Thursday, January 24, 2013

Armadillo Tim and the Threat of Death

Over my twelve years in the gaming business, I've had a lot of unexpected things happen. I've gotten to travel all over the world, lived in Europe, worked with some of the best and most talented people in the world and met a lot of amazing folks.

The one thing I never expected, though, was a death threat. I've actually had two, and I consider at least one of them to be somewhat credible. 

The person who made this threat died last year, so the chances of my being sued aren't great. In fact, this guy is enough of a slug that I doubt anyone, including his family, would dispute anything I have to say, or even question it. However, I'm the cautious type, so I'm not going to use his name. But I need something to call him, so let's refer to him as Armadillo Tim.

To set the stage: I started with PokerStars as a beta tester in September 2001, and then was offered a job as VP of Marketing in February of 2002. I worked part-time, then started full-time in April. Back then, the World Series of Poker started in April and ended the Friday before Memorial Day. 

So the WSOP was just getting going when I got a call from Steve Badger, a professional poker player (1999 Omaha/8 bracelet winner) that I had gotten to know when I was playing a lot of tournament poker. Steve had been a consultant on a few PokerStars projects, and in fact was the guy who recommended me to PokerStars' CEO for the VP Marketing spot. Steve had developed a relationship with a poker player named Doc (which always made me laugh, harking back to the "never play poker with a guy named Doc" maxim), and Doc was a close friend of Armadillo Tim. Steve thought that Tim would be a great celebrity representative for PokerStars. And we needed something like this - we had something like 1,000 players back then and were a million miles from the top online site, Paradise Poker.

Tim was probably the first poker celebrity, owing entirely to an amazing knack for self-promotion. He won a major poker tournament before there really were major poker tournaments, and managed to parlay it into appearances on major talk shows starting back in the early 70s. Most of these appearances consisted of his telling stories about stealing, cheating, lying and scamming, and they were hugely popular. And apparently many of them were true.

Steve arranged a meeting for me with Tim and Doc at Binion's. I was just starting in gaming, and I was getting to fly to Vegas to meet with a famous poker player. How cool was this? I hopped on a plane and was in Vegas the next day.

The meeting was set for noon in the Binion's coffee shop (I don't remember the actual name, but it was downstairs, for those who remember the place before it fell to ruin). I walked in, gave my name and the hostess gushed, "Oh, yes, Mr. Goldman, Tim is expecting you." She walked me to a huge round table in the back that was surrounded by about 20 people asking for autographs. A voice said "Go away now, I have bidness to do." Bidness. Honestly, that's what he said.

I won't lie - I was dazzled right from the start. I knew who this guy was, had seen him on TV, had heard the stories, and thought for a moment about just how cool I had become. I was having lunch with Armadillo Tim. This was major.

Tim stood to shake my hand, and I realized that he was a lot taller than he looked on TV. He stood about 6'6", and since he was rail-thin he looked even taller. He was in full Texas regalia, with crocodile boots and a hat adorned with two rattlesnake heads. "Have a seat, young man," Tim said, and he endeared himself to me even more (but anyone who calls me "young man" gets extra points).

We chatted some small talk for a few minutes, until the waitress came over. "Do you like ham?" he asked. "The ham steak here is like nothing you've ever seen." He then ordered ham steak and eggs and coffee for both of us. I wasn't about to object. He was Armadillo Tim. 

In the ten minutes or so between ordering and the arrival of our lunch, Tim told me two stories about how he had scammed people in golf prop bets. The first was a bet he made that he could hit a golf ball a mile, using a regulation ball and club. The sucker took the bet, Tim took him out on a downslope highway, teed up and took it down. The second was beating Evel Knievel playing 18 holes with a carpenter's hammer (he had practiced for a year).

Now remember that I was there to negotiate an endorsement deal with Tim. Did huge alarm bells go off in my head as this guy told me two stories in our first few minutes together about how he had cheated people? Nooooooo, I was dazzled and wanted to hear more.

And did I. The stories went on for an hour or more, while I struggled through the famous one pound Binion's ham steak (no kidding, this thing didn't even fit on a plate). And every story was about how clever he was, how stupid and greedy everyone else was, and how he had snookered every last one of them.

We finally got down to bidness, now that I was sufficiently tenderized. I had a few things in mind here - obviously I wanted Tim to wear PokerStars gear everywhere he went, planned to put his picture on the site, use his name and image in advertising - all the things good marketing guys do. But I really needed him to play on the site. For some reason he was reluctant about doing this, which should have set off another alarm. But on we went.

I won't bore you with the details of the negotiation. It was contentious, but ended up as a pretty decent deal for both sides. We would give him a substantial sum up front, and then pay him a fixed amount every month for using his name and for his appearance once a week on the site. He would wear PokerStars gear and say nice things about us. Pretty straightforward.

I assumed he wasn't computer-savvy, which turned out to be a vast understatement. He put computers and space monsters in the same category. I bought a computer and had it shipped to him, and hired someone in his hometown to spend an hour a day with him teaching him how computers worked and how to play on the site.

My plan was to let players compete for "player of the week" honors, and have that player play Tim for $1,000. If the player won, he got the money. If Tim won, the money rolled over to the next week. I waited a few weeks before launching this - Sarah, the woman I had hired to work with Tim, gave me daily updates on his slow progress. Finally we decided that the only way this would work at the beginning was if Sarah sat next to him and told him what to do.

That worked all right for the first week, and Tim declared that he "didn't need no babysitter no more." So we set up the tournament for the following week without her next to him. This might have worked out OK - except that when 1:00pm on Sunday came around, Tim didn't show up. And didn't answer his phone. By 2:00 I knew we were cooked, so we awarded the money to the player and moved on.

It was Wednesday before I finally found Tim again. Turns out that one of his horses had gotten sick and he had to drive her to Montana to the only vet he would work with. And of course they don't have phones in Montana, so there was no way he could reach me to let me know he'd be a no-show.

Did the light come on over my head yet? Nooooooo. I was friends with Armadillo Tim.

I called him twice on Friday, and finally convinced him to play me heads-up so I could make sure he knew what he was doing. He played, and did OK, although he called me afterward complaining that our software was cold-decking him. Was I worried? Noooooo.

I called him two more times on Saturday to make sure that he would actually show up on Sunday. He assured me that he would. I called at 10am Sunday, spoke to someone at his house who told me he was at church (???) but that he knew he needed to be online at 1:00.

I'm sure you've worked out what happened next. No Tim. No answer at his house. I called Sarah and asked her to drive over there. She did - no one home.

At 7 that night he finally called. He had been riding and a horse fell on him, and he was in the hospital. I asked him which hospital, intending to send flowers or a grenade or something. He told me he was being released that night, so there was no need.

Even the lunkiest of lunkheads eventually catches on, and I was starting to. I called him the following day, told him that we had now been embarrassed twice in a row, and that I really needed his word that he would play during the week and would show up for the challenge match the following Sunday. He assured me that we (not he) had just had a run of bad luck, and everything would be fine.

Of course, by this time I was in fairly deep water with PokerStars management, or so I thought. I had a long conversation with my boss on Tuesday, and told him that it looked like we had made a deal with a flake. He believed that it was salvageable, so we pressed forward; however, we agreed that even one more infraction would be the end of the line.

Tim had agreed to be online for a few hours on Wednesday night to play and chat. Needless to say, he wasn't, and couldn't be reached. I talked to my boss again, told him I was firing Tim, and he agreed. From that point on, it took me another five days to get him on the phone.

Me: "Tim, I'm sorry to tell you this, but this relationship isn't working out for us. You have now made promises multiple times, have broken every one of them and we've disappointed our players. We're terminating your contract, effective immediately."

Tim: "Well, just who in the fuck do you think you are, you steaming pile of horseshit?" That is an actual quote. I scratched it on a notepad and pushed it across my desk to Sharon, who was listening to my side of the call.

Me: "You can keep the computer. If it were up to me, I'd sue you for the money we already paid you, but PokerStars management is willing to let it go."

Tim: "You listen to me, you and your cold-deck, cheating computer program can just suck the boils off my ass." (again, an actual quote. Nice image, no?) "We have a contract, but that's not the way we settle things in Texas."

I didn't know exactly what to make of that, but I told him to expect a formal notification by mail and hung up. I FedExed him a termination letter, and that seemed to be the end of it.

Spin forward two years. After the big poker boom in 2003, Binion's did audio webcasts of a lot of final tables in 2004, and Nolan Dalla asked Rich Korbin and me to host several of them. I was in the middle of final table play-by-play when someone came up to me and said "There's a very pissed off guy who wants to talk to you." I looked up and there was Tim and a few hangers-on. I passed the microphone to Nolan and went to talk to him.

"You remember our bidness," he led off with.

"I do," I said. "We hired you, you never showed up for work and we fired you."

"That's not the way I remember it," he said, edging way too far into my personal space for comfort. He was almost a foot taller than me, so at that proximity my head was back as far as my neck would allow. "What I remember is that we had a contract and you fucked me. Nobody fucks Armadillo Tim."

I just love when people refer to themselves in the third person. I didn't say anything.

"The way I see it, you owe me..." and then announced a number that represented the two year value of his contract.

"I have to get back to the final table. I sent you our lawyers' contact information in your termination letter. Feel free to work through them if you have a dispute," I said, backed away a step and turned around.

"NOBODY TURNS THEIR BACK ON ME, YOU LITTLE COCKSUCKER!" he said a little too loudly, loud enough to turn heads. I turned around, not sure exactly what to say, but happy that there was a crowd. And I have to admit I was pissed off. I've been called a cocksucker before, but never a little one.

"You're going to leave this building sometime soon, and you'd best keep an eye over your shoulder. There's a real good chance there'll be someone there to collect what you owe. And the people I send to collect don't take kindly to liars and cheats."

I really, really wanted to say "and they work for you?" but didn't. I wish I could tell you that I said something brave here, but I was honestly a little scared. I turned around again.

"You really want to die for a few thousand dollars?" he said to my back.

And there it was - my very first death threat.

I reported all of this back to PokerStars management, who strongly urged me to call the police. I had multiple witnesses who had heard him threaten me. But in the end, I let it go. I really didn't think he was serious, especially since he had said it in public, although I do admit that I jumped at loud noises for a few days after.

And thus ended my first relationship with someone famous. I got to meet and spend time with quite a few more famous people over the next few years, and I am happy and proud to report that only one more of them threatened to kill me. But that's another story.

9 comments:

  1. Classic! I assume you have no idea if the horse that got sick was the same one that fell on Mr. Armadillo? I mean that would make sense.

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  2. I appreciate your candor. Many of these stories more closely align with what I've heard through poker circles vs. what I have read in poker publications.

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  3. The deceased cannot be slandered or libeled.

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  4. This is a great story. I imagine that a few dozen of these would make a great book. Thank you for sharing it with us. It tends to confirm the impression I already had of the mighty Armadillo Tim.

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  5. I am the aforementioned friend of Armadillo's called "Doc". I did not know the final details of this story before reading Dan's blog. "Tim" really wasn't a bad guy; his bark was much worse than his bite. But if he ever thought someone was screwing him, he could certainly be nasty. In the 27 years I knew him, I had heard countless stories of people getting "unlucky" because of crossing him....the last one being just a couple of years before he died, when someone robbed him on his farm, and "Tim" hired someone to take care of this guy before the law could get him first.

    But the PokerStars story was true, alas....several of us stood to make quite a bit of $, but "Tim", for all his cleverness, could not see the promise of online poker, and did not take his contract, nor his responsibilities, seriously. Computers and the internet were still somewhat new, and this guy was set in his ways.

    "Tim" always treated me well, made me smile, told great stories...but I would never leave him alone with my wife, not even in an elevator; those were her wishes, and she is an excellent judge of character.

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    1. Thanks for posting this, Doc. You hit it right on the head -
      "Tim" saw this as just one more opportunity to snag some quick bucks. As perceptive as he was, he didn't have much in the way of long-term strategic thinking.

      In the longer run, he in fact did me a favor by screwing us immediately - maybe two favors. First, we got out of the relationship before his other legal 'difficulties' would have made our lives miserable. And second, it gave me the incentive to seek out other, more reputable players. A few weeks after this debacle, I signed Tom McEvoy, who became an instant hit on PokerStars and continued his relationship with the company for eight years.

      ...dan

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  6. Hi Dan,
    My name is Carol (Delorto, at that time) and I was "Tim's" poker tournament coordinator for 7 years. I really enjoyed reading your story and it sounds just like something Tim would do and say. Just as "Doc" said Tim always treated me well too and I also never wanted to be left alone with him, not even in an elevator, "Doc's" wife is a smart woman...hahaha but true!

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