Puggy Pearson ‘cashes in’ at 77

Apr 18, 2006 1:38 AM

One of poker’s legends and pioneering players, Puggy Pearson, died last week at his home in Las Vegas following a long illness. He was 77.

A member of the Poker Hall of Fame, Pearson played in the first world championship at Binion’s Horseshoe in 1970, and won the championship in 1973.

Known for his outgoing personality and friendly nature, Pearson sometimes dressed up in elaborate costumes and crazy hats at World Series of Poker matches.

In addition to his marathon play with the likes of Johnny Moss and Amarillo Slim Preston, Pearson is credited with starting the now-common "freeze out" in tournament play, in which players start a game with a fixed amount of chips and play until one player has won all of them.

"He was one of the all-time greats," said professional poker player Blair Rodman, author of the popular Kill Phil book on poker. "He came to Vegas on his own back when there was lots of cheating going on, went to the biggest game and said, ”˜deal me in’ and overcame it all. He will be missed in the gambling community."

A native of Adairville, Kentucky, the colorful poker player was born Walter Clyde Pearson in 1929. He came from a large, poor family (nine brothers and sisters), and once claimed that, "We were so poor that we had to move every time the rent came due."

He dropped out of school early in order to help his financially strapped family, and left home at 16 to join the Navy.

During his three hitches in the Navy, Pearson honed his skills as a gambler while becoming an expert at the things service personnel gamble on: cards and pool.

After he left the Navy, Pearson discovered there was as much action playing (and betting on) golf as there was on cards. So he learned how to play, practicing religiously until he became a scratch player.

At the height of his career as a gambler, Pearson had a bus that he used to criss-cross the country in pursuit of unsuspecting "fish."

"He called himself a ”˜roving gambler,’" recalls Mike Sexton, long time professional poker player and World Poker Tour TV commentator. "On the side of his bus in large letters was his name and the quote, ”˜I’ll play any man from any land, any game he can name for any amount he can count,’ and then in very fine print was, ”˜Provided I like it.’ That sums up Puggy pretty well."

Sexton said that Pearson, who acquired his nickname because of his pug nose, was not only a skilled poker player, but was always quick to help out other gamblers when they had a bad turn of luck, or even dealers who might have fallen ill or endured some kind of tragedy.

"I think it was Amarillo Slim who once said that Puggy was softer than butter on a hot stove," Sexton said.

Besides his tournament play (he won four World Series events), Pearson was a fixture in Las Vegas’ best poker rooms during the 1970s and 1980s.

"He was famous for saying, ”˜Deal me in (for the highest game in the room) as soon as he walked into a poker room ”¦ without even knowing what the game was or who was playing," Sexton said.

Pearson is survived by his companion, Simin Habibian of Las Vegas; his daughter, Andrea Elaine Phelan; a son, Stephen Mark Pearson of Las Vegas; one grandson, Walter Frank Phelan of Nashville; a brother, J.C. Pearson of Las Vegas; and two sisters, Bobbie Jean Bailey of Florida and Gladys Gracie Pearson of Clarksville, Tennessee.

A memorial service was held on Monday at the Bellagio.