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Dirty Wally Leaves the Poker Scene … Holding Four Aces in His Hand

by Max Shapiro |  Published: Jul 13, 2011

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Max Shapiro

The poker world was deprived of a lot of color with the departure of the one and only Dirty Wally, who passed away recently at the age of 91 while still going as strong as ever. He went out the way that he (and, I suppose, all poker players) would have wanted to go … right after winning a hand with four aces.

Did he really have quad bullets? Well, as with everything else about Wally, the answer is yes, no, maybe. The four aces were on the board in a hold’em tournament and Wally won the pot with just jack high, so let’s give him credit for the hand. At any rate, at my suggestion, he was buried holding the aces, which I know would have made him happy.

It happened at the Hustler Casino. After winning the pot, Wally froze and wouldn’t release his cards, even insisting that he was all right after Casino Manager Craig Kaufman was called over. Kaufman, correctly surmising that Wally had suffered a stroke, halted the tournament and had Wally rushed to a hospital, where he died the next day.

As I said in a column I wrote when Wally turned 90, he was an instantly recognizable figure with his long, stringy gray hair and whiskers, his cowboy regalia, with more patches, badges, and ribbons on his cowboy hat than Oklahoma Johnny Hale had in his entire wardrobe, and the ensemble topped off by an ever-present bottle of water jutting out of his back pocket.

Dirty Wally seemed to be everywhere at once on the Southern California poker scene, and seemed to know everything that was happening in poker. He was even the co-host of a satellite-radio poker talk show for a while. And once he started talking, he was nearly impossible to shut up. I once used this trait in a column in which Vegas entertainer and impersonator Danny Gans was interviewing poker players for possible inclusion in his act. When Wally got on the stage and wouldn’t stop talking, Gans had a stagehand club him on the head and throw him into an alley.

Largely because I helped make him famous in my columns, Wally was a good friend to me, but, in keeping with his name, he could be less deferential (to say the least) to others. Once, upon getting into a beef at the poker table with an Asian player, he informed him that during the war, he shot his father out of a coconut tree.
Despite his claims of having won countless tournaments, along with having a custom license plate that read “Poker Pro,” his ability at the poker table was hardly Wally’s claim to fame. Once, John Bonetti staked him in a satellite, and was so incensed at how badly he played when he busted out that it inspired me to write another column in which Bonetti hauled Wally into Judge Judy’s court, accusing him of impersonating a poker player.

In fact, even though he has two databases, one under the name Dirty Wally and the other as Wally Wagner, his minimal cashes would hardly qualify him for the Poker Hall of Fame.

And Wally Wagner wasn’t even his real name. He was born (as I recall) Walter Zaranga, in Chicago (where he claimed to be the heaviest baby ever born in that city). During World War II, he saw combat as a marine on the island of Guadalcanal, drove a taxi after the war, and then adopted the stage name Wally Wagner for a hopeful movie career. In his early days, he bore a striking resemblance to the noted actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and said that he had appeared in more than 100 films, although I was once told by someone who knew him that he was merely an extra. I used the movie theme in another column, when I wrote that the only speaking part he ever had was in the film Birth of a Nation, in which he played the part of a corpse and got to say, “I’m dead.”

Yes, I’ve used Wally many, many times in my columns, always in a joking and unflattering light, but he never seemed to mind. In fact, the only time that he got upset was when I wrote that he was really just a fictional character. He also got a little annoyed when I began devoting more space to his “grandfather,” a loopy Confederate Army veteran named Filthy Willy, than I gave to him.
As is often the case with colorful, somewhat legendary characters, it can be difficult separating truth from fiction, and perhaps it’s better not to try. For example, he frequently boasted about once being married to Mamie Van Doren, a sexy actress of the ’50s. Somewhat skeptical, I once contacted her, and she told me that she never heard of Wally. But after confronting him and hearing him heatedly insist that the marriage was true, I let it go, and after that, I just accepted him any way that he wanted to present himself.

So, I hope that when St. Peter got to meet Wally, he didn’t ask too many questions and just took him in the way that he was, cowboy hat and all. I’m sure that heaven will be a much livelier place now with Dirty Wally around to spread gossip and tell all of his tall tales.

And knowing Wally, he’s probably still carrying around those four aces. ♠

Max Shapiro, a lifelong poker player and former newspaper reporter with several writing awards to his credit, has been writing a humor column for Card Player ever since it was launched more than 20 years ago. His early columns were collected in his book, Read ’em and Laugh.__