Remembering poker legend Johnny Hale

Oklahoma Johnny Hale, the highly acclaimed poker celebrity and pioneer and longtime columnist for Gaming Today, died in late December at the age of 92. He may not have been tall in stature, but he was a giant of a man for all he contributed to the poker world.

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Hale was born in 1927 in Oklahoma. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma as a civil engineer in 1951, he joined the U.S. Navy where he served in both World War II and the Korean War. He then worked in home construction for several years until moving to Las Vegas to pursue his poker career. 

There he became known as the “gentleman gambler.” He wrote “The Life and Times of a Gentleman Gambler,” a chronicle of his life, which he often autographed, signing with his favorite saying: “Stay Lucky.”

Recognizing his early career accomplishments, the Oklahoma legislature cited him for the creation of jobs for hundreds of people and his many charity and civic activities in the state. While he is best known for his achievements in the poker world, Johnny won several Gin Rummy tournaments – even beating out Stu Ungar – also a poker immortal – knocking him out of an international Gin tournament.

His success in poker included many notable achievements for which he was recognized and honored:

He was awarded a World Series of Poker gold bracelet from another legend — Benny Binion — in 1980 for being the first best all-around poker player in the WSOP, finishing at the final table in most of the events – second place in California low ball, third in Razz, 3rd in seven-card stud, third in stud hi/low 8 or better, and fourth (to Ungar) in the $5,000 seven-card stud tournament.

Oklahoma Johnny was also the winner of the Seniors World Championship of Poker (WCOP), and the Seniors Golden Eagle trophy which is now on loan to the WSOP as the permanent trophy for The Seniors World Championship of Poker held annually at the WSOP.

His other contributions to poker include:

• Creator and member of The Seniors WCOP and its Poker Players Hall of Fame

• Creator of The Super Seniors tournament at Caesars Palace

• With his wife Carol, creator of The Seniors Charities

• Author of books on life and poker

• Poker columnist for Gaming Today and other poker publications

I got to know Johnny when he wrote a weekly column for Gaming Today. It was he who encouraged me to join its team of columnists. And I was honored when I was elected to his Seniors Poker Players Hall of Fame.

A true gentleman, Johnny often volunteered to come to Los Angeles from his home in Las Vegas, accompanied by his wife, Carol, when our Claude Pepper Seniors’ Poker Group invited him to be the keynote speaker for our special events at local casinos and at the senior center.

He was very wise when it came to poker and I have selected the following words of advice from Johnny published in his column in Gaming Today in August 2010 with a few modifications.

“The living of life and the playing of poker are not really the same thing — but a lot of the same things will be true to both life and poker.  Here is a list of important things that Dad taught me about life, poker and business.  Remember them; you’ll be a better player.”

• In poker, not telling the truth about the cards or the situation is not a lie. It is just playing poker and trying to confuse the other players.

• In poker if you win a little it is a good feeling; don’t be greedy. If you win a lot it will cause problems with relationships and if you lose a little you can recover the next day. If you lose a lot, you have to uncover a new bankroll.

• In poker if you make people mad at you, they may not give you action on your good hands or they may hide behind a log and ambush you. Just be pleasant when you play poker and the game will be much better for you.

• Raise the pot at every opportunity. In life you should invest at every opportunity in your education, in property and business.

• In poker you will find that in situations it is cheaper and more profitable to raise than to call.

• In no limit games, never play in an un-raised pot unless you are in the big blind and unless you are an expert and know how to lay a hand down (often folding).

• In poker, borrowing or loaning money is one of the most deathly things you can do. If you loan money you are not helping a poker friend; you are only helping him dig a deeper hole that he must climb out of.

• If you borrow money in a poker game you are foolish; you are not winning. Something is wrong. Find out why you went broke and fix it before you play again with your own money.

• In poker if there is a problem in the game do not be a pot sergeant and add to the problem. Just keep quiet; the fewer people involved in the problem, the better it will be.

• In poker sell your good hands as high as the market will allow, but you must learn to value bet. If your costumer (the other player) will not pay an all-in or high bet, you must learn this and raise the amount that will be most profitable.

Finally, there’s this: “Almost nothing is more helpful to a poker player in dealing with the other players than a sense of humor. Now, having a sense of humor does not necessarily mean a knack for telling jokes at the table. But it means the ability to take some setbacks in the game and still see that you can win and beat the game and the world has not come to an end when you lose a pot.

“Until next time, remember to stay lucky.” — Oklahoma Johnny Hale

Rest in peace my friend. 

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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