The Tales of Billy Baxter: High Stakes Action from Vegas to Hawaii

Billy Baxters opponents in the big Deuce to Seven game at the Dunes in the 1970s were some of the toughest players anyone could sit with: the best professionals, the slickest cheaters, and the most dangerous criminals in the world. What made the game worth it was that his opponents also included some of the wealthiest casino operators in town, like Major Riddle and Sid Wyman, and their losses in the game provided Baxter a steady and comfortable income.

After Riddle passed away in 1980, the Deuce to Seven game broke up. There would be big games from time to time, but never like it was during the 70s, with around-the-clock action for the highest of stakes. Baxter focused on other passions, like managing professional boxers and betting on football, likely thinking that his days of taking big pots off of big-shot casino moguls were over.

He would have been wrong because just as Riddle left this mortal coil, Bob Stupak arrived in Las Vegas.

When Baxter showed up in Las Vegas in the mid-70s, Bob Stupak was the proprietor of a tiny slot parlor on the north end of the Strip called Bob Stupaks World Famous Historic Gambling Museum. Stupaks was a classic Las Vegas story. The son of a professional gambler who ran a dice game in Pittsburgh for fifty years, the younger Stupak had a hustlers heart. He made a fortune in Vegass burgeoning coupon book industry in the 1970s, mostly on the strength of his personality and salesmanship, selling a deal to both businesses and customers that neither likely needed.

Stupak transitioned his coupon scheme into an Australian-based telemarketing business, but his methods raised the eyebrows of the government and he was asked to leave that country. He came back to Vegas and sank the money he made into purchasing a car lot that he turned into his tiny museum, which caught fire within months and burned to the ground. There were suspicions of arson, but nothing was ever proven. The insurance paid out, and Stupak used the money to build a casino he named Vegas World.

Vegas World opened in 1979 with 100 rooms and leaky ceilings. Stupak did everything he could to promote his small casino in the seedier part of town. He offered his own rules on blackjack (both dealer cards face up). He made a million-dollar Super Bowl bet with another casino owner. His casinos slogan was The Skys the Limit, and he meant it. He offered $2,000 betting limits, double what they had at Caesars Palace. He pioneered the vacation package by advertising free vacations in newspapers around the country: offering customers hundreds of dollars in slot and table play to offset their room and airfare.

He made $15 million the first year he was open. Within a decade, Stupaks casino had a thousand hotel rooms and was grossing $100 million a year.

Stupak was cut from the same cloth as Major Riddle: he wasnt content to simply run the casino – he loved to gamble, too. And fortunately for Baxter, Stupak loved to play lowball poker.

Deuce to Seven was the only game he really liked to play, Baxter said. But when Stupak had first arrived in Las Vegas in the 1970s, he had never even played the game. When he decided he wanted to learn, he didnt cut his teeth in low-stakes games to get a handle on the strategy and rules. He went looking for the highest stakes he could find. By the early 1980s, he had a reputation around town among the poker professionals as a sucker, but he was completely hooked on the game and would take on anyone who wanted action.

Baxter was more than happy to oblige him. We played many, many times at his hotel, Baxter said. Heads up. For days.

Stupak lost plenty to Baxter, but he couldnt stop playing him. Once, when Stupak went looking for Baxter for a game, he was told that Baxter and his family had left town to vacation in Hawaii. Undeterred, Stupak flew to Hawaii to find them. We played in the Kahala Hilton hotel lobby, Baxter said. That trip became a bit of a tradition in Baxters family, as they returned to the Kahala Hilton many more times, but Stupak decided he was a part of the tradition as well. Hed show up wanting to play.

As for Baxters wife, Julie? She didnt like it, obviously, Baxter said. But that’s what I did for a living all my life.

In 1987, Stupak embarked on maybe the biggest promotional stunt of his life: he ran for mayor of Las Vegas. The campaign was largely considered to be unserious – Stupak had also unsuccessfully run for mayor in 1983 – and just another one of his outlandish ploys for attention and publicity.

But those who knew Stupak said it wasnt just a stunt. He actually thought he could win, Baxter said. He bet me $250,000 that he was going to be mayor, Baxter said. He bet with everybody in town. He was gonna win millions. Lots of millions. Stupak even offered a bet to his opponent, Councilman Ron Lurie, $1,000 at 50-1. Lurie declined.

Stupaks strategy was simple: he would outspend his opponents. In all his campaign spent over $800,000, an unheard of sum for a municipal election in a city the size of Las Vegas. He plastered the airwaves with ads. He bought fruit baskets and clock radios and gifted them to voters.

He gave out turkeys all over town. He bought a lot of votes, lets put it that way, Baxter said. It was enough to make Baxter and others nervous. He almost pulled it off, Baxter said. He almost bought the election.

Stupak won his primary but lost the general election by fewer than 3,000 votes. When asked if he voted for his friend and frequent vacation guest, Baxter replied, Of course not.

The poker with Stupak was always a financial boon for Baxter, but as much as he was willing to grant Stupak a game, there was one very specific reason why Baxter struggled with playing him – because of how much Stupak smoked. It ultimately drove Baxter away from high-stakes poker for his longest stretch to date.

He would smoke one cigarette after the other. He was very hard to play with, Baxter said. I actually quit playing poker at one time over the smoke, until they finally stopped smoking in the poker rooms. And then I came back later on, in the nineties.

By the 1990s, there wasnt much lowball action left in Las Vegas. Hldem had taken over, and most of the players adjusted accordingly. Stupak, who won a WSOP bracelet in No Limit Deuce to Seven in 1989, would go on to find success in No Limit Hold’em as well. He’d go on to make a World Poker Tour final table in the WPT’s first season, at the 2003 LA Poker Classic.

As for Baxter, after sticking to lowball games exclusively for so many years, he finally had a change of heart.

I said, well, you know what? Hell, I’ll just give it a try.

In 1997, Baxter entered all of the No Limit Holdem events at the World Series of Poker, including the WSOP Main Event, in which he finished 22nd and cashed for $21,000. It would end up being a major milestone for him, as well as for the game of poker, but not because of his own performance.

That tournament was the last stand for a poker player whod make history in that 1997 WSOP Main Event – a man simply known as the Kid.

Next up: The return of Stuey the Kid Ungar, and Billy Baxter, too.

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