The Night Gary Busey Threatened to Break Steve McDonald’s Arm
A few weeks ago, BARGE was held at Binion’s Casino in Downtown Las Vegas. This marked my 22nd consecutive year to attend the annual poker and social gathering, which is a week-long festival of fun. This year might have been the last such event at Binion’s. We’ll see about that. However, BARGE is certain to continue being held somewhere in Las Vegas. Visit www.barge.org for more information.
One of the new faces this year at BARGE was Steve McDonald. I called and invited Steve to play — and was thrilled when he accepted the invitation. Steve isn’t that well known in poker, but he certainly should be. Back in 2002-2004, Steve pretty much held the crumbling old Horseshoe together with a box of band-aids and was certainly responsible for keeping the World Series of Poker above ground while it was sinking. Others — including me, tournament directors Matt Savage and Jim Miller got much of the credit. But behind the scenes, Steve was everyone’s anchor. He did everything, 16 hours a day, and never once complained.
Steve is a schoolteacher now. He’s doing something really good by trying to help children learn. I wasn’t surprised to hear that Steve had moved on from the casino business, which can be shallow and frankly, unfulfilling. In fact, I’m glad Steve is doing what he can to make a difference in the lives of others. I admire that.
After BARGE wrapped up, Rodney Chen, the event’s official photographer, posted several photos online of those who attended. That’s when I happened to come across the photo above, showing Steve looking straight into the camera (credit Rodney Chen for the photo). That’s a look I know all too well. From the day I first met Steve back in 2002, he hasn’t changed a bit.
Upon reflection, I realized most of those who were at BARGE probably didn’t know who Steve was, nor did they know his whole story. They unlikely were to know how important Steve was during a critical junction in poker history. That’s not surprising, really. Steve never calls attention to himself.
So, please allow me to do the honors.
Seeing the photo of Steve reminds me of one of his funniest stories. It sure wasn’t funny at the time it happened. But looking back now, we’ve all enjoyed a chuckle about the incident involving actor Gary Busey playing at a charity event years ago. I wrote about the crazy episode back in 2013 and posted the story here. Busey may have been the celebrity at our table, but Steve turned out to be the real star of the show.
Here’s the story of what happened.
Playing Poker with Actor Gary Busey
I’ve met a few celebrities over the years. Some of them I remember. Most were forgettable.
But not Gary Busey. He made an impression. Quite a lasting impression.
A few years ago, the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas hosted a charity poker tournament. I was invited to attend and play. Typically, these lighthearted events consist of a mix of poker insiders and casino high rollers, with a few celebrities sprinkled into the field to keep things fun. My poker table included none other than actor Gary Busey, who displayed one of the most bizarre episodes of erratic behavior that I’ve ever witnessed by someone famous.
Busey has spent much of his life in front of the cameras. He’s probably best known for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of one of rock n’ roll’s icons — playing the title character in The Buddy Holly Story. More recently, Busey has appeared in several big-budget action films, including Under Siege, Lethal Weapon, Point Break, as well as several recurring television roles. But Busey is just as famous — make that infamous — for the drama in his personal life, which included a death-defying motorcycle crash and several public outbursts fueled by drug and alcohol abuse. Supposedly, on the night Busey attended the charity poker tournament, he was both “sober” and “born again.” If that’s true, it made his behavior all the more baffling.
When Busey took a seat next to me, I knew instantly that we’d all be in for quite a show. Busey didn’t disappoint us.
The first thing we noticed was that Busey had never played No-Limit Texas Hold’em before. He had no idea about the rules. Fair enough. Everyone at the table, especially dealers and staff, were eager to help out our VIP guest. Fact is, no one wanted to see any of the celebrities eliminated early. After all, this was intended to be a fun social event.
When Busey was dealt his two cards face down, he had utterly no understanding of the importance of concealing his hand. So, he’d flash his cards to the rest of the table and talk openly about what he held. When it became his turn to act, he’d ask, “Now what am I supposed to do?”
This was funny the first few times he did it. Less so, as the action was incessantly delayed and Busey showed no inclination whatsoever to try and learn the rules. It was like teaching and then playing poker with a two-year-old.
Totally oblivious to normal poker etiquette when players out the hand talk softly, if they talk at all, Busey behaved like he was the center of attention and total life of the party. He ignored the other players and the betting action completely — even when someone moved all in, which is normally a tense time at the poker table. Busey would laugh openly after players took a beat and asked completely irrelevant questions while others were pondering a critical decision.
But what was most peculiar of all was Busey’s seemingly duel personality. As he became increasingly bored with a game that he neither understood nor had any desire to learn, Busey began exhibiting the characteristics of someone with multiple personality disorder. Witnessing this human train wreck was like watching master of improvisation, launching into multiple characters in the midst of a showstopping comedy routine. Only, Busey wasn’t joking. This wasn’t an act.
At one point, the casual table chatter turned to Busey’s noble recovery from his terrible motorcycle accident years earlier. That triggered a terribly overlong and out-of-place religious sermon about the power of Jesus at which time he started quoting Bible scripture. From that moment on, he hollered “Hallelujah!” at the top of his voice every time something at the table pleased him.
Then, a few attractive women in the crowd who were watching the table action managed to catch the actor’s eye.
The hot girls made Busey’s head pinball back and forth between the game and the attraction along the rail. He rotated between Bible-thumper and a bug-eyed slimeball on the prowl for tail. Busey would belt out a loud “Praise Jesus!” to the table, then a stray female managed to catch his eye. Then, he’d flash his pearly-white chompers, whirl around in his chair, and leer forward in order to get a better view of the physical package packed inside a short skirt, and holler out in his most convincing lounge lizard voice, “Hey, hot Mama!”
The rest of the table shifted our eyes and glanced down towards the felt, awkwardly trying to figure out if what we were seeing was real, or not. And so, between Busey’s awkward Bible study soliloquies on First Corinthians interspersed with shocking speculation about the physical talents of females in our immediate vicinity, the course of events somehow deteriorated from that point onward.
That’s right. Deteriorated.
As previously noted, Busey had apparently never played Hold’em before, nor any other flop game which included posting blinds. After several rounds of play and escalating blind levels, Busey became increasingly annoyed with the notion of posting a blind. He called it a “stupid rule.” At one point he became fed up and snapped that he refused to post a blind. Had this been a comedy act, it might have brought a few laughs. But Busey was dead serious. Even angry.
Frustrated that he was getting low on chips and posting blinds was mandatory, Busey protested. He failed to understand why he had to commit chips to the pot without even seeing his cards. So, Busey stopped the action and instructed the dealer that he didn’t want to be dealt into the next hand. The dealer looked at Busey with a blank stare. The action froze. The dealers did his best to explain to Busey that sitting out wasn’t an option in tournament poker.
“I don’t like that!” Busey said. “I protest!
The dealer had no idea what to do. After another minute or so of unprecedented back and forth arguing (this was a charity poker tournament, not usually a scene of conflict), a floor man was finally summoned over to the table. The floor man politely explained to Busey that posting blinds was a standard tournament procedure. Again, Busey refused and became even more stubborn.
“I refuse to do that!” he said. “If I have to do that, then I don’t want to play!”
The dealer, a friend named Steve McDonald, finally got fed up with the nonsense. By then, he’d had more than enough of Busey’s antics. So, had everyone else at the table. McDonald reached across the table and plucked chips from Busey stack in order to post the blind. Well, that made the actor go ballistic.
Busey snapped his head down like he was possessed. Next, he slammed his hand down on the dealer’s arm like a claw, locked a death grip on the invader’s wrist, and squeezed hard.
“Don’t touch my chips! Busey screamed. “You can’t do that! You can’t touch my chips!”
The entire table was flabbergasted. No one knew how to react. We didn’t know whether to roll onto the floor laughing or be horrified.
“Don’t touch my chips! I’ll break your arm!”
Busey’s arm-wrestled back and forth with McDonald’s wrist for a few seconds before a few stray chips flung into the air and then sprayed all over the table. It was complete bedlam.
Fortunately, at that very instant, another good-looking girl walked by and probably unknowingly saved the tournament from turning into a scene of total chaos. Busey became distracted by the new eye candy just long enough to holler out another one of his patented can’t-miss pick-up lines, “Hey, Hot Mama!” while enough chips were dislodged from his stack for the blind. Then, the cards were dealt.
Are we having fun yet?
Action revolved around the table to the big blind where Busey was so distracted and in such a piss-poor sour mood that he stood up from the table and announced he no longer wanted to play. With that, Busey threw his remaining chips into the pot without looking at his cards and then stormed out of the room before the flop was dealt out.
Yes, at least Busey made a lasting impression. That’s when someone at our table used Busey’s own line: