When David ‘Chip’ Reese died, the poker world mourned one of the greatest all-round players ever. Reese and best friend Doyle Brunson spent more then 30 years playing and beating every game they came across. This is Brunson’s tribute, in his own words…
Before I met Chip, I’d heard about him. It was the summer of 1973; he and his partner Danny Robison were playing $10/$20 stud over at the Stardust, and they were tearing up the game pretty good. Word had gotten around about him being a strong player, but I didn’t pay much mind to it. Without knowing Chip, I made him out to be a smart kid who came to town and happened to run really well. It happens all the time.
People get lucky until they stop being lucky, and then they lose their bankrolls. Funnily enough, I didn’t even think about being the one to bust him. Chip didn’t have enough money for it to matter.
Then one day Chip and Danny came into the Flamingo where we played hi-lo split. It was me, Puggy Pearson, Johnny Moss, Jimmy Casella, all sitting around the table, playing our regular game. And, I should point out, playing it wrong. Most everybody in that game routinely went for the high, which was a huge mistake; it meant that the best you could do was win half the pot. I understood this, but nearly all of the other guys in the game did not. They were great no-limit hold’em players who adapted slowly to the other games.
Chip immediately recognised what was going on, and before too long sat down with the entire bankroll that he and Danny had built up. It was no more than $30,000, and we played $400/$800, which was considered big back then. He was seriously under-staked for the game – but not for long.
I remember one hand where I was rolled up with Kings, which you ordinarily wouldn’t play. But it was a multi-way pot, so I decided to take a few cards and caught a running pair. I made Kings-full, Chip had a Six-Four low on fifth street, and the other guys were drawing dead. We jammed them in there, and, consequently, it became a pretty big pot. By the river, Chip had four cards to a straight flush. He hit the steel wheel and scooped the biggest $400/$800 pot I’d ever seen: about $30,000. Before too long, he and Danny had run their bankroll up to $100,000 and Chip was on his way.
We were used to seeing hometown champions sitting down and trying to make it in our game. Most of the time they went broke. Occasionally we saw one who was the real deal. That was Chip. I sensed it the first time I played with him. I immediately noticed that he had winning attributes. A big one is that he had a knack for staying away from guys who were running hot. In poker games, people tend to chase winning players, figuring that they can’t always have big hands.
Chip recognised that when people are on a roll they are hard to beat. I never did tell him that I spotted his habit of doing that. We were competitors and I didn’t want to let him know what I recognised in his game.
Under the influence
Back in the mid-1970s, Chip was a brash kid. He was good-looking and confident, dressed sharp, threw around money, dated some pretty girls. But he was also a little naive. And that got him into trouble early on. In terms of the criminal element around town, Las Vegas used to be a much more treacherous place than it is now.
Chip wasn’t used to it and he got himself mixed up with some of the bad guys who preyed on poker players by putting together cheating rings that just destroyed people. They convinced him to do some things that he shouldn’t have been doing, but Chip was just a kid, he’d had no exposure to these mob types, and it’s easy to see how he got caught up.
Things came to a head after we played a golf match. It was Chip and Danny against me and this girl who happened to be surprisingly sharp on the course. We made a contract to play $10,000 Nassaus (a form of golf competition where players compete to win the front nine, back nine and full 18 holes) every day for a week.
That was substantial back then, and a six-figure swing one way or the other was very possible. Well, after the first two days we got ahead by $90,000. Before we had a chance to go out for the third round, the head bad guy came up to me and said, ‘You misrepresented this to us, we’re not gonna pay you, and they’re not gonna play anymore.’ I told him, ‘We have a contract and they have to play.’ He told me that the contract was null and void and the match was cancelled.
I figured that I’d never see my money, because, frankly, that was the way things sometimes went back then. Well, not too long after I’d written it all off, Chip showed up with a brown paper bag that held $90,000 in cash. He told me that I was right, that I deserved the money, and that he would cover it personally. Following that payoff, Chip severed relationships with the bad guys. That told me a lot about his character. It took a lot of fortitude to break away from them, and they really didn’t like that he did it.
We later found out that they actually held it against Chip to the point that there was a contract taken out on his life. A goon was hired to shoot him. Only because the would-be hitman came to his senses or lost his nerve at the last minute did Chip Reese not get murdered.
Luckily for us, the guy who was behind all the corruption in the poker world got himself killed and things cooled off a little bit. At that point the top players (including Chip, Bobby Baldwin and myself) got together and agreed that if these criminals or mob guys tried to get a toe-hold in the poker world again, we’d all get together to stop the cheating before it started.
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of people describing Chip as ‘the complete package’. I think what they meant is that he had every desirable attribute. He was athletic, friendly, articulate and smart. He had it all. Plus he was generous. Chip was more generous than people ever knew. Any time I called Chip and told him I wanted to do something for so- and-so, who was a little down and out, Chip always had the same response: I’m in. He was a contributor.
One thing I never agreed with Chip on is the lavish way in which he lived. He spent his money on things that I thought were foolish. For example, we travelled to Europe a few times to play against wealthy gamblers. Whenever we went there, he always got the best suite. I remember being in Rome one time, and I stayed in a room for $200 per night while Chip paid $2,500 for his suite. He drove new Cadillacs and BMWs, spent money on clothing, and always gave his family the best of everything.
It’s a known fact among poker players that he spared no expense when it came to food. Chip loved to eat. I remember one time the two of us were up in his hotel suite, playing gin. It was time for dinner and he ordered just about everything on the room service menu, just for the two of us. When the food came up, he pretended that it was a meal for five, shouting out, ‘Dinner’s here, y’all. Come and get it!’ But we were the only ones in the suite.
Besides gambling with each other, we made a number of investments together. Most of them were very, very bad investments. We had a string of racehorses that we lost a lot of money on. We invested in going to look for the Titanic, which we almost did find before running out of money.
That cost us $20,000 or $30,000 apiece. We sent an expedition to look for Noah’s Ark and actually got a piece of the boat. We had a 1-900-number for sports betting, a thing called ChewBrush – gum that brushes your teeth while you chew on it – and a Christian television station. That was the biggest fiasco. We got involved with a disreputable guy in Alabama and couldn’t get away.
One thing that did work out pretty well for us was a baseball betting syndicate that we put together. Chip found a kid from Cornell University who always seemed to beat baseball. It turned out that this kid knew as much about the game as anyone, and he developed a computer program that was superior to anything that the bookies had. We made a lot of money over a five-year period in the 1990s.
We placed bets all over the United States and revolutionised baseball betting. As our fame grew, everybody was trying to bet our games. So we needed to have our people calling in bets simultaneously in order to get down large amounts. It required a lot of organising, and Chip is the one who handled that. He could have been a great CEO.
Head to head
Chip and I had an interesting relationship. He was one of my best friends, but also one of my fiercest competitors. People debated about which one of us was the better player, but it was pretty clear that either he or I was the best in the game. I think Chip came out ahead of me over the years, but nobody could say the cards broke evenly. He always seemed to have the best hand when it came down to a coin-flip and the coolers all seemed to go his way.
Spending so much time together at the poker table, we developed a sense of camaraderie, though we didn’t share information about one another. We talked about other players, but he never told me my strengths or weaknesses and I never told him about his. We were friendly competitors, and I played harder against Chip than I’ve played against anyone in my life. In spite of that, rumours went around that
we colluded with one another. But there was never a word of truth to that.
I guess people got to thinking like that because we seemed to win a lot of the time and tended to be the game starters, the catalysts. We’d play heads-up until somebody wanted to come in and join us. One thing for sure is that Chip was the best at attracting wealthy people into the game. He was so personable and likeable. In comparison, I’m not so good at hiding my feelings if I dislike somebody. Chip was much more diplomatic.
I used to kid him about being the All-American Boy with a shit-eating grin who could just charm everyone. He could strike up conversations with virtual strangers and get them to sit down with us. But that was just
Chip’s natural personality. Barry Greenstein tells about when he came up to the game for the first time. Chip said, ‘Come on, buddy. We’re playing just what you want to play. You’re gonna get along real good in this game.’ He sat down, and, as it turns out, he got along just fine.
At the table, Chip had some real advantages over just about everyone else. He often said that it wasn’t his A-game that made him successful. And Chip was right about that – his A-game wasn’t much better than anyone else’s. Chip’s edge came when he had to break out his D-game, which, as he liked to put it, wasn’t all that different from his A- game.
Congruent with that, he was willing to walk away from the table a loser when things didn’t go his way. He was almost eager to stop playing and come back the next day to try again. For most of us, that’s a difficult thing to do and it can cost a player a lot of money.
The other thing that Chip did especially well at the table was manage bad beats. He took them better than anyone I’ve ever seen. I knew Chip for a long time, and never once did I hear him raise his voice or get flustered. There is only one other person that I’ve ever seen like that – my father.
Maybe Chip had a premonition that something was wrong with him or else his doctor had told him that he wasn’t doing very well, because about six months before he died he began to withdraw. We went from talking to each other two or three times a day to talking two or three times a week. I found that very strange. After his passing, I heard from a third party that Chip didn’t want anyone in the poker world to know about his failing health. He was afraid that players would capitalise on it.
He kept a low profile for those months, and I’m not even sure when I last saw him. I do remember our final phone conversation though. I called him to share some jokes somebody had emailed to me. Had I known it was the last time I’d be speaking with him, I’d have told Chip how much I’ve appreciated knowing him over the years and how much I loved him. He was a special friend and we were on the same page about a lot of things.
A number of people, including me, spoke about Chip at his funeral. I think he appreciated that. I’m sure he’s proud of the fact that he’ll always be known as one of the great players. He would want to be remembered as a guy who put his family in front of poker when he needed to. He’d want to be remembered as the great ambassador of poker that he was. I know I’ll remember him that way.
Chip was cremated and his family members took some of the ashes and put them into a gold alloy and made crosses for some of us. I tried to wear mine, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, though I will at some point. Dealing with Chip’s death has been tough. For the first two or three months after he died, I stayed at home and didn’t do much. It just took away some of my interest in life, left a little hole inside of me.
But then I realised that life goes on and that the last thing Chip would want is for me to be sitting around and mourning for him. I realised that I’ll be joining him soon enough and that I just have to move on.
We still play the Big Game in Bobby’s Room, but it’s not the same. It feels very sad to be in there without Chip. Sometimes I look at the big photo of him, hanging there on the wall, and I think about him sitting at the table with us, laughing, eating, betting it up. Right now I’m thinking about how he found the superior way to die: he went to sleep and didn’t awaken. What a great way to go. That’s typical Chip. Even in dying, he got dealt the nuts.
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