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A Poker Life: Tom McEvoy

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jan 01, 2014


Tom McEvoyMost of you are reading this story in your local casino. Head on out to the nearest row of slot machines or the pit and you’ll find yourself engulfed in a wall of smoke. But in the poker room, your lungs are free to breathe clean, fresh air. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, until 2002, all poker players had to brave second-hand smoke if they wanted in on the action.

That all changed when former World Series of Poker main event champion Tom McEvoy, then running the Binion’s poker room, convinced management that the annual summer series should be smoke free. Whether you smoke or not, you have to admit that the move was instrumental in making the game more palatable for a number of newcomers.

With a total of four WSOP bracelets and more than $2.9 million in career tournament earnings, Tom McEvoy is certainly among the most accomplished poker players in history, but it’s his contributions to the game off the felt that got him recently inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.

“There are very few poker players who have had their fingers in as many poker pies as I have,” said McEvoy.

During his 34-year career, McEvoy has worked as a prop player, a poker room manager, poker author, and advocate for player rights. This is his story.

Poker Beginnings

McEvoy developed his love of the game as a young boy, far from the bright lights of Las Vegas, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“I learned poker as a five year old while sitting on my grandmother’s knee,” McEvoy recalled. “My grandmother always loved to gamble and would always be down at the track betting horses. She’d prop her bad leg up on a pillow and we’d play penny ante poker. We played all kinds of crazy wild card games. She’d give me a dollar, and then she’d spend the time winning it back from me.”

Though he couldn’t beat his grandmother, McEvoy was still a shark at an early age, taking lunch money from his childhood friends.

“I’m embarrassed to admit this, but my friend across the street had a paper route and every week, I’d beat him out of his paper route money. He couldn’t figure out why he was losing every time, but it was because I had been trained by my grandmother.”

McEvoy played very little poker in college, instead focusing on getting his bachelors degree from Ferris State University in accounting. After graduation, he took jobs working as an accountant, but quickly returned to poker, playing in weekend home games.

“Sometimes, it would start on a Friday night and run until Sunday night,” he admitted. “I got in trouble more than once for reporting to work on Monday not too fresh from the weekend.”

An avid table tennis player, McEvoy was at one point ranked 60th in the country. In 1977, he came out to Las Vegas to compete in the National Table Tennis Championships at Caesars Palace. Though his matches didn’t go very well, he cleaned up at the poker tables, earning $1,000.

“At the time, I was making $18,000 a year as an accountant. That was the first time I realized there might be a future as a poker player. I planned to use upcoming vacation time to go back to Las Vegas, but before I could, I was let go from my job. I was a good accountant, but I was bad at office politics. I decided to take my severance pay and head back to Las Vegas to test the waters as a player.”

Turning Pro

McEvoy commuted to Las Vegas from Grand Rapids every few weeks for an entire year. After finding success, he sat down to tell his wife he was moving the family west.

“It wasn’t easy, but I finally convinced my wife that I wasn’t going to be happy unless I gave it a shot,” McEvoy said. “You have to remember, back then, becoming a professional poker player wasn’t really a thing people did. My own parents were horrified that I was taking their three grandchildren away from them to play poker. Even the guys I played poker with each week, the guys I was beating up on, thought I was crazy.”

McEvoy packed up his wife, three kids, three cats and belongings in a U-Haul trailer and moved. He used his limited bankroll to play $10-$20 games at the Golden Nugget, Caesars Palace and the Stardust, with occasional visits to Bally’s. He knew he could always find a job as an accountant if things went south, but fortunately for him, he never had to work a traditional 9-to-5 again.

“They used to call Las Vegas the graveyard of home game poker champions. That was true and is still true today, however, some of those home game champions developed into good players. Luckily, I was one of them.”

The 1983 World Series of Poker

McEvoy was committed to playing in the WSOP main event one day, but his bankroll wasn’t quite ready to allow it. Then in 1983, he won the $1,000 limit hold’em event for his first bracelet and $117,000. He had pieced himself out to a partner to play in the event, so he wasn’t about to throw away a big chunk of his earnings to play in the main event. Instead, he turned to the newly introduced concept of satellite tournaments.

“In 1983, there were very few satellites offered to get into the WSOP. One casino held four, winner-take-all, $110 buy-in, 100-player satellites. I played in those tournaments, but didn’t win any of them. However, Rod Peate, the guy I went heads-up with in the main event, did win one, so we were going to have the first satellite main event winner in history no matter who won.”

After selling some more action, McEvoy signed up for a single-table satellite at Binion’s. It was there that he noticed Johnny Chan’s name on the list as well. He went to Chan and explained that he didn’t want to play in the same satellite and Chan was nice enough to back out. That kindness ended up paying off handsomely for the man known as “The Orient Express.”

McEvoy went on to win the satellite, but not before selling an additional 20 percent of his action to Chan in exchange for $1,000 when he was three-handed in the satellite. After swapping some small percentages with other players, McEvoy entered the main event with 33 percent of himself.

A couple of days later, he had made his way to the final table which included players such as Donnacha O’Dea, Doyle Brunson, and Peate, the other satellite winner. After another deal made during heads-up play, McEvoy overcame a slight chip deficit to claim the title and his second bracelet of the 14-event series. His share of the winnings came to nearly a quarter of a million dollars, which was life-changing money for him and his family. Ironically, it was Chan who won big, having 20 percent of both McEvoy and Peate in the main event.

Becoming A Poker Author

McEvoy went on to win two more WSOP bracelets in 1986 and 1992 in razz and limit Omaha. He also won a Professional Poker Tour event in 2006 and the inaugural WSOP Champions Invitational in 2009, but during that stretch he made a much more important contribution to the poker world with his books.

“I was approached by Mike Caro and Stanley Sludikoff,” McEvoy recalled. “They talked me into writing the book and I recruited Roy West to edit and polish up my writing. That later became “How To Win At Poker Tournaments.” The book ended up costing me money after I paid Roy out of pocket, so it wasn’t a great experience. Then about 10 years later, Dana Smith, who wrote under the pseudonym Shane Smith because she believed being a woman would hurt sales, approached me to write another book. After some pushing from her, I wrote the first book from my Championship Series.”

Championship No-Limit and Pot-Limit Hold’em: On The Road to the World Series of Poker was a success, but it nearly didn’t happen. Many poker professionals were afraid that McEvoy would be revealing all of their secrets and therefore hurt their livelihood.

“Before it was published, Erik Seidel approached me and offered to pay me $25,000 not to publish the book. He really didn’t want this information to get out. He fought any type of poker education to the bitter end, including the hole card camera for televised poker tournaments. Of course, I’m sure today he would be glad that poker became more popular because of all of the opportunities that have come his way since. I spent seven months writing that book and I wasn’t about to give it up. Thankfully, we made a hell of a lot more than $25,000.”

To date, McEvoy has written a total of 14 books about poker as well as columns for Card Player Magazine.

A Hall Of Fame Legacy

When the WSOP began accepting nominations from the public in 2009, McEvoy was one of the first names up for consideration. However, for four years, he failed to garner enough votes to be inducted. It was an incredibly frustrating time for McEvoy.

“The last four years, I really put a lot of energy and effort into campaigning for myself to be chosen for the Poker Hall of Fame. This year, I have to be honest and admit that I had given up. I didn’t tell anyone I was even nominated again. Of course, that’s how it goes sometimes. It’s like when you are looking for a relationship, it’s difficult to find one. Then when you aren’t looking, you suddenly meet someone. Needless to say, I was thrilled when my name finally came up. I consider this my own personal lifetime achievement award.”

Now 68 years old, McEvoy is proud of how far the game has come since he began playing more than three decades ago, but realizes that it’s up to a new generation to keep it going.

“The fact that I’m not a really recognizable poker personality, especially for the younger generation, doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “But what does bother me is that the young players have very little understanding of the history of the game. I think they take for granted how many advantages they have now and are apathetic when it comes to advancing the game even further. They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it and I hope that’s not the case when it comes time to hand over the game to some of these young professionals. Even the best player in the world won’t make a dime if there are no games to play in.”

These days, McEvoy spends his days playing cash games and the occasional tournament in Las Vegas, but he considers himself to be semi-retired. He is currently writing an e-book due out in 2014 that focuses on both poker and general philosophies on life. ♠