This is a guest post by David Alzofon about a colorful, loud high-stakes poker player, Mark Sherman, who frequented the San Francisco cardrooms in the 1980s. Here’s David’s bio:
David Alzofon grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent 20 years slogging away in the salt mines of Silicon Valley. During a brief period of unemployment in the mid-’80s, he chanced to come across the classic, “Play Poker, Quit Working and Sleep Till Noon” in a local bookstore and went out looking for cardrooms, which he found difficult to believe existed in the conservative environment of the Bay Area. He soon discovered his mistake and became a regular at Garden City, The Oaks, Artichoke Joe’s, and the Cameo Club in Palo Alto, graduating from $2 to $200-to-go lowball games and eventually hold ’em. These days he plays only occasionally, but in retrospect, the greatest source of interest in poker he found was the memorable collection of characters who played the game.
The Greatest Poker Player Ever?
by David Alzofon
Imagine that it’s around 1985 and you’re playing in one of the biggest legal no-limit poker games in the country. Imagine that there’s a million dollars on the table — give or take — night after night, week after week. Now imagine that you’re beating that same game every night, night after night. The opposition is tough and savvy, so most of the regulars are just passing chips back and forth between each other while the house collects the rake, but for you it’s like cranking the lever on a broken slot machine.
In six months, you fail to book a single losing session.
With a record like that, you just might be the greatest poker player who ever lived, and your name just might be Mark Sherman. In the years that I observed Mr. Sherman, either up close at the table or from the sidelines of high-stakes games in the San Francisco Bay Area, I came to appreciate his bottomless reservoir of audacity, analytical skills, creative ploys, and sheer showmanship. Most good poker players exhibit similar talent, but Sherman was in a league by himself. A full report would require a book, but I hope to give you the flavor of his outrageous, and highly effective, approach to poker via a few anecdotes. Unfortunately, even though words were one of his deadliest weapons, mere transcription of dialogue can at best convey only a pale sense of what it was like to sit at the table with this agile-witted and entertaining genius. Yes, he was funny, too.
I never saw Sherman play for small stakes, so I can’t say whether he would have done any better than average there. It was in high-stakes games that his fearlessness and unusual talent for manipulating the opposing players’ emotions showed itself best. His approach to poker underscored the truth of the saying, “Poker is a people game played with cards,” but where other players would generally make quiet, defensive use of this maxim, Sherman boldly went on offense, ruthlessly exploiting the classic vulnerabilities of fear, greed, and pride to an extent that I have never seen matched by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Of course, his mathematical game and card-reading ability were both far above average, but his sharpest weapon, the one that no other player could match, was his talent for verbal, even theatrical ploys executed with utter fearlessness and seamless unreadability. Because he was so good at human factors, the cards he held were almost irrelevant. This has been true of all great players to some extent, but none more so than Mark Sherman, I would contend.
Don’t go looking for him on the WSOP circuit these days. Sadly, Mark passed away sometime around 2012. These days I can’t find a single remembrance of him on the Web, other than author and poker coach Tommy Angelo’s narration of the legendary “ripped cards” incident, surely one of the most audacious deceptions in the history of poker. It reads like a scene from a movie, but it really happened.
The full story is here: http://tommyangelo.com/articles/famous-card-ripping-hand/, but briefly, the year was 1958, and the cardroom was Artichoke Joe’s in San Bruno, California. The game was no-limit, Ace-to-five lowball, no Joker. As you probably know, in this species of lowball a “bicycle” or “wheel” (Ace-2-3-4-5) is an immortal hand — not because it’s a straight (straights and flushes don’t count), but because all five ranks contain the lowest card possible. Second best hand is a “six-four” (6-4-3-2-A), third is a “six-five” (6-5-3-2-A), and so forth.
On this occasion, Sherman manipulated his opponent, Nick Sahati (owner of Stateline Country Club at Lake Tahoe), into making an enormous, but doomed bet after the draw. Sherman did this by feigning angry disappointment at his draw card, then ripping up his hand. “Check!” he declared, slamming the pieces of his cards face down on the table.
“Now we’ll separate the men from the boys,” said Sahati, and pushed all-in with $50,000. Sahati thought he was only up against one other player, who had already shown weakness by checking.
“Call,” Mark said out of nowhere, his paw still covering the ripped cards on the felt.
Nick jumped to his feet in a fury, yelling that Sherman’s hand was dead, but the club ruled the hand live because none of the cards — or card pieces — had touched the muck or left the table. When the pieces of Sherman’s cards were reassembled, sure enough, he had checked a bicycle.
There’s a footnote to Tommy’s story which I haven’t seen written up anywhere else. In the mid-’80s, I used to play at Artichoke Joe’s fairly regularly. They were still using pasteboard cards that could easily be torn in half, but thanks to Sherman’s notorious ploy, a rule had been added that forbid the ripping of cards. One day I got into a conversation with a dealer about the card-ripping incident, and much to my surprise, he revealed a new angle on it.
It seems that a week beforehand, Sherman had struck up a conversation with the floorman and casually asked if ripped cards would still be live. The floorman said, “That’s an interesting question,” and took it up with higher management. The answer had come back, “Yes, as long as they don’t touch the muck.” They had no idea what manner of subterfuge they had set in motion. Presumably Sherman then went home to practice ripping up his cards and slamming them down without sending the pieces flying.
In those days, the rulebook was fairly brief, and it was an unwritten precept that whatever was not expressly forbidden was legal. For most players, that was the end of the story. For Sherman, as this story illustrates, it was an invitation to creativity.
Tommy gives a good description of the overall impression Sherman made:
“Most every poker player in the Bay Area knows Mark Sherman. He holds the ever-growing record for most deck-change requests. He can come off as a sourpuss, as he did when we met three years ago. But I soon found that under his crusty exterior lies a good heart. Along with his chiseled frown and harsh tone come a quick smile and a booming laugh. Yeah, this guy is all right.”
To this I would add that Sherman was physically imposing, over six feet tall, and solidly built. He generally wore dark dress slacks and favored light blue sport shirts with triangular 1950s-style “classic” collars lying flat. He talked a lot at the table, but this was deceptive: he was observing every detail and filing away the information for future use. Apparently he carried a handgun. I was sitting at the table with him in the $80-limit lowball game at Garden City, San Jose, when the conversation turned to the risks of walking out the door with large amounts of cash. “I’m not worried,” he said. “What I got in my pocket could stop Superman.”
With his thick neck, strong features, neatly groomed salt-and-pepper beard, and hair combed back to reveal a widow’s peak with a thin white streak, he had an intimidating, somewhat satanic appearance. But the gold Star of David around his neck unambiguously declared his faith. His table patter often contained elements of Rodney Dangerfield and Woody Allen, so much so that one wag at the Cameo Club in Palo Alto (another high stakes, no-limit venue) dubbed him the “Sniveler on the Roof.” Politically incorrect insults were dealt as routinely as the cards in those days.
Sherman’s most memorable feature, however, was his booming bass voice, which easily cut through the din of chip clatter and conversation to command the attention of players and railbirds at far-flung corners of the casino. Though he was a restaurateur, I always suspected that he’d had training as a singer or an actor. Whatever else he might have done with that thundering voice, he forged it into a deadly weapon of deception at the poker table, as the following two incidents will illustrate.
Both occurred in the late ’80s in a seedy cardroom in South Palo Alto, the notorious Cameo Club. The first time I ever heard of the Cameo Club was when my mom befriended a young lady who was putting herself through college by working as a topless waitress there. Smoking, drinking, no-limit poker, and topless waitresses all under one roof? In Palo Alto?!
I was still underage, but I remembered this image of heavenly decadence, and first chance I got, I dropped in to see what was going on. The topless waitresses were long gone, but I noticed there were card tables and a lot of chips being thrown around. A railbird informed me that yes, the chips were worth real money, and when he told me how much money was on the table, I have to admit that I didn’t believe him, but I made up my mind I would be back.
Where Artichoke Joe’s was usually fairly sedate, the Cameo was often the scene of some pretty wild action. For example, I remember a $2-to-go lowball game in which one player shoved in $2,000 on every hand without even looking at his cards. “I’ve got terminal cancer,” he said cheerfully to the table full of salivating vultures. But as I recall, it was the vultures who lost their shirts that day.
Then as now, Palo Alto was home to enormous fortunes made in high-tech businesses and real estate, and the action there could get as steep as any game in the country. The biggest hand in Cameo history, for example, involved a $240,000 pot, and that was back when a quarter of a million bucks was real money.
One of the regulars at the Cameo was Barry Greenstein, who has since become a legend in his own right. Barry had plenty of gamble in him, but his deadpan, deeply analytical approach to the game was in stark contrast to Sherman’s over-the-top theatrical ploys and antics. As a brief example, I recall one hand that resembled the Scotty Nguyen, Humberto Brenes face-off at the 2003 WSOP (link to Youtube hand).
Faced with a $3,000 bet from a stone-faced young Asian (probably a stock-option millionaire), Sherman placed his thumbs behind his $15,000 mountain of chips and shoved all-in with ominous gravity. Then, while his opponent pondered his next move, Sherman stood up and leaned over the table, warning, “Don’t go busted now, Cal. I wouldn’t want to see you go busted.” Then, while Sherman continued standing over Cal, rocking from one foot to the other, and warning him, Cal’s face broke. He leaned back in his chair, started giggling and flicking his cards with his index finger while Sherman went on in that deep operatic voice about the imminent bankruptcy coming his way should he dare to call. After thinking a good two minutes, Cal threw away his hand, and Sherman raked the pot without showing his cards. Sherman seldom showed his cards unless he wanted to, and when he did, his holding was often a surprise.
One night, I was in a game with Sherman when he delivered one of his most memorable performances.
We were playing $12-to-go, no-limit lowball at the Cameo (this time the deck had a Joker). Sherman, who was slumming while waiting for a seat in the big game, was sitting in the cutoff seat with about $8,000 in in front of him (a wall of $20 black chips). Most players had around $2,000, which in the ’80s would have paid for roughly four months’ rent on a two-bedroom apartment. Sherman was fifty-odd years old at the time and in peak form that night.
The hand was dealt and the under-the-gun player opened for about $50. He was a frequent player in large fixed-limit games at Garden City, with an affable grin and a baseball cap. Two players, including me, folded, and then a hard rock on my left made it $200. His name was Art. Sherman paused and thoughtfully considered his hand. “Are you pat?” he said. Art — who as I recall, resembled Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (but better looking, Art, if you’re still around) — shrugged noncommittally.
Sherman considered for a long time and then called. Later it seemed to me that he had already sized up the strength of Art’s hand and was assessing the probable actions of the under-the-gun bettor out of the corner of his eye. I suspect his post-draw strategy was already a done deal, and he was just injecting a dose of tension that would come in handy later.
The under-the-gun guy called, flashed a smile, and drew one card. Art extended his left hand toward Sherman and rapped pat with a light touch that resembled a delicate moment in a classical piano theme. “Dit-dit-dit-dah, sucker.”
“Damn! I knew you were pat!” Sherman boomed. “All right! Give me two!” He extracted two cards from his hand with quick stabbing motions and sent them skimming across the felt into the muck. “But I have the Joker, Art,” he added. “You know I wouldn’t draw two without the Joker. And you know what that means. I’m drawing to a bicycle. That’s the nuts, Art. If I bet, it means I got the nuts.”
Art seemed delighted with Sherman’s boasting and longshot two-card draw and chuckled to himself.
The player in the baseball cap slowly squeezed out his single draw card. You could feel his body deflate as he saw it. Bitterly, he shook the cards and grimaced, as if this would change his fate. Then he relaxed his shoulders and covered his cards with his right hand. He extended his left hand and patted the table. “I missed,” he said sadly. You knew it was not an act. He was out of contention.
The action went to Art, who carefully counted out a pile of chips, pulled some back, then restacked them and confidently shoved around $800 into the pot. He now had $1,000 invested and still had around $2,000 behind. The clear implication was that he had a seven or better, since the rules stated that you had to bet a seven or lose your interest in the ensuing action.
Now it was Sherman’s turn. He looked sideways at Art. “What do you have?” he said pensively, with a voice like Blackbeard. He squinted down at his cards while resting his wrists on the edge of the table. “You got a bicycle?”
Art sat frozen in place, putting on his best poker face. Sherman began edging out the cards. Suddenly he twitched and gave a slight sign of surprise. “There’s one, Art,” he said. “Let’s see now…” He continued to fan the hand out slowly between the thumb and forefinger and raised his eyebrows. The tension was palpable. Again he paused, raising his eyebrows slightly. Then he quickly fanned his hand open. Of course, he was the only one who could see the open faces of the cards, but curiosity was at a fever pitch around the table. Sherman leaned back and covered his mouth. “Huh!” he said through his fingers, as if awestruck by the curvaceous figure of a goddess–the goddess of Poker, no doubt.
Art sat motionless, like a quail in the bush now more than an imperturbable poker pro. Sherman folded up his “miracle” hand and began to needle him.
“You got a bicycle, Art?”
“I can’t beat a bicycle,” Sherman added with a tone of sad resignation.
Art sank imperceptibly in his seat, caught himself, and sat upright again.
Sherman looked directly at him. “I can’t beat a bicycle, Art. If you got a bicycle, I’m beat.” Sherman’s voice easily cut through the din of clacking chips and murmured conversation filling the room like thick smoke.
Art stared straight ahead into space and said nothing while covering his cards with his left hand. Haplessly he wagged the back of his left hand toward Sherman, pivoting on the edge of his palm over the pinned cards, as if prompting his tormenter to act.
But Sherman wasn’t done yet. “I want to ask you something, Art,” he said. “Just a hypothetical question, okay? I got about $8,000 here. What I want to know is, what would you do if I was to shove it all in? Would you call?”
Art held still, hunching his shoulders, glowering at the felt in front of him. It seemed like ten minutes had gone by, though it was probably only a minute or two.
“’Cuz I can’t beat a bicycle. If you got a bicycle, I’m done. I might as well go home.” Sherman stared intently at Art with a look of pain and doubt — intimidating pain and doubt.
Art began to fidget. It wasn’t an act. He leaned forward on his elbows and raised his shoulders like tent poles to take the weight off his seat, but still he said nothing. He refused to make eye contact.
The dealer cut in, saying, “Come on, Sherman. We don’t have all day.”
“Okay, okay,” said the master manipulator. “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.” And he slipped his cards safely into the crack between the rail cushion and the felt. Then he wrapped his thumbs and fingers around his entire stack and began to edge it forward, slowly, deliberately, ominously. “I’m just going to move in with all these chips, and if you got a bicycle, you can take ’em, ’cuz I can’t beat a bicycle.”
Sherman’s mountain of black chips slid over the line and stood near the center of the table like a castle with many dark towers. The first-to-act guy quickly tossed his hand into the muck with a graveyard laugh while Art’s face fell. At that, Sherman rose to his feet, eyebrows arched and a worried frown wrinkling his forehead. “I guess you got a bicycle, Art. I can’t beat a bicycle, so I’m gonna go. I’m gonna leave now. You can call whenever you want and just take my money.”
And with that, Sherman hitched up his belt, walked around the table, and exited the casino through the back door to the parking lot outside. The door shut with a crunch.
“God damn it!” Art exploded. “Mother-fuckin’ sonofabitch! Can he do that?!”
The dealer leaned forward apologetically, saying, “His cards are live — he can do whatever he wants. And please watch your language, Art.”
Whatever is not expressly forbidden is allowed, I thought. Brilliant.
The entire cardroom — perhaps eleven tables — stopped playing. The clatter of chips evaporated. Art sat and seethed, flicking his cards with his right-hand index finger. He spun around in his seat to appeal to the floorman. “Can he just walk out like that, Jack?” he said. “His hand’s dead, isn’t it?!”
Jack stood on a podium in front of the whiteboard waiting list for tables. He was in his mid-thirties, nattily attired in a tie and a sport jacket, and looked like he’d seen it all and never lost his cool, not even once. You needed that kind of reserve to manage a cardroom like the Cameo Club.
“Put him on the clock,” Jack snapped at the dealer. “He’s got two minutes to get back in here.”
A minute went by while Jack’s gaze drifted around the room, which had gotten quiet as a church. The deafening silence meant a lack of action at the tables, and soon that got to Jack. “Ron,” he said, getting the attention of an off-duty dealer, “go in the parking lot in back, find Sherman, and tell him to get back inside. Right now!”
At that instant, as if on cue, the back door to the parking lot opened a crack and Sherman poked his head through the opening. Just his head, about halfway down the door frame. He was leaning over at the waist.
“Did you call yet?” he said, throwing that operatic voice down the hallway and across the room.
“Get in here, Sherman!” Jack snapped over the rustle of laughter.
Sherman came through the door with shoulders hunched and marched back to the table, whining, “All right, all right. You don’t need to get mad, Jack. I just wondered if he called, ’cuz I can’t beat a bicycle and I’m going to have to go home if I lose my chips.” Sherman sat in his seat and folded his arms across his chest. Finally, he was quiet. His brow was wrinkled, but his posture said he was relaxed, unruffled, and utterly unafraid.
Art spent another minute or so staring numbly at his hand and then, as if ridding himself of a losing ticket at the racetrack, tossed it into the muck. The dealer told Sherman to pull his mountain of chips back and shoved the $1418 pot after it. Sherman continued to whine as he stacked the chips: “What can I say, Art? I thought you had a bicycle.”
Art was at full five-alarm tilt and trying hard not to show it. Fortunately, a seat opened in the big game, and Sherman departed before he was able to victimize Art any further.
Was he bluffing? Did he have it? Nobody knows, but what everyone knew from playing with him was that he was fully capable of either. Maybe he was able to glean some information from Art that told him Art had a good hand but not a very good hand. Or maybe he thought this was the best act to get a bewildered call from Art. The amazing thing about Mark was that he constantly put his opponents in that zone of uncertainty, of teetering on the edge of calling or folding, of breaking down their confidence. And he, almost always, wound up on the winning side of the battle.
In 2003, I was in Vegas for the WSOP at Binion’s. It was the first time I’d ever seen an all-star lineup of heavy hitters, such as Annie Duke, Chris Ferguson, Layne Flack, Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey, John Juanda, Daniel Negreanu, Men Nguyen, Scotty Nguyen, Huck Seed, and Erik Seidel, to name a few. As you probably know, this was the year that Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million at the Main Event, setting off the Internet poker boom and changing the course of poker history.
As I watched the final table, I couldn’t help thinking that Mark Sherman probably would have prevailed here as easily as he had elsewhere. He was probably the equal of any of the pros at the time in terms of card reading, probability, and betting strategy. But from what I could see, he had an edge on all of them in psychological warfare tactics, especially in the use of verbal ploys to elicit fatal tells and bad bets.
Earlier I said that Mark Sherman may have been the greatest poker player who ever lived, yet remembrances of him are few. This is a great pity, as he exemplified the poker player as artist — rather than M.I.T. theoretician or reckless gambler — far better than anyone I’ve ever seen. While most of us are busy patching up the leaks in our game, cultivating a poker face, and weeding out our tells, here was someone who went all out in the opposite direction, going on offense with theatrical ploys and verbal daggers. His effectiveness could be seen in that opening statistic: six months without a loss. It was a record I overheard Mark tell a friend in a conversation away from the table at Artichoke Joe’s.
Then again, you never know. Maybe he was just setting up yet another trap for another day. Unlike chess, poker is a game of incomplete information, and in thirty years of poker playing, I’ve never seen anyone who knew how to navigate those treacherous, shark-filled waters better than Mark Sherman.