POKER IS a game that throws up larger-than-life characters. One such is "Oklahoma Johnny" Hale. Sporting white stetson, string tie and embroidered western jacket, he has long been a flamboyant and voluble personality on the poker scene.

Oklahoma Johnny's main interest these days is in promoting his seniors' world championship, a kind of world series for the over-50s. No need to decry the age barrier. Poker is a game where the young do not have it all their own way, witness Noel Furlong's stunning victory at the world championship in Vegas last month, at the age of 61. The next seniors' tournament is from 26 November to 4 December at Crystal Park casino in Los Angeles.

One historical note, new to me, imparted by Johnny is that the game of Hold 'em was invented because it only takes a "slug" of five cards for a dealer to cheat. "Hold 'em was invented in Texas and Oklahoma to cold- deck or remove the players from their money the quickest," he claims. The same, he says, goes for Omaha (the four-card version of Hold 'em), when one of the boys playing Hold 'em up in Omaha, Nebraska was holding out cards and got caught at it. "The game itself evolved out of cheating."

Johnny is so wary of cheating at poker that he no longer plays high-stakes games - though he did manage to win a tournament he was hosting. He has three rules for winning: 1) You must have enough money to get into the event; 2) You must have enough courage to go broke on every hand; 3) You must have enough luck for your best hands to stand up.

Oklahoma Johnny has now written his memoirs, The Life and Times of a Gentleman Gambler, which he was dispensing to all and sundry while beating a 10-20 high-low game I sat in. "I'll take a copy," I told him, pushing over 15 bucks in poker chips. "It's free!" Johnny said. Before I could express my thanks he added: "I'll just take these dollars for charity."

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