Legends of Poker - "Treetop" Jack Straus
I spent a lot of time at this year's World Series of Poker thinking about Jack Straus. He is one of my favorite players, not just because of his poker skill, but because he was such a fearless gambler. I've known and heard of very few people like him. The kind of person willing to back up everything he says with his money, even if it is every penny he has.
At the WSOP I tried to remember some of his stories, and to play like he played. The problem I experienced was simple, if talent was a musical instrument, Jack was playing a tuba, and I was sitting at the table with a kazoo.
Needless to say, although his memory helped sooth and inspire me, it didn't help me win, and I decided to take a break from the WSOP and write something about one of its most memorable players, the six-foot six "Treetop."
Jack Straus was indeed a true gambler. He bet on most everything, especially sports (including his own golf game), and lived life as a wild adventure. When I met him 25-years ago, he had a salt-and-pepper beard and glasses, and reminded me of a college professor. As it turned out, Jack had actually worked as a teacher after getting a degree in business administration from Texas A & M, but there was no excitement for him there, and besides, he missed the thrill of playing basketball, and the work cut into his poker time.
Having been born in 1930, and calling San Antonio, Texas his home for much of his life, Straus knew the lay of the land. He bumped heads and wits with many of the regular "road-pros" who traveled the dusty back-roads of Texas in the 1950's looking for poker games, and gained the respect of players like Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, and Byron "Cowboy" Wolford.
It was Cowboy, who recalled that Jack had once told him, "I can get all the money I need to gamble on, but I have hell paying my rent." A true gambler often finds himself down to the felt, betting what they have leftover in their pockets, and the 1970 Super Bowl was one of those times for Jack Straus. He bet every cent he had on the Kansas City Chiefs, believing that Lenny Dawson, their starting quarterback, would lead the team to victory. Straus was right about Dawson, who won the game's MVP award, and as usual, Jack lived to play another day.
Straus loved Ernest Hemmingway's work, and was lured towards some of the adventures he had taken. Jack followed his love for hunting on several trips to Africa, and during a trip to Mozambique, he shot a lion. Thereafter, Jack wore the proud animal's paw on a chain around his neck. Inscribed on the paw was the motto that summed his life up best: Better a day as a lion than one hundred years as a lamb.
When the road games in Texas and Oklahoma dried up, Jack moved to Las Vegas, and while he fared well in live games, his super-aggressive style was not well suited for tournaments. Although he won a WSOP bracelet for the 1973 deuce to seven draw tournament, ring games just didn't fit his style. Of all the players I have seen over the past 25 years, Jack Straus is undoubtedly the finest short-handed and heads-up player I ever witnessed.
I wish I could say I had a chance to play against him, but his limit of action was much higher than mine ever was. On the other hand, I take this as a blessing to my meager bankroll. Jack always said you had to accept the game you were playing in, and match both your bankroll and your temperament. For Jack, it didn't matter what his bankroll was. If the game was good, he was willing to put every dollar he had on the table. I, apparently, am not wired the same way.
As I sat at a $10/$25 NL game in the Rio's huge Amazon convention room that houses this year's WSOP, I tried to be aggressive, and I recalled the 1982 WSOP and it's amazing outcome. It was Jack Straus at his finest, and the memory helped me stay focused on playing my best game, regardless of what had transpired earlier.
In 1982, Straus was a highly respected, upper-limit poker player in Las Vegas and the South, but because of his aggressive style, he was not a well-know player in other parts of the country. He simply didn't get any publicity because he was not a real tournament player. Sure, he played at the WSOP, but it was in the side-games that he made his money.
As usual, during the beginning stages of the 1982 championship event, Straus pushed his whole stack into the middle of the table whenever he perceived an edge, whether he thought he held the best cards, or he simply sensed weakness in an opponent. On one such occasion, Jack lost a pot and found himself with just a single $500 chip. But a chip and a chair was all he needed. Jack collected the blinds on the next hand, then got all-in with what was left and doubled up on the following hand. Before the stunned players at his table realized it, Jack had more chips than anybody else and continued on to the next day's play, and eventually the remaining nine players.
The final table was comprised of a who's who of poker greats: Jack Straus, Dody Roach, A.J. Meyers, Sailor Roberts, Buster Jackson, Carl Cannon, Dewey Tomko, Berry Johnston, and Doyle Brunson. In that group were three championship bracelets, and two future champions. There was also over $1 million dollars up for grabs (for the first time in WSOP history).
Now Jack may have had trouble with ring games, and he may have had trouble starting a tournament with just $10,000 in chips, but he rarely had trouble when sitting behind a big stack. In the end, it was just he and Dewey Tomko, heads-up, and we already know how strong Jack was in that position. As great a player as Tomko has become, he was outmatched at the time, and Jack Straus came back from just a single chip to win the 1982 WSOP.
I can think of nothing that personifies Jack's life better than that tournament, and although I was saddened when he passed away in 1988, it was fitting that he was doing what he loved when his time came: playing in a high-limit poker game.
Jack Straus was elected into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1988. I knew he belonged there well before his induction, and I'm lucky enough to still hold a few memories of a poker legend.
Ed Note: Paradise Poker are gearing up for the Masters III tournament, which will have a prize pool of over $1,000,000