Johnny Hughes, poker author, historian and West Texas gambler, died quietly in his sleep at his home last week after a short illness.
Hughes, the author of Famous Gamblers, Poker History and Texas Stories and Texas Poker Wisdom, grew up in his beloved Lubbock, Texas, a close friend of the city’s most famous son, Buddy Holly.
“Being too lazy to work, and too nervous to steal, I became a West Texas road gambler,” he once wrote. He played poker to pay his way through college in the late fifties, and the assorted “gamblers, pimps, dice men, con artists, bookmakers, lawyers, and thieves” he met along the way formed the basis of much of his writing.
Never Pet a Burning Dog
Johnny Hughes was a compulsive storyteller. His voice was idiosyncratic and lyrical, his language uniquely Texan and infused with wit and homespun wisdom.
“Never pet a burning dog,” he once cautioned. “Never trust a man with a small-brimmed hat and a pinkie ring. Never put peanut butter on a hamburger. Never steal anything small. Never go to church drunk. Never get on a bus if the driver is naked,” and the list went on.
As a young poker player, in a state where gambling was illegal, he was frequently arrested or, worse, robbed.
“Poker was secretive, underground, stigmatized, and we were, by definition, outlaws,” he wrote. “We did not ask the players their last names, where they were from, or where they were going.”
Forgotten Folk Heroes
Johnny played with legendary road gamblers like Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim and Brian “Sailor” Roberts, but he received real his gambling education from a host of bizarre, lesser known characters who would later populate his writing.
Men with names like “Iron Drawers” Shaw, Tennessee Longgoodie, “Stinky” Davis, and “The Reverend” Pruitt, as well as his own personal mentor Curly Cavitt.
These were men who were, in Johnny’s words, “smarter than circus dogs,” forgotten American folk heroes, the memory of whom Johnny was determined to preserve in print.
Gambler to the Last
Johnny’s poker-funded college education eventually took him all the way to a PhD in Organizational Psychology, and as, Dr Johnny Hughes, he was a professor and lecturer at Texas Tech University for 20 years.
He was also at some point in his life a shill for Benny Binion in Las Vegas, a bookseller, and the manager of the Joe Ely band. But in his heart he was a gambler to the last.
“I would never gamble on any of the children’s games that the suckers enjoy: dice, roulette, lottery, sport’s booking, and most especially slot machines,” he said shortly before his death.
“I would never put a quarter in a slot machine; someone might see me and I would be so ashamed. You go up and down but must always go up more than down because of mathematics and psychology. There is no such thing as a bad beat. That is sucker music, music to my ears.”