Murphy James - Poker Legend, Jack "Treetop" Straus
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Poker Legend, Jack "Treetop" Straus

Murphy James
Jack "Treetop" Straus

If any guy fit the tag, “He lived life large,” it was Jack “Treetop” Straus. Big wins, big losses, big game hunter.

After bagging a lion in one of African jaunts, Jack had the paw mounted and around it he inscribed a motto in Spanish that Hemingway also adopted as his own: “Better one day as a lion than one hundred years as a lamb.”

Jack was a Texas-teller of tall tales. He reveled his friends, opponents, journalists, and anyone else who would listen with his colorful stories, usually beginning with, “Did I ever tell you about the time I . . . .” Some of his yarns may even have been true.

For example, as the story goes (told by Jack, of course), he was waiting in an IRS office in his home town of San Antonio because he had been hauled in for owing a million dollars in back taxes. He overheard a poor soul begging with an agent: “Please, don’t assess me $50,000. I’ll lose my business. My wife will leave me. I’ll be ruined.”

Jack got up, went over to the agent, and said, “Oh, hell, just put it on my tab. I owe so much it won’t make any difference to me.”

He picked up poker skills in high school, then college, then in “animal clubs:” Eagles, Elks, etc. Then he hit the road, seeking out lucrative but often dangerous games in Texas and Oklahoma . He carried a gun to ward off robbers, and sometimes the police, who would break up the game and go off with the money.

His World Series of Poker championship event win in 1982 put $500,000 into his pocket and a classic line (he had so many) into the literature. He had made a big bet and thought he lost all his chips. He overlooked one $500 chip tight up against the rail. He parlayed that chip into many more and eventually won the top prize in poker. His line: “All you need to win is a chip and a chair.”

In the very early days of the World Series of Poker, there was one winner and one winner only: 100% of the money went to Numero Uno. Later, the first place finisher got the bulk of the money, second place got something, third place got somewhat less, etc.

Jack thought that was a terrible system. His way: winner take all. Nada to everyone else.

Dubbed “Treetop” because he was 6’, 6” and maybe a little more, and a basketball star at Texas A&M, he often sat hunched down at a table to diminish his height. He played in high stakes games, against the best players in the world.

The only way Jack knew how to play was, win it all or lose it all. Another of Jack’s lines: “If you were supposed to hold on to money, they would have put handles on it.”

And another, “When I lose, I don’t mind losing money. It’s the embarrassment of being beaten.”

While covering the World Series of Poker in 1983, this journalist sat with Jack over a cup of coffee at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Vegas, and asked: “When’s the last time you bet the rent money, Jack?” He laughed, looked at his watch, and said, “About fifteen minutes ago.”

Jack “Treetop” Straus came to the end of his days in a manner befitting a poker warrior: he had a heart attack at a poker table at The Bicycle Club in California in 1988.

It’s a shame he couldn’t add this experience to his long list of dubious stories, beginning with, “Did I ever tell you about the time I . . . .”

© 2005 Murphy James