Here’s an image you did not expect to come into your mind today: a five-year-old Tom McEvoy sitting in his shorts on his grandmother’s knee learning how to play poker… the hard way. “She used to give me a dollar and we’d play penny ante poker. She won the dollar back every time so I thought I’d better try to figure out how to win.” So began a poker journey that over the course of nearly 60 years has seen the young, wide-eyed Tom develop into a legend of the game.
Legend is a word I choose carefully. Too often it is thrown around when it is not deserved, but in McEvoy’s case no-one will disagree that it is apt. The man who grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and then risked a comfortable life as an accountant to move to Las Vegas and play poker professionally is a winner, both at and away from the table.
He won the WSOP Main Event in 1983, has three other WSOP bracelets to his name, is a successful and respected author of poker books, helps charitable causes, and takes great satisfaction in being the catalyst to getting smoking banned from the big tournament floors.
For McEvoy, though, all of that was topped when earlier this week he won the first WSOP Champions Invitational, beating a field of 19 other former world champions, an accomplishment of which he is justifiably proud.
That’s why we on the PokerStars Blog believe McEvoy, an elder statesman of Team PokerStars Pro, should be a candidate to be inducted this year into Poker’s Hall of Fame. It would be a momentous honour – and one you, our loyal readers, can help bring about by visiting the WSOP nomination page and marking him down as your choice.
As we sat chatting in the Rio’s giant Amazon room before he played in day two of the WSOP $2,000 No Limit Event (in which he would later get in the money), it became clear how much of an honour it would be for him to be a Hall of Famer.
“For me, if I get in the Poker Hall of Fame this year it would be the best moment of my career – better than winning the Main Event, the three other bracelets, even the Champions Invitational,” he said.
But for now he is simply delighted with the thrill of winning the Champions Invitational. There was no money to be won, only pride, the Binions Cup, and a beautiful 1970 restored red Corvette.
“Playing in such a special invitational event was something I had been looking forward to from the moment I heard about it. I prepared properly by being well rested, not playing any other WSOP events first, and eating right. I took it very seriously because I knew it would be the toughest line-up I had ever faced.
“There was always a chance some of the former champs would not take it so seriously, but for me it was very important to re-establish my credentials as a player. It was important to me career wise and for me personally knowing I had beaten all my peers. Later I saw Doyle Brunson who told me he was so glad I had won and that the old guard beat up on the new guys.
“It was funny, when we got to the final table I said to myself, ‘Where are all the young internet players?’ Only Peter Eastgate made it through – all the rest, apart from Carlos Mortensen, were over 40 years old! You see, the game of poker has not changed at all, but of course the players have with all their naked aggression.”
Aside from his poker successes, Tom says his biggest accomplishment was to engineer the first big non-smoking tournament in 1998, proving it could be done, and then being instrumental in persuading Benny Binion to make the WSOP a non-smoking event from 2002.
“It has had such a huge impact,” he said. “People nowadays just have no idea what it was like. Can you imagine sitting here in the Amazon room at the Rio now and playing while the tables were full of smokers? Even when the WSOP moved here in 2004 you could still smoke in the hallways. At break times it was like a fog. Now they’ve moved the smoking areas outside.”
McEvoy has reason to detest what smoking can do. “I’ve had to watch the guy I wrote my last book with, Don Vines, die from throat cancer. The last year of his life was one operation after another. It was horrible. He was a heavy smoker, of course, and we begged him to give up, but he was hooked. He was 71, but trim and played tennis, so his life was cut short.
“Another friend of mine died at 50 from second-hand smoke. He had never smoked himself, but got lung cancer.
“I’d like to see smoking banned in casinos, too. I feel so sorry for the people who work there. It is such a health hazard for them, but of course they have no choice – they have to work to make a living. I was in one of the major casinos on The Strip here in Vegas recently , and there was a guy smoking a huge cigar with the smoke blowing into the face of the young girl working the table.
“She was five or six months pregnant.
“She begged her pit boss to move her, but he refused. What sort of person can do that?”
As well as poker success, McEvoy is a respected author of 13 books, “most of which are still in print and have made me a lot of money over the years”. That’s a lot of writing, but they were all popular. What are his favourites? “For me there are two stand-out titles: the one I wrote myself called Championship Tournament Poker, and the one I co-wrote with my friend T J Cloutier called Championship No Limit and Pot Limit Hold’em.”
Despite his enormous contribution to the game, you rarely see McEvoy on the TV screens. “Well that’s because I believe I have been a good example for the game of poker. I do not act up in front of the cameras so don’t get the TV time. When we played the last three in the Champions Invitational we were really quiet, but that’s because we (Varkonyi and Harrington) are all gentlemen, not bad boys. That meant the final was pure poker, we were focussing on the game and not trying to act up and psyche each other out – that final will be one for the poker aficionados.”
Despite his low TV profile, McEvoy, who plays all online poker games – cash, tournaments and Sit and Goes – on PokerStars, is still recognised because of his reputation. “People do keep stopping me and asking for autographs and photographs. I’ve never refused to give one, ever, even if I have just busted from a tournament. For me it is nice to get recognition, and there’s been a lot more here since I won the Champions Invitational.”
To find out how McEvoy got to this illustrious stage in his poker career, you have to go back in time to his grandmother.
“She was a $2 horse bettor. She loved to gamble, and she used to give me a dollar and we’d play penny ante poker. She won the dollar back every time so I thought I’d better try to figure out how to win. I was the oldest of four, and she did the same for the others as well. It’s what got me fascinated with cards. She lived until she was 98 – long enough to see me turn professional and move to Las Vegas, but sadly not quite long enough to see me become world champion.”
So you may think gambling runs through the family blood. You’d be wrong.
“My parents are not gamblers, so it must have skipped a generation. They were horrified when I went professional, how I took my wife and three children to Vegas. They’d say, ‘How can you take our three grandchildren 2,000 miles away?’ But it was not just the poker. I hated the weather in Michigan and preferred the heat, so even if the poker had not worked out I would have stayed in Vegas and fallen back on my accountancy work. Four years later I became world champion.
“It’s funny, only then did my mother admit to her friends what I did for a living – and that was only because the local paper did a story about my win and she had no choice but to own up!
“My father, Harry Kirby McEvoy Jnr – thank goodness he did not call me that – never really accepted what I did.”
He was a paint salesman, and had a local store that did not really work out, but then he formed the Tru-Balance Knife Company, making some of the most popular hunting and recreational blades for knife-throwing, and training up army personnel and even circus performers.
McEvoy recalls his father was inducted into the “cutlery equivalent of the Poker Hall of Fame”, and was known as Mac the Knife.
“To this day Mac the Knife is my all time favourite song. I went to my niece’s wedding a few weeks ago, and it was the first song they played, which was really something.”
Were he still alive, Mac the Knife would be proud of what his son has achieved. And as for Tom’s grandmother, she would never have believed that the young five-year-old boy she introduced to cards is now in with a chance of entering Poker’s Hall of Fame.
All photos © Joe Giron, IMPDI
Please remember to do your bit by joining the PokerStars Blog in nominating Tom McEvoy for the Poker Hall of Fame.
Want to hear from the man himself? Enoy this video interview he gave to our friends over at pokerstars.tv