One glance at Mickey Appleman, and you know he defies simple description.
If familiar at all, known to some as the old-school poker player with the hippie look who’s still stuck in the 1960’s, Appleman has in fact lived an extraordinary life with more financial and emotional swings than just about anyone else who self-describes themselves a “professional gambler.”
Now 69, Appleman rarely makes appearances inside poker rooms anymore, except for the annual World Series of Poker, where he’s won four gold bracelets. He’s also been playing daily at the Bellagio during the last month, where he still somehow grinds out a tough living playing against competition young enough to be his grandchildren. One seriously doubts that many of those who sit down at the poker table with the shaggy-haired icon from New York City has the faintest idea of the incredible experiences Appleman has lived over the past five decades. HERE’S AN INTERVIEW I DID WITH APPLEMAN BACK IN 2000.
Appleman spoke to the BARGE poker convention this past Saturday night. I had the great privilege of not only hearing him speak for a second time, but of sitting with him and reminiscing over the old days. A few years ago, Appleman spoke at a similar gathering held in Atlantic City that I attended. Although intentionally shy by nature and largely withdrawn from the rest of society, and hardly trained as a public speaker, Appleman’s Atlantic City speech was one of the most amazing biographical half hours I’ve ever heard described by anyone. And that’s why he was invited back to speak again, this time to the Las Vegas group, which was made up of 200 poker players from all over the country.
I contrast the two speeches with a higher purpose in mind, so bear with me.
In that first speech, Appleman talked about his life in and out of gambling. Few people know that his earliest ambition in life was to work with inner-city youth and help poor people. Appleman lived and worked in some of the toughest neighborhoods in America, this all right after the 1968 riots. He not only worked as a teacher, but imbedded himself in the local culture. He became a friend to those who lacked mentors, certainly none with Appleman’s background. An avid athlete who always loved and played pick-up basketball on playgrounds, Appleman used to go out on the court where he’d be the only white person in the so-called “bad neighborhood.” This might not seem like such a big deal now, but back in 1968 when there were race riots in many ghettos, that took real courage. Appleman even remembered some of the local neighborhoods being controlled by the Black Panthers. Nevertheless, he was accepted and helped people who needed desperately a hand up and a good deed.
Knowing Appleman’s story as I do, there’s a profound sadness to the fact he didn’t continue such a noble pursuit. I wonder how many lives might have been transformed with Appleman’s sincerity and conviction. I wonder how much some localities might have benefited from Appleman and people like him gaining a foothold in areas where little hope exists to this day. I wonder how much more fulfillment teaching and social work might have given to Appleman personally, who was eventually forced out of the inner city (which is another long story) which led to him finding a new passion and way of life.
Of course, we all know what Appleman eventually became. He’s now a professional gambler on par with the better-known legends — be it Doyle Brunson or Billy Baxter, both of whom he partnered with for decades.
The stories of those wild and reckless days are endless. Six-figure swings. Getting stiffed. Golf. Sports betting. Poker. Boxing. Appleman and his pals lived like royalty.
One of Appleman’s best stories was the occasion he bet on Ferdinand to win the Kentucky Derby and ended up winning $1.2 million. This was back in the 1980’s, making the huge score equal to nearly $3 million today. Back then, virtually all betting was through illegal bookies, much of it controlled by organized crime. Appleman, a native New Yorker, won more than a million on a single race. The problem was — getting paid.
The Mafia would pay off any winning sports bet, but this was a huge number, even for them. After all, if word leaked out on the streets that the local bookie wasn’t good for the money, the suckers wouldn’t continue playing, pumping money into the coffers of men with vowels on the ends of their last names. Anyway, Appleman was invited to a pre-arranged sit down with one of the powerful bosses of a crime family where the motely pair — Appleman looking like a rock guitarist sitting across the table from a syndicate capo who could wipe this problem off his balance sheet with a simple phone call — ended up negotiating a final settle up figure. I won’t give away the gritty details — which deserve treatment in a book. Let’s just say Appleman’s experience of being “too good a handicapper” would occasionally produce some dangerous consequences.
Another story told by Appleman at that first talk in Atlantic City was the time he started coming out to the World Series of Poker during the late 1970’s. Everyone took one glance at him with the long hair and dark shades, and instantly thought he was a drug dealer. But that wasn’t the case. Appleman was one of them, which made him such a beloved compatriot amongst men in cowboy hats who seemed to be such polar opposites.
“Jack Binion took an immediate liking to me — I really don’t know why,” I remember Appleman saying. “That was a good thing as it enabled me to be welcomed in that group which wasn’t easy to fit into. My life changed because of Jack.”
Appleman bet staggering amounts of money over the years, many times risking up to half a million dollars on a single ball game. There were lots of winners. But also, some devastating losses.
“I’ve had many ‘sure things,’ that lost,” Appleman said.
When Appleman returned last night to the place where he’s lived so much of his colorful life, the memories came back to him. Remarkably, this was Appleman’s first occasion to step back into Binion’s (Horseshoe) in ten years. There was a lingering sadness on his face throughout the evening, etched and echoed by lines and crinkles of hard living and incessant stress. Appleman told me later that this night that coming back to Binion’s after all those years was a painful process. He remembered times when his wife, now deceased, had spent with him here. He remembered high-stakes poker games that he’d played, replaced now by empty tables clouded with dust. He recalled hanging out inside the sportsbook and watching games that had the equivalent of a new house riding on in action, where no betting parlor now exists. Mickey Appleman came and saw ghosts. Now long gone, these ghosts of the past remain in memory and shall last only as long as those who were there remain among the living.
And so the time finally came for Appleman to finally take the stage and give his talk. What would he say? Which stories would he share among so many to chose from?
Looking much like the same man I first met twenty years ago, but weathered by time, Appleman took the stage and stood in front of the microphone before a group that was silent. Some among us remembered the Atlantic City speech. For others, this occasion would be a first-time introduction to Appleman.
He began by telling us about his life in college, working in the inner city, and quite by accident stumbling into a career as a professional gambler. Oddly enough, his best stories were those which weren’t poker-related. Take for instance the time when Appleman flew to Zaire (Africa) to attend the Muhammad Ali-George Forman fight which became known as “THE RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE.” That amazing experience was filmed in a documentary called “When We Were Kings.”
Among the amazing tales from that trip, Appleman told of landing in Kinshasa, then under the brutal dictatorship of Mobuto. There were no hotel rooms anywhere in the country for the big fight which was the grandest sporting event Africa had ever seen. Appleman and his “connected” pals arrived without any room reservations. The wise guys somehow managed to corner Don King in an elevator where they demanded rooms — “or else.” Three hotels rooms magically became available.
The Muhammad Ali sidebar merits some pursuit. Appleman’s hero has always been Ali. He told of the cruel juxtaposition of betting a huge sum of money against Ali when Larry Holmes beat “The Greatest” to a bloody pulp in the tragic 1980 championship fight at Caesars Palace (Ali’s final time in the ring). The beating likely contributed to Ali now being a mental basket case, unable to speak. Oddly, collecting what amounted to $400,000 after that fight set Appleman into a depression. Sure, he won the bet. But in the process, he watched one of his heroes destroyed as a human being. Indeed, that would become the painful concordance of all gambling, that for every winner there is also a loser, for every gain, a more profound and deeply personal measure of defeat.
Appleman continued on recalling huge sports bets he made, each with a deeper and more progressive poignancy than the one before. He also shared the emotional devastation of suffering losses, none bigger than the week his son was born.
In 1987, Appleman had his first and only child. Leading up to a day that should have been the happiest of his life, he endued with the worst string of financial losses of his life. In a single week, Appleman lost more than a million dollars. He tried to sell what he could to pay “people who weren’t used to waiting for their money,” as he described it. He sold off racehorses and properties in what amounted to a fire sale, and still didn’t have enough money. The losses continued to the point where Appleman was completely flat broke and owed $400,000 to the mob on the very day that his son was born.
The grimace on Appleman’s face and the sadness in his eyes as he told his story — still deeply within him some 25 years later — lingers perhaps even more deeply today than way back then. With plenty of time to remember and reflect, those moments in life, so rare and precious, became tainted with pain.
There was more. So much more. Only there wasn’t nearly enough time to tell all the tales or recall the names we know and adventures we long to hear more about. As a speaker, Appleman only scratched the surface of his remarkable life, giving us an all-too brief snapshot portrait of a man who mostly walks among us anonymously these days, virtually unknown by anyone outside the inner circles of a now seemingly ancient poker cadre.
Following his keynote address to the group, Appleman exited the stage at Binion’s, in the same room where he’d won some of his greatest poker victories. He sat down and quietly returned to someone more comfortable within himself rather than in the public eye, a vulnerability masked by a hard almost impenetrable outer shell which masks all the demons inside.
When the night finally came to an end, Appleman and I were standing around and chatting with other who attended the speech. That’s when he pulled out a small piece of paper from his breast pocket. On that paper was a lot of scribbled notes.
“That was my original speech,” he said. “But I decided not to do it. Instead, I just got up there and it all suddenly came to me. I talked from the heart. I looked out and saw all those people having a good time and it came back to me. All the good and the bad that had happened. It just came back to be when I was standing up there.”
Incredibly, Appleman had pre-written a speech in which he intended to tell some old poker stories and relay tales of adventure. But rather than simply re-hash the past and keep his most inner thoughts hidden, on the spot Apleman decided to look out into the crowd and share what has been a melting pot of ups and downs, both financial and emotional.
Last night, were all were immensely privileged to share Appleman’s susceptibility to conscious and reflection. Such is a path is not easy to take, either while alone and certainly not in a room full of strangers. If Appleman’s long journey to now has been amazing and fraught with jaw-dropping remembrances, then his willingness to apportion those joys and moments of pain and defeat makes us all both richer and wiser.
Note: To read more about BARGE and BARGE-related events, go HERE.