When I first got word of Chip Reese's passing, it struck me as a bad joke. After all, Reese was as close to poker invincible as it got. A man with an even keel that transcended mere mortal emotional state. He epitomized what every poker player should aspire to be and was instrumental in making the game what it is today. How could Superman die?
If you've been watching poker on television for the past few years, you knew who Chip Reese was, or at least you were familiar with him. Last week I posted here what Chip Reese meant to the poker industry. However, if the past few days have taught me anything, it's that a mere list of tournament accomplishments doesn't do justice to his strength of character, his importance to the poker world or the way he lived his life.
Chip was transcendent. He rose above the bad beats in poker and life with quiet calm. When he'd get robbed by a one-outer, he'd knock three times on the table and say "Take it, pal," never fazed, always looking ahead to the next hand. That was probably his greatest strength as a poker player. Over the past few days, amidst testimonials from the biggest and brightest in the game, it's become obvious that his remarkable calm and ability to take the positive from any situation were amongst his greatest strengths as a person.
Those biggest and brightest were all there Friday, attending the funeral of the lost legend. Mayor Oscar Goodman pronounced that day "David 'Chip' Reese Day" in Las Vegas. Steve Wynn was there. At one moment, before the crowd was ushered into the funeral hall, I was standing within 10 feet of WPT co-founders Lyle Berman and Steve Lipscomb, WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack, WSOP creator Jack Binion and poker's ambassador, Mike Sexton. These men, heads of industry all, were his friends. What's more, when Reese spoke, they knew to listen.
Chip's passing hit hard because of its unexpected nature. Poker has had deaths before: Benny Binion and Johnny Moss, Stu Ungar, Jack Strauss, Sailor Roberts, Cowboy Wolford, Jack Keller. Of those players, however, only Moss and Ungar had ever perched on top of the poker world, and only Stuey died so young. Moss' passing was predated by an age-induced erosion of skills that saw grinders following him to $5/$10 tables. Ungar's was more famously the inevitable conclusion of a long, losing fight with drugs.
Reese went out on top. With most competitive endeavors, age withers the competitive drive and skill set needed for high-level competition, but Reese was still as much the player he'd always been. His vitality was responsible for so much of the shock that hit so many. He didn't live the healthiest lifestyle. The constant jokes about food by the speakers at the funeral were testimony to that, but he was active and slimmer than in past years.
The testimonials have since poured forward. Barry Greenstein recorded a remarkable audio blog questioning his own mortality at pokerroad.com. TJ Cloutier made a touching speech about "a man I never heard say a bad word about anybody." Daniel Negreanu blogged about his departed opponent and the funeral. The kind words have been plentiful and universal.
So have the stories. As sad as his comrades in arms have been in the wake of the bad news, his memory has brought a lot of smiles to a lot of people. Stories of great gambles, quick wit, his mediocre golf game (by most accounts, the only game he failed to master), his voracious appetite for food and life, his exploits as a wonderful father and his legendary status as a competitor have flowed. Many told by some of the greatest storytellers of this generation.
Some of those tales helped educate me as to just how influential Chip was in the growth of poker. Mirage Resorts CEO Bobby Baldwin, the 1978 world champion, said that except for Reese's constant partner, Doyle Brunson, Chip was the most influential person in poker's growth in the game's history. Some might suggest Baldwin himself could be in the discussion, but Baldwin insists that Chip's whispers were responsible for Bobby's poker-beneficial actions. That includes the building of the $5 million Bobby's Room at the Bellagio, the room that housed "Chip's game" for the past few years.
I flew down to Vegas upon the news of Chip's passing. Despite covering the story, I attended the funeral to celebrate a remarkable person. I left my notepads and recording devices at home, feeling like they'd soil a solemn occasion. I swore I wouldn't quote anything said there as his closest friends and family expressed their grief, but one quote stuck with me that needs to be shared.
Doyle Brunson might have been biased, because he loved Chip Reese as best friends of 30 years should. They gambled, traveled, ate, did business and lived their lives in constant contact. There's no greater authority on Chip Reese, the man and the player. In his speech at the funeral, Doyle called Chip "unquestionably the greatest game player of all time." It's a remarkable statement, one that can finally be made now that Chip isn't trying to lure the fish to his table any more.
Throughout the week, I've been dwelling on one hard reality. As Johnny Moss passed on the mantle of poker's patriarch to Doyle, I always assumed Doyle would pass it on to Chip. Now, without that obvious heir apparent, the future of the poker community lies in an unfamiliar state of flux. As I've searched for a new successor and come up short in the effort, I've realized the question is irrelevant for one simple reason: If this week has taught me anything, it's that there's no way to replace a man like Chip Reese. I wish I'd gotten to know him better, but through the stories and memories shared by his friends, Chip's legacy will live on in my mind forever.
Gary Wise started writing about poker because of stories of men like Chip Reese. He is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, Bluff Magazine and worldseriesofpoker.com.