By Geno “Marcello" Laurenzi
I hadn’t even planned the trip to Tunica. After 19 years of a mostly good marriage, my beautiful red-headed wife decided she knew who I was, and now it was time for her to discover who she was. And so on a warm summer day in Mandeville, La., where I was working as a field editor for a commercial fishing magazine, she told me our marriage was over and she and the kids were moving to Springfield, Mo., to be with her mother and sister.
Oh well, I thought, still reeling from the shock. There goes the marriage I thought was perfect. Well, not really so perfect. As a magazine writer and journalist, I had been away from home a lot covering stories, writing articles and attending celebrity cocktail parties. True, there were a lot of fetching women at those parties, and also true, as Tiger Woods discovered to his dismay and eventual shame, a lot of them didn’t give a damn if a guy was married or not. Truth is, my lovely wife stayed with me a lot longer than I deserved, and many of her friends, mostly female, gave a not so silent cheer when she decided to “split the sheets,” as they say in Alabama where she originated.
I had given my notice to my publisher earlier that I was resigning from my job. A friend who published a newspaper in Lake Park, Fla., had a job for me that promised to pay well. The Louisiana experience had been a good one, and I dearly loved my 90-year-old publisher Harry Peace. But it was plainly obvious to both of us that I didn’t fit the field-editor position as well as either of us would have liked. I had discussed the job change briefly with Nan, and she didn’t smile when I suggested the change of climate to Florida’s sunny shores would give our marriage the boost it badly needed. A week after I told her about the Florida job, she informed me she had made up her mind to leave, and that was that. No options allowed.
After cleaning out our joint bank account and giving her all the money I could scrape together so she and our two children would have a good start in Missouri, I climbed into my late-model Cadillac and set off for Florida. I had looked over a couple of different routes and decided on one that would take me through Memphis, Tenn. My old pal Jack Binion of Binion’s Horseshoe fame was there, and had built up a new Horseshoe Casino that I wanted to visit. To be honest, I wanted to lose myself in booze, sun and poker. In those days they were all passions of mine, and I knew there was no better setting for such diversion than a casino, especially one owned by Jack Binion.
As I drove across the highways of America, I alternated between sighing, crying and dreaming of a golden marriage that had disintegrated before my eyes. I had helped the destruction along, no question about that. But strangely, I had believed I could save my marriage from becoming a divorce statistic by reforming my lifestyle. Unfortunately, as my friends would later tell me over a drink, I had left Nan alone too long.
One woman, a cocktail waitress, said with sympathy, “Honey, once a woman looks away from you and from who and what you are, it’s finished. Better just forget about her. She ain’t coming back.”
It was with that shadow dogging my blue Caddy that I drove into Tunica just before 10 a.m. Tunica was flat and reminded me of a gigantic air field, with neon signs and sky-high buildings everywhere. The casinos were spread out over a large area and I kept driving until I saw the sign that said HORSESHOE. I drove my car to the front and let the valet park it.
Binion knew I was coming and he and Jim Albrecht, his capable assistant, greeted me as I walked into the casino.
“Are you planning to play in our Omaha high-low tournament tonight?,” he said. I told him I knew nothing about it. He explained it was the third annual Jack Binion World Poker Open and that if I hurried, I could get into a one-table satellite that was just about to begin. The entry fee was $60 and if I won, it would pay for my entry into the tourney. I started to turn him down — I was tired after all that driving — but something about his engaging come-on-and-try-it smile captivated me.
“Sure, Jack,” I said. “I’ll play in your silly little satellite.”
I won the satellite. After a good lunch at one of the restaurants, I rented a room for the night at the special poker rates. Then I went to the hotel pool for a swim and dozed beneath the Mississippi sun for a couple of hours before going to my room to freshen up for the 7 p.m. tournament.
There were 238 entries in the tourney and a prize fund of $115,430, with such poker stalwarts as Art Youngblood of Biloxi, Miss., Sandra “Ladytee” Taylor from Washington D.C. and Scott Lewis of Atlanta among my formidable opponents.
When I entered the Tunica action, I was no beginner to tournament poker. I had played in more than 150 poker tournaments, mostly small buy-in events in Las Vegas, and placed in the money in several of them. My biggest payoff was about $12,000 and that had been at a five-card lowball event at the Riviera Casino in Las Vegas several years earlier.
For those of you who have never made the final table of a big tournament, I can give you this advice straight from the shoulder: Guys and gals, it ain’t easy.
It’s really hard to describe the emotions going through me as I played in the early stages of the WPO tournament. The game was limit Omaha high-low with the blinds doubling every 30 minutes. I liked Omaha high-low and loved the intricacies of the game, though I didn’t consider myself a top player. I much preferred Texas Hold’em when it came to tournaments or a cash game. But I also appreciated the limit poker aspects of the WPO and came to like it even better as I began piling up my chips.
Nolan Dalla, whom I had heard about but had not yet met, was a poker writer at the tournament. He recorded the winning hands and was invaluable in furnishing me with some of the information for this article. Here is a portion of what Dalla wrote online about the WPO event that appeared online and in his magazine:
Omaha High-Low is considered by many to be a game of absolute control, one that requires both patience and discipline to win. BUZZ! Wrong. Geno Laurenzi, a former rodeo cowboy turned modern day renaissance man, completely shattered that notion by winning the $500 buy-in event. Laurenzi saw almost every flop while sitting at the final table and called or raised every hand during the final two hours of play.
With a formidable chip lead most of the way, Laurenzi consistently pulverized his opponents with his larger stack to the point where even the notion of playing a pot meant risking and perhaps losing a large percentage of chips. One by one, Laurenzi bucked his opponents from the final table like a wild bronco in a stampede, collecting $42,709 for the ride.
That’s the kind of writing I like, especially when I’m the guy involved with the chip lead.
During the tournament, I kept getting the deja vu feeling that now I finally knew what an NFL quarterback felt like when he is in the pocket, dancing between rushing 300-pound tackles who are hell bent on bringing him crashing down. It was an exhilarating feeling that I will never forget. The rush has to beat any artificial high from drugs or alcohol, and when you survive hand after hand, doubling your chips into a mountain, well, it doesn’t get much better than that.
I remember the attractive black woman playing opposite me, Sandra Taylor, and putting her all-in again, and again. and again, only to have her come up with miracle hands that enabled her to bounce back. Once she said in a complaining voice, “Don’t you like me? Why do you keep trying to beat me down?” I thought I saw a half-smile flit across her face as she raked in half the pot with her miracle low hand against my trips, but I can’t be certain. Taylor finished fourth and collected $6,926. I didn’t realize at the time what a good player she was, but later learned from Nolan that she played regularly in Atlantic City and won major tournaments at a number of top casinos, including Foxwoods and the Taj Mahal.
The last player I eliminated at the final table was Youngblood, a southern gent from Biloxi. Youngblood was a homebuilder and has many years of experience playing poker. He was an underdog because of my big chip lead, but he nearly took me down with some outstanding poker play with less than premium hands. At one time I had him down to a single $1,000 chip, but he caught a miracle card on the river.
With just a few chips left — the blinds were 4,000-8,000 — he took a gamble with J-7-4-2 and I called with J-9-8-7. The flop favored me with 5-7-9, and a jack on the river gave me two pair. The last card, a 10, gave me a straight.
The crowd exploded and Nolan later told me I “leaped six feet straight up into the air.” I don’t remember much of what happened afterward except that I collected a beautiful diamond and gold bracelet worth an estimated $3,500, which I later lost because of a faulty clasp (WPO folks, are you listening? I could surely use a replacement for that long lost souvenir of an incredible life-changing event).
During the post-tournament interview, Youngblood, who won an event at a 1986 Amarillo Slim Super Bowl of Poker Tournament, referred to me as a “perfect gentleman” and I felt required to say the same about him. I still think he is a better player than me, but I caught the cards and trapped the thunder in a bottle and ended up with the top prize. Youngblood was rewarded with $21,932 for second place. We were two happy campers as photographers snapped pictures and the champagne made its rounds.
As the casino personnel in the counting room piled up my hundred-dollar bills and poured them into brown paper bags to be transported to my car, a couple of soft-spoken Mississippi gamblers came by. They smiled and shook my hand and told me what a great player I was. Then, almost offhand, one said softly, “By the way, we’re getting together for a little pot-limit Omaha game later. Care to join us?”
W.C. Fields, the wonderful comic actor, boozer and poker player, had once described a poker table as being made up of “thieves, bandits, scoundrels and thieves.” I knew I was a bit of a bandit because of my rodeo background, but I also knew the reputation of these Mississippi riverboat gamblers. I had heard a tragic story of a young Texas school teacher who had won more than $60,000 in a WPO tournament a couple of days earlier and who had allowed himself to be talked into a “friendly” PLO game with these same gentlemen. Flushed with his success (He had called his young wife at home in Texas and told her, “Honey, we’re going to get that new house I promised you.”) he decided to take on the Mississippians. The game began at 7 p.m. and by 3 a.m., the school teacher was bawling like a baby as he fumbled with his credit card at an ATM machine to get enough money to go home.
“No thanks, fellas,” I told them, smiling. “This is enough for me.”
An armed security guard followed me to the parking lot and watched as I loaded those brown paper bags filled with cash into my trunk. It was around 1 a.m. and the big Mississippi moon lit up the countryside. I slipped the guard a bill, gave him a salute and headed off into the night feeling like the champion of the world.
— Geno “Marcello” Laurenzi is a professional writer, photojournalist, ghostwriter and book author who loves poker, deep-sea fishing and island travel.