Irishman Noel Furlong Passes Away, 1999 World Poker Champion
Noel Furlong died today at age 83.
Born J.J. Furlong on Christmas Day 1937, he took his unusual nickname from the holiday and then lived each day like he was opening new presents.
The gruff Irishman won the World Series of Poker Main Event in 1999, and from talking with him and being in his company, you’d never know he was once a world champion at the top of the game. It was as though the coveted title and million-dollar cash prize meant nothing to him. Whether that was true or not, is immaterial. Furlong always lived life on his terms, did things his way, looked you squarely in the eye, and spoke straight from the heart.
I can’t say that I knew Furlong well, if at all. Unless you were within his inner circle, conversations were mostly one-sided. I did have the chance to have a few drinks with Furlong in Dublin once, thanks to his longtime pal Padraig Parkinson, who always seems to be the glue between disparate people and clashes of personalities. Between Parkinson and Furlong, with their thick Irish accents, I was lucky to understand every other word that was said. I do remember Furlong behaving like the ultimate curmudgeon. It was stunning — half-hysterical and half-horrifying. After he spewed yet another string of indecipherable F-bombs between pints followed by a barrel echo of a laugh, then another, then another, during a break I finally had to lean over and ask Padraig if this was all an act. It couldn’t possibly be real.
“Oh, it’s no act,” Padraig snapped. “That’s just Noel being Noel.”
That was the last time I saw Furlong. He’d just stepped into the local pub to see old friends and went with the flow and said whatever came to mind. That encounter reminded me of the earlier time I ran into Furlong in London some five years earlier and tried to interview him for a special feature. But that proposal was quickly rebuffed by Noel himself who cared little for any publicity. Later, I wrote and posted this report from the tournament:
This year’s WSOP Europe Main Event attracted one player who had pretty much disappeared from the poker scene for more than a decade. Noel Furlong, the 1999 world champion, was a surprise late entry. During a break in the action, Furlong explained he had been staying in London while WSOP Europe was being played. When he learned his flight back home to Dublin was delayed, he decided to “kill some time” and nonchalantly plucked down the £10,000 fee to enter.
Furlong walked around the Empire Casino virtually unrecognized. Now age 73, the mystery man who has become a Howard Hughes-like figure in the poker world, has not entered a WSOP event since his stunning victory in the Main Event 11 years ago. When asked if he misses the game, he snapped “no.” The crusty silver-haired Irishman now spends most of his time running a successful carpeting business which he has turned into a multi-million dollar enterprise. He also continues to dabble in horseracing during his free time. When asked the last time he remembered playing poker, Furlong paused for a few moments and finally growled, “I can’t remember.”
Furlong was eliminated late in the day by Carlos Mortensen, who oddly enough won the WSOP Main Event in 2001, two years after the Irishman’s unlikely Las Vegas triumph.
Earlier today, the news of Furlong’s passing was reported by Chad Holloway at PokerNews.com.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Furlong and pondering his memory is his unpretentiousness. Even the Irish Times noted in today’s obituary downplayed his accomplishments. He “was prominent in horse racing” and “won a World Series of Poker event,” the article said. He was remembered as “a businessman.”
I suppose that’s the way Furlong would have wanted it. No fanfare. Unassuming. Simple. Honest.
Most of us on the gambling side of a square world will always remember Noel Furlong for something else — winning that big poker something once upon a time. And I shall covet at least one memory from the barstools of Dublin.