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Walter Pearson, 77; Master of Aces and Kings

April 15, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

His name was Walter Clyde Pearson, but everyone in the world of poker knew him as "Puggy."

A cigar-chewing, legendary poker player, Puggy Pearson owned a $200,000, 38-foot diesel Imperial Holiday Rambler motor home dubbed the "Rovin' Gambler," painted with the challenge: "I'll play any man from any land any game that he can name for any amount that I can count."

Then came the kicker, in smaller letters: "providing I like it."

It was a fitting motto for the 1973 World Series of Poker champion and member of the Poker Hall of Fame, a fifth-grade dropout from Tennessee who played in the highest-stakes poker games in Las Vegas for more than 25 years.

Pearson, one of the game's most colorful ambassadors, died Wednesday in Las Vegas. He was 77. The results of an autopsy are pending, but Pearson's family told the Las Vegas Sun that he had oral surgery Tuesday and apparently hit his head Wednesday, possibly after suffering a heart attack.

He is credited with introducing Las Vegas to the "freeze-out" style of playing tournament poker, in which everyone starts with the same amount of chips and, as players are eliminated, the winner winds up with them all. The format has been incorporated into the World Series of Poker and all other major poker tournaments.

In 1973, Pearson took home $130,000 from a field of 13 players in the $10,000 buy-in, No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em World Championship -- the first time the event was recorded for television.

Last year, there were more than 5,600 entries, and the winner, Joseph Hachem, walked away with $7.5 million.

Pearson was one of the more colorful characters in a world that has spawned its share of colorful characters.

Mike Sexton, a columnist for Card Player magazine, wrote that Pearson was "one of the few players in history who said, 'Deal me in' (for the highest game in the room) as soon as he walked into a poker room -- and this was without knowing what the game was or who was playing."

Pearson also was known to show up at major poker tournaments in the 1970s and '80s in full Viking regalia, or costumed as a cowboy or an American Indian, complete with headdress and war paint.

"He was a charming, talented rogue," Howard Schwartz, owner of the Gambler's Book Shop in Las Vegas, told The Times on Friday.

"I think he was influential in making poker a respectful form of gambling for at least two generations of players," Schwartz said. "He was not a guy who was a handsome, slick, boring individual; he was colorful. He chomped on his cigar, he'd make proposition bets -- 'I'll bet you this, I'll bet you that.'

"He knew the old generation, and he helped pave the way for the game to be popular, exciting, a contrarian lifestyle for a newer generation."

Pearson is prominently featured in many books, including "Fast Company: How Six Master Gamblers Defy the Odds and Always Win" by Jon Bradshaw; and "Aces and Kings" by Michael Kaplan and Brad Reagan.

"Puggy was very much an influence in the poker world for many years," Lyle Berman, one of the founders of the World Poker Tour, told The Times on Friday. "He was just everything that poker was back then; he was a character up until he died."

In his later years, Berman said, "Puggy was not able to take advantage of the big surge in poker. He was a little past his prime, but he lived to see what poker was to become, and I think he glorified in that a great deal."

One of nine children, Pearson was born Jan. 29, 1929, in Adairville, Ky., and grew up in the hills of Tennessee.

His illiterate parents were so poor, he once said, "that we had to move every time the rent came due. I didn't know what shoes were until I left home."

Pearson, who quit school at the age of 11 to go to work and help his family, earned his nickname when he was 12.

To impress a girl, he was walking on his hands over 2-by-4s at a church construction site when he missed one of the boards and fell, landing on his nose. Around the pool halls where he hustled money, the players took one look at his flattened nose and started calling him "Pug."

Pearson joined the Navy at 17 and trained to be a frogman. He also learned to play poker, refining his skills in poker and pool during his 10 years in the Navy.

Discharged from the Navy in the mid-1950s, he made his living playing poker and developed a reputation as an aggressive player.

In addition to winning the World Series of Poker's main event in 1973, Pearson took the 1971 limit seven-card stud world title, the 1973 $1,000 buy-in, no-limit hold 'em championship and the 1973 $4,000 buy-in limit seven-card stud title.

The high-stakes gambler once estimated that he won and lost millions of dollars playing poker and pool over the years.

"At the time he was at his peak of powers, he was as good as anybody," Larry Grossman, a Las Vegas gaming analyst and poker historian, said Friday. "He came on with his Tennessee drawl a little bit, but he was shrewd and he was smart. He was incredible in a number of different gambling-type games, be it poker, backgammon, pool or golf -- and he was very successful in hustling all of them.

"As long as he liked the game, usually it was to his favor."

Pearson is survived by his longtime companion Simin Habibian; son Stephen Mark Pearson; daughter Andrea Elaine Phelan; brother J.C. Pearson; sisters Bobbie Jean Bailey and Gladys Gracie Pearson; and a grandson.

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