Clearing the Air with Poker Pro Tom McEvoy

Fate. Destiny. Poker Gods. Tom McEvoy’s had a bit of everything in his poker career. It’s run the whole gamut of human emotion. And, in 1983, he reached the game’s pinnacle after beating Rodney Peate to win the World Series of Poker main event. He was 38-years old, a newly crowned world champion, and absolutely exhausted. Although you wouldn’t have known it by his reaction when that final card was dealt. He and Peate had locked horns in a lengthy heads-up battle. More than seven hours. And McEvoy came out on top. Literally, the last man standing.

The scenes are memorable. Tired, relieved and excited, McEvoy stood on his chair, with his arms raised in victory, and let out a primal scream for the ages. It was the kind of release only a few ever get. It was chilling, and of championship quality.

“He thought I was fresh off the farm,” McEvoy said. You could sense the smile forming on his face as he recalled and retold the story. He wasn’t talking about Peate, though. He was referring to third place finisher Doyle Brunson. Already a two-time world champion at the time, and author of the highly-regarded Super System, hailed by many people as the game’s bible.

Tom McEvoy

Texas Dolly

“I purchased one of the very first copies when it first came out in 1979. It wasn’t even called Super System then (How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker). I tracked down his publishing company and, when I walked in, there he was. So, I got Doyle to sign my book. Then, I pointed a finger at him and said, ‘Just wait, I’m gonna be at the same table as you one day. You just watch.’”

Only four years later, there they were, sitting together at the same final table, and battling it out for poker’s most prestigious prize. Prophetic. McEvoy, an unknown accountant from Michigan, and Brunson, an icon. Incidentally, that was Texas Dolly’s last ever final table appearance in the main event.

“Doyle did say, years later, that he actually remembered our brief encounter, and giving me the autograph. I don’t know if he was kidding, or just being polite or not, but it was flattering.”

It should be noted that Peate had the chip lead heading into the final table that year, but the bookies had Brunson, who was second in chips, listed as the overwhelming betting favourite to win. McEvoy, a distant third in chips when play began, had been pegged as an 8-to-1 underdog. He defied the odds on the biggest stage of them all.

Different Era

Back then, the final table wasn’t broadcast live like it is today. But there were television cameras present, plenty of them. The main event was packaged in those days as a documentary film, and McEvoy’s title run wasn’t aired until 18-months after the fact. It was already old news. Perhaps a little unfortunate on the exposure front, but he has always made the most of his opportunities.

“There are a few times I have had a chance to be on national television. I’ve made three final televised tables, with two wins and a second place. I feel I did a pretty good job once I got there, but it’s tough getting there. I’m not a regular on the poker circuit anymore, so I don’t have the opportunity to play in a lot of these TV events. If you’re not in it, you can’t win it, and therefore you can’t get any air time. People are far more aware of players who appear on television frequently, as opposed to someone like me.”

Tom McEvoy

A native of Grand Rapids, the 75-year old has resided in Las Vegas for the past forty years, and needs no validation in the poker world. His credentials are sound. Like Brunson before him, McEvoy has gone on to achieve legendary status himself. He is the proud owner of four WSOP gold bracelets:

  • 1983, $1,000 Limit Hold’em ($117,000)
  • 1983, $10,000 World Championship ($580,000)
  • 1986, $1,000 Razz ($52,400)
  • 1992, $1,500 Limit Omaha ($79,200)

An accountant by trade, McEvoy has been able to gainfully employ a mathematical and tactical approach to his card playing. He’s made a career off of solid reads and instincts. Maybe not the most aggressive player, but certainly aggressive at the right times, when it matters. He may not play much poker anymore but when he does, he seems to win.

McEvoy: Calm, Cool & Collected

Another key attribute to his success at the table? His calm demeanor. Even with the bright  lights on him, and the cameras rolling, he doesn’t get rattled, ever.

“A reporter once asked me, ‘Don’t you get nervous?’ I answered, ‘the only time I’m nervous is when I’m talking to you guys.’ When I’m playing, I’m totally focused on the game, and in the zone. Being in front of the cameras has never bothered me. It’s still just a game, so I only focus on the game, because that’s what really matters.”

The Binion Cup

Underneath that cool exterior, however, is a strong desire to win. He’s a competitive guy. A trait that was on full display, for all to see, at the 2009 World Series of Poker. He captured the first ever Champions Invitational. The tournament featured 20 former world champions, WSOP all-stars if you will, and it garnered lots of hype and publicity.

“They interviewed every one of the participants before play started, and I told them ‘there is nobody in this field more determined to win than I am, because I feel like I have something to prove.’ I was very focused on the title. They had a special trophy made called the Binion Cup, and it was the only time it’s ever been awarded. I still have it.”

He defeated 2002 main event champ Robert Varkonyi heads-up for the crown. As part of the winner’s haul, and aside from the coveted bragging rights, McEvoy was also presented with a vintage corvette from 1970, the same year the World Series of Poker started.

“The car? Actually, my wife is wearing it on her finger. She wanted a diamond, so she was quite happy with that little prize. I never actually drove the car, never took it out of the parking lot of the Rio. I sold it, and never regretted it. If I was a little younger, I might have kept it. I figured one of two things would have happened, I’d either get a lot of speeding tickets because the car was bright cherry red or I’d kill myself. I didn’t like either option.”

Poker Hall of Fame

He doesn’t like to wait either. Despite all the accolades; a world title, four bracelets, 20 finals tables, some 50 cashes at the WSOP, and close to $3 million in lifetime earnings, McEvoy was on the ballot, and passed over, four times before finally being inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.

“I wasn’t holding my breath,” he admitted. For McEvoy, who had his feelings hurt the previous years after being denied entry, the entire process was about letting go.

Tom McEvoy Poker Hall of Fame

“I’ve always believed the world doesn’t owe anybody a living. You’re not supposed to have a sense of entitlement, and yet I think that’s how I felt. Like I was entitled to it. I realized poker has been very good to me. It’s done a lot for my family, and while I try to give back, the game doesn’t owe me anything. I finally resigned myself to that fact, and that’s when I got the call.”

McEvoy was forever enshrined as part of the Class of 2013, alongside fellow world champion Scotty Nguyen (1998), a five-time bracelet winner.

So, what are the requirements for induction into the Hall of Fame? There are five of them:

  • A gambler must have played poker against acknowledged top competition,
  • Played for high stakes,
  • Played consistently well, gained the respect of peers,
  • And stood the test of time.
  • Or, for non-players, contributed to the overall growth and success of the game of poker, with indelible positive and lasting results.

The knock-on McEvoy is that he didn’t always play at the highest stakes, that he concentrated more on tournament play than live, high-stakes cash games. But he has the answer for that — common sense.

“Well, I certainly think playing the $10,000 buy-in World Series of Poker main event qualifies as high stakes, don’t you?”

He points to the inductees like Henry Orenstein (2008), the man who invented the hole-card camera, and Linda Johnson (2011), the ‘First Lady of Poker’ and long-time poker journalist and consultant, as prime examples. They didn’t play the highest stakes, but they do each own a WSOP bracelet, and have both been enshrined for their contributions to the game. The same can be said for McEvoy. It was fully deserved, and it means the world to him.

The Highest Honour for McEvoy

“It’s really a life-time achievement award and a validation of my entire poker career. Next to winning the main event, which nothing can ever top, I consider it the second highest honour any poker player could receive. I’m honoured and humbled to be in there with all the other poker greats. It’s not easy to get in there because they only induct one or two players a year. It was a longtime coming, but I’m really enjoying this new chapter in my life.”

There are 58 players in the Poker Hall of Fame. Johnny Moss (1979), Doyle Brunson (1988), David ‘Chip’ Reese (1991), Stu ‘The Kid’ Ungar (2001), Johnny Chan (2002), and the two Phil’s, Hellmuth (2007) and Ivey (2017), have all had their rightful spots reserved, as has World Series of Poker founder Benny Binion. He was inducted in 1990.

Growth of the Game

The game has skyrocketed in popularity since McEvoy’s championship 37 years ago. If you told him back then that another unknown accountant, a guy by the name of Chris Moneymaker, would turn a $39 satellite entry into $2.5 million, a world title, and create the poker boom, he would have thought you were crazy. He would not have believed it.

Nobody saw it coming. It would have been virtually impossible to predict.

The year Moneymaker took home the championship there were 839 entrants. Which then jumped to more than 2,500 the following year, and more than 5,000 the year after that. In 2006, the year Jamie Gold outwitted, outplayed, and out-talked his opponents for a cool $12 million, more than 9,000 players entered the main event. Certainly, a sharp contrast when you compare those numbers with that of the field in 1983, when McEvoy won. There were only 108 runners that year.

How McEvoy is Clearing the Air

There was also cigarette smoke that year, and lots of it, wafting through the halls of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, which hosted the tournament until 2005 when it moved to the Rio. In those days there was a cloud of smoke everywhere. It was more like a fog. Puffing and poker was commonplace. It was accepted. McEvoy never liked it, or understood it. People were getting sick, so he decided to take action.

In 1999, he organized and hosted the first non-smoking tournament in Las Vegas history. It was held at Sam’s Town, and it created quite a stir in the poker community. McEvoy received a lot of flak from smokers who threatened to boycott the event. Many actually changed their minds and played anyway. They didn’t have to quit smoking, they just had to take their habit outside.

No smoking sign

“There was a thick haze of cigar and cigarette smoke. Players and dealers were becoming ill with bronchial ailments, and you had no other options. You just had to put up with it and play. It went on for years. Then, something funny happened. The smokers decided they preferred the cleaner air themselves. They could breathe better as well. The casinos finally realized that besides the moral issues, to preserve and protect people’s health, it also made good financial sense. They were going to get a better tournament without smoking than with smoking. The vast majority wanted to go non-smoking.”

It was like rapid fire, too. Once the idea of non-smoking tournaments became established, poker rooms across the country were quick to adopt them. Europe eventually followed suit. And, in 2002, the World Series of Poker went smoke-free for the very first time.

World champion, bracelet winner, Hall of Fame inductee. Tom McEvoy has had an outstanding career in poker. The reason all poker rooms are non-smoking today? That transcends poker. That’s one for humanity.

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver Dewan is the founder of High Roller Radio and has interviewed a number of the world's top poker players and gamblers. A former radio and television broadcaster, Derrick was brand manager for Poker Pro Canada magazine and has written for a variety of publications, including the Toronto Star & Windsor Life.

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