Puggy Pearson

Father of 'freeze-out' poker

Walter Clyde Pearson (Puggy Pearson), card player: born Adairville, Kentucky 29 January 1929; married (one son, one daughter); died Las Vegas 12 April 2006.

"Puggy's looks fool you, that pug nose and round face, that unbrilliant look of any sort. You just cannot conceive that a man like that is smart at anything. And he isn't smart at anything. Except one thing, and that's cards." That was the oddsmaker "Jimmy the Greek" Snyder's assessment of Puggy Pearson.

Pearson was smart enough at cards to make his living by them for nearly half a century and in Las Vegas, the home of high-stakes poker, to become the 1973 World Series of Poker champion, winning the $130,000 prize with the unremarkable hand of Ace high. "Even if I hadna won that hand I would still've been the best player," he said.

Pearson is described by his fellow player Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson as "one of the pioneers of poker as we know it today" and was part of the generation of players who bridged the gap between poker's gunslinging US past and the worldwide commercial success it now enjoys. He was known as the father of the "freeze-out" tournament, the style adopted at the World Series of Poker in the year after its inception at Binion's Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas in 1970.

The first World Series of Poker was contested between only a handful of players (in the year Pearson won, the field had expanded to 13) but last year's championship event attracted 5,619 entrants from all over the world and had a top prize of $7.5m. Pearson attended every year as either player or spectator, a cigar-smoking, Runyonesque character, often in costume - dressed as an American Indian, with warpaint and head-dress, perhaps, or Genghis Khan, with crown and earflaps.

He was born Walter Clyde Pearson in Adairville, Kentucky, in 1929, on the brink of the Depression, and the family drifted south to Tennessee as his father searched for work. "Puggy", so called after his nose was flattened in a childhood accident, was one of nine children and, as he explained to Playboy magazine in 1973, the family often had to move on because the rent was overdue. On his first day at school, "I had a complex about being poor and the shape of my nose. Everyone was better than me . . ."

He left at 14, having already begun his card-playing career: "I started hustlin' real young, at 10 or 11. I just started playin' cards and pool with the other paper boys." He first learned to play poker in the navy, taking to it enthusiastically - "While everyone else was throwin' their money on drink and women, I was organising poker games" - and on his discharge in the mid-1950s started to earn a living at the game.

Despite his successes at no-limit Texas Hold 'Em, Pearson's preferred form was limit poker, he told the writer David Spanier, as he considered it the best way of making a profit in the long term: "The best player's gonna get the money in limit poker, sooner or later."

In 1987 Pearson was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame and, as Brunson says, "is acknowledged by his peers as one of the greatest poker players of all time".

Diana Gower

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