“The Best Poker Player I Ever Met”
This week, we have a personal story shared by one of our players — Ronald G. Pittenger, aka Alan25main. In this post, he describes a man he played with regularly for more than ten years. In all that time, he never saw the man lose a single game. Read on!
“The absolute best poker player I ever met was a man you’ve never heard of and will probably never hear of again. His name was Footie Valeri. At least that’s what we called him. I think his mother had named him Fotello, or some similar old Italian name. I played against him at the Sportsman’s Association lodge, later at the Elk’s Lodge where most of the members were of Italian, Greek, or French descent, and still later at the Italian American Club. I joined the Italians for $10 dues and got renamed as Pittengerini. For whatever it’s worth, the Greek Americans gave me the same deal, $10 dues and I called myself Pittengeropoulos. The Franco-American Club didn’t have a game.
I met Footie about 1972 and competed against him until about 1988 or ’89. I was the youngest player in the group by at least 20 years. Eventually the group broke up because too many players had died or had gone to care facilities where they could only play for (literally!) Wheaties flakes hoarded from their breakfasts and later used for chips. Old players still want to play.
We’d play every second and fourth Wednesday evening at the Elk’s. The Italian Club played on the first Thursday, the Greeks on the second Tuesday. In all those years, I only remember Footie having ONE losing night. It was like he could read our minds. For about a year, I suspected him of cheating, but constant close observation convinced me he was playing honestly. I checked and rechecked the cards and never found so much as a bent corner, and yes, I would’ve been able to identify most marked cards.
I went to see Footie at his home about 1976. I offered to pay him to teach me what he was doing that I wasn’t doing. He turned down the money, but taught me anyway. I bought the beer; he talked.
“Ron,” he told me, “you’re a fairly good player, but you’re still playing the cards. That’s your mistake. Stop playing the cards and start playing the players.” He gave me examples since we both knew all the regulars. “Respect the tight ones, like Ed, Harold, and Arthur. Last game Arthur played four hands all night; he won all four. Does that sound like someone you want to respect? Now, think about Carmen, and Lou, and Herbie. They just have to know what the next card is, don’t they? And, Leon! When was the last time you saw him fold if there was even a prayer that he could catch? One night I showed him my four 8s against his trip Jacks, and he still called. Play the players as well as the cards. That’s the whole secret.”
Over the next year, I became a regular winner. I still had occasional losses, but they were smaller and much less frequent than before. My “lucky streak” continued for years with that group and mostly continues now. And, I’m not even remotely as good as Footie was.
After the last game broke up because we ran out of players, I didn’t see Footie for about five years. It must’ve been the Fall of 1994 that I ran across him while out shopping. That would’ve made him about 70 and me around 48. It went like this:
“Footie, it’s great to see you. Playing any poker?”
“No. I tried with a bunch of guys in the next town over, but it wasn’t any fun.”
“How much did you lose?” I teased.
“Oh, I was ahead when I left. It just wasn’t fun. Not like the old days with Frank and Bart [he named a lot of other players we had known who had cashed in their chips permanently] and the other guys. It wasn’t fun, so I gave it up. How about you?”
“I went out to Las Vegas. Tried my hand at real poker. Realized I was well past my depth and escaped with most of my bankroll. I can put that dream of going pro back on the shelf where it belongs.” We both laughed at ourselves.
After more small talk, we went our separate ways. A few weeks later, I saw Arthur in the supermarket he owned. “Hey, Ron!” he said. “Did you know Footie died last week?”
“No. Geez, Arthur, I just saw him a couple of weeks ago. What happened?”
“Heart attack. He went out raking leaves. His wife found him when he didn’t come in for dinner. He was already gone.”
In the course of my long and borderline evil life, I’ve met a lot of well-known good players and even played against a few of them. I doubt any of them could claim they had gone more than ten years without a losing night. I saw Footie do that. That’s why I think he was the best.”