John Henry Was a Poker Dealer


“Can’t we get a table with a Shuffle Master?” the kid said, with just enough whine in his voice to get on John Henry’s last nerve. John had been dealing for three hours without a break and he was ready to slap the kid. Sure, the kid could play, he had probably played more hands online in his few short years that Texas Dolly or Amarillo Slim had played in their whole lives, but he could be an arrogant little shit sometimes.

“I’m faster than that machine anyway,” he said, “I never have a red light and my power cord never comes unplugged.”

“No way are you faster without a Shuffle Master.” the kid said, “Your fast John, but you’re not as fast as a machine.”

“You want to put a few bucks on that kid?” John Henry said. He had heard enough from the kid tonight, and he was tired of hearing about how the machine could shuffle faster than he could. John Henry was the best dealer in the room and he was fast and accurate too. He was probably the best dealer in the state. He might have been the best dealer who ever lived. I never saw better. I’ll tell you that for sure. I never saw a better man with a deck of cards than John Henry. In all the years he dealt to me, I never saw a boxed card or a misdeal that was his fault and he was as fast as any dealer I ever saw. He swore that he had never burned and turned in his thirty years of dealing poker, and I can tell you that I never saw him do it and John Henry dealt to me every night for years.

“Sure,” the kid said, “I’ll deal against you with a machine and you deal without it. We can bet whatever you want old-timer, but not too much, I don’t want to take your whole bankroll.

“You bet what you want kid,” he said, “I ain’t gonna lose.”

They put a thousand dollars on it, and they set it up for the next day. They agreed that the first dealer to be ahead by ten hands would be declared the winner and they would deal until it was over. No breaks, no excuses, and they each put ten black chips on the table. John Henry sat on one side and the kid sat on the other.

The kid was a pretty good dealer, but he was no John Henry. Without the shuffler the kid would have never taken the bet. He wouldn’t have had a chance. Maybe no one would have had a chance against him without a machine. Maybe no one at all. But with the automatic shuffler the kid felt pretty good about his chances.

Some other people felt good about his chances too. I know, because I took their action. I booked almost three thousand worth of bets on the kid, enough to make me a little nervous. I knew John Henry was good, but I didn’t know how he would compare to the kid using the machine. I figured he was a favorite or I wouldn’t have taken those bets, and I knew he was competitive and tougher than the kid was. But was he tougher than the machine?Shuffle

They started dealing at seven O’clock that night, with a few of us keeping track of the hands while most of the bettors were playing, more interested in action than in the contest they had already bet on. I was sitting between the tables, counting hands for both sides. Each dealer had a rack full of white chips, and they tossed me a chip before they cut the cards each hand. I just stacked the chips in columns of 20 and watched them deal out hands.

The kid was fast, and he didn’t care as much about how accurate he was. A flipped card here and there wasn’t a big deal to him, and he got off to a quick start. He was ahead by two hands after twenty minutes, speeding through hands as he grabbed the cards from the machine and dropped the old deck in to be shuffled. John Henry didn’t look bothered, not a bit. He checked the stacks once in awhile, but he didn’t look worried. He just shuffled up and dealt, hand after hand after hand.

An hour in the kid was slowing down a bit, finding a rhythm but losing a bit of the vigor he had at the start. The machine just kept chugging along though, and the kid kept the cards coming as the machine shuffled them up and spit them out. The lead stayed at two hands, but the kid still looked confident. He was sure that John Henry couldn’t keep the pace up as long as he could and he was already spending the dime he was going to win from John Henry.

I thought the contest would be over one way or another within a few hours at the most, but after three hours the chips were piling up and the match was still close. The kid had pulled up to a three hand lead when he got a red light from the machine and had to dump the same deck back into it without dealing a hand. John Henry used that slip up from the machine to cut the lead back down to two hands.

They stayed close until midnight when the machine jammed up again. The kid just fed the cards back into it, not worried like I thought he might be. The kid was made of tougher stuff than I thought, but he was no John Henry. The jam allowed John Henry to catch up a little more, cutting the lead to one hand, but I was starting to get worried about the three dimes I had riding on our little contest.

If we continued at this rate it would take John Henry two more days to catch up. The kid might get tired, but even if it was only one day I couldn’t imagine John Henry keeping up the pace he had to set to keep up with the machine for the whole 24 hours. I didn’t want to sit there all night either, I was missing a great game on table 3. John Henry started whistling while he shuffled and pitched the cards at about 2 am.

As he whistled, and shuffled, and tossed cards at the seats, John Henry never looked over at the kid or the machine he was using. He stopped looking at the chips too, asking me every half hour where the score was and concentrating on the shuffle and the pitch. He was gaining ground slowly, even without the shuffle machine jamming up, but it was so slow.

“You two want to call this thing off and take your money back?” I said, hoping to get a seat on table 3 before the fish were all gone. “Nobody is going to win this for a long time.”

“Nope” came the answer from John Henry before the kid had a chance to speak, “You know I don’t chop.”

At 4 am the game on table 3 broke, and John Henry tied the match back up, pulling dead even when the machine jammed again. The kid still didn’t look worried. He figured that he was going to wear John Henry down, force him to quit, or just catch him when he slowed down after too many hours and too many riffles. I was getting tired of this match, but I knew John wasn’t going to chop it up. Win or lose, he would fight until the end. I ordered some coffee and kept stacking the chips. They were in racks now. Lots of them.

The contest ran well into the next day and both competitors looked awful tired by noon. They had been dealing for too many hours, awake for too long, and they both had bags under their eyes. John Henry’s hands were cramped, I could see it in the way he moved, but he kept it up just the same. The match was in favor of John Henry by this time too, he was ahead by two hands. He was keeping pace with the machine, and gaining a hand every time it jammed up.

It was 5 O’clock the next night, almost a whole day into the match, that the machine jammed up twice in a row. He was ahead by five hands and the double jam got it almost to seven. The kid knew he was beat and he was tired and that thousand bucks wasn’t coming his way. He gave up.

“You win John,” he said, “You can’t be beat, not even with the machine.”

“Thank you son,” he replied and looked over at me. “I told ya I was the side to bet on this one Fox, I told ya didn’t I?”

“You did John, well done.” I said, “Now let’s get a drink and then I’m going home and getting some sleep.”

He looked like hell, haggard, and tired, and beat. His eyes were drooping and his hands were claws and his shoulders sagged low. He was a big man, but he looked like a broken man just then, old and small. It made me sad. He had just out dealt the machine, he should look triumphant, but it had taken too much out of him.

“I’m awful tired Fox.” he said, “Grab me them black chips. I’m going to rest my head a second. I beat that machine like I said I would, but I need a rest.”

With that he lay his head down on his arms and went limp. Right there in the seat at the table. I figured he was asleep, but when we tried to wake him he wasn’t sleeping at all. John Henry was gone. And John Henry was the greatest poker dealer I ever saw.

Here’s a link to an excellent version of the original Ballad of John Henry sung by Doc Watson

This version by Johnny Cash is very good as well

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  1. #1 by robowolfman on January 17, 2014 - 8:13 pm

    Love the twist one the story.

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