Thought, Laughter, and Tears: My Dinner with T.K. (and Jimmy V.)
There are few people in the casino business I love and admire more than Mr. T.K. Krauss.
This longtime Atlantic City poker executive is a fountain of fascinating stories and useful information, especially when it comes to the East Coast poker scene. If passion came in bottles, “T.K.” would be the Coca-Cola of poker.
T.K. has just taken over as the new Director of Poker Operations for the Atlantic Club. Previously known as the Atlantic City Hilton, this outdated and long-neglected property located at the southern tip of the famed Boardwalk has long been the city’s stepchild casino.
Things are about to change – big time.
Now, the Atlantic Club is at a pivotal moment — not just here in New Jersey — but in the history of U.S. gambling. The casino-hotel is close to being taken over by PokerStars.com — the world’s largest online poker website. If successful, PokerStars.com could gain a critical foothold inside what’s now the first state with a substantial population base to approve online poker. In short, this beachhead marks the start of a coming battle front between powerhouse U.S.-based casino operators and the online giant based on the Isle of Man that could very well turn into high-tech trench warfare.
Given the gravity of what’s at stake, T.K. is the ideal peacemaker– a beloved Gen. Omar Bradley figure in the grand theater of what could become online poker’s World War 2.
I’ve known T.K. for 20 years. From his earliest days walking the floor at the Taj Majal, to the Tournament Director position at the Atlantic City Tropicana, to the Head of Operations at the Hollywood Casino in Indiana, T.K. has made a powerful impression on everyone privileged to know him inside this business. He’s run big-time tournaments, he’s brought World Poker Tour events to the Midwest, and now he’s quite possibly on the cutting edge of the next big thing — engineering the freight train that could help Atlantic City come roaring back from the dead.
* * *
This is probably the 165th meal I’ve had with T.K. If you count drinks, chalk up four figures. And now we’ve come to one of our favorite dining spots.
“A Touch of Italy” is located on Black Horse Pike in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. It’s about ten miles inland from the Atlantic City shore. For the next two hours, this will be the conversational junction of two friends who now live on opposite coasts, but who shall forever be connected by the unbreakable bonds of shared history, common passion for what we do, and everlasting friendship.
Alas, this road of life and aimless pursuit of a career gets mighty lonely at times. It’s made even more lonely by people actually being around. Strange as that sounds, the worst kind of loneliness isn’t in being alone. It’s more often when among others, but lacking any sense of connection.
For me, T.K. is a life line amidst this abyss of the lonely road.
During the course of our dinner conversation, many things came up. Poker. Business. The poker business. Friends — both come and gone. Our lives. The past. The future.
As we talked and talked some more and more still, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by his unwavering enthusiasm. Whatever subject he talked about, it was with genuine feeling. Whatever aspirations he possessed were infused with confidence. Whatever he expressed was laced with sincerity. And he always seemed to be smiling.
At one point I stopped T.K. I had to ask him an important question. I’m in constant pursuit of inspiration. Maybe it’s because I frequently write about my personal experiences and those I meet. Perhaps it’s just because I tend to over-think things. Nonetheless, we often gain inspiration when we need it most from our closest friends and colleagues. We uncover buried treasure simply by asking the questions begging to be asked.
T.K. noted the things he draws most from, which are most obvious. His wife. His family. His friends.
Then, he brought up another name you might recognize.
* * *
T.K. never met Jimmy Valvano and neither did I.
He’s the late great college basketball coach who passed away twenty years ago. Nicknamed “Jimmy V,” he became even more beloved during the closing months of his life of utter joy, and then especially so after his death. He became larger than life, after death, which is really saying something given he was the living personification of what being an underdog means by leading his outclassed team (North Carolina State) to the 1983 NCAA Basketball National Championship. You need not be a fan of basketball to be a huge fan of Jimmy V.
Perhaps Jimmy V’s most famous moment wasn’t on the basketball court. It was the memorable “farewell” speech he gave at the 1993 ESPY Awards in New York City. Considered by many to be one of the most emotionally moving an inspirational talks in sports history, Jimmy V. left the stage that night to a downpour of cheers and tears. It would be his last public appearance ever. Jimmy V. died eight weeks later.
Oddly enough, although I’d seen a few bits and pieces of the 11-minute speech since then (quite possibly the longest “thank you” speech for an award in television history) I had never actually watched it from start to finish.
Here the speech in its entirely:
As wondrous as those 11 minutes were, T.K. told me about another legendary speech given by Jimmy V. — this one, a much longer and more detailed presentation — which packed an even greater emotional punch.
In 1987, Jimmy V. gave an inspirational talk to a business conference of financial professionals. At first, the speech seemed pretty typical. A national champion basketball coach gets signed to deliver his talk in front of a lot of wealthy people following a fancy dinner at a ritzy hotel, and then the content of the speech is pretty much forgotten by everyone. That’s how most speeches go.
But this one was different. That 1987 speech was legendary. At nearly one-hour long, it became an audio memento of inspiration and optimism. It’s titled “Cutting Down the Nets.”
T.K. revealed that listens to that speech at least once a month. He often plays it in his car when driving to and from work. He’s heard it so many times, he has it memorized. But each and every time T.K. listens to Jimmy V’s voice, he hears something new. He gains something from it.
* * *
Neither of us were connected to the man or his teams in any way.
Neither of us were particularly interested in college basketball.
But someone T.K. never met changed his life and motivated him to be come better at what he does. Even more important, it taught him to enjoy what he does. It taught him to love what he does. And then, T.K.’s own reflections get passed on and perhaps change others. And I was lucky on that night to be at the right place and right time in order to experience all this.
The date of my dinner with T.K. was just a few nights ago — on March 3, 2013. Which brings us to the final irony.
When writing up this story a few days later, while pulling that incredible ESPY moment off YouTube, I came to discover the remarkable coincidence that Jimmy V’s famous speech took place on — March 3, 1993.
The night we found ourselves sitting in an Italian restaurant talking about Jimmy V. was twenty years to the day of his most memorable moment. In fact, it was twenty years to the hour. Twenty years almost to the minute. There’s a magic to coincidence.
Next month will mark the twenty-year anniversary of Jimmy V’s death. Although that treasure of a man is no longer with is, his passion for what he loved lives on. His philosophical descendents and disciples live among us to carry on his message.
One such disciple is T.K. Krauss. Like the late, great Jimmy V., my dear friend inspires us all to think, to laugh, and even to cry.
What greater gift can someone pass on to someone else than that?