UK poker player Mickey Wernick cut his teeth in Vegas back in the day. Read his story here: “I still remember seeing the action in the Golden Nugget that first day. I was like a kid in a sweet shop”

Mickey ‘The Legend’ Wernick earned his name by taking on the best that Sin City had to offer

I remember my first visit to Las Vegas, but it was for a different reason than playing poker. Back in 1973, as an aspiring amateur boxer, I travelled to Sin City to watch the great Muhammad Ali go toe-to-toe with Britain’s Joe Bugner at the Convention Centre. Back then, there wasn’t much poker to distract me, but by the mid-eighties, the hold’em bug had caught on everywhere.

‘In those days, Steve Wynn’s Golden Nugget was in fierce competition with Binions. The Nugget had The Grand Prix of Poker – a no-limit hold’em tournament easily as big as the World Series of Poker. As a result, they were very keen to get us Europeans over.

‘Naturally, I wanted to play against the very best in the world. So, I took around £5,000 with me and off I went. You used to be treated like royalty; a limo would be waiting at the airport and everything would be free. I didn’t take liberties, but they gave me the power of the pen and I used it. I went with my partner one year and asked for tickets to see Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross. We had centre tables in the second row.

‘I still remember seeing the action in the Golden Nugget that first day. I was like a kid in a sweet shop. When I got back to my room a day later I had done my money, so I rang the bank and asked them to send me another £5,000. The bank manager asked me what I needed it for. “To play poker,” I said. There was a wry silence over the phone. But I got it wired over to me and I was back in the game.

‘So I find myself sat in a cash game with Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Chip Reese and Bobby Baldwin. Amarillo Slim wouldn’t sit and play with us; he was shit scared! I ended up playing Bobby heads-up one day. The phone goes and someone calls out: “Mickey Wernick, line three.” I pick it up and a friend shouts at me: “You’re a fucking idiot. You’re playing the best player in the world heads-up.” I said don’t worry about it and went back and played for another three or four hours – and he never got the better of me! After starting that trip having to pawn my diamond ring, I ended up $115,000 up. Mind you, there were some years I went home with just enough money for a cab ride from the airport.

Here’s Johnny

‘The one player I rarely got the better of was Johnny Chan. He was just lucky; if he needed a card, he invariably he got it. The one time I nearly had him was in 1987 when around 20 of us went over for the $10,000 Grand Prix of Poker. We were playing in a cash game and I was about $30,000 up. I had to leave, so I asked Derek Baxter if he would take over with my money. Now Derek is a hell of a player. Straight away he’s knocking the bollocks off Johnny Chan. They are playing one hand and Johnny hits a miracle river card to save himself going $80,000 behind. He [Johnny] waves his hand and says: “Finished.” They had only been playing about 40 minutes, and I was still watching.

‘Stu Ungar – now that’s a different story. The first time I played him we were sitting in the card room waiting for a game to start and he said: “Do you want to play some heads-up?” I said OK, and before we knew it a crowd had gathered to watch us. Nobody would play him heads-up – but I wasn’t afraid.

‘He was an erratic little man; always jumpy and twitchy – and this was before the drugs. He was good fun away from the table, but at it he was like an animal. He could get really nasty with the dealers, more or less spitting at them like it was their fault. You could hot him up and get him behind. He hated to lose and would start to play erratically. I had him talking to himself some days. Don’t get me wrong though, I wasn’t better than Stu Ungar.

‘I always remember one hand because I got his respect as a player and we became quite pally afterwards. He raised before the flop and I called. My hand was A-Q and the flop came 10-10-J. I checked and he made a ‘biggish’ bet. I was pretty certain he didn’t have a 10, so I called, thinking I could hit the Queen, King or Ace and be in front – or that I could bluff him off the hand. The turn was a 4 and he made an even bigger bet. I called it, knowing if a rag comes on the river, I’m moving all-in.

‘The last card was a Jack. I didn’t put him on a Jack or a 10 – so I didn’t need to bluff. He made a biggish bet again and I called straight away. He’s shouting: “What you got, what you got?” I said: “I called you Stuey, what you got?” He showed a pair of 7s and I showed him the Ace. He couldn’t believe it and was jumping up and down – he thought he was playing with some mug.

Deal breaker

‘I was no mug, but I was naive in some ways. In 1986 I was playing in an Omaha tournament and we were down to the last three. I’m playing the bollocks off them. We go for a break and they are asking me if I want to do a deal. I didn’t want to, but eventually I gave in. When we got back to the table all the chips went in really quickly and I ended up finishing third in the record books. Yeah, I went home $85,000 richer – but I could have won it easily.

‘That was on a Thursday night, and I remember going straight from there to play in a cash game with Doyle, Johnny and Stuey. I played right through to Monday morning. My dad always used to ask me why I got so involved. He went to bed one night and he left me in a small game with $1,000 he lent me. He said: “I’m never lending you money again.” I won some money, so I moved into the Big Game.

Now in the Golden Nugget, as you walk down to have breakfast, you walk past the card room with the Big Game right in front of you. I’m sitting there in the morning with over $100,000 in front of me, waiting for my old man to come down. When he did, I said: “Hello dad, let’s have some breakfast.” It was one of the greatest moments in my life.

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