Having written four columns based on Max Shapiro’s fascinating book, Read’em and Laugh, I was anxious to learn more about him.
There are lots of poker writers. For many of us, it’s a good thing there are good editors to correct our grammar. And what would we do without Spell-Check?
There are so many poker books you couldn’t shake a stick at them all. But there is one poker writer who stands head over shoulders above the rest of us: Max Shapiro! If ever there is a Poker Writers Hall of Fame, Max deserves to be the first inductee.
But I must be honest with you. The first I heard about the idea of a Poker Writers Hall of Fame was in a column Max Shapiro wrote in the Aug. 21, 2009 issue of Card Player, in which Max credits OK Johnny Hale for the brainchild. But, for whatever reason, we still don’t have a Poker Writers Hall of Fame.
Please don’t confuse our Max Shapiro with Rabbi Max Shapiro who led Temple Israel in Minneapolis for many years until he died two years ago. And there have been several Dr. Max Shapiros, one if whom was a famed hypnotist. Perhaps the art of hypnosis might have made our Max a big winner at the poker tables.
Instead, our Max Shapiro distinguished himself as the most humorous poker writer ever.
He was born in Brooklyn and came to Los Angeles when he was 16. After army service with the 3rd Armored Division, Max attended San Jose State College on the wonderful GI Bill. (Me too!) While working as a reporter for the Gardena Valley News, he discovered the old poker clubs and got interested. (Of the six original poker rooms in Gardena, only the Normandie Casino still exists. The Hustler was built in 2000 on the land once occupied by the El Dorado Club.)
Over the years, Max had a number of editing and writing assignments. As a young man, twice he won first-place in the annual writing competition for Southern California newspapers and he was named “Outstanding Young Man of the Year” by the local Junior Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps his most memorable non-poker experience was when he was a writer/photographer for Women’s Wear Daily, a fashion trade publication. There was a Las Vegas party hosted by Frank Sinatra, which Max covered for the magazine. It seems Sinatra threatened to break Max’s arm for intruding on his private party. All Max wanted to do was get fashion photos of the women celebrity guests.
Max Shapiro got involved with poker writing when he played in a home game hosted by poker author/teacher Chip Johnson who asked Max to write a column for a publication called Players Panorama. After trying to write about poker strategies, Max soon admitted he didn’t know what he was doing and turned to his poker humor. A great decision!
Max introduced his growing army of fans to a host of poker characters. Big Denny probably is the best known. Actually, Big Denny and most of the other characters are based on real people Max met at a home game hosted by the gent who became known as Ralph the Rattler.
There was Action Al, Break-Even Benny, Happy Harry and Booger Boy. Other characters with highly descriptive names that Max later introduced were Windy Waggy, Mitch the Mooch, Doomsday Don, Filthy Willy, Alabama Eddie, and Aberdeen Angus McTavish (the tightest player ever). One of my favorites is Aunt Sophie who, well along in years, was a cocktail waitress at Big Denny’s Barstow Casino.
At one point, Max found her – renamed Lady GoDiver – diving into the fountain in front of Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip, scooping up coins people had tossed in for good luck. How did Big Denny get to own the dingy, run-down Barstow Casino? That’s a long and complicated story for another time.
Max tells how Big Denny once conned him when they were competing at the poker table. It seems Big Denny positioned a midget under the table to signal Max’s holecards. (Can you think of a better way to “read” an opponent?)