It’s not hard to imagine why a poker player who measured at 6’ 6” (just under two meteres) was called ‘Treetop’, but the story of Jack Straus is perhaps even taller than he was.
Who was the man who won the 1982 World Series of Poker Main Event from having only one chip halfway through the tournament? How did he die early, and what is his lasting legacy on the game?
It’s time to find out why Jack ‘Treetop’ Straus is a bona fide poker idol.
From the Ground Up
Straus might not have written his poker legend until 1982, but over a decade earlier, he was following the game of poker around the United States. Having attended University in Texas, he played basketball while he was there and was also known locally as a hunter and marksman who could bring down the big game.
That reputation gained a second meaning as Straus transitioned into a poker player who became a ‘road gambler’ travelling around the United States in search of a game as all the professionals would do in the days before the World Series of Poker was born in 1970. He specialised in heads-up poker and wasn’t afraid to gamble when it was full ring, either.
In some ways ahead of his time and playing with an attacking flair beyond his years, at the start of the 1970s, Straus was front and centre in Las Vegas to take part in the newly-formed WSOP. Straus, who once said, “If they had wanted you to hold on to money they’d have made it with handles,” wore a lion’s paw about his person, which was inscribed with the following legend: ‘Better a day as a lion than one hundred years as a lamb’.
The prophetic nature of that phrase would sadly come true in more ways than one.
A Chip and a Chair
In 1972, Jack Straus would make the final table of the WSOP Main Event, eventually finishing in 5th place as Amarillo Slim would win the only prize of $80,000 by beating Puggy Pearson heads-up. It would only be a year later that Straus won his first WSOP bracelet, however, as he took down the $3,000-entry Deuce to Seven Draw event for a top prize of $16,500.
As well as winning his first bracelet, Straus went on to finish 3rd in the Main Event of that year, this time missing out on the heads-up he would have fancied his chances in by just one place. It would be Johnny Moss and Puggy Pearson who would battle it out for the bracelet, with Pearson prevailing to the tune of $130,000, with Moss (and the other 11 entrants who busted before him) winning nothing.
Straus would keep coming back to the World Series of Poker, but would have to wait another nine years for the bracelet he really wanted – the WSOP Main Event. A year before his big win, Straus lost heads-up to Mickey Perry for the $2,500 Limit Ace-to-Five Draw bracelet, but the 1982 WSOP Main Event wouldn’t just see him win the most sought-after title in poker but in a manner that has never been repeated.
Halfway through the tournament, with 104 whittled down in number a little, Straus pushed what he thought was all his chips into a pot. Called by his opponent, Straus lost the pot and thought he was out of the tournament, but unbeknown to him, he’d left a single ‘500’ chip under a table napkin. Good natured banter at the table aside, the official rulings stated that as Straus hadn’t declared all-in, the bet stood only at the poker chips he had pushed over the line, and that single chip he found was still his.
Sitting back down in his chair, Straus put that chip to phenomenal use. The very next hand saw play folded to Straus’ big blind, doubling his chip to a micro-stack. Next, he doubled back to a short-stack he could play and eventually grinded his way not just back into genuine contention but as table leader by the close of play with 90,000 chips. By Day three of the most famous event he would ever play, he was chip leader of the whole tournament.
Reaching the Heights
Reaching the final table was a miracle in itself, but Straus would go on to complete the unlikeliest of victories, taking down the title after outlasting a final six players that included Doyle Brunson (4th for $52,000) and Berry Johnston (3rd for $104,000).
Straus had almost single-handedly busted most of the final table players, but he saved the cous de gras until his speciality play and just Dewey Tomko sat between him and the title of world champion.
Heads-up, Straus took down Dewey Tomko, who committed his stack with ace-four in the final hand and was no match for ‘Treetop’, whose ace-ten paired up to seal the most remarkable win in World Series history.
As a side-note, just by reaching that 1982 final table (the last he would reach), Straus joined a select band of players which is unlikely to grow in number as the popularity of the world’s biggest and best poker tournament continues to increase. Only Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar, Johnny Chan and Dan Harrington have reached three WSOP Main Event final tables with Straus… what a six-max tournament of champions that would be to watch!
The Broken Heart of a Giant
Jack Straus didn’t limit excitement to that one Main Event. His poker legend would grow even larger after he made a huge bluff in a cash game, holding 7-2 off-suit with a flop of 7-3-3. Heads-up in the hand, Straus was on a roll and after a raising war pre-flop, played the aggressor posot-flop too, calling a large raise when it came. The deuce on the turn inspired Straus to represent the three and made a huge bet, offering his opponent a novel way of gaining information.
“I’ll show you whichever one of my cards you choose if you give me $25,” said Straus.
With his opponent taking the bait, Straus was asked to turn over the card, which he did, revealing the deuce. Straus’ opponent decided to fold, figuring Straus would only make that move with pocket deuces or a deuce and a three. Straus won the huge pot on a massive bluff.
Sadly for Straus, he would live just six years as world champion. Aged just 58 years old, Straus suffered an aortic aneurysm on August 17th, 1988 as he sat in a high stakes poker game. Later that year, as Johnny Chan won his second and back-to-back world title, Straus was posthumously inducted in the Poker Hall of Fame along with Doyle Brunson in that same year.
Straus was one of three men in the Hall of Fame to die at the poker table while in a game, with the others being Wild Bill Hickok and Tom Abdo. ‘Treetop’, however, was a unique player, and one who will never be forgotten as a poker idol another 100 years down the line.