Johnny Hughes’ “Famous Gamblers, Poker History And Texas Stories” An Anecdotal Gem



Sometimes the world of poker takes itself a bit too seriously. Strategy books on the game break what is a passion for many into a dry, humorless endeavor that seems to be more of a “death march” than an enjoyable pastime. One of the veterans of the game, Texan Johnny Hughes, has come up with a tome that puts the fun back in the game while providing an anecdotal gem for poker players of any ilk.

Hughes, a veteran of the “road games” that ran across Texas in the mid-20th century, has compiled some of his best writings from his Bluff Europe magazine columns into a book entitled “Famous Gamblers, Poker History and Texas Stories.” Available on Amazon.com for $19.95 (or your local bookstore, of course), Hughes looks back on his decades of experience not only in poker but also in other areas of life (he was the first manager of musician Joe Ely, one of the pinnacles of the Americana music genre). Through Hughes’ stories, poker playing readers will gain an appreciation for how easy we have it now compared to then.

The book is broken down into four sections over its 227 pages: Famous Gamblers in American History, Famous Gamblers of The Old West, My Best Short Fiction and Memoirs and Secrets. While it is the first two sections that may entice people to take a look at “Famous Gamblers,” it would behoove the reader to take in all the stories that Hughes offers to truly appreciate the work and Hughes’ life history.

In the first segment, Hughes relates stories from some of the most popular – and colorful – characters that have entered the poker arena. Such poker players as Nick Dandalos, Johnny Moss and Amarillo Slim” Preston are featured, but Hughes also delves into other notables of the gambling world. Several of the gentlemen have passed on that Hughes talks about (Benny Binion, ‘Titanic’ Thompson and gangster Arnold Rothstein), but the stories that Hughes delivers have a richness about them that keep the reader entranced even though they may not really care about the person.

There are two of the tales that stood out to me as a reader. Having met him when I was a young boy, Hughes’ stories of the legendary pool player Rudolf Wanderone – better known as “Minnesota Fats” – were spot on, especially when it came to Fats’ penchant for talking…constantly! Another story regarding E. W. “Ol’ 186” Chapman was also notable in its portrayal of the world of gambling when Hughes was a young adult and learning the ropes of the road.

The Old West segment is a bit short but still provides some excellent tales. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson and Ben Thompson are discussed by Hughes here and, in relating their stories, Hughes is able to bring these long-gone heroes of the Old West to life.

The final two sections are where Hughes dives into fictional stories and also details his life, both in and out of the gambling world. He discusses his backstory with the legendary Buddy Holly and Ely, his views on what it takes to be a professional gambler, and offers some colorful insight into what it means to be a “Texan.” Although these stories are towards the end of the book, if you don’t read them you will be missing the charms of Hughes’ work.

There are a couple of things that might make a reader put “Famous Gamblers” down, however. Hughes employs a “stream of consciousness” style of writing; while a paragraph might start on one particular subject, by the end of the paragraph it may be off on a tangent that wasn’t even seen at the start of said paragraph. This is one of Hughes’ particular quirks that I found entertaining, however. The second thing is that Hughes can sometimes repeat himself in the stories, but this is more of a function of compiling the stories from various articles from Hughes’ copious catalog rather than an error by the author.

“Famous Gamblers, Poker History And Texas Stories” is a book that poker players can get lost in because of Johnny Hughes’ storytelling abilities and steel-trap memory that he uses to bring those stories to life. When things get too serious in poker, you need a diversion that can take your mind off those pesky issues and Hughes has done that with this book. If you’re looking for a gift for an avid poker fan, historian or just a lover of entertaining tales for the upcoming Christmas holiday, then “Famous Gamblers” might just be what the doctor ordered.

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