After Doug Whittaker earned a math degree from the University of Alabama, he moved to Louisiana in 1980 to join the oil industry. His work schedule—a few weeks on, a few weeks off—facilitated long poker sessions. For almost twenty years, Whittaker was a familiar face in bars and private games across the South. In 1996, with a management position and a young grandson occupying his time, Whittaker took a sabbatical from poker.
Now he’s back. I first met Doug at Harrah’s New Orleans, where he plays no-limit hold ‘em, limit Omaha high, and his favorite game, pot-limit Omaha. We discussed road gambling, playing with Paul “Eskimo” Clark, mud engineering, and how poker has changed in the last thirty years.
Doug Whittaker: When I started playing poker down here, around 1980, I was living in Thibodaux, Louisiana. They had bar games with a twenty-dollar takeout.
Ben Saxton: What do you mean by “takeout?”
That’s how much money you could put on the table.
No. As many times as you wanted. So it sounds like a small game, but it actually got big as the night went on.
How would the action go?
Everybody would go all-in. Then everybody would rebuy. As the night went on, there would be several deep stacks and post-flop play. We played hold ‘em, five-card stud, and Tomahawk, which was five-card Omaha—they call it “Big O” now. Everything was no-limit. It was a real good game. You could win a thousand, fifteen-hundred.
Paul “Eskimo” Clark was in some of those games, right?
I started playing with Eskimo in Houma [Louisiana] in ‘81, ‘82, somewhere in there. We played in private games that people had at their houses. He actually pawned his shoes one time to get in a game.
How much did he get for the shoes?
Two dollars. And he pawned his leather jacket one time. Personal hygiene was not his strong suit. Five or six of us were in a long game one night—sometimes we’d play for four or five days nonstop—and Eskimo won about ten grand. So I’m leaving Houma for Thibodaux and I see Eskimo’s Lincoln parked under the bridge to the bayou—this was in August; it was brutally hot—and there he was, his feet stickin’ out the window, sleeping in his car. He was tight tight. Wouldn’t spend any of that money on a room.
Tight tight. Wow. So all of the money he won, he gambled.
That’s all he did. He bought some cars. Other than that, I don’t know what he spent his money on.
What kind of player was he?
He gambled. He was a winning player most of the time, but when he lost, he went broke. He’d run his bankroll up and blow it all in one session. And from what I understand, he would continue to do that.
That’s my understanding, too. He passed away, what, two years ago?
During this period in the eighties, how often were you playing? Four or five days a week?
Yeah. I took a sabbatical from the oil field from ‘86 to ‘88 and just traveled playing poker. The action moved. When things got slow it was like you lost your job. It’s not a good life for a guy with a family. At the time I had two daughters—one was in college, one in high school. You could go to Houston, Atlanta, Dallas—all private games. And you’d meet people at the tournaments. So you could always find a place to play. The biggest thing was being careful because, back then, you had a lot of games getting robbed. A lot of thieves.
Did you ever get robbed?
No. Never got hijacked. One time they robbed a game on the West Bank [in New Orleans] but I wasn’t there.
So you got lucky, then, in that sense.
Yeah. And most games had security. One game in Mississippi was down at a lake, and you had to go down this long, one-lane road to get there. They kept a guy up on the hill with a shotgun. Back then, everybody carried guns. It was just what you did. And you knew everybody at the table had a gun.
A little less incentive to rob games.
Yeah. Poker’s evolved a lot. To me, it’s not as much fun. You don’t have the camaraderie in the casino that you had in the private games. There were pimps, and judges, and bookies, and lawyers, and doctors, and politicians, who all had that common thread. Some real characters.
What originally brought you down to New Orleans in 1980?
I was working at bank in Alabama, and I talked to a guy who told me that he was making three times as much money doing manual labor. So I decided to give the oil industry a shot. I worked off drilling rigs along the Gulf of Mexico. It’d be mopping, cleaning up—nasty, dirty work. But it paid good. On the drilling side, you have all kinds of specialized jobs, and I decided I wanted to be a mud engineer. My mathematics background opened the door for me. I was a mud engineer from 1982 to 2000, and then I went into the office.
What would you do in the office?
I was an engineering manager—at one time I had 100 engineers—and I was involved in well planning with oil companies. Poker didn’t fit into the office job at all. The oil field never shuts down. It runs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. So you’d get calls in the middle of the night, it was very time-consuming. I was out of the poker scene for about fifteen years—from about 1996 until a couple years ago.
Why did you come back?
Well, my grandson turned twenty-one and my wife passed away. I had the time again. I’ve always enjoyed poker. I grew up watching Maverick and cowboy movies. As a teenager I played on a blanket out in the piney woods with a bunch of moonshiners. Where I grew up in Alabama, it was a dry county. Gambling was serious business. If you got busted it was a felony. I’ve been a student of the game for fifty years. I’ve read all the books, played all the games.
What are your favorite books?
Super System [by Doyle Brunson] and [Bob] Ciaffone’s Omaha book. Hold ‘em, to me, is one of the most boring games. It requires long sessions and lots of patience. I have to agree with Ciaffone: if hold ‘em is the Cadillac of poker, then Omaha is the Rolls-Royce of poker.
How have the games changed?
You have a lot of good players around now, but they’re spread out. At the same time, the poker community has always had a whole lot of people who thought they were good players. They watch too much television, they take things too seriously, and they waste my time.
Do you mean with tanking?
Yeah. Anybody that’s playing, if they don’t have an idea what they’re going to do by the time the action gets to ‘em, they ought to just quit. There’s way too much posturing. To me, it hurts the game. It kills the action. That’s the thing about poker: you sit down at a table and one guy can change the whole mood. If you’ve got one guy who’s jovial, then the game will loosen up. If you’ve got five serious guys and three tourists sit down who just want to have a good time, then the tourists will get bored and leave.
What advice would you give younger players?
Diversify. Don’t learn how to be just a hold ‘em player. It’s not near as much fun. Learn all the games. And learn to play the game how it was meant to be played.
Which is how?