A James Garner Poker Story
I just read of the passing of actor James Garner.
He seemed like a really nice man. He certainly enjoyed a remarkably long and distinguished film and television career which spanned nearly six decades, including many memorable roles, perhaps none quite as endearing to those of us in the poker community as “Maverick.”
“Maverick,” which ran as a popular television series from 1957-1962 and was later made into a hit movie (1994), helped to redefine poker and those who played it as a noble, almost heroic pursuit. Maverick was always fair and honest, but also cool and clever. Somehow, he always outfoxed the cheaters and thieves. Everyone who fancied the legendary Old West wanted to be Bret Maverick.
There were numerous other film roles too — from The Great Escape to a weekly stint on The Rockford Files. The movies, television shows, and scripted parts might have varied over the years. But each character played by Mr. Garner seemed to embody the classic Maverick spirit.
I once had the chance to meet and speak with Mr. Garner. Now seems like the perfect occasion to tell that story.
The 2006 World Series of Poker was the second year the tournament was played at the Rio in Las Vegas. It ended up spawning the largest live poker tournament in history. That year, a whopping 8,773 players entered the $10,000 buy-in world poker championship, which created a sea of players and fans who all packed into the Rio at what’s now regarded as the height of the poker boom.
Back then, we used to give well-known players and celebrities the honor of performing the “Shuffle Up and Deal” announcement. At the time, a small makeshift stage was set up in the middle of the Amazon Room. It’s hard to imagine this now, but thousands of people were sardined into every available inch of space. Once inside, you could barely move.
The tournament was scheduled to begin promptly at noon. I forgot who had been chosen that day to perform “Shuffle Up and Deal.” Whoever it was ended up as a no-show. It was 11:58 am. We were just two minutes away from the start of the largest poker tournament in history. And the stage was empty except for a few Harrah’s Entertainment executives helplessly looking around for our missing V.I.P.
That year, the larger Pavilion Room was used exclusively as a giant convention space. In fact, the biggest poker convention ever was held inside what’s now the largest of the three main rooms used for tournament play. One of the exhibits was a new poker site that was launching called “Hollywood Poker.” The site, which I believe actor James Woods had some role in, was supposedly stacked with Hollywood celebrities. Since many people like to play poker with famous people, the marketing idea behind the website seemed solid. Actor James Garner was included among their roster of stars.
By some minor miracle, I caught a glimpse Mr. Garner just a few minutes earlier, among the sea of bodies packed inside the Rio. Then and there, I realized there was no bigger name or star than James Garner taking the stage and saying “Shuffle Up and Deal.” He was perfect. Absolutely ideal. We would have (and should have) scheduled him from the very start, but no one in our organization even had a clue that “Maverick” himself would be playing that day in the Main Event. It had all come as a surprise.
I frantically ran around the room and down the hallway desperately looking for Mr. Garner. Fortunately, he was wearing a big black cowboy hat which made him easy to spot in a big crowd. Sure enough, I spotted Mr. Garner. Trouble was, it was now past noon. Everyone on the stage was waiting. And Mr. Garner, then in his late seventies wasn’t conveniently mobile. This was going to take a few more minutes to pull off.
Somehow, everything came together. I approached Mr. Garner and he seemed thrilled to do the honors. So, he walked slowly through the crowd, which parted in unison — almost in deference to the man everyone remembered as “Maverick.”
In the confusion and as we walked together, amid the handshakes and requests for photos and autographs which made the trek into a madhouse, I’d forgotten one very important detail. That was — I failed to mention exactly what Mr. Garner was supposed to do and say. It was just one of those crazy moments, a mob scene, really and in the confusion I just assumed Mr. Garner knew what this was all about and what he was supposed to say to the thousands of people awaiting his official pronouncement.
We finally arrived at the small stage in the center of the room which resembled a giant mosh pit. Mr. Garner had trouble walking up the steps. After tournament director Jack Effel gave some instructions, I took the microphone and got to introduce the one and only “Maverick” to the crowd. I did exactly that, and the entire room erupted with a cheer and standing ovation. Most of the time, the applause is simply polite. We’d had big names before, but James Garner was truly special and everyone knew it. It also helped that he sure looked the part we all remembered him by.
Poor Mr. Garner. He took the microphone and said a few nice things about the World Series of Poker. I recall him saying something like “I never imagined in my wildest dreams it would ever be like this.”
That seemed like the perfect lead into what was supposed to be the following words — “Shuffle Up and Deal.” Trouble was, no one bothered to inform him of what precisely he was supposed to say.
With that, Mr. Garner then paused and looked around for a moment. He appeared somewhat confused, and then launched into his own bizarre recital of the phrase that would officially begin the biggest event ever in poker.
“Ladies and gentlemen, start your cards,” he said.
Not bad, actually. Borrowing a line from the start of the Indianapolis 500 auto race, which goes “start your engines,” Mr. Garner used a little wordplay and went with his own version — “Start your cards.”
Everyone laughed and cheered. It was perfect. It was even better. Indeed, the cards flew into the air. Finally, James Garner, a.k.a. “Maverick,” took his rightful seat at a poker table. He competed as one of us. He was right where he belonged.