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Posted by on Apr 17, 2019 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Las Vegas, Personal, World Series of Poker | 2 comments

The Greater Good of Gary Thompson (1945-2019)

 

 

Gary Thompson died.

Remember his name, because he merits being treasured.  Ponder his significance because he enhanced everything to which his name was attached.  Revere his memory because he was a mentor to many, who freely gave guidance for no other reason than simply being kind.

If you knew Gary, you were lucky.  If you didn’t, then please read on and learn more about this remarkable man I knew, respected, and loved.

He was a father.  He was a husband.  He was a friend.  He was a veteran.  He was a patriot.  He was a son of the earth.

He wasn’t just a good man.  He was a great man.  He was a teacher.  He was an intellect.  He led by example.  He was a man who exemplified the very essence of compassion, honesty, and decency.  He was the greater good.  He was the angel of our better nature.

Gary Edward Thompson was born in Danbury, Connecticut on December 4th, 1945.  He died in Las Vegas, Nevada on April 14, 2019.  In between, he lived 74 extraordinary years.  His life touched countless others.  He made a difference.

Gary spent most of his childhood in Connecticut.  He graduated from the prestigious New York Military Academy.  He enlisted in the United States Air Force.  He served overseas during the Cold War and was stationed in Pakistan during a tense period in global geopolitics.

After serving his country proudly abroad, Gary returned home and worked in New York City for several years as a marketing executive.  He became a widely-respected Wall Street reporter and was assigned to writing daily copy for the Dow Jones Report.

Gary then moved to Las Vegas and launched a new career.  He took a job as a reporter covering city hall and was promoted to managing editor of the Las Vegas Sun.  Next, he worked at Harrah’s Entertainment as a publicist.  He worked his way to the pinnacle of the casino industry, becoming the spokesperson for Caesar’s Entertainment, the world’s largest gambling enterprise.

Gary also worked as an executive for the World Series of Poker — not because he needed the extra workload, nor the immense responsibilities that went along with an additional full-time job.  He worked for the WSOP — and did so from 2004 through 2008, the period now regarded as “the poker boom” — simply because he loved the game and respected its players.  He was there during the critical transition between past and present when the WSOP grew from a smoky backroom corral into an internationally-televised spectacle.

That’s how I came to know Gary so well, and where our story now begins.

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Thirty-one years ago, two legends-in-the-making battled it out for poker’s richest prize and instant immortality.  Johnny Chan beat Erik Seidel heads-up and won the 1988 World Series of Poker.  The final hand later became canonized in the popular movie Rounders and to this day remains one of the most famous confrontations in poker history.

Remember the riveting instant when Chan masterfully captured his prey and yet was forced to disguise the victory within his grasp?  See the photograph above which shows Chan just moments before winning his second of two world championship titles.  Look at the man positioned over Chan’s left shoulder reporting on the event.  That’s Gary Thompson.

Yes, that’s Gary Thompson — standing on his feet at crusty old Binion’s Horseshoe, during the pre-historic era when no one from the mainstream press ever came to cover anything related to poker.  Reporting on poker events just wasn’t done back then.  Not before Gary Thompson arrived in Las Vegas, saw the potential, trekked down to the Horseshoe personally, and made it into a front-page news story.  Some two decades after recognizing the magnetic attraction that was the World Series of Poker, he became one who would run it and make major decisions that would come to define what it’s become today.

Sometime in the future, the real story of the WSOP shall be written.  What went on behind the scenes.  In back hallways and on cell phones late at night.  On those pages, should they tell the whole truth, Gary will be tagged as the perpetual outlier, the ultimate voice of reason, the grand visionary, and the player’s champion.

I was there.  I saw it.  I witnessed everything.  I remember.

Poker players who revere the WSOP owe a special debt of gratitude to Gary for all the things he did that almost no one saw.  In the face of excruciating pressure, outright opposition, and often indifference from the highest level, he (often alone) was the voice who stood up to the mega-corporation, the short-sighted bottom-liners, the managerial MBAs, and all the suited squeezers who wouldn’t know mixed games from a mixed salad and never gave a rat’s ass about the players or any of poker’s great traditions.  Gary was there duking out in the back offices and boardrooms, bickering and bargaining and bantering at every meeting, every step of the way — pleading, cajoling, maneuvering — desperately trying to protect and preserve all that the WSOP represented that corporate culture wanted to milk out and pulverize the last nickel and drop.

He didn’t win every battle.  In fact, he lost many.  But he argued passionately and always came down on the side of the greater good of the game.

Yet, Gary’s name will never be associated with poker championships, although he was the players champion.  He stood up for them.  He defended them.  He understood those who came to the WSOP each and every year weren’t just ripe customers to be plucked for a day but might be loyalists for life, provided they were treated right and not ripped-off.  Among everyone I ever worked with at Binion’s-Harrah’s-Caesars over 20 long years at the WSOP, no one was more protective of the players and traditions than Gary Thompson.

No one.

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Public relations and marketing basically boil down to mastering the art of bullshitting.

There, I said it.

Maybe it was because Gary waded through so much of it himself, working on Wall Street and recognizing a lie when he heard it.  Maybe it was covering the dirty underbelly of Las Vegas politics for so long.  Perhaps those experiences had something to do with Gary always despising bullshitters and vowing never to become one himself.

So, when Gary ultimately flipped to the opposite side of the cat and mouse media game, he never distracted, diverted, nor double-talked those who sought his perspective.  He never once bullshitted.  That’s why every media personality who interviewed Gary knew they were getting the straight story directly from the source.  That made Gary the “go to” guy in Las Vegas.  Because he returned phone calls.  He told the truth.

Most readers have no idea how difficult it is to maintain trust and personal integrity while working for a conglomerate as colossal as Caesars Entertainment, particularly during the tense period when the $27 billion company was inexplicably floundering in bankruptcy.  Gary manned the front lines and dealt with the press on a daily basis.  He was the company’s firewall.

That didn’t mean things always went smoothly.

About ten years ago, I read an explosive story on the front page of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  The article was about the Department of Justice laying down the hammer on online poker, which pretty much pulled the plug on the game’s growth inside the United States.  Gary was quoted (accurately) with a blistering rebuke of the D.O.J.’s overreach.  He blasted the feds.  I remember sitting there and reading that article, fist-pumping air, and screaming out, “You tell ’em, Gary!”

That was Gary Thompson, ignoring the guard rails, cutting through the bullshit, and telling it like it was.  It was pure Gary at his best.

Later, I found out Gary was almost fired for that impromptu comment.  Caesar’s Entertainment and the stuffed suits were annoyed that its own spokesperson was picking swinging an ax at the federal government.  But Gary survived because he was so damned good at his job and everyone who knew him respected his word as the gold standard.  That’s trust.  That’s integrity.  That’s power.

WATCH GARY THOMPSON’S 1997 APPEARANCE IN C-SPAN TALKING ABOUT THE CASINO INDUSTRY HERE

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I must have had 50 dinners and at least 500 drinks with Gary, and that’s a conservative estimate.

His beverage of choice was always Vodka Martini.  Shaken not stirred.

He chain-smoked.

He dressed immaculately.

He spoke calmly but could always command a conversation.  When Gary spoke, everyone stopped and listened.  He had the ear of everyone — CEO’s, Mayors, television people, everyone.  Once, I saw him pick up the phone and book a friend of mine as a guest on National Public Radio — on the spot.  He got things done.

Most of all, Gary loved to laugh and made the most of every opportunity to do so.  If pressed to recall the serene sound of Gary’s soothing voice, it most certainly is accompanied by his laughter.  Even when Gary was mad, and he did get angry at times, you could always tell he was looking for the bright side and seeking a way for everyone to shine.  His positive spirit was utterly infectious.

I was lucky to call him my boss.  He was the kind of person you worked for and didn’t want to disappoint.  There are rare individuals in this world who command such authority just by their example, that to fall short of their expectations is the ultimate defeat and despair.  Letting down Gary on any task was the ultimate in shame.  I don’t know if I ever let down Gary, but I certainly tried to meet and match everything that was expected.  I think everyone who ever worked for or with Gary would say the same thing.  He was that exceptional leader who could motivate others to exceed their capabilities.

Sometime around 2006, Gary and I had one of our dinners at Piero’s, a local Las Vegas institution.  Everyone in the restaurant knew Gary.  It was like dining with a rock star.  I think (former) Mayor Oscar Goodman was there that night.  Gary could have run for any office in the city and probably been elected in a landslide.

During our many conversations, he confessed things privately to me.  I don’t think he would mind me sharing some these memories, now.  Gary absolutely adored his daughter, Kelly.  He talked about her with great love and admiration.  He also would get choked up each time he would talk about his late wife, who had died years earlier.  Gary carried some guilt about her death, rightly or wrongly burdened with memories that didn’t tell her how much he loved her enough while she was living.  He carried that burden long after she was gone.  I think Gary lost a piece of himself when she passed away.  Gary could be the life of the party without every trying to call attention to himself.

But when Gary met Gina, he became complete once again.  They were married and devoted their lives to each other.  Gary and Gina were the perfect power couple and even better dinner companions — witty, funny, insightful, and kind.  Marieta and I dined out with the Thompson’s many times, including wine dinners.  If I were to describe those dinners and our conversations, the word I would use would be passionate.  Gary and Gina were always filled with passion.  About everything.

Gary and I shared so many common interests and similarities.  But our political views were dramatically different.  Gary was a libertarian and a Republican.  He had bumper stickers of the National Rifle Association on his Acura that I threatened to tear off.  We argued about politics all the time.  Yet never once did our discussions become heated, nor uncomfortable.  I think there was a mutual respect that was so deep it transcended our differences.  I wish other people who can’t get along could have spent more time witnessing the way Gary carried himself in daily conversation.  There’s a lesson there for everyone.

About six years ago (if memory serves), Gary learned he had terminal cancer.  He immediately began treatment and lost his hair.  Never one to seek out any sympathy, Gary instead focused on the time he had still remaining.  He vowed to make Gina happy.  That was all that mattered to him.  Gina and his daughter Kelly — they were everything to Gary.

And so, Gary traveled.  And played golf.  And laughed.  Despite the diagnosis, Gary laughed a lot.  He never gave up.  He never quit smiling and laughing.

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I’m a terrible golfer.

Yet somehow, I always got paired with the laughing chain smoker and 70-year-old cancer patient, even when we were senselessly playing for money against much younger and stronger competition.

Talk about a handicap.  Thing was, the handicap was me.

Gary tried to give me golf lessons.  Many times.  That didn’t work.  I still sucked.  He once trashed my old set of golf clubs right out on the middle of the course and gave me his own brand new set of wood and irons.  Seriously, he picked up my bag and tossed it in the trash between holes.  Then, he gave me a $500 set of new clubs, which I still have as a prized possession.

Gary’s expensive didn’t help either.  It wasn’t the clubs.  It was the golfer swinging them.

The only time I ever won money on the golf course was back a few years ago when Gary and I were at Angel Park in Summerlin playing against a couple of guys who could whack the ball 300 yards down the fairway.  We were playing “best ball.”  That meant each player got to play the ball of the best shot.  Of course, we played Gary’s shot 90 percent of the time because I was so awful and he was so consistent.

We got down to the final hole at Angel Park, the 18th green.  The purse had a big carryover.  I had to sink a 30-yard putt, for us to win the match.  It was a shot I couldn’t make 1 out of 500 times.  Gary coached me.  He told me to exhale and just where to strike the ball and how hard to hit it.  I took my club, actually Gary’s putter, and slapped the ball which ran downhill and to the right and dropped straight into the hole.  Pluck!  We cheered.  We hugged.  Our opponents threw their clubs up in the air.  I felt like I had just won The Masters.

Here are two golf stories I wrote about previously, including an account of that round with Gary.

READ:  BLOOD, SWEAT, AND BEERS

READ:  THERE WILL BE BLOOD

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When Gary was diagnosed with cancer, he knew his days were numbered.  For most who are facing their own mortality, seeing the end of the road serves as a rude wake-up call.  It’s a cruel reminder to re-align one’s priorities.  For Gary, knowing he had a limited time to live wasn’t a jolting life adjustment at all.  It was merely a continuation of who he was and always had been. It was a fitting final chapter and an epitaph.

Gary had always wanted to see Africa and experience the final frontiers of the wilderness.  So, during the last year of his life, still healthy and with energy enough to make the long and demanding trip, he ventured to the great continent of Africa where he saw the wild beasts up close and marveled in all that was natural.  For the man who’d spent much of his life working among the skyscrapers of New York and the neon glow of Las Vegas, standing out on the open plains with African bushmen and being among the animals was his final fateful act of revelation and liberation.

It was his last breath of freedom.

Visit GARY THOMPSON’S FACEBOOK PAGE here.

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If the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living, then we all share an obligation to remember him and revere the life he lived and try to meet the lofty aspirations he set by his conduct and the man he was.

I loved Gary Thompson.

I will miss him.

We will all miss him and the greater good he was.

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Here is a direct link to the Gary Edward Thompson memorial page and more information about services scheduled for April 27th.  CLICK HERE

 

 

Note:  I believe the facts of Gary’s life to be accurate in this hasty remembrance.  I have no notes nor any obituary for reference.  It was written from memory.  If readers notice any errors, please e-mail me privately at — nolandalla@gmail.com — and I will make any corrections.  Thank you. 

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ESPN’s “30 for 30” Podcast [Remembering the 2003 World Series of Poker]

 

 

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PREFACE

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