Guest Commentary: Off the court and onto the poker table with Denny Crum

Oct 30, 2007 at 7:55 pm

Marty Rosen: Photo by Myndi May  HAVING FUN YET? — Marty Rosen dons his best poker face.
Marty Rosen: Photo by Myndi May HAVING FUN YET? — Marty Rosen dons his best poker face.
I know for an absolute fact that Denny Crum can crack a smile.
I know this because the other day at the press conference where Indiana University Southeast announced the appointment of new hoops coach Wiley Brown (who played on Crum’s 1980 NCAA Championship basketball team), Crum was all grins.  

At a no-limit poker table, though, he looks like a Mount Rushmore aspirant.
Crum’s coaching resume includes 23 NCAA tournaments, six Final Fours, and two NCAA championships. But some 50 years ago, he started his poker career playing for meal money as a college student, and these days he has the poker credentials to serve as host for the Caesars Indiana poker room.

I’ve long thought it would be fun to test my mettle against Crum. And a year ago, after interviewing Crum on the eve of the 2006 Denny Crum Poker Open, I said as much to LEO editor Cary Stemle.

Let’s face it: It’s easy to make bold statements about things that most certainly are never gonna happen.
But editors have long memories, and most of them have a penchant for cruel ironies, so when Caesars Indiana asked LEO to send a player to the World Series of Poker No-Limit Hold ’Em Media Tournament, Stemle’s steely eye twinkled, and he commanded me to step into the breach.

With three tables of local and national TV, radio and print journalists in the mix, it seemed unlikely I’d get a chance to play Crum. And it wasn’t until well into the tournament — when the field had been reduced to a single table — that I got a glimpse.
He arrived at the final table with a mountainous rack of chips.

After a dismal start, I arrived with a stack so paltry I seemed doomed to a quick departure.
But poker, like basketball, is a test of patience. And it’s a game where momentum can shift in an instant. In last year’s interview (, Crum had told me: “You only have to be ahead at the end,” illustrating that principle with a tale from U of L’s 1986 championship victory over Duke. “Even if you’re low on chips,” Crum had told me, “you have to wait for the right moment.”

And suddenly my right moment arrived: an ace high flush; a high pair; trips; two pair. Within a few minutes, I was in the thick of things: playing in a final four against the legend himself.

Then we were down to three. And when WDRB-TV meteorologist Marc Weinberg was eliminated, I found myself face-to-face with a man who knows something about winning.
I can report with some authority that at that moment — when I looked across the table and found myself being coolly scrutinized — I did not formulate the thought, “This is fun.”

I had the advantage: With about $40,000 tournament dollars in play, I had about  $25,000.
But watch the 1986 NCAA championship game on YouTube, and you’ll learn that Louisville trailed until almost the very end.

And within moments, after an ill-considered bluff, I was behind, after wistfully watching $10,000 of my chips migrate to Crum’s side of the table.
Next, I picked up a pair of kings — a huge hand in heads up poker. For an instant, I plotted to trap Crum into losing all his chips.

But that fantasy fell apart when Crum — an ever-vigilant observer of other players — tossed his cards away before I’d even drawn a breath.

Notwithstanding the sensational hands shown in televised poker, the endgame of a poker tournament usually comes down to inconsequential statistical advantages: a low pair has a 55/45 advantage over, say, an Ace-King.

In the end, my match with Denny Crum came down to that kind of a hand. He had the edge, by a razor-sharp margin. But I had just enough luck to take down all the chips.
It was all for charity. The prize, $1,000, went to the St. John Center, which furnishes much-needed services to homeless men in Louisville (700 E. Muhammad Ali Blvd., 568-6758,
And as for my prize? I got to reach across the table, shake hands with a legend and hear the words, “Good game.”

 Caesars Indiana hosts WSOP poker tournaments from now through Nov. 2. For information, call (877) 237-6626.

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