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There are some things you cannot do at the poker table. One of them is to hit a dealer. Dealers, by common consent, are a terrible crew who always give you the card you don't want, while giving your opponent the one card he does want. Why are dealers like this? It's their nature. Fortunately, they have a specially toughened skin which enables them to withstand insults, jibes, criticism and complaints, and still somehow keep their sanity and their jobs.

But hitting a dealer goes beyond the bounds of permissible behaviour, whoever you are. Which brings me to the sad case of former world champion Puggy Pearson.

Pug is a brash, voluble, easy-going fellow, with a voice like a buzz- saw. He won the world championship in 1973 on a single ace in his hand, beating Johnny Moss who had a straight draw. A year or two back, Puggy was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame at Binion's Horseshoe. In recent months he has taken to driving across America in an enormous RV (recreational vehicle), which is what the Americans call motorised mobile homes.

Painted on Pug's huge van in glowing red is the following challenge, which he likes to vaunt as he drives around:

I'll play any man from any land,

At any game which he can name,

For any amount which I can


From his moment of glory in the world championship, everything seemed to go downhill. Pug took up backgammon much more enthusiastically than the game took up him. He found it tough to recover his form at poker. But he enjoyed the life of a celebrity, swaggering around the card games in satin shorts and an open-necked shirt, a row of cigars sticking out of his breast pocket like a missile launcher.

Win or lose, Pug always came on strong. As he would tell you, he had come a l-o-o-ng way from growing up dirt poor in Kentucky, in a family of nine children, when they never had enough to eat. "I started hustlin' real young," Puggy recalls, "at 10 or 11."

He will not be hustling any more at the Four Queens in downtown Vegas. Last month he slapped a dealer. Pug has been banned there for life.