When Yukon balladeer Hank Karr sings “The Gambler,” he advises young players the key to winning money is knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. And, for the most part, that is good and true advice.
But you also have to keep your eyes and ears open, especially if you’re playing against some of the best poker players in the history of the Yukon. So listen, learn and “promise me, son, not to do the things I’ve done,” as Kenny Rogers sings it.
When I was a young fool in my 20s, I thought I was a pretty good poker player like Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid and was always ready to test my game against anybody. But I met my match when I sat down in Dawson City’s weekly backroom game played in a motel room in the Eldorado, which had a large eight-seat felt table, five of which were almost always occupied by the same players.
Bill Hakonson was possibly the toughest poker player in the history of the Yukon, and also the host since he owned the hotel and many other things, including successful gold mines. He was a wizard at reading people’s faces in a poker game, the Yukon’s answer to Texas Dolly.
Frank Lidstone was the local postmaster, magistrate, notary, coroner and other titles. He was also a veteran of the ill-fated Dieppe Raid in the Second World War. He always closed his eyes and looked like he was sleeping during hands when he tossed his cards in.
Billy Shebango – real name: William Kryshewski – was a White Russian carpenter who got his nickname by always betting “the whole shebango” in stuke. He talked a lot and liked to bluff.
Les Hakonson was Bill’s brother, a crane operator and catskinner who thought he was as good as Bill at poker but wasn’t. Had a tendency to frown when he had good cards and smile when he was fixing to bluff.
Roy McDiarmid owned a Dawson trucking company to finance his gambling addiction. He looked like the meanest man on Earth, but he was a really nice guy with a good sense of humour. Great storyteller, especially trucking tales. He once watched the spring ice on the Stewart River break up in his rear-view mirror right after crossing it.
(Actually, they were all good storytellers, which was a perfect tactic to distract a young writer.)
The sixth and seventh chairs were usually occupied by rotating part-timers who played when they could, and they tried to save the last seat for “the mark,” somebody who was sure to lose a lot of money to feed the sharks. That was where I sat, but only once in a while, like right after a payday out on the creeks or up the Dempster. I had an unrealistic aspiration at the time of being a professional gambler in my old age, like after 30, in case the writing didn’t pan out.
The game was quite famous, and it was routine for good players to come from other Yukon towns and Alaska to try their luck or skill. It was a completely honest game, no flim-flummery, and it always started around 10 p.m. on Friday night and ran continuously until the restaurant opened on Sunday morning, where everyone would have a big breakfast and count their winnings or losings before going home to sleep it off and be ready for Monday.
They said the game had been running in one place or another in Dawson continuously since the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898 but I found that hard to believe. It was totally illegal, of course, but that wasn’t much of a concern when the local judge was one of the primary players.
The rules were “dealer’s choice” and the most common plays were stud, both five card and seven card, stuke and guts. Texas Hold ‘Em hadn’t made it to the Yukon yet, but it was coming soon to Diamond Tooth Gertie’s.
When I first sat down at the table, I totally expected to win because I had played a lot of poker in Vietnam and usually came out ahead. I was good with numbers, knew all the percentages, had a good poker face and concentrated on trying to read the Big Five. I didn’t expect to make a killing, but I loved playing the game and was happy to break even or win a little to call it time well spent.
And that’s what I did at first, win a bit, lose a bit. But, gradually over time, it became lose a bit almost always and lose a lot once in a while, especially if I played impaired, which I tended to do.
Eventually, after losing a lot quite a few times, it dawned on me I was getting my butt kicked, which made me figure I had stumbled into a long-running game with the greatest poker players in the world. It went on for a couple years, mostly in the winters, and I never kept track of how much money I lost, but it was definitely over $10,000 and possibly as high as $25,000.
One Sunday afternoon, after losing another pile that weekend, I’m sitting in the Downtown Hotel with a buddy named Sean McMahon whining in my beer about how I just couldn’t figure out how to beat those guys. He had been playing in the game for the last year or so and kind of sadly shook his head and said: “You still don’t know, do you?”
Don’t know what?
He went on, “OK, I’m going to tell you because I can’t stand watching it any more, knowing how hard you work for your money, but don’t you dare let those guys find out it was me who told you.”
Told me what?
“They know what you’ve got, every hand. Lidstone told me you’re the easiest read he’s ever seen in a poker game and all the rest are onto to it too. They talk about it when you’re not around.”
How can that be? I’ve even taken to practising my poker face in front of a mirror…
“It’s not your face giving you away,” he exclaimed while looking around to see if anyone was listening, “it’s your ears.”
“Your ears turn bright red when you’re bluffing. When you’ve got good cards, your ears stay white or pink, but when you’re trying to steal a pot, your ears light up like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Lidstone was the first to notice it, but after I heard about it, it’s really obvious. You might as well stand up and announce you’re bluffing.”
In equatorial Vietnam where the temperature was hot and it was always sunny, except during the monsoons, my ears were always red. In Dawson City, where the sun disappears in the winter, they were whiter than Wonder Bread.
Oh I sat in a few more times wearing a toque, but it wasn’t fun anymore so I quit poker and took up blackjack, which has no bluffing.
My ears needed a rest and I’ve never played poker since.
Maybe Hank should write another gambling groan about a cheechako who was done in by his cheatin’ ears:
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,
Know when to fold ‘em.
Know how to beat your fears,
How to cover up your ears.
You never count your losses
When the sun is gone and dead.
There’ll be time enough for counting
When your ears turn red.
Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.