Poker world recalls legacy of an icon

May 12, 2009 5:11 PM
The Inside Straight by Joe Awada |

Jimmy Knight passed away last month. He died of lung cancer, at the much too early age of 64. There was little fanfare in his passing; no screaming headlines, no parade of eulogizers, no ostentatious memorials … which is how Jimmy would have wanted it. He was an unassuming guy who preferred to let the limelight shine on others.

Nonetheless, Jimmy meant as much to the development of poker in Las Vegas as any of the poker pioneers, including Doyle Brunson, Jack Binion, Eric Drache and Bobby Baldwin, just to name a few.

A native of Detroit, Jimmy grew up in the Cleveland area, where he became a successful life insurance salesman before moving to Las Vegas in 1970.

He began his poker career at the Union Plaza in downtown Las Vegas, and rapidly advanced into management positions with the Sahara, Silverbird, Golden Nugget, Mirage and Treasure Island.

I met Jimmy years ago at the Sahara, where he was the poker room manager. At a time when poker wasn’t highly regarded in the casino world, when there was a real possibility that "card sharks" and under-the-table deals could infiltrate games, Jimmy stood out as the consummate professional.

Jimmy was meticulous in his operation of the poker room and always looked out for the best interests of the players, as well as the house.

In a sense, guys like Jimmy did the heavy lifting in elevating the game of poker in Las Vegas, and paved the road for the high-speed sports cars that are driving poker in the 21st century.

Besides elevating the game of poker, Jimmy was a heck of a Seven Card Stud player – we shared a table many times – as was his wife, Anni, who, along with their two daughters, have all of my heart-felt thoughts and prayers.

Last week, I gathered with several friends – poker pioneers in their own right – to reminisce about Jimmy and what he meant to the game.

We gathered at the Mirage, where poker room manager Donna Harris served as gracious host to myself Doug Dalton, manager of Bellagio’s poker room, and Eric Drache, one of the game’s icons in Las Vegas.

It was probably Donna who said it best when she called Jimmy "everybody’s mentor."

"Jimmy ran a classic, old-school poker room," Donna said. "He was one of the classiest men in poker and poker management.

"He did a lot to clean up the poker rooms in Las Vegas," she continued. "He was immaculate, fair and incredibly polite."

Eric Drache knew Jimmy the longest. They first met in the early 1970s and played poker together on many occasions.

In 1978, Jimmy was hired as the assistant card room manager at the old Silverbird, where Eric and Doyle Brunson were licensed to lease the poker room. The Silverbird subsequently became the Mecca for the highest limit poker games anywhere at that time.

"Jimmy was an integral part of poker’s history in Las Vegas," Eric said. "Even though he was a low-key kind of guy, he represented the epitome of high-limit poker in the 1970s and 1980s."

Eric would certainly know about the evolution of poker in Las Vegas. Besides serving as director of the World Series of Poker, Eric has been key in developing some of the most successful TV poker productions, including High Stakes Poker, Poker After Dark, WSOP Europe and a new show, Face The Ace, which will debut in July.

Eric said Jimmy was instrumental in bringing poker to the current, popular level that it now enjoys.

"In the early days, it wasn’t automatic to come in off the Internet and play poker," Eric recalled. "You had to struggle to keep every game going, and to make sure every game was straight and honest – that’s where Jimmy excelled.

"Jimmy never gave in to the temptations and opportunities that often arose. In a way, we all grew along with Jimmy, both the players and the managers."

Doug Dalton, who runs the prestigious poker room at Bellagio, said that Jimmy’s talents didn’t go unnoticed by the industry’s top brass.

"Jimmy was the first executive hired from an outside position to manage one of MGM Mirage’s poker rooms," Doug explained.

Doug added that when word got out that we were meeting at the Mirage to talk about Jimmy, he was deluged with phone calls, emails and text messages from other poker and gaming professionals who wanted to offer their thoughts about Jimmy Knight.

One of them was legendary player Doyle Brunson.

"Jimmy Knight was a good friend, the kind of friend that could always count on," Brunson said. "I will sincerely miss him."

Doug also took a phone call from Jack Binion, who wanted to add, "I wish there were more like him. His presence raised poker standards and gave the game a better image."

Another message came in from Jack McClelland: "Jimmy Knight was very innovative in the poker world. He was instrumental in the conception of satellites, which helped create the poker tournament explosion."

John Strzemp, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Wynn Resorts, wanted us to know that "Jimmy was a classy guy who epitomized the Las Vegas poker players that were most famously known during the 70’s and 80’s."

Finally, a retired poker dealer, Linda Geenan, might have summed Jimmy’s passing the best: "Poker has a way of bringing people into our lives and death has an even more pronounced way of taking them out of our lives," she said. "I don’t know if Jimmy had been suffering from a long illness or not, all I can say is I’m very sorry that he’s left us. He was, in my opinion, a poker icon."

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Joe Awada