Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sam O'Connor's interview of The Duke of Fremont Street



The Duke of Fremont Street

Have you seen “The Duke”? He plays in no limit games in Las Vegas and he is known as The Duke of Fremont Street or, sometimes, The Downtown Duke.

He is always in sartorial splendor. His impeccable suits are custom made in Italy and are designed by the Duke himself in the spirit of the nineteen thirties. A fedora, a pocketchief and boutonnière add to the image of the Duke.

And then there are the spats. (Did you say “spats”?) Yes, the Duke’s wardrobe boasts a pair of spats for each of his many suits. “Spats don’t complete the image,” says the Duke, “They ARE the image.” And so is the violin case he carries.

Is the Duke eccentric? Yes, and more. You could say he’s egocentric. That state of mind joins the impeccable attire and it is one more of the many facets he wears so well.


Big Money for a Small Game

When the Duke is seated at the $1 - $2 no limit table, the main focus switches from his thirties’ attire to the splendid display of $100,000 to $200,000 in cash neatly arranged in front of him. “Sometimes people ask me where I get the money,” says the Duke. “I simply tell them it comes from my violin case. But a more serious answer is that I’ve been saving it since I was young.”

He is called The Duke of Fremont Street because of the downtown Las Vegas poker rooms that he frequents. They’re the ones that have no cap on the buy-in and the Duke can display his gold clasped $5,000 bundles and $1,000 bills as much as he likes. And he likes it a lot.

The Duke is at the small blinds table not only to play poker, but to make an appearance. He loves the attention. As long as he’s getting attention, he’s a winner for the evening.

There is more to the Duke than meets the eye.
The Duke’s history is filled with poker and daring-do.

The genteel persona he so carefully displays is built on confidence and the memories of his extensive poker experience. His early gambling years were spent riverboat gambling and after hours poker while playing in a St. Louis blues band. Later, he ran poker among the cutthroat gamblers south of St. Louis. He has hustled poker in Biloxi with the shrimp boat captains and in New Orleans with the local folks in the French Quarter.

It started on the Mississippi river boats. The Duke was a poker playing passenger on the Delta Queen, The President and The Emerald Queen back when it was all illegal.

“I was the best dressed river rat on the paddle boats,” says the Duke.

The Duke remembers Beale Street in Memphis being the good, the bad, and the funny. “But,” he will tell you, “almost all the incidents hold a light touch with the passing of time.”

When the Duke was river boating, Beale Street wasn’t much different than it was in its heyday during the nineteen twenties. The nightclubs were still there. The restaurants and pawnshops thrived alongside the gambling and prostitution. Beale Street boasted of one of the biggest and best red light districts north of New Orleans.

The Duke often waxes nostalgic. “I remember once when the paddle boat stopped at Memphis and we naturally went to Beale Street to play some poker. We knew the games weren’t on the square but playing on Beale Street was just something we had to do. While a few of us were playing some five card draw, one of the players suddenly slumped over dead. His wife, playing at the next table, came over and took the dead man’s wallet from his pocket. She went back to her table complaining that her gambling was now going to be interrupted, just when she was on a winning streak. The tables never missed a hand. The boat stayed docked at Memphis for a couple of days and, when we sailed, the wife still had made no arrangements for the corpse and so he went with us. He was cremated at the next river stop.”

The Duke was part of the music scene in later years when he played drums with a blues band. Not the blasting music of today’s so called “Blues”, but the soulful river blues born of the challenges of the Old South and the “Mighty Mississip”. In St. Louis in those days, people could still hear the incomparable music of B. B. King, Muddy Waters and the classic favorites of W. C. Handy and the St. Louie Blues.

Packing heat.

As a boy, the Duke idolized television’s icons, Brett and Bart Maverick and the inscrutable Paladin. Even today, “Have Gun, Will Travel” is on some of the Duke’s calling cards.

The Duke was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri and his growing years were spent in St. Louis. “I grew up with a deck of cards in my hand,” states the Duke. “The favorite game of the time was seven card stud. In some parts of the South, where the game was born, it was called ‘Seven Toed Pete’. The rise to seven cards created more possibilities and brought a lot of gambling to the table.”

After his riverboat days, he settled in St. Genevieve, a small Missouri settlement on the Mississippi. There he filled an illegal gambling void in a respected part of town. The Duke felt it was his civic duty to provide poker to those who wanted to gamble. But the players who arrived on the river shore and made their way to the Duke’s house were the whiskey peddlers, the long shore men, the thieves and the loan sharks of the day. One individual had a patch over one eye. And almost all of them packed heat.

The Duke describes it this way: “To keep the playing field even, we offered guns to those who didn’t have any.” - Really Duke? - “No, just kidding. But I did make sure that I had one.”

A Fine Clientele.

The Duke’s poker game in St. Genevieve was frequented by such characters as “Rocky”, who boasted a twenty-four inch neck. He had been convicted of a double homicide and was on parole. Then there was “Window Panes” who was so transparent he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon and is still serving time. The Duke remembers “Sharkey” who was in the same business the credit card companies are today but it was called “loan sharking” in those days. And there was “Jimmy the Gent” who did time for stealing one dollar from the wrong person at the wrong time. It was a colorful group of the finest kind of clientele.

The Duke sat behind the box in the ring game (everybody deals). “The rake was $1.50 per pot over $20.00 and most pots were in the hundreds,” recalls the Duke. “It’s interesting how the players complained about the fifty cent pieces. I couldn’t increase the rake to two dol ars and I didn’t want to decrease it to one dollar. If I’d seen the fifty cent problem coming, I’d have made it two dollars from start and would have had no complaints at all.”

He was also the cook and the bouncer. The Duke is an excellent cook and a good renegade.

His neighbors once asked the Duke why there were so many Cadillacs and other such cars parked at his house. “When they asked me, I told them I was an Amway dealer and we were having sales meetings,” grins the Duke. “Nobody wanted more information after that.”

The Amway front almost exploded one night, however, when a player named “Tony”, who had gangster connections, went broke and came back from his Mercedes with the biggest pistol the Duke had ever seen.

“His hand shook as he pointed the pistol at each player seated at the table. He threatened everybody, saying they had started the game just to cheat him. Those who carried equalizers never reached for them. After a few minutes, Tony quieted down and stopped shaking. A player named ‘Gino’ rose from his chair and spoke to Tony softly in Italian. Gino placed his arm around Tony and walked him quietly to the door.”

Tony never came back to the game. “But,” reflects the Duke, “it’s funny how word of the incident spread and how the curious came to play in the game after that. I had a long waiting list and the regulars were there every night to play cards with the curious newcomers.”


The rivers and the jungles.

Those who don’t know the Duke might find it hard to believe that this fastidious dresser might risk the dangers of untamed regions. But the Duke has encountered nature in some of the most remote places on earth. In fact, he thrives on it.

Is it the river that attracts the Duke? Why else would anyone go down the upper Amazon where encroachment by civilization is yet to come? Why would he go to places where there are few of life’s conveniences, like food and shelter?

Maybe it’s because he is a river rat by self description. “Or,” says the
Duke, “maybe it’s to tempt fate and win once again in the game of life.” While the Duke is considered a conservative card player, he takes far more chances on the world scene.

Africa.

The Duke has spent time on the marshes of the Okavango in Botswana and has held brief growling conversations with the country’s leopards.

On one occasion, when the Duke was exploring a thicket on the Okavango, he was surprised by a bull elephant. The elephant’s ears came forward and he raised his trunk. The Duke’s first thought was that the elephant wouldn’t have the audacity to charge The Duke of Fremont Street.

“But he really didn’t care who I was and I made a quick retreat to the personnel carrier,” The Duke smiles. “I still dream about that one.”

South of the border.

The Duke has explored the Brazilian jungles and gazed at the diamond sparkling black skies beyond the forest canopies of Colombia. He swam in the teeming waters of the Amazon.

There was the time in the rain forest of Costa Rica when the Duke talked a cousin of English royalty – he has never said which one – into venturing off the beaten path. The two men encountered a fer-de-lance pit viper, the deadliest snake in the Americas.

“I slowly told my friend without moving my lips, ‘Don’t move. Don’t move’. We froze, staring at the viper for a very long time and, eventually, the snake lost interest and slithered away. I could never talk the royal cousin into venturing into the forest even once more after that.”

The Amazon River Rat.

Just this year, the Duke booked an excursion boat trip down the Amazon. It started in an Amazon tributary in Ecuador, then through Columbia to the Amazon River proper and into Brazil. The Duke wanted to experience as much of the largest jungle in the world as he could.

I asked the Duke what it’s like to be in the rainforest. “When I think of the rainforest I think of the pervasive rotting smell of plants decomposing in front of my eyes. In the jungle, a person is totally surrounded by living and dying creatures, by blooming and dying fauna. Yet, I love the mixed indescribable smell of it, the heavy, moist air permeating my lungs and immersing my entire body in a sea of perspiration.”

Anybody for the dryness of the desert?

In the Amazon rain forest, the Duke has heard the howler monkeys, seen the prowling jaguars, heard the endless sounds of the poisonous tree frogs and the occasional lonely call of the jungle bird.

The Duke swam often in the Amazon River, risking the deadly piranhas. He took Zodiacs (small rubber boats) up several tributaries where he parked them along the banks and went by himself into the jungle. At one point, another passenger in a Zodiac flipped a caiman on board which bit the captor while the Duke could do little to help. The Duke, by his own admission, enjoys the danger.

The Duke left the main boat when he got to Manaus and civilization. The boat continued down the big river, out of the mouth of the river and then sank at sea. “In getting off the boat at Manaus, I just dodged losing another of my nine lives,” says the Duke.

The House the Duke built.

The Duke lives alone in one of the older homes in old Las Vegas. The five car garage houses his cars, none of which is brand new. Older house, old cars, the Duke lives the old days to the hilt.

His back yard, designed by the Duke, is a trip to the tropics. The waterfalls, the many plants and trees help tell the story of the Duke. The fish and turtles are often fed from a picturesque walking bridge that crosses the pond from the patio to one of the waterfalls.

“When I want to escape Las Vegas in reverie for a few moments, I go to the back yard, settle in, and drift off to the rainforest,” says the Duke. “No one disturbs me there.”

The Duke.

Easy to meet and eager to please, the Duke is always the noble gentleman. His manners remain in the old school. And his fairness and affability are still those of the riverboat gamblers of yesteryear. And the adventure continues . . . .

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Sam O’Connor is the author of Tales of Old Las Vegas and How to Dominate $1 and $2 No Limit Hold ‘Em, available at Amazon and from the author. Sam can be reached at Tales of Vegas@aol.com