BY JERRY STERNBERG
Poker is a game in which luck definitely plays an important part. Let me tell you about my luckiest poker game ever.
In my last column, I wrote that in the early ’70s, Alvin Ledford ran a poker house on Merrimon Avenue, near where The Fresh Market is now. On Sunday nights he held his “big game,” which began around 6 p.m. The stakes were higher than in his regular weekly games, and people of every stripe came from all over to play.
One particularly hot Sunday night in July, I had taken an early nap and woke up around 10 p.m. I thought, “This is a good time to go get in the game.” I liked to wait until it had been going for a while, because you had a better read on the players and could more easily tell the winners from the losers.
The winners often played a little more conservatively, to try to preserve their winnings; the losers tended to be more aggressive, making heavier bets on weaker cards to try and get their money back. In gambling circles, this is known as “steaming.”
I arrived at the house about 10:30.
Even though it was hot, I was surprised to see a guy they called Doc, who was a small-time bookmaker, standing on the porch wearing a pair of undersized denim shorts and no shirt. Alvin was there too, dressed in a pair of jeans that barely covered his knees and a shirt that was open because it was too small to be buttoned.
“What’s up?” I said casually.
“They cleaned us out,” they answered.
I had never been in a game with Doc, but this news didn’t surprise me about Alvin: Even though he was in the business, he was a terrible poker player. He would occasionally sit in on a game, but I never saw him win.
This, by the way, seems to be typical of people in the gambling business. I’ve watched professional blackjack dealers, pit bosses and dice croupiers, and when they gambled with their own money, their lack of skill was pathetic.
I walked past Doc and Alvin and into the house; the scene in the dining room was absolutely shocking. It looked like something out of some really weird Roman bath. About eight men were sitting around the table, some wearing articles of clothing that were way too small for them. A big, fat pimp was wrapped in a bedsheet; another big guy was swathed in a tablecloth. Some, including a doctor from Hendersonville, were totally naked. None had shoes on, and they just sat there staring at one another, totally disgraced and dejected.
It was so bizarre that I started to laugh — but then I realized that there was something very unfunny about the situation.
Before I go further, I have to tell you about the main character in this drama, because he was the person I knew best, and he’s the one who told me the rest of the story.
His name was Larry, but everybody called him Mush because he had a very pronounced mustache. He was a good friend of Odell Harris, my partner in the Sky Club venture. He was always impeccably dressed. He seemed very intelligent, had a charming personality, and his comic banter would put a smile on every face.
He also appeared to have plenty of money but no visible means of support. As was my policy with all the characters in Odell’s circle whose escapades fascinated me, I never asked any questions, and they always treated me with dignity and respect.
It turned out that Mush was just your friendly local pharmacist, a man who could deliver your drug of choice for the right price. He was actually quite a capable guy, though, and during one of the times when he was legit, he went into the remodeling business with Doc, who was also pretty bright.
Mush came to me to see if I had any work for him; as it happened, I had a big building that had been a junkyard. The floors were caked with 2 inches of grease, and the walls and ceiling were covered with soot.
I had just leased the building to a mattress manufacturing company, and it needed extensive cleaning. Mush signed a contract and hired every thug and drunken painter he could find to clean up and repaint the place.
He worked these guys mercilessly; they even scrubbed the floors with nitric acid. He did an excellent job, though: brought it in on time, and when he was through it looked like a new building. This guy has a future, I thought. Sadly, however, Mush went back to his former business, did time in Craggy Prison and died a young man.
That poker game, though, is a story that Damon Runyon couldn’t have concocted.
It seems that all these guys were sitting around the table playing when two men with ski masks and sawed-off shotguns came through the back door and got the drop on the whole group. They were ordered to take off all their clothes and shoes and put them — along with all their money and possessions — into bags the men provided. After that they were told to stand against the wall and not talk or move.
There were several handguns in the crowd, but under the circumstances, no one was foolish enough to go up against a sawed-off shotgun.
Mush said he and Doc had come in just a few minutes earlier; they were hanging out in the living room, booking baseball bets and figuring out their payoffs. Mush heard someone standing over him who said, “Stand up.” He didn’t, and the guy repeated himself: “I said stand up.” Mush said he looked up and this guy had the barrels of that sawed-off shotgun pointed right between the eyes. He said, “I thought I was looking into the Holland Tunnel, those barrels looked so big.”
He and Doc were forced to strip and join the party in the next room, facing the wall with their hands up. Then, whether it was intentional or not, one of the robbers fired a blast into the ceiling, totally terrorizing and traumatizing those macho men.
As the thieves were finishing up their business, one noticed that Mush was wearing his class ring, which he hadn’t been able to remove for five years. “Take off that ring,” the guy commanded.
Mush said, “I can’t take it off.” But when the guy shoved the barrel of that gun into Mush’s side, he yanked off that ring like it was three sizes too big.
There was another character in the game named Forrest, who’d lost his leg in an industrial accident. His lawyer had succeeded in getting him the first million-dollar judgment ever awarded in this area. Nothing was sacred to these guys, however: Forrest was even relieved of his prosthesis.
As the robbers were getting ready to leave, one of them asked the group, “Where is that smartass with the mustache?” Somebody told me later that he looked down the wall and could see Mush trying desperately to use his lower teeth and lip to cover up his mustache.
Finally they left, after jerking the phone out of the wall and making off with a haul estimated at up to $200,000. Some of those boys carried huge amounts of cash around.
It was only later that I fully appreciated the plight these guys were in.
They couldn’t call the cops, even if they’d wanted to, and say they were participating in an illegal gambling game. And when the robbers took their possessions, they also took their car keys.
So they had no clothes or shoes, even though some had managed to get into the clothes they found upstairs, where Alvin’s teenage son stayed. They weren’t about to go out on the street that way and attract police attention.
So when I arrived, about a half-hour after the robbers had left, I was their ticket out of there. I drove Mush — who was wearing the teenager’s ill-fitting trousers and nothing else — to his girlfriend’s house to get her set of keys for his car, so he could take the other guys home. In typical Mush mentality, the thing he was most upset about was that they’d taken his brand-new cowboy boots that he was so proud of.
Those robbers, though, had pulled off the perfect crime. It was never investigated, for obvious reasons, and to this day it’s never been solved.
There was much speculation about the thieves’ identities. I remembered that when Odell had briefly run the poker game at the Sky Club, I’d seen two strangers who someone said were from Tennessee. They were tough-looking hombres and appeared to be very professional poker players. I told Odell that they had to go and that we really needed to shut down that game. I heard later that those two guys might have previously played in Alvin’s game, which would have given them a chance to case the joint; it appears that they knew the layout and had some idea of how much money might be there for the taking.
They were my suspects.
But the reason I said this was my luckiest poker game ever is that if I’d arrived a half-hour earlier, I would probably have ended up standing with the other guys, naked, humiliated and stripped of my possessions — or worse.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. His new book, The Gospel According to Jerry, 85th Birthday Edition, is available at the Grovewood Gallery, Gallery of the Mountains at the Grove Park Inn, the Estes-Winn Antique Car Museum and the Battery Park Book Exchange. The price is $25 per copy, and all proceeds will be donated to Helpmate. The book can also be ordered directly from Helpmate, either online (email firstname.lastname@example.org) or by mail (P.O. Box 2263, Asheville, NC 28802).