Interview with Jack McClelland
By Steve Marzolf
How did you get started playing poker?
"Well, actually my grandmother taught me how to play, and that's how I learned my mathematics. She kept me broke 'til I was about 10. And, I played in high school and in college and moved to Las Vegas in the '70s. I started out dealing in small poker rooms and then got into tournaments. Then in 1984, I started out in tournaments for the World Series, and I've been doing tournaments ever since."
When you ran your first tournament, how did it go?
"It went ok. I was a player, so it helped a lot. If you play the game, you really understand the dynamics of how the players feel - if they lose a big hand and they're upset. And you've dealt, so when players get abusive toward dealers you get how they feel. I really understand from all points - from playing, from dealing, from working on the floor. When you first start out everyone's going to try to test you. The players test you, the employees test you, the casino tests you. I've been doing it for so long now I don't get tested too much anymore."
Tell about tournaments you've run - you've been around for awhile...
"Well, the first one that I actually worked at was the World Series in 1984. I was a shift manager. I helped out with the tournament and realized I liked the tournament better than the live games. And then my first tournament after that, I worked at what's called the Stratosphere now and the Golden Nugget and then back to the Series again. And then throughout the years, I've been a little bit of every place. I ran tournaments at Caesar's Palace. I did the first poker tournament in Atlantic City at the Taj Mahal. I was the tournament director for the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles for nine years. And I've been a little bit of all over the world, on the Isle of Man.; St. Petersburg, Russia; Vienna, Austria. I'm leaving tomorrow for Aruba for a tournament there."
When you did that first '84 Series and you said the players were testing you - in what kind of ways?
"Well, the louder they holler and scream, they'll get their way. And, if you don't know the rules as well as you should, they'll use a technicality to try to win a pot. And we had a lot of characters back then, like Johnny Moss, Stu Ungar, who were sort of bigger than life. You had to use a firm hand. You have to spank them then give 'em a little sugar. You're part psychologist, part kindergarten teacher, part priest, listening to all their stories. It helps you survive all those years."
As much as things have changed, do you miss the good old days?
"Not really. The World Series will always hold a special place in my heart, too, because I was there for 15 years, and I kind of grew up with the legends and saw them go from nowhere to the top. There was more of a family atmosphere, but it was really hard to make a living as a player because there weren't many live spots in most of the tournaments. And, now, this year at the World Series, there were 5,600 players - probably 300 professionals and maybe another 300 serious amateurs and 5,000 guys named Joe. I put myself in the experienced amateur group, and if you're in that group, you feel like, 'Wow, I've really got a chance this year.' And, that's what's really made poker boom. It's not watching the same 10 pros play every week; it's watching the unknown guy come out and win."
The guys who sit at home and watch sports found a sport where they can actually compete with the same people they're watching.
"You can never go play golf with Tiger Woods because even if you're a scratch golfer, he's still gonna beat you every day. You can't go play basketball with Shaq, but you can sit down and play poker with Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke. And, you know what, you get the right hand at the right time... And, now, if you win two or three tournaments, you're like a rock star - people are asking for your autograph."
What's your take on all these people shrouded from head to toe Unabomber-style with wraparound shades and six layers of clothes?
"I put a lot less stock in tells than most people. The difference between the pros and the amateurs in the long run is 'steaming.' You get upset and get on tilt - you lose your concentration and you lose your chips. Literally, in a session of poker, you make hundreds or thousands of decisions, and the guy who ends up with the money is the one who makes the most good decisions and doesn't let his emotions override his brain. That's the difference between winning and losing in the long run."
What tips do you have that are overlooked in helping average guys win tournaments?
"The No. 1 thing in winning tournaments is being aggressive. If you're aggressive, you're going to win a tournament once in a while because gathering chips is the most important thing. Surviving is good, and getting into the money is fine. But, it's better to win once and get 7.5 million than to be in the money for $5,000 a hundred times and end up with half a million. If you're aggressive and you make a mistake - if you've got 100,000 in chips and somebody's got 20,000 and you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar, you've still got 80,000. And if you get lucky with your queen-nine or something, now you've got 120,000 and he's out. Being aggressive, you will occasionally win a tournament."
You see all the pros pretty regularly, what's the pro scene feel like in Vegas?
"It's a pretty good camaraderie. There's a lot of kidding and joking and needling. One-upmanship is the main thing. They're all trying to hustle each other. Whether it's in poker, the golf course, flipping coins - they're all trying to get into your head psychologically."
What's the worst problem you've had to sort out at a tournament?
"There have been so many I can't even think of one. I had a player get really upset at a dealer. The dealer wasn't making fun of the player, but he was one of those dealers who just had a dopey little grin. And, this player got really upset, and he was going after the dealer. He and the dealer were going over the table after each other, so I got between them and pushed them apart. I've jumped between people a few times, I try to be older and wiser now and call for a security guard. I'm not as young as I used to be."
What do you think of the World Series' wild growth? Should they raise the buy-in?
"I would never, ever try to give Harrah's any advice because they're all top professionals and know exactly what they're doing. Does that sound slightly sarcastic? That's just our competitor, so I'm not giving any information away to them for free. That's like the Yankees and the Red Sox - if you love one, you hate the other."
Do you ever feel like, 'I want my tournament back?' You worked the WSOP for a long time.
"No, no. You gotta move on in life. What actually happened was my late wife was terminal about six years ago, and I retired. My retirement had nothing to do with the World Series, but it just happened to be the same year that Becky Binion took over the Horseshoe from Jack. So, I was retired for a couple years while I was taking care of her. After she passed away, I played for a little while, and I was kinda bored more than anything. So, people said, 'You've got to get back doing tournaments again.' Now I'm back up to the top spot at the Bellagio."
A lot of players have a real devil-may-care attitude toward money. How does holding your salaried job at the Bellagio affect your attitude toward it?
"Well, when you're young, you always think it's going to come back. I've seen a lot of players win that first million and go out and do something stupid with it. The first year Stu Ungar won the World Series, he went out the next day and lost all of it playing golf, and he'd never played golf before. They'll go out and bet horses or ball games or shoot craps - just do something ridiculous. They're only 26 - it's gotta come back, right? But, a lot of times, it never comes back, and they just disappear."
What do you see in the future of poker?
"Right now, the sky's the limit. As long as TV stays interested, it'll keep growing. I think it's definitely character-driven. The casinos are interested in it because it brings people in. We used to be the poor stepchild; the slots were king and then the table games and everything else. Poker was down at the bottom. With the exposure, it's not that way anymore. Up until five years ago, every six months they were closing up a poker room in Las Vegas. Now, it seems that every month they're opening one up."
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