Tom McEvoy – A Career Vindicated

The Hall of Fame awaits and it’s one for the good guys says poker author Des Wilson                                                                

There came heart-warming news on the eve of the final table of the 2013 World Series Main Event: Tom McEvoy had been elected to poker’s Hall of Fame.

A lot of younger players will no doubt ask ‘who is Tom McEvoy?’. They should study their poker history. Because they – we – all owe Tom a debt. Tom McEvoy, now in his late Sixties, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame three times over.

First, because this former world champion was the first man to win the WSOP Main Event from a satellite, way back in 1983. He preceded Chris Moneymaker as the champion who came from nowhere, and his win was just as much an inspiration in those days as Moneymaker’s win was to become in the later days of online and televised poker.

Second, because it was Tom’s extraordinary one-man campaign that led to smoking being banned from poker rooms; a lot of poker players owe their health today to that effort.

Third, because over the years he has generously shared his experience and expertise in more books on poker than anyone else has written. Go to the Gamblers Bookshop in Las Vegas and there’s a wall of shelves full of them.


Tom has never hidden the fact that he desperately wanted this recognition, but he wanted it (and deserved it) not to boost his self-esteem but because it would vindicate the years he has given to poker. Since becoming world champion in ’83 he has devoted just about every day of his life to the game, not only playing both live and online but as a teacher and as author of countless magazine columns and books. He has travelled the land to help nurture the game, adding a champion’s lustre to many a small event in many a little-known card room. He may never have achieved the superstar status of today’s televised poker idols, but this affable, self-effacing and, thus, under-estimated man is one of the game’s most dedicated and honourable servants.

Tom just wanted to know that it has all been worthwhile, that his contribution was appreciated, that he was remembered. Now he can relax; the poker world has made its judgement.

Tom has got two houses, side by side in an anonymous residential street about 15 minutes drive from the Rio, up West Flamingo almost to the end. One house he rents; the other he lives in. Near the front door you find his poker room – a professional poker table, the inevitable computer, shelves full of his and others’ poker books, piles of poker magazines (when I first went there he had a copy of every edition of the main US poker magazines), photographs and scrapbooks. This is more than a study – this is the headquarters of a one-man industry. There are today scores… no, hundreds of books on how to play poker, but a relative newcomer to the game could do worse than start with the McEvoy books. Some may have been at least partially outdated by the advances in the modern game, but if you are planning to build a house, you have to start with the foundations, and McEvoy (and his some-time co-author TJ Cloutier) are outstanding instructors on how to do that.

The moment you walk in the door you are hit by cups and framed certificates. This man is clearly a champion.

But, here’s a surprise: these prizes are not for poker… Tom, when he first came to Vegas, was a table tennis champion, one of America’s best. It was in that capacity that he first came to Las Vegas in the late 1970s his home town of Rapid City, Michigan where he worked as an accountant. At table tennis he had become virtually unbeatable. He won over 200 titles.

When he did come to Vegas it was to play in a table tennis event but he wandered into Binions Horseshoe just as Bobby Baldwin was winning his World Series title and, in a way, he never left. He was captivated. This was more exciting than table tennis. This he had to do. So he took up the game and eventually moved to the poker capital of the world and played in hundreds and hundreds of small tournaments before he eventually won the Main Event at the World Series.

Champion of champions

Those who don’t study the game’s history tend to write McEvoy off, as they have written Moneymaker and others off, as a one-event wonder. But it is not so. He did not come from nowhere to win the Main Event and then, in effect, disappear; he went on to win four WSOP gold bracelets in all. He is still there or thereabouts year after year. He may not be winning gold bracelets these days – how many big names are? – but in today’s huge fields he is still competitive.

His last really big moment was a few years back when someone had the brilliant idea to hold at the World Series a special event for former world champions. The Poker Gods had an even better idea… they fixed for Tom to win. More than a quarter of a century after his triumph in the main event, he was once more The Man!

The Poker Gods knew what they were doing; Tom McEvoy deserved some respect and they were determined he should have it. By the time this extraordinary event was over, 19 other former world champions had been sent to the rail, including on the final table the inevitable Doyle Brunson (who, as well as winning the Main Event twice himself, came third when McEvoy won in 1983), Phil Hellmuth, Dan Harrington, Carlos Mortenson, Huck Seed and the reigning champion Peter Eastgate.

And don’t believe they were not trying. They were trying for 17 hours. Doyle Brunson was trying, because at 76 he had not got many, if any, World Series wins left in him and this was a chance to assert his authority as Godfather of the game. Robert Varkonyi and Chris Moneymaker were trying because they had been written off as one-event wonders and wanted to prove it wasn’t so. Phil Hellmuth was trying because he wants to cement his position, underscored by a record WSOP bracelets, that he is the best no-limit hold’em player ever.

The main man

And were there tears in the eyes of the 65 year old Tom McEvoy when he was called upon to collect the Binion Trophy from that veteran of the World Series, Jack Binion himself? You bet there were. Not that it was about money; there was a minimal prize for this invitational, and, anyway, poker has never only been about money to McEvoy; to him poker has always been more than a livelihood, its been at the centre of his life. To him, like many old-time players, it is, first and foremost, about respect. When he began playing with many of the game’s legends in the Golden Nugget and other downtown poker rooms, everyone won and lost their entire bankrolls many times over. They could live with that; what they could not live without was the respect of their peers. To be recognised as a player at the top table. The aim was to be The Man!

McEvoy has been that man once, that glorious night in 1983 when, having won his satellite, he then made it to the final table, he took part in the longest heads-up the Main Event has ever seen, playing with such caution and patience to knock out his friend Rod Peate that Mike Sexton jokingly said it set the game back 10 years.

But what a night that was. At about 3 am Tom walked across the road from Binion’s Horseshoe to his daily stamping ground, the Golden Nugget. The cardroom was full and the players there, many of whom had played with Tom scores, even hundreds of times, had been watching it on closed circuit. Tom, wearing his Stetson and western clothes, went quietly up to the tail and nostalgically took in the scene. Then the other players noticed him. For a moment you could hear a pin drop and then everybody stood up, including the floor people, and gave him a standing ovation.

For them, this was more than recognition of an individual achievement. It was their night too – the night of the ordinary players, the dreamers, the one’s who were not intended to be The Man. But for them, McEvoy now gave hope.

You don’t ever forget the taste of such triumph. You never lose the dream or the drive to be back there. For 30 years McEvoy has been back at the World Series, cashing here and there, always a presence at the table, and as the years gone by he has been more and more determined to show the young cyberspace kids that he is more than a name on book covers, that its not true that ‘those who can do, and those who can’t teach.’ Now, the poker world has acknowledged that this is true.

And his recognition by the poker world says something else immensely encouraging, namely that the poker world still has a soul. It is still capable of recognising and paying its debts to those who made the modern game possible. The Brunsons, the Cloutiers, the Baldwins, and, yes, the Tom McEvoys too.

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