I just learned Eskimo Clark died.
He passed away a few months ago here in Las Vegas. His death went unnoticed within the poker community until Chad Holloway from PokerNews.com uncovered the details of his passing and posted an announcement along with a feature story late last night. One presumes no one recognized Eskimo at the end of his life, nor made the connection to his many exploits and achievements in poker.
He’d become forgotten already, even before he passed away.
Like old soldiers, some poker players don’t die. They just fade away. Eskimo faded from relevance to the poker scene years ago. It’s easy now to forget his deserving place among the legendary gamblers we so often revere, those with the great poker faces masking not just the cards, but perpetual lives of isolation, and even loneliness.
I didn’t know Eskimo well. I don’t think many of us did. He’s wasn’t an easy man to get to know. Perhaps no one really knew Eskimo, aside from the all-too-familiar grumpy caricature we got so used to seeing out in the hallways at every big poker event, occasionally embellished with yet another funny story about his obvious degeneracy. What we did learn from Holloway’s research was that long before he became a poker pro and full-time gambler, he served as a medic in Vietnam. Who knows what horrors he witnessed on the battlefield? What scars lingered decades later that never healed? Did his war experiences change him, making him into the aloof, disconnected, often mess of a man we often saw? I now wonder. We’ll never know now because soldiers and old poker players just fade away.
Read: Here’s a funny report I wrote about Eskimo finishing second in a tournament a few years ago
Eskimo’s obituary will undoubtedly be sanitized and sandblasted over. Truth was, he had no equal when it came to living by his own rules and standards, even when he didn’t have any. Eskimo was the only person I ever knew who at one time drove a $60,000 car that he’d won at a tournament somewhere, and then regularly slept in it over the next two years. He’d have rather used his car as a bed rather than pay $39 out of his gambling bankroll for a hotel room. This eccentricity sometimes had a nauseating side effect. Having him at your poker table was like sitting next to a farm animal.
I’ve seen Eskimo walk three blocks and wolf down half-a-dozen 99-cent shrimp cocktails on a 15-minute tournament break and be back just in the nick of time to post his blind before the next hand was dealt, despite having thousands of dollars in his pocket when he could have ordered something and had it delivered. The stories have been told and re-told of him fighting with backers and arguing over money. We’ve all heard the stories of his three World Series of Poker gold bracelets ending up in seedy pawn shops and auctioned off on eBay. All true, by the way.
Oh, and then there was his sports betting, which should have been a cartoon. Whenever I saw Eskimo, he was running badly in sports, or so he said. He said he couldn’t pick a winner. I think he pretended to lose a lot more than he did. That way, he could always raise a stake for the next game.
One of the final cashes of his career was three years ago at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas at a WSOP Circuit event won by Bryan Devonshire. I was at tableside that night and wrote the following excerpts, which were taken from the official report. This was his last hurrah, albeit an undeserving conclusion to a career with many ups and downs. That night, one sensed this was the end for Eskimo.
* * *
At one point during the latest World Series of Poker Circuit tournament at Caesars Palace, an interesting thing happened just prior to the final heads-up showdown.
With nearly six figures in prize money at stake and a WSOP Circuit gold ring on the line, the burly bearded older player lumbered over the table and asked the athletic-looking much younger player, “So, do you wanna‟ make a deal?”
The younger didn’t hesitate. The player smiled. He cocked his left slightly to the left. His one-word reply was as emphatic as it was unambiguous.
The older player looked at his lone adversary as if he’d seen a ghost. He leaned forward again, raised his hand as if to deliver a sermon, and started to open his mouth. But before the words could come out, it was patently obvious to everyone who witnessed it that the young player was not there to make any deals.
He was there — playing to win.
The body language of the older player foreshadowed what might boldly be considered to be an inevitable outcome. The older man stammered back to his spot at the table and sulked down in his chair, looking much like a scolded brat-child who had spoken out of turn in class.
Then and there, the duel was over. The first round of the match had already produced a winner and a loser that would persist and play out on a much bigger stage over the next 90 minutes, a prolonged duel of artistry between proverbial bullfighter and bull. No doubt, in such contests the bull always mistakenly believes he‟s got a fighting chance. But the result is predetermined. The outcome is inevitable. The only suspense really is in how the bullfighter ultimately slays the poor senseless beast, which finally draws heaps of praise and cheers from an adoring mob.
In the end, in front of a live web broadcast streamed around the world via WSOP.com, towering over the mortally-wounded creature in the ring of victory was poker superhero, Bryan Devonshire. The slain ox was Paul “Eskimo” Clark.
Years ago, when Eskimo Clark was playing the biggest events and hustling side games, the notion that someone/anyone would turn down his offer of a deal in a heads-up match would have been unthinkable.
But times have not only changed. They do change. Those days are obliterated. That era is dead and buried. The Eskimos and this and that’s of poker’s colorfully wondrous and sometimes glorious past no longer produce fear and intimidation. Sure, many of these poker greats can still play. But decades of tournament experience and the adornment of WSOP gold bracelets no longer bestows favored status. The game has changed certainly, some may even say, passed him by and although one tournament outcome does not a legacy make or break, it can indeed be a crossroads, and this was the great divide in what’s been a long and colorful life.
* * *
All glory is fleeting. Every triumph becomes a pending footnote.
Robert Paul “Eskimo” Clark doesn’t leave much behind in terms of wealth or material possessions. He had no wife, nor children. His name shall likely remain listed on many poker websites. But with the passing of time, he’ll increasingly become a distant echo of the past, and perhaps even a forgotten mystery. Eskimo didn’t produce much tangible value. But he did live an eccentric life and somehow managed to survive in a world that destroyed so many other gamblers who were far less persistent and resourceful.
Indeed, there are other Eskimos out there, still out in the hallways, hustling to raise a stake, with no future. The game has passed them by too, and the saddest realization is that most of them don’t realize it yet. Someday, they too will pass away and few, if any, will notice.
Eskimo leaves us with many funny stories and bizarre memories of how he lived. But he should also be a cautionary tale in the manner in which he died.