At 2:00 on a sunny weekday afternoon, Billy Baxter assumes a familiar position: Leaning back in his chair, occupying the head of a poker table. It’s situated at the rear of Palomar Card Club, a little storefront casino in San Diego, California. Swimming pools, celebrity DJs and fancy buffets do not comprise the stock in trade here. There’s no room service because there are no rooms. The Palomar is strictly for gambling and poker limits here rank among the highest in Southern California. Tourists do not accidentally stumble inside.
The Palomar’s big-money action has induced Baxter to drive his Mercedes-Benz across the desert, from his home in Las Vegas. At the tail end of a three-week poker trip, he wears a puffy-looking tracksuit and endures a financial beating with gallows humor. “I think your story is going to be about how you got to watch an old poker player suckering his money off to a bunch of young sharks,” the 74-year-old Baxter tells me, speaking in a syrupy Georgia accent. He mucks yet another hand and signals a runner for a fresh $10,000 rack of chips. As Baxter organizes his clay discs, he gestures around the table and adds, “These young kids, they’re very tough.”
Baxter would know. Back in the day, he had been one of them.
Despite the troubling nature of his immediate circumstance at the Palomar, Billy Baxter is not a person on whom anyone should waste sympathy. His gambling career has been long and storied, colorful and profitable. He’s owned an illegal gaming den and once found great success as a bookie in Augusta, Georgia. Baxter crushed gigantic poker games in Las Vegas, made a fortune betting everything from football to baseball to the PGA, backed Stu Ungar for at least one million-dollar World Series of Poker victory, netted seven WSOP bracelets without ever really caring and he possesses the unusual distinction of having never gone broke. He’s been falsely accused of fixing a fight (not suing over this allegation resides on a short list of regrets) and successfully convinced the U.S. government to change IRS regulations so that poker winnings do not get taxed as passive income. He possesses the kind of resilience and staying-power that is worth studying at a time when young players fluke into World Series of Poker championships, flame out of card-hustling careers before turning 25 and buy into the high-stakes world with their trust funds because they envy the lifestyles of 21-year-old pros.
For Billy Baxter, it did not start with a trust fund. It started with marbles. At age nine, he was the marble champion of Augusta. Nationwide competitions took place back then, and he advanced to a match in New Jersey before getting done in by an unexpected rainstorm that moved the play from outdoor dirt to indoor linoleum, a surface that he was unaccustomed to playing on. Nevertheless, Baxter says, “I had every marble in the whole neighborhood. No little boys near my house had any marbles. We used to play all the time, and we played for keeps.”
Playing for keeps has been the Baxter way. By the age of 16, in 1956, he had evolved into a crack pool hustler, beating grown men and managing to put together a bankroll of $5,000 (the equivalent of nearly $44,000 today). Still in high school, he had developed such high-level skills that when Willie Mosconi blew through Georgia for a stick-and-ball exhibition, Baxter was put up as the guy to play against him. Not surprisingly, he says, he got smoked. But that was okay. Pool had begun to feel a little slow anyway.
By his late teens, Baxter had begun to look beyond chalks and cues. “I found that the real money seemed to be around poker,” he remembers. “There was a bar in my hometown, a place called the Alpine Lounge, where local businessmen—lawyers, bankers, real estate people and the like—played gin up front and poker in the back. I’d come in with my winnings from pool and they would break me. Then I’d go back to the poolroom, win some more money and get broken again. But I knew that I wanted to be at the poker table. These guys had big money and they gambled big. Within a year, I started winning.”
Soon after getting good, Baxter had graduated from high school, and, under heat from his parents, began attending Augusta College (now Georgia State). The plan was for Baxter to become a dentist. “But I had to read pre-med books, which was so hard while cards was so easy; I just had a knack for winning at competitive type things,” he figures. “As soon as it was lunch time, I left college and went to the poolroom to make money. I quit school, kept gambling and, within five years, I found out about a place called the Paisley Room.” Back in 1963, the Paisley was a notorious spot with a gambling space in back and a nightclub serving as a front. “My first night there, I beat the owner out of $40,000 playing gin rummy. That might have been all the money they had because he asked me if I wanted to buy into the club. I asked what that would entail. He looked like he was thinking about it, and then he told me I could have half the place for about $40,000.” Baxter took him up on the offer.
In short order, Baxter began raking it in with his illicit casino. Blackjack, craps and roulette counted as rakishly popular pastimes in Georgia. Back then, after all, legal casino gambling was still relegated to Las Vegas. Baxter and his partners recruited dealers from various Strip properties, paid them five times their normal rates and put them up in trailers behind the Paisley.
It all went swimmingly until the local sheriff politely suggested that Baxter would do well to shut it down. He complied and quickly found himself a new occupation: bookmaking.
More comfortable with taking money from gamblers than trying to beat them competitively, Baxter viewed this as a logical progression, which ran from the mid-1960s into the ’70s. He had already earned a ton of money and was living a charmed life, not even sweating the handful of felony convictions that began to pile up. “We’d get raided and I’d have the phone-man out there that night putting in new lines; we had to have them open by 8 a.m.,” he recalls with a chuckle. “The good news is that the police don’t usually come back the next day. In fact, you’re safer the next day than you were the day before. I gambled and bet and took bets, we got the lines from Las Vegas, and that was my life. It was a really good life.”
Then, during the weekend of the Masters Tournament in 1973, things got a little too good. Unable to resist a profitable gambling opportunity, Baxter temporarily returned to the illicit casino business. The plan was to create a top-flight gambling operation for just one weekend. On that point, he succeeded, producing an elegant spot with first-rate food, a jacket-and-tie dress code and tip-top customers who included NFL Hall of Famers and a good chunk of the CBS Sports crew. “The third night it was hot and heavy,” Baxter remembers, adding that a 25 percent partner in the enterprise got too cocky and provided maps to the casino for Atlanta-based gamesmen. “The Georgia Bureau of Investigation had gotten a hold of the maps. They showed up as well. While they were hammering at the door, I took all the checks [that gamblers had used to cover their action] into the kitchen and had a big-boned cook, a woman named Hattie, store them under her wig. An NFL guy had the craps in his hand when the doors came off.”
A pair of school busses waited outside and shuttled gamblers to the police station downtown. Baxter got booked on illegal gambling charges. At the time, with a bookmaking case pending as well, a stint in prison seemed imminent. Georgia did not feel like the safest place for Baxter to cool his heels. So the gambler turned casino boss turned potential felon did what made sense to him: He got married to the former Julie Widener and took his betrothed on a honeymoon to Hawaii. En route home, they touched down in Vegas while lawyers and prosecutors sorted things out.
Las Vegas in the mid-1970s was a sharp gambler’s paradise. The corporations had yet to move in, the city was flush with cash and there was just one red light to slow you down on Flamingo Road. If you wanted a great meal, you went to the Sultan’s Table and everybody knew that the biggest craps limits were downtown at Binion’s Horseshoe. Degenerate gamblers who got stuck on the Strip went to Benny’s place with hopes of doubling down and getting even. Of course, their hopes were brutally dashed more often than not.
No stranger to the city, Baxter knew guys like poker great Doyle Brunson, high-rolling hoteliers Major Riddle and Sid Wyman, and professional gambler Fred “Sarge” Ferris. Baxter possessed the contacts and bankroll to play in the reigning sky-high poker game, pretty much hosted by Riddle at his posh hotel/casino, the Dunes. In short order, the Baxters found themselves ensconced in the posh Cary Grant suite with a full comp for whatever the Dunes had to offer. The game Riddle favored, deuce to seven, was unknown to Baxter at the time, but he picked it up quickly and it has since become the poker variation at which he is most skilled. “Sid and Major were very bad players,” recalls Baxter who says he began winning large sums of money immediately in a game where it’s estimated that Riddle dropped some $20 million throughout the 1970s. “Major was funny. He’d go to his office, take care of business, come back 12 hours later, and if you weren’t there, he wouldn’t want to play with you again. I used to put cold towels around my neck so that I could stay awake while waiting for him.”
During that time, Baxter first met Stu Ungar. The poker great was not yet ravaged by drugs and looked like a little kid trailed by a bunch of New York wiseguys. He wanted gin action and Baxter happily provided it: “Stuey came to the Cary Grant suite and they put him up on a soda box so he could sit at the table. I expected to win a lot of money from him but he wound up taking $40,000 off of me. Stuey was not a good gambler but he was the greatest gin player ever.”
The Baxters eventually moved out of the Cary Grant suite and bought an apartment from Wyman, completely furnished and right on the grounds of the Las Vegas Country Club. Baxter figures that Wyman was sick of comping them at the Dunes. But it also provided a placeholder for him when it came time to pay the price for his gambling infractions. Baxter wound up spending nearly 10 months, from December 1975 until September 1976, in an honor barracks at Richmond County Correctional Institution.
But before he left Vegas, he figured he’d make incarceration interesting. At the time, his weight stood at 204 pounds. He wagered $10,000 with Jack Binion, who ran the Horseshoe, and Doyle Brunson that he’d be able to drop below 165 pounds during his stretch. After a fairly unconventional prison term—which included Baxter slipping out to watch the George Foreman vs. Joe Frazier fight on closed circuit in a nearby movie theater (two guards went with Baxter; Baxter showed them a pretty good time, complete with a ritzy Italian dinner and fancy bottles of white wine) and a brief respite so he could be in the hospital for the birth of his son—he had no intention of remaining in Augusta. Baxter relocated his family to the condo in Vegas. He looked forward to living in a place where gambling could not possibly get him in trouble.
Baxter’s first stop upon landing was Binion’s Horseshoe. “They put me on the meat scale there,” recalls Baxter. Now taking on the tone of a fight announcer, he blares: “William Baxter: 162 pounds.”
He won the $10,000 and it marked the beginning of a long, glorious run. “I did really well, making money at poker, sports, on the golf course, playing gin…” Baxter says, his voice trailing off for a moment. “Doyle and I became partners in a little business. I did real well betting on boxing and managed some fighters for a while. Everyday was something different. We played poker or went to the golf course or bet on sports. I got real good at making halftime bets. It became my forte.” Observing what happens in the first half of a game and somehow voodooing that information to predict what will transpire in the second was a boon for Baxter.
Things in Vegas moved so smoothly that he even managed to stay out from under the thumb of Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, the terrifyingly psychotic mob enforcer who inspired Joe Pesci’s character in the movie Casino. Not long after Baxter’s return, Spilotro was shaking down poker players for protection money. He famously got his claws into the world-class pro Chip Reese (at least for a little while) and, as Baxter tells it, he had the muscle on Sarge Ferris as well.
A consistently winning player, Ferris had tired of handing money off to The Ant. “Sarge didn’t want to pay Spilotro anymore,” Baxter says, explaining that Ferris had a plan. “He wanted to play me at deuce to seven, I’d ‘beat’ him out of $500,000 and he would give me $100,000 for doing it.” In other words, the game would be rigged so that Ferris could show a loss to Spilotro and Baxter would get $100,000 for his trouble. “I told him that it sounded good, but that I would pass for now.” Smartly, Baxter didn’t want to mess with a known killer whose weapons of choice were ice-picks and workshop vices.
That said, despite the fearsomeness of Spilotro, the fact that Baxter was able to pass up an easy $100,000 indicated a lot about his financial state. The Dunes poker game at that point came to include Jimmy Chagra, a major marijuana trafficker who seemed to be portraying himself as a high-rolling gambler in an attempt to launder money. Years later, Javier Bardem would play a character based on him in the Academy Award–winning film No Country For Old Men.
In real life, Chagra’s losses at everything in Vegas were prodigious. On one occasion, he owed Baxter $365,000 after a bad day on the golf course. Normally Chagra liked to settle up at the Horseshoe, but on this particular occasion, he asked Baxter to come to his home to retrieve the money. “I got there and behind a big wall, there were two guys walking the property with carbine rifles over their shoulders—fucking carbine rifles,” says Baxter, who walked into the house to see a pool table in the living room. Chagra suggested that Baxter give him a chance to get even via games of 9 ball. “I thought I died and went to heaven. I hadn’t played pool in years. But I still thought I could beat him. He wanted to play for $20,000 a game and I saw right away that he couldn’t make a single shot. I got him to 10 bets loser when one of his guys came in from outside, pointed at me, and said, ‘Boss, what are we going to do with this guy?’ Chagra replied, ‘If I don’t start winning some games soon, I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ ”
Baxter quickly made it clear that his wife knew his whereabouts. Then he proceeded to dump games of 9-ball until Chagra had recouped most of his pool losses. “Finally,” continues Baxter, “I said that I needed to get home before my wife starts looking for me. Chagra said, ‘Okay. Get this guy his fucking money.’ The guard came back with two shopping bags of cash. I took the money and headed home.”
By the early 1980s, Chagra was suspected of hiring the actor Woody Harrelson’s father, Charles Harrelson, to murder a judge. Chagra skated away from the murder situation but he did get implicated for drug trafficking. Spilotro got called to Chicago for a meeting and was murdered by the mob. Baxter remembers the last poker game he played with Major Riddle. It was in 1980 and a big-money hoedown that made many others pale in comparison. “The deuce to seven game had gotten so big that not many people could afford it,” says Baxter. “The last game that ever was, Major Riddle lost so much money that Doyle and I, along with several others, lent him $1.25 million so he could cash everybody out. He gave us a note for the money and hadn’t been feeling too well. A little while later, I went out to his house to see how he was doing. He figured I was there for the money and told me not to worry about it, that he had just sold $25 million in oil properties. He said we would have our money in three weeks. A week later, Major died and we never got paid. It was the last big poker game I remember Bobby Baldwin playing in before going to work for Steve Wynn [Baldwin is currently the president of MGM Resorts International’s City Center]. He got creamed that night and got a pretty good offer from Steve. So why not?”
While poker and gambling and everything else, of course, continues to thrive in Las Vegas, the death of Riddle coincided with a change in the economics of gambling as practiced by guys like Baxter and Brunson and other winning pros. It’s no coincidence that, soon after, Baxter found himself focused on managing Roger Mayweather, the lightweight fighting uncle of Floyd. In 1986 he gave up on Vegas entirely and moved his family home to Georgia where he planned on living a quiet life. That didn’t last, and, following a dust-up there over sports betting, he returned to Vegas. But it was well on its way to becoming a bloated city, bigger than ever for tourists, increasingly corporate, a place where even Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese turned to sports gambling rather than chasing poker’s diminishing returns.
Looking back at it all, Baxter says, “The money I made in the 1970s and ’80s, coming into Vegas, I would consider good money. Those were the days when you could have bought a point in Caesars Palace for $200,000. The money we were able to win, you just can’t get it out of games these days. I played with a lot of bad players back then, and successful gamblers made more money than the guys on Wall Street. Now, though, it’s all screwed in a different direction. Business is the way to go. It’s where people make $200 million or $300 million like it’s nothing. Today, I’m just another guy on the block.”
That said, it should be noted that Baxter’s generously proportioned Vegas home—with its manicured lawns, furnishings that could have come out of a Four Seasons Hotel suite and big magnolia tree out front—is pretty much on the same block as the digs owned by Wayne Newton, Mike Tyson and Robert Goulet’s widow. No matter how you cut it, he’s high-end old-school Vegas and, certainly among gamblers, old-Vegas money.
Back at the Palomar Club, the game grinds on and something strange happens. In the middle of a losing day, deep into a losing trip, Baxter suddenly gets some traction. He wins one hand when everybody folds. Pulling in chips, he mutters that the only way he can win is if there’s no competition. Then he takes down a giant pot with a terrible hand that is only marginally less terrible than that of his opponent. The old guy that the younger players like to call BB is suddenly putting things together and staging a bit of a comeback.
He smiles and animatedly tells a couple of stories from the old days. Fellow pro Freddie Deeb walks by and comments, “You may be losing but you’re having more fun than anyone else in the room.”
Guys at the table hang on his every word. If he were somebody else, it would be easy to believe that they’re doing it to appear friendly, to keep him engaged, to hustle him a bit. But that’s not the case here. Baxter is beyond that. They respect him as one of their own. They all know that, 40 or 50 years down the road, if they can be in a spot similar to his—happily married for 40 or so years, financially well off, not desperate or degenerate, still competitive at cards, with a great reputation and a head full of even greater stories—they will be pleased with the way in which things have turned out. Like the boy he used to be, Billy Baxter still plays for keeps.
In private, he tells me that he’s losing on this trip but that it’s far from the first time he’s had a negative trip. He’s been around long enough to fade the losses without tilting too badly. “If you won all the time, something wouldn’t be right,” he says. “I’m playing today and I’ll be ready to play tomorrow. I enjoy it.” Baxter shrugs with resigned professionalism. “This is what I do.”
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.