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Jack Keller

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: Feb 27, 2004

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Poker Hall of Famer Jack Keller died early in December of 2003. He had spent his last years in Tunica, Mississippi, where he owned some pawnshops and played mostly pot-limit Omaha at the poker table. I would like to tell you a bit about Jack, partly because I have played an enormous amount of poker with him, and partly because what I have seen written about some other prominent poker personalities diverged a bit from the persons I knew. I would like to give you an accurate picture of Keller.

Jack was one of the few poker players who excelled at both tournament and money play. I had a great deal of respect for his poker prowess, as did the other professional players. The best illustration of this I can give you is to describe what happened when all the participants in the 1987 Cajun Cup final event were bid on in a Calcutta auction. The bidders were nearly all made up of the participants themselves, so we are talking about very knowledgeable poker people. Two players went for considerably more than the other participants. One of them was Johnny Chan, who vindicated the opinion of the players by going on to win both the 1987 and 1988 World Series of Poker championships. The other was Jack Keller, who at that time was in the middle of a tremendous poker tournament hot streak.

At one time, I wrote an article in which I mentioned how Jack liked to treat a certain poker hand in the betting. The next time I saw him, he asked me to please not do that again. He described it as taking money out of his pocket. I said OK, and kept my word. Now I am no longer bound by what I said; here is how he played.

Jack had the most committal poker style I have ever seen in a good player. He did not make probing bets. He bet the full size of the pot like it was part of his personal religious credo never to bet less than the maximum. There is only one time I can remember him betting less than the legal limit in pot-limit Omaha. In a money game, he had raised a pot and gotten called by the weakest player at the table. The flop came down with an ace. The other two cards of the flop were of the same suit. The guy checked, and Jack bet about $800 into a $1,500 pot. I knew instantly what he had, as probably did many of the other veteran players in the game who had played a lot of poker with him. Jack had hit both three aces and the nut-flush draw, and was looking to get called. His oblivious opponent had the flush draw and drew at it. Unfortunately for him, he made the flush on the turn. After the smoke cleared, his whole 7K stack belonged to Jack.

In the days before pot-limit Omaha became popular (pre-1983), Jack was best known as a strong seven-card stud player. But even then, he excelled at other poker forms. I remember the first time I ever played poker with Jack. The game was no-limit ace-to-five lowball with the joker. I was sitting next to Seymour Leibowitz, with whom I was quite friendly, having played a lot of lowball with him in Pete's game in Miami Beach during the winter. I whispered to Seymour, "Is Jack a good lowball player?" knowing that both Jack and Seymour were originally from Pennsylvania, and had played in some of the same games. Seymour's answer was one word: "Murderous."

For a long time, the only type of high-low poker played in Vegas was seven-card stud without a qualifier. That game is a poor form of poker as soon as everyone in the game knows that you are supposed to go for low. At some point in the early '80s, the game was switched to seven-card stud eight-or-better, and they started playing it for big money at the Dunes. I heard that the first week it was spread, Keller won about a hundred grand. He was a versatile player, outstanding at all the major poker forms.

In 1983, at Blacky Blackburn's Stairway to the Stars poker tournament at the Stardust Hotel, the game of pot-limit Omaha was introduced. The action was terrific, with those of us who take to a new poker form rapidly becoming big winners. Jack fell in love with Omaha, and quickly became an outstanding player. In 1984, the year Jack became the poker world champion, he went to Europe, partly to promote pot-limit Omaha over there. The Brits and other European players loved the game, and Omaha quickly became the favorite poker form "across the pond."

In the mid-'80s, when Omaha came into its own, there were quite a few pot-limit tournaments. I do not know how many times I had to suffer from Jack's aggressive play at the final table, but it was several. I particularly remember one time when he was a couple of seats to my left, pounding away as usual. I resolved to play a big pot with him at the earliest opportunity, just to get him out of the way (none of this avoiding the other big stacks stuff). "It's him or me," I felt. I took the worst of it on a hand and got lucky against him. After the event, he asked me, "Why did you play that hand, Bob?" I told him the truth, that I felt it was worth running a big risk just to get rid of him. There were some subsequent times when I followed that philosophy while playing against Jack, but with less success.

Here is a hand I played against Keller that illustrates the type of player he was. In a pot-limit Omaha money game, I raised a pot with two aces. Jack called me. There was about $700 in the pot and we both had more than three grand left. The flop came down with three tens. Jack bet $700 into me, the preflop raiser. Of course, he did not know I had pocket aces, but it is no surprise when an Omaha preflop raiser shows up with them. I do not know another person on the planet who would bet a poker hand that way with such a flop, whether he had four tens or not. I can't tell you what Jack had, because I wimped out and folded. I felt he was making a psychological move: If I got it in my head that he couldn't possibly have the nuts on that betting, I would keep calling him down and lose all of my money. On the other hand, maybe he had pocket kings and was trying to find out where he stood, or perhaps he had simply decided on a stone-cold bluff. We are never going to know now.

Jack acquired the nickname from the press corps of "Gentleman Jack" when he was working at the Chicago options stock market. However, he could be a problem for some people, because from time to time he got involved with substance abuse. But I always had a cordial relationship with him. We often chatted at both the poker table and the buffet.

Jack never worried about money. I remember one morning in Mississippi, where I was playing with Jack in a pot-limit Omaha game that had gone through the night. I had just gotten up, eaten breakfast, and taken a seat. A phone call came in, and Keller was told his son had just been shot in a robbery attempt at one of his hockshops. Keller quickly pushed all of his money and chips over to his friend Bobby Lockhart, who was sitting next to him in the game, and asked Bobby to take care of them. Jack did not even want to take the time to cash out. He bolted out the door and went straight to the hospital. After a couple of hours went by, Bobby decided to leave the game and go home to bed, so he had me put the money – about seven grand – into my safe-deposit box, in case Jack returned to the cardroom. Jack came back later and told us his son was OK, having received a flesh wound in the arm. I gave Jack his money, and he thanked me, but he was a lot more concerned with his son than anything else.

I think that if one were to make a list of the top 10 greatest all-around poker players, Jack Keller would have to be on it. The fact that he was outstanding at both tournament and money play, and played all the major poker forms so well, demonstrated his tremendous poker ability. I am going to miss him as a person and friend – but not as an opponent.diamonds

Editor's note: Bob Ciaffone's latest book, Middle Limit Holdem Poker, co-authored with Jim Brier, is available (332 pages, $25 plus $7 shipping and handling). This work and his other poker books, Pot-limit and No-limit Poker, Improve Your Poker, and Omaha Holdem Poker, can be ordered through Card Player. Ciaffone is available for poker lessons. E-mail thecoach@chartermi.net or call (989) 792-0884. His website is www.diamondcs.net/~thecoach, where you can download Robert's Rules of Poker for free.