You Won’t Believe the Things I Discussed with Dr. Vafa Kamali
A few months ago, I was enjoying a quiet evening at home, watching television.
On screen was the popular PBS program called “NOVA.” The show is mostly about science and technology and often features cutting-edge breakthroughs in various fields of study.
Imagine my surprise to see someone I knew appearing on the program. I came to discover, he’s one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of genetic engineering. He spoke about scientific advances he and his university research team have achieved which could ultimately enable humans to live as long as 150 years.
That’s right – 150 years.
I’ll tell you more about this shortly.
I’m so very lucky.
I get to meet some very interesting people doing what I do. Maybe I just like to meet people — and due to the law of large numbers — I get fortunate to come across more of interesting people than others.
One man that I’ve seen around the poker scene for the past twenty years is someone many simply know as “Doc.” But his real name is Vafa Kamali. Today, I want to tell you more about him and the dinner I enjoyed with this quiet, but extraordinary man.
Dr. Vafa Kamali was born in Iran. He is proud of his Persian heritage – as he should be. Indeed, Persia (now known as modern-day Iran) is a fascinating place filled with many wonderful people. We don’t see this side of things much here in the United States. Still (rightfully) bitter about the hostage crisis during the late 1970′s and the current political situation which never seems to improve, many might not realize that Americans are actually very well-liked by the ordinary people of Iran.
I’ll get back to this point in just a bit. Stay with me.
My dinner companion and I had no specific agenda on this night. I wanted to hear plenty more about his new discoveries in science — although my limited background in this field rendered me terribly ill-equipped to understand and appreciate their true significance. I wasn’t able to ask many follow-up questions, because I was so out of my league. So, I became mostly a listener. And, that’s perfectly fine with me.
As the dinner courses were served and our glasses were emptied and refilled several times over, I came to know this man across the table from me much better than before. Accordingly, I also came to learn a lot more about subject I did not know.
I’d like to share some of them with you.
The first time that Dr. Vafa Kamali played poker in Las Vegas was way back in 1975. He was one of the first foreign-born players ever to enter the World Series of Poker Main Event.
Imagine how exciting and terrifying that must have been back then. Dr. Vafa Kamali, then a new arrival in the United States and a recent college graduate, sat down next to poker legends like Doyle Brunson, “Amarillo Slim” Preston, Johnny Moss, and a player we would talk about more than any other during this dinner engagement – “Puggy” Pearson.
Dr. Vafa Kamali told of the days when he played in cash games with the world’s best. Sometimes he lost. Sometime he managed to win. But here was there. Sort of analogous to being at Woodstock, Dr. Vafa Kamali will always be able to make one bold claim which most of which us can only about – that he held his own against the most famous poker players of all-time.
I had to ask Dr. Vafa Kamali about his television appearance on NOVA. After all, it’s not like they interview just “anyone” for that program. You really have to do something remarkable to deserve the royal treatment of a full hour on one of public television’s longest-running and most respected shows.
Dr. Vafa Kamali revealed that he served faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi for more than ten years — which happens to be one of the leaders in his field of research. During that time, he and his team focused on nanotechnology. His objective was to genetically engineer a remedy to cure various illnesses and slow down the natural process of aging.
Over several years, he has essentially come up with a process that might soon enable new human organs to be grown. Moreover, common ailments such as diabetes, and the often annoying countermeasures we take to address these problems such as ingesting chemicals (pills), could be alleviated with a simple medical procedure. Obviously, this is a complicated subject and I lack the background to be able to give this the full treatment it deserves. But suffice to say that Dr. Vafa Kamali believes this new technology will eventually allow an average healthy human being to live perhaps as long as 150 years.
“It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not,” Dr. Vafa Kamali said.
Beyond his obvious passion for science, what impressed me most – and inspired me, in fact – was his essential personal philosophy.
Without sounding preachy, he noted that he enjoyed his greatest personal satisfaction from doing his research. Yes, the job paid well. But it wasn’t about the money. It was about being on the cutting-edge of something new and exciting – with a monumental upside the could not just help millions of people, but could actually change the world.
Think about that for a moment.
Louis Pasteur, Paul Ehrlich, Edward Jenner – and now Dr. Vafa Kamali.
And he was sitting across from me at the dinner table.
Like I said — I’m lucky. I get to meet some very interesting people.
So, as I said – Dr. Vafa Kamali was born in Iran.
That occasionally puts him in an awkward position, especially here in America where there is so much misunderstanding about world affairs and foreign cultures.
Fortunately, science and human progress have no borders. There are no national flags in the laboratory. Good science is respected. It matters not who comes up with a new discovery, or what his heritage happens to be. Too bad the rest of the things we do aren’t treated more like the world of science.
Naturally, politics came up.
Dr. Vafa Kamali is in the most unfortunate position imaginable. He loves his people and his culture. But he’s also greatly disturbed by what’s happened in Iran over the past 40 years and how the intolerable leadership of that nation has made things so bad for so many decent people.
Among the things I learned over the next several minutes were as follows:
—- For many years, Iran was one of the world’s most tolerant places. All religions and cultures were welcome. There were a significant number of foreigners, partcularly Jews, that immigrated to parts of Iran. They lived lived in peace for centuries.
—- Iran is not a backward country like it’s often portrayed in media. It’s a nation of 80 million strong with deep roots in science and technology. Iran also has one of the world’s top centers of science, which is Tehran University. Oddly enough, this is where the impetus came from that overthrew the Shah, back in 1978.
—- There are draconian restrictions on what people are permitted to do in public. For instance, many women wear the hibab, or veil. Nonetheless women have great freedom in Iran they do not enjoy in other parts of the Middle East. For instance, in Saudi Arabia women cannot legally drive. They also cannot hold many jobs, and in most cases do not work outside the house. In Iran, women enjoy most of the same freedoms in the workplace that Western women enjoy.
—- Iran is not an Arab country. You probably knew that already. But it bears repeating.
—- Iran is one of the few nations in the Middle East that has it’s own distinct cultural heritage. Unlike Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and many other countries which consist of a mix of ancient tribes and ethnic groups, Iran is a unique culture – much like Egypt and Turkey. Iranian culture dates back more than a thousand years.
—- Americans and American culture are still very well liked in Iran. To be clear, there are some hardliners who do not like Western influences. But most common Iranians enjoy things that are American.
—- Everyone remembers the famous hostage crisis and the extended captivity of Americans who wee working at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. But at the time the Shah was overthrown, there were as many as 75,000 Americans living and working in Iran (mostly in oil and high tech). Every single one of those Americans returned home safe. No one was harmed. Not a single death occurred. So, while the images of the Iranian mobs scaling the fences as the American Embassy were terrifying, that certainly wasn’t a true picture of what was happening to most Americans living in Iran at the time.
I had to press Dr. Vafa Kamali for more information. What about all the troubles we hear about in Iran? What about the possibility of a war between Iran and Israel. It wasn’t surprising that Dr. Vafa Kamali’s comments were uniquely insightful.
First, he insists that Iran is not really run by current President Mahmous Ahmadinejad, who gets all the blazing headlines here in the West. It’s not even run by the so-called religious mullahs, who are in the mold of the former Ayatollah. In reality, Iran is run by something called the “Revolutionary Guard,” which is essentially controlled by the military. He didn’t say it, but Iran is basically a military dictatorship.
Dr. Vafa Kamali’s credentials are impeccable in this area. I would take his basic instincts and political knowledge over any of the neo-conservatives in this country, who have mostly gotten us into a big mess in the Middle East, with no exit strategy. He’s hardly an apologist for what’s going on in Iran. After all, he was one of the first Iranians in America to create a resistance movement to (then leader) Ayatollah Khomeini. That took some real courage.
There was more.
During the 1980′s, Dr. Vafa Kamali became prominent enough to actually meet with policymakers in the Reagan Adminstration. At the time, the United States was pledging to help a certain neighboring country in what turned out to be a massively-destructive war that promised to overthrow the Revolutionary Guard in Iran.
Dr. Vafa Kamali pleaded with the neo-cons in President Reagan’s cabinet not to give aid and assistance to that horrible regime hoping for American military and economic assistance. He insisted their objective had no chance at success and would eventually come back to haunt the United States. They didn’t listen.
That nation was Iraq. And the leader Dr. Vafa Kamali begged American leaders not to help was Saddam Hussein.
Let that sink in for a moment.
So, does Dr. Vafa Kamali have any thoughts about the current tensions in the Middle East?
He noted that an attack by Israel against Iran would be suicidal. The advantage the Iranians have at the moment, is being able to launch perhaps 3,000 missiles at a time. Thee-thousand. At once.
Paraphrasing Dr. Vafa Kamali’s thoughts, he insists that as good as Israel’s missile defense system is, there’s no way it can stop the rain of bombardments that would be launched from Southern Iran if such an attack were to take place.
Israel knows this very well, he says. That’s why they won’t really attack. He believes an attack by Israel would be an act of madness.
Similarly, Dr. Vafa Kamali is convinced that all we hear from the leadership in Iran (about striking Israel) is nothing more than a lot of saber-rattling designed to keep favor with (what I call) the fanatics.
We also agreed that Iran building a nuclear weapon is inevitable. In fact, it’s probably a matter of long-term survival and an obligation to protect their national sovereignty. With American military invasions of their two bordering nations, with U.S. Armed forces on standby at permanent military bases on their doorstep, and with Israel now threatening publicly to launch a first strike, Iran would be utterly foolish not to engage in a nuclear weapons program.
The sooner that American foreign policy is reconfigured to accept this eventual reality, the safer and better we will all be. That’s not necessarily his opinion. It’s mine.
Which now brings us to Walter Clyde “Puggy” Pearson.
In what must go down as one of the most surreal paths of dinner conversation imaginable, we took a detour from our discussion of how to live twice as long and ways to achieve peace in the Middle East.
There was something far more unbelievable than all that. Indeed, we were about to talk about Puggy.
I had heard this — what seemed to be ridiculous tale — before.
In fact, I always believed it was just that — a tale. There’s no way that a grown man – let alone a former world poker champion – would ever climb upon on a poker table inside a casino and to the shock and dismay of those unfortunate to be around, suddenly relieve himself.
But, it happened.
Dr. Vafa Kamali was there.
No one is quite sure of the year. But sometime during the late 1970′s, Dr. Vafa Kamali was playing in a cash game at Binion’s Horseshoe in Downtown Las Vegas. It wasn’t a huge game by the standards of those days. Most of those present had a few thousand in front. They were playing a mix of games, including Lowball.
The infamous game, so devilishly remembered and still discussed all these years later, consisted of an all-star lineup. At the table were Johnny Moss, Seymour Liebowitz, Puggy Pearson, Dr. Vafa Kamali, and a few others that my dinner companion could not recall.
Puggy took a terrible beat on a hand. Hearing the story from Dr. Vafa Kamali, it was indeed a brutal beat. No doubt about it.
But that’s poker. And most poker players would have simply let out a few choice words, brushed it off, and gone on to the next hand.
The barrel-waisted cigar-chomper promptly stood up from his seat, stepped up on the chair, and to the absolute horror of all those who were present, whipped out his member.
“He was big,” Dr. Vafa Kamali remembered, unable to take his eyes from poker’s equivalent of a car crash.
Next, the scene went from a simple lewd act to what has been described as the most offensive moment in the history of the game.
Without warning, Puggy began to relieve himself. While the former world champion puffed away on his lit cigar, he let out a lot more than just frustration on the felt that afternoon.
Naturally, the scene became one of chaos. Dr. Vafa Kamali remembered that people were screaming and falling all over themselves to get out of the way. Within a couple of minutes, casino security was ushered in and Puggy was removed from premises, still hollering about the beat. Dr. Vafa Kamali also recalled that Puggy’s longtime pal Benny Binion heard about the incident and barred his buddy for a few days. That was the extent of the punishment. Days later, Puggy was right back in the poker room playing again, like nothing had happened.
If ever there was a dinner where I didn’t want to finish my coffee and dessert, this was it. About two-and-a-half hours after we sat down, enjoyed a full dinner, and went back in time and even into an exciting new future, it was over.
I have come to learn over the years that many of the people who are the most interesting of all are right in our midst. They are among us. We need only ask a few questions and seek them out.
I would bet that those who see Dr. Vafa Kamali each day, and especially those who play with him at the poker table, know nothing about his fascinating background and contributions to humanity.
I hope by sharing these stories and insights, perhaps you feel as though you also had a seat at our table.
Thank you Dr. Vafa Kamali, for a superb evening — and thank you readers for sharing our company.