champion Mansour Matloubi when the following hand came about:

With a decent chip-lead over Matloubi, Ungar opened with T/9 off-suit and Matloubi made the call with 4/5 off-suit. On a 3-3-7 flop Ungar continuation bet into Matloubi who called. Both players checked the King on the turn, which is when Ungar made perhaps one of the best calls in poker history. When a Queen lands on the river Matloubi moves all-in for around 30,000, and Ungar tanks, saying, “You’ve either got 4-5 or 5-6, I call,” and the rest is as they say, history.

Knowing what I do of Ungar, I would have to say that this probably happened, since Stuey was not only able to make these kinds of reads, but he was also willing to pull the trigger and trust his instincts!

Jack Strauss’ Pick a Card Bluff

Between creating the “Chip and a Chair” maxim and the “Pick a Card” bluff, Jack “Treetop” Strauss has two controversial stories associated with his name. According to the legend, Strauss flopped top pair on a 7-3-3 board holding 7/2 off-suit after raising pre-flop (he was purportedly playing a heater). After a 2 on the turn (leaving Strauss with the same hand he had going into the Turn) Strauss made another bet only to be raised by his opponent. Strauss called the bet trying to confuse his opponent who he put on a 3; making Strauss drawing virtually dead. After another 2 on the river Strauss makes a big bet, trying to bluff his opponent off the best hand.

To sell the bluff Strauss offers to let his opponent see one card for $25 (figuring if he sees either a 7 or a 2 he will assume that Strauss has to have 22 or 77 since he raised pre-flop). According to the legend his opponent takes the offer and Strauss without looking flips over the 2, which for all intents and purposes appears to be pocket 2’s –had he flipped the 7 it would have appeared to have been pocket 7’s!

My thoughts on this story are that it most likely happened; whether it happened in the situation that it is told is another story.

Johnny Moss vs. Nick “The Greek” Dandalos

Ahhh, one of the most hotly debated stories in poker history! Depending on who you talk to, the story that in 1949 (or perhaps even in 1951, that’s how sketchy the details are!) Benny Binion set-up a high-stakes poker game between Johnny Moss and Nick “The Greek” Dandalos either A) Never Happened, B) Happened but the story has been embellished over the years, or C) Happened precisely like it has been told.

According to the legend Moss was brought in by his longtime friend Benny Binion to take on Dandalos in a high-stakes poker match. After months of playing at the Horseshoe Casino, Nick the Greek uttered the famous word of, “Mr. Moss, I’m afraid I have to let you go.”

Poker historians have been arguing recently over the veracity of this story and whether or not it took place; regardless (with the principles involved long since gone) it will likely remain a part of poker lore for the rest of time. I’ll take my cue from James McManus on the veracity of this event, and simply say that the jury is still out.

MAN DOWN! Man Dies at Poker Table

This has apparently happened two times in recorded poker history, and while the notion of someone dying while playing poker is not all that hard to imagine, some of the specifics regarding the two famous events seem to be a little harder to stomach.

Tom Abdo, one of the early poker practitioners in Las Vegas, purportedly suffered a heart attack while playing poker, before going to the hospital Abdo supposedly asked the floor to save his seat, having every intention of returning to the game. Unfortunately for Abdo he passed away that evening. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame posthumously in 1982.

The other poker related fatality was a bit more famous, or perhaps infamous is a better term. Wild Bill Hickock was shot in the back of the head while playing a game of poker in Deadwood, North Dakota by Jack McCall, avenging some perceived slight by Hickok according to the tale. According to legend Hickok was holding a pair of Aces and Eights, his discarded card had not yet been replaced.

Hickok, like Abdo, was enshrined in the Poker Hall of Fame, part of the inaugural class of 1979.

Annette Obrestad wins 180-man S&G without looking at her cards

This is one of those stories that is just too impossible to believe, but many people do actually believe this happened. According to the story: Annette Obrestad decided to play a 180-man Sit & Go tournament online without looking at her hole-cards –in some bizarre attempt to prove that the cards are not all that important in poker.

Somehow much of the poker world takes this story at face value, regardless of the fact that it’s nearly impossible to make sure you don’t see your cards during a poker tournament –what happens if you change seats? Can you move the piece of paper you are using fast enough?

My personal opinion of this claim is that it probably stems from her saying, “I could have won that tournament without looking at my cards” and simply morphed into the current version. I highly doubt that she not only played without looking at her cards, but ALSO managed to win this specific event!

Fact or Fiction?

Whether the above stories occurred, are completely fictitious, or are embellished is almost a side note at this point: All of the above stories have made their way into poker lore (maybe not Obrestad’s since it happened only a few years ago, but it eventually will) and are ingrained in most people’s minds as having happened.



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