Winning The Right Way
Almost a year ago, Dewey Tomko and Doyle Brunson engaged in conversation about their old bracelets while passing the time at a poker game. Two of the original rounders, both had survived more than a few dusty trails and backroom shenanigans en route to maturity as gamblers and as men. These are the kinds of events that forge lifelong bonds and endless reminiscences.
"We talked that day about how we couldn't find our bracelets," Tomko said of a conversation which would ultimately change how he'll be remembered. "Doyle can't find his and I have no idea where my three are. It wasn't a big deal back in those days. We were just worried about the money. Now, years later, it's a real big thing, bracelets. I wish I knew where they were at so I could look at 'em."
Those priceless trinkets gone, Tomko's going to have to make do with a far scarcer honor. It was announced prior to the final table at this year's World Series of Poker main event that Tomko and Henry Orenstein would become the latest of just 37 players enshrined in the Poker Hall of Fame.
"Really, the respect of your peers is all you have at the end of the day," said Tomko, 61. "Whether you're in the Hall of Fame or not, what your peers think of you is more important than anything. I imagine there are some people in the hall whose peers don't think too much of and there are some who aren't in the Hall of Fame whose peers think really should be in. The bottom line is Doyle only spoke up because he thought I was already in it."
It was the respect of this one peer that may well have led to Tomko's overdue induction. Upon hearing his old friend hadn't been so enshrined, Brunson wrote publicly of the absurdity of the omission. Soon, Daniel Negreanu was following suit.
"He did it the right way," said Negreanu of Tomko. "He was an established player, but spent so much time raising his family, being a man."
The unilateral support from both old- and new-school stars made Tomko an obvious choice for the honor.
Tomko's story has been told time and again. Starting his gambling career when he was just 15 years old, he found poker in the pool halls of Pittsburgh. Keeping to the straight and narrow, he elected to work full-time, taking a job in Florida as a kindergarten teacher while playing poker at night. With an annual salary just more than $6,000, he was making a month's pay in an average night of poker playing. Eventually, teaching cost him too much money to keep up with and he was forced to give it up.
What followed was a remarkable gambling career that no greater authority than Amarillo Slim called "one of the five greatest of all time."
Tomko became a legend in multiple games.
"Most people know me as a poker player, but I've made more money playing golf," admitted Tomko. "I've made a lot betting sports, too. In the old days, golf was so high, we played for so much money. It was nothing to make millions of dollars a year. Nowadays it's not that way."
While golf provided the majority of the money, it was poker that brought out the accolades. Tomko is best known as one of three players -- along with fellow Hall of Famers TJ Cloutier and Crandell Addington -- to have reached the final two of the WSOP main event twice without having won it. Despite only playing poker a handful of times a year these days, he's played in the main event every year since 1974, the longest such run. That's not what he's most proud of, though.
In a time when cheaters often prospered by out-cheating other cheaters, Tomko played the game straight up and was a large part of forcing the game to be played that way at its highest levels.
"I know that in the thousands of poker games I've played, I never once did anything wrong, not even look at someone's hand," said Tomko. "I had to look myself in the mirror. You look in the mirror, you see what you are. I never took advantage of anybody.
"Sometimes, I'd go to Dallas in the old days and it would be a nine-handed game and I could only play against four of the guys at the table. The other five (sic) were probably trying to do something, so I'd just throw my hand in. I mean, things were tough. Any game I was involved in, in Florida or at Jack (Binion)'s place, I just stood up and told 'em 'You're out of the game, you're not allowed to play.' We knew ahead of time that anyone who had the slightest reputation of being bad wouldn't be invited to the game. Anyone who got a reputation for doing something wrong, that's their fault, they're not invited."
Tomko took his honest streak to unheard of levels for the time.
"There's times I've walked away from the table if it didn't stop, even something like a neighbor showing me their cards by mistake," said Tomko, whose reputation has helped him throughout the years. "I just walk away and quit. I don't want to win money that way. Doesn't matter if you're better or not, you're supposed to play fair."
The intensity of Tomko's honesty is matched only by his love for gambling.
"I can enjoy a round of golf without gambling," Tomko said adamantly, quickly adding, "I don't mind playing my kids for $100 to $200." When it's pointed out that those are real dollar totals for the majority of Americans, Tomko defended himself.
"Well you've gotta have something, I mean, God, you've got to have something! They probably wouldn't play for nothing and they're not gamblers!" With the success rate he's enjoyed, though, you can hardly blame him for wanting a few bucks on any outcome he's directly involved in.
Now, Tomko finally has time to reflect on a long, prosperous career.
"Getting inducted is a great accomplishment and an honor," he said. "Most of the guys in there are my closest friends, so it's kind of like I finally got invited to the party."
Asked who should be next, he takes on the Brunson role from that conversation a year ago. "I think they should start inviting some of the new guys coming up like Daniel (Negreanu) and (Phil) Ivey and E-dog (Erick Lindgren). I plan on living until I'm 90 or 100 so I can share it with them when they get in."
Now that he's in the Hall, Tomko's the one doing the speaking up for deserving candidates. Takes one to know one.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.