“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 two 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 than 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,” John 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, “You’re fast John, but you’re not as fast as a machine.”

“You want to put a few bucks on that, kid?” John Henry asked. He’d heard enough from the kid tonight. 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 his pitch was perfect. He swore that he had never burned and turned in his 30 years of dealing poker. 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,” John said, “I ain’t gonna lose.”

Poker Dealer

They wagered $1,000 on it, and they set the match up for the next day. They agreed that the first dealer to be ahead by 10 hands would be declared the winner and they would deal until it was over. No breaks, no excuses, and they each put 10 black chips on the table. John Henry sat on table 1 and the kid took table 2. Both $1/2 no-limit games.

The kid was a pretty good dealer, but he was no John Henry. Without the Shuffle Master, 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, 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 $3,000 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?

They started dealing at 7 pm, with a few of us keeping track of the hands while most of the bettors were playing, more interested in poker 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 20 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 a while, but he didn’t look worried. He just shuffled up and dealt, hand after hand after hand.

shuffle

An hour in, the kid was slowing down a bit, finding a rhythm but losing some of the vigor he had 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, and the kid still looked confident. He was sure that John Henry couldn’t keep the pace up as long as he could. 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, 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. 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 they had set. 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 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 very much a neck-and-neck competition.

“You two want to call this thing off and take your money back?” I asked, 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 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 white chips. They were in racks now. Lots of them.

white rack of poker chips

The contest ran well into the next day and both competitors looked awful tired by noon. They’d 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 pm the next evening, 22 hours into the match, that the machine jammed up twice in a row. John was ahead by five hands and the double jam stretched his lead to almost seven. The kid knew he was beat and he was tired and the money 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, his hands were claws, and his shoulders sagged low. He was a big man, but he looked broken just then, and the years of dealing showed. It made me sad. He had just out-dealt the machine. He should’ve looked 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 damn it wasn’t easy.

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.

The Ballad of John Henry, Poker Dealer (Adapted from Pete Seeger’s Original)

John Henry was about three days old,

Sittin’ on his papa’s knee.

He picked up a deck and a cut card;

Said, “Poker’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord.

Poker’s gonna be the death of me.”

 

The brush said to John Henry

“Gotta pitch them cards around.

Gonna bring that automatic shuffler in.

Gotta get them hands dealt out.

Dealt, Out.

Get them hands dealt out.”

 

John Henry told his floor man,

“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,

But before I let that shuffler beat me down,

I’d die with the deck in my hand. Lord, Lord.

I’d die with the deck in my hand.”

 

John Henry said to his players,

“Players, why don’t you tip?

I’m throwin’ these cards and throwin’ em hard at a

Damn near furious clip.

Just listen to them cards riffle. Lord, Lord.

Listen to them cards a riffle.”

 

The man that invented the shuffle machine

Thought he was mighty fine,

But John Henry made forty hands an hour;

The machine made thirty-nine. Lord, Lord.

The machine made thirty-nine.

 

John Henry dealt every table

His hands were about on fire.

But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart.

He just spread the deck and he died. Lord, Lord.

He just spread the deck and he died.

 

John Henry had a little woman.

Her name was Polly Ann.

John Henry took sick and went to his bed.

Polly Ann dealt the cards instead. Lord, Lord.

Polly Ann dealt the cards instead.

 

John Henry had a little baby.

You could hold him in the palm of your hand.

The last words I heard that poor boy say,

“My daddy was a dealin’ man, man. Lord, Lord.

My daddy was a dealin’ man.”

 

Well, every Monday morning

When the railbirds begin to sing.

You can hear John Henry in heaven above.

Playing for a golden ring.

Lord, Lord.

Now he’s playing for a golden ring.

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