Famous Card-Ripping Hand from 1958

diamond_whiteWith $50,000 on the line, Mark Sherman ripped his cards in half before the betting was finished, and he still won the pot. It happened in 1958, when a movie cost fifty cents, freeways were a new invention, and I was but a fetus. Artichoke Joe’s had Hell’s Angels at the bar, paper cards at the tables, and no-limit draw-poker was the only game in town.

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.

I recently met with Mark to get the whole story about a legendary lowball hand. His enthusiastic delivery painted a vivid picture of a time and place forever gone.

“Back in the late fifties,” he reminisced, Artichoke Joe’s was a sawdust joint, a western bar, with all sorts of real western stuff all over the place, right from the trails, like a museum. There were only seven poker tables. Two tables had jail bars around them that Joe bought when they closed the old Hall of Justice.

“Most everyone was packing a piece. There was even a lookout tower outside where an armed employee watched and protected patrons going to their cars at 2:00 AM, closing time.

“Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday the place was packed! Couldn’t move in there. Loud, crazy, and colorful. It was really something else. It was really something else.

“The blinds were $5-$5-$10,” Mark recalled, “but that was immaterial that night because Nick Sahati was killing it for $400 on every hand, making it $800 minimum to open. Nick had over $50,000 in chips on the table. I was the only player close to him. I had about $25,000.

“Tackhammer opened for $1,100. Nick made it $4,500. Four of us stayed in. I was under the gun, drawing one card to a bicycle. They call it a ‘wheel’ these days. It’s the best possible hand at lowball: 5-4-3-2-ace. Nick was in the catbird seat, last to act. All four of us drew one card.

“After the draw, I looked real fast at the card I drew. I caught a deuce, giving me a bicycle. In Northern California back then, you could still check-raise with anything because the ‘seven or better rule’ had not yet made its way north from the Los Angeles area.

“I was in my mid-thirties, and real emotional, even more than now if you can imagine that. So I put on a little act. I got this pained look on my face and I bent my cards around in my hands. I was cussing like crazy, and then I ripped my cards clean in half while I screamed, ‘Check!’

“The other two guys checked, and now it was Nick’s turn. He got all puffed up and said, ‘Now we’ll separate the men from the boys.’ Then he moved all-in. I shoved in all of my $25,000 to call. The other guys folded.

“Nick almost fell out of his chair when I called. He spread his hand: 8-5-4-2-ace. I said, ‘I’ve got a bicycle.’ Then I turned over my five-card hand, which happened to be in ten pieces.

“All hell broke lose. It was crazy. Artichoke came over to the table.”

“Artichoke?” I asked.

Mark’s voice cracked to a higher pitch, “Artichoke Joe! He ran the joint up to the early nineties. Don’t you know anything?”

“Well, I know you’ve got to be mighty strong to rip a bicycle in half. Is Artichoke still around?”

Mark laughed. “Yeah, he’s still kicking. He just had a party on his 85th birthday. So anyway, Artichoke came over and asked me if I had all ten pieces. I said sure. Then Artichoke said to wait a minute, and he went to the phone.

“Artichoke called Cliff over at the Oaks Club for a second opinion. Meanwhile, old Nick Sahati was going nuts.

“Cliff asked Artichoke if all the pieces of the cards matched up. Joe said yes, they did. Cliff said that he agreed with Artichoke, my hand was still live.

“Joe came back to the table and made his ruling. My hand plays, and I win the pot, fair and square.”

I asked, “When you ripped your cards, weren’t you worried that your hand might be ruled dead?”

“That never even occurred to me,” Mark said. “I had the nuts, right there for all to see.” Then he laughed and added, “But this was a one-time-only situation. The next day Artichoke Joe made a brand new rule about mutilating cards.”

People like Mark Sherman are time machines. All we have to do is listen. Thanks, Mark, for this journey.


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