Five on Friday: Living Legends

TAGs: Berry Johnston, Billy Baxter, Dewey Tomko, Doyle Brunson, Five on Friday, Poker Hall of Fame, poker legend, TJ Cloutier

With the death this past weekend of Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston at the age of 83, poker lost another one of its living legends. As time marches inexorably onward, players who were around during the early years of the World Series of Poker, rightly regarded as the birthplace of tournament poker, are becoming increasingly scarce. But there are still some top-flight players from the old days making their way in today’s world of internet grinders and international traveling pros. In order of their age, most senior first, here’s a look at five active players who have been successful in poker since long before most of today’s players had ever seen a playing card.

1. Doyle Brunson – 78 years old

Living Legends of Poker, Five on FridayThere is no single figure in the game of poker more universally respected and admired than Doyle Brunson. Known as “Texas Dolly,” Brunson was a road gambler in the 1950s, traveling across Texas and the Southwest to make his living playing in back-room poker games. He was also one of the original gamblers invited to play at the inaugural World Series of Poker in 1970. He has won 10 events, including the Main Event in 1976 and 1977, good for the second most all-time despite having taken an extended break from tournaments during the 1980s and ‘90s when they weren’t in vogue. He wrote a book called How I Made One Million Dollars Playing Poker, which sold for $100 per copy upon its publication in 1978; its name was later changed to Super/System, the poker strategy guide that forever transformed the landscape of professional poker.

During the poker boom years he had his own online room, Doyle’s Room. He was a regular in the highest-stakes games in Las Vegas, and he was a member of The Corporation that took on billionaire banker Andy Beal in a $100,000/$200,000 Limit Hold’em match at Bellagio in 2004. He appeared on television more than 99.99 percent of American septuagenarians thanks to shows like High Stakes Poker and Poker Superstars Invitational. He also continued to win in tournaments, adding a WPT title and two WSOP wins to his $6.1 million resume.

Brunson became the 16th member of the Poker Hall of Fame upon his election in 1988. He is its oldest living member.

2. Berry Johnston – 76 years old

In the high-variance world of poker tournaments, not many players have demonstrated the long-term consistency of Oklahoma’s Berry Johnston. From 1982 to 1985 he was within striking distance of the WSOP Main Event title three times, finishing 3rd (1982), 4th (1984), and 3rd (1985) against top competition. He then won the 1986 WSOP Main Event, taking home $570,000. Though he never again finished any closer to a win in that event than 5th place, he has cashed in it a total of 10 times, more than any players in the tournaments’ history. He has also earned money at least one WSOP event in every year from 1982 to 2010, with multiple cashes in 21 different years. All told Johnston has made the money in 59 WSOP events, tied for 7th place all-time.

Away from the WSOP, where he has won $2 million, Johnston has also been a long-term success in tournaments. He was a consistent presence at final tables in Las Vegas tournament series from the 1980s and ‘90s through the early 2000s, earning another $1.4 million.

Johnston became the 29th member of the Poker Hall of Fame upon his election in 2004.

3. TJ Cloutier – 72 years old

There was a time when Texan TJ Cloutier was the most feared poker player in the world. That fearsome reputation is slightly diminished today, but he remains one of winningest players of all time with $9.9 million in lifetime earnings despite lean years since 2007.

Beginning with a victory in a $2,500 event at the Plaza in Las Vegas in April 1983, the former tight end for the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes built a reputation as a winner. In the years between 1990 and 2007, Cloutier had six-figure earnings in poker tournaments every single year, a streak that would have extended all the way back to 1985 if he had earned another $25,000 in 1988 and 1989. He has 59 cashes at the WSOP, tying him for 7th all-time with Berry Johnston and Chau Giang.

Cloutier’s place in WSOP history was almost magnified on several different occasions. He twice finished 2nd in the 1985 WSOP Main Event, to Bill Smith in 1985 and to Chris Ferguson in 2000. He also finished 3rd in 1998, when Scotty Nguyen won, and 5th in 1988 when Johnny Chan repeated as champion. He turned his knowledge of final tables into an influential series of strategy guides written with Tom McEvoy, including Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold’em.

Cloutier became the 32nd member of the Poker Hall of Fame upon his election in 2006.

4. Billy Baxter – 72 years old

Georgia’s Billy Baxter might just be the best lowball player in WSOP history. All seven of his gold bracelets have come in lowball events, with five of them coming in No-Limit Deuce-to-Seven Draw – no surprise given the popularity of lowball games in the American South. He’s also just a good big-bet player in general, which has come in handy in the age of No-Limit Hold’em; his total lifetime tournament winnings, mostly from hold’em and lowball draw, total $2.3 million.

Away from the tables, Baxter probably did more for elite poker players than anybody in American history by fighting the government over taxes on his own poker winnings. His case, William E. Baxter, Jr. Vs. The United States, established that pro poker players’ winnings are earned income, which is taxable at a lower rate than unearned gambling income. Baxter also helped one elite player in particular, putting up the $10,000 for former champion Stu Ungar when he won the 1997 WSOP Main Event for a record third time.

Baxter became the 33rd member of the Poker Hall of Fame upon his election in 2006.

5. Dewey Tomko – 65 years old

Not many former kindergarten teachers have finished runner-up at the WSOP Main Event. In fact, there’s only one who’s ever done that – but he’s done it twice.

Florida’s Dewey Tomko already had one WSOP bracelet to his credit when he finished 2nd to the legendary Jack “Treetop” Straus in the 1982 Main Event. By the time he finished 2nd to Carlos Mortensen in the 2001 Main Event, he was a three-time bracelet winner and highly regarded professional player, having been one of its most consistent finishers in tournaments throughout the 1980s and having returned to form just in time for the poker boom. Though his activity has slowed since 2008, Tomko has still won $4.9 million in his tournament career.

Tomko became the 36th member of the Poker Hall of Fame upon his election in 2008.


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