Sunday November 13, 2016 at 12:50 am
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Johnny Hughes, a poker historian, author and former manager of the Joe Ely Band, recently passed away. The Lubbock, Texas native wrote columns for numerous poker magazines and published several books including a novel titled Texas Poker Wisdom. Hughes is a well-known raconteur and a man of many talents. Benny Binion hired a young Hughes to be a prop player in Vegas. Later on, he earned a Ph.D. and taught at Texas Tech for twenty years. Hughes grew up with Buddy Holly and frequently played poker with Holly and his bandmates…before and after Holly got famous. Hughes held other jobs including traveling salesman, working in a TV station, and smuggling bootlegged liquor from Mexico into Texas. Hughes played poker with Hall of Famers like Sailor Roberts, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss, and Treetop Strauss.

Hughes1
Amarillo Slim and Johnny Hughes at The Horseshoe in 1977

The poker world lost one of its best story tellers when Johnny Hughes passed away. Hughes grew up in Lubbock in the middle of nowhere West Texas. Hughes claimed his family had a long history of being con artists. Hughes' father was an oilman who traveled wherever he could in search of black gold. Hughes learned cards from his mother, who was an expert bridge player. When he was a child, Hughes accompanied her mother when she traveled to tournaments around Texas and the Southwest.

Lubbock was the crossroads for music and road gamblers, which is how Hughes encountered musical giants and future poker Hall of Famers. Hughes went to high school with Buddy Holly and his bandmaters. Hughes was still in high school when he saw Elvis play gigs in Lubbock just before he got super famous. Hughes found a mentor in gambler Curly Cavitt, who took Hughes under his wing and showed him the ins and outs of the Texas gambling circuit.

When he turned 21, Hughes went to Las Vegas and Benny Binion hired him to be a prop player. That's where he came across poker legends like Johnny Moss, Bill Smith, Sailor Roberts, Amarillo Slim, and of course Texas Dolly himself Doyle Brunson.

Hughes and Buddy Holly both grew up in Lubbock, where Buddy was the town's musical prodigy. He was chummy with Holly and other members of his band, The Crickets.

“I played poker with Buddy before and after he got famous,” claimed Hughes. “Buddy was incredibly polite and never had a big head. The nation only knew of Buddy Holly for less than two years (before he died in a plane crash). He was the most famous guy in Lubbock since he was fourteen.”

In the 1970s, Hughes spent time in the music industry. In 1976, he became the original manager of the Joe Ely Band at a time when the managers of rock and roll bands and rough-n-tumble country acts were often crazier than the artists.

“One night while I was dancing at the legendary Cotton Club,” Hughes wrote, “I pulled my pistol out of my boot and fired a couple of rounds into the ceiling. Being West Texas, no one called the law.”

Johnny Hughes

Being too lazy to work and too nervous to steal, I became a West Texas road gambler and have sixty years of gambling history. I've been robbed by shotguns, pistols, and a lawyer with a ball-point pen.

Hughes penned his first novel Texas Poker Wisdom in 2007. In 2012, Hughes published a non-fiction book titled Famous Gamblers, Poker History and Texas Stories. Hughes told stories about legendary poker players and other larger than life western characters such as Johnny Moss, Poker Alice, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Titanic Thompson, Arnold Rothstein, and Minnesota Fats. Last year, Hughes published another novel titled A Texas Beauty, Smart and Strong.

I first met Johnny Hughes in the mid-2000s while covering the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, but I had known him for several years before we finally met face-to-face in Vegas. I initially encountered Johnny Hughes through his posts on 2+2 and the comments section of my blog (Tao of Poker). At the height of the poker boom, Hughes was a polarizing online presence and persistent in maintaining a consistence presence and an elder statesman voice in the capricious online realm dominated by kids 50 years younger. Although I had never met Hughes and never heard him actually speak, he had a unique voice and style of writing. The exact details about Hughes were vague, but the rumors on 2+2 pointed to the rumors that he was a business professor at Texas Tech and really held a Ph.D.

Hughes had so many opinions on things that it'd be impossible to not cross hairs with him on an issue. Sometimes he lived up to the stereotypical stubborn old Texan. Other times, he played devil's advocate or liked to stir the pot to liven things up. And yet still, if he was fired up about an issue, he'd definitely stick to his guns and hold steadfast to his views.

When I finally met Hughes, I didn't know what to expect but had no idea he'd had lots of long white hair. He could've played Santa Claus at your local mall except if Santa had a pony tail. He looked a cross between George Carlin and a grizzled roadie from the Allman Brothers. No wonder I felt some sort of kinship with Hughes… he was an old hippie!

Johnny Hughes was very tech savvy for someone of his generation. When most of our grandparents were figuring out how to use email without writing in all CAPS, Hughes had built up a small following on the internet. Hughes never passed up an opportunity to shill something. Yeah, he was always hustling something for himself, but he was also constantly getting the word out about other things. It was no surprise that I learned he had a career in music promotion earlier in his life.

During my earliest days as a poker writer, Hughes pimped a lot of my work and was quick to defend me against any critics. He gave me a boost in confidence at the start of my career in poker during a time when I had no clue what I was doing. And later on in life when I was struggling with life leaks and swimming in self-doubt, Johnny Hughes believed in me at a time when I didn't believe in myself.

Johnny Hughes was always supportive of my writing endeavors, whether it was poker, music, or short stories. Yet, despite being a “fan”, he wouldn't let me make excuses whenever I got behind on work or if he felt like I phoned in a particular piece. That happened at a time when my blog had become popular and it seemed like everyone was kissing my ass, but Hughes played the role a coach exhibiting tough love. If I got lax or whined too much, he definitely called me out on it. Johnny Hughes kept me honest at a time when I couldn't trust anything people told.

I blurbed one of Johnny Hughes' books (see below) and he trusted my opinion enough as a peer that he sent me a lot of his early drafts of his various manuscripts. Hughes penned columns for Bluff Magazine and event contributed to a literary website called Truckin', which I created in 2002 that highlighted fiction and short stories. Hughes shared 23 stories of different shapes and sizes. I was fortunate to consider Hughes a well-respected peer and friend. He will be missed.

Goodbye old friend. Thanks for all the Texas wisdom over the years!

Blurb by Pauly McGuire

Johnny Hughes was embedded with hustlers, pimps, crooked sheriffs, and outlaws decades before most modern professional poker players were even born. Hughes is a captivating raconteur and avid historian of Texas gambling folklore. He seeks out characters cast off to the farthest fringes of society, then brings them to life with a unique flair and panache. Johnny Hughes paints word pictures with witty, lush brush strokes reminiscent of Tom Wolfe, but with the bold brevity of Ernest Hemingway. He is nonpareil when it comes to capturing the old-school, rough and tumble days of Texas road gamblers.

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