Playing cash game poker for well over 15 years, Len Ashby is a stalwart of the live cash scene. Last time we spoke with the West Coast professional he told us The Story of Two where he helped a fellow player out at the table to the tune of $160,000 only to receive the payment back in perhaps the oddest way possible.
This week, we spoke to Ashby about a very different player he took on at the poker felt. Notorious enough to go purely by the pseudonym ‘Mister X’, he most definitely marked the spot, but it wasn’t treasure that Ashby later found.
What Were Live Cash Games Like in 2006?
Over the past two decades, there are a number of different player types that have shared the felt with Ashby. Back in 2006, in the post-Moneymaker poker ‘boom’, Ashby shared the felt with players who were very different from how the majority of players are today.
“The cast of characters I grew up playing with was crazy,” he tells me. “[They were] Old-time gamblers and were either a bookie or a drug dealer.”
Today, when poker strategy is discussed, GTO and advanced strategies that were never spoken of 15 years ago are the order of the day. According to Ashby, that doesn’t mean that optimisation wasn’t going on.
“A long time ago, we were doing some of the stuff that guys do now, we just didn’t know we were doing it,” says Ashby, who recently commentated on the 2022 Poker Masters series on PokerGO. “I was mostly playing PLO (Pot Limit Omaha) but played some Hold’em too. Players back then didn’t know the math very well. These old guys weren’t bad, they just didn’t know the equity of hands well, especially in PLO.”
Going against the grain, Ashby would finish a session then return home to study what he’d just done at the felt.
“I used to go home and run hands for hours on CardPlayer’s calculator. I’d look at which hands play very well against the old guys’ hands. It was so easy to win back then; none of the other guys were doing that.”
“What’d you Do, Rob a Bank?”
Now you know the world Ashby was inhabiting when he was at the felt, you can meet Mister X. Because there’s no hand histories, no major loss or victory along the way that we’ll detail. The news came out long after the event, but one player who shared the felt with Ashby turned out to be a bank robber. A long-time bank robber.
“He was old, probably 65 when we played,” says Len. I already have dreams of this Machiavellian gangster being an incredible player, a combination of JRB and Phil Ivey. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
“He was a huge nit! He’d wait for aces, the flop would come 6-7-8 and he’d be all-in with those aces. He always read a Forbes magazine but didn’t say much. No-one knew what he did for a living.”
It turns out, he was robbing banks and then taking the money to play with at the casino. It shocked Len to learn that a player he’d sat at the table with had been into that lifestyle.
“I thought, ‘I’ve been to dinner with that guy’,” he says. “He was a regular at the casino I played at. He was a real quiet guy – he didn’t play every week – but I used to play limit hold’em with him at the weekends and I got into PLO and he played sometimes with us. I’ll never forget when I saw him pull out the money to buy chips.
The cash had red dye all over the money. This dye came from the money at bank. Banks put explosive dye on some money that blows up on money when opened. It was a banded brick of cash. I said, “What the f**k did you do… rob a bank?”
It turned out that yes, he had robbed a bank, or to be more precise, over a dozen of them.
The Hook and the Reveal
Ashby and all the others had no idea that Mister X had a secret life as a bank robber. If that was the hook upon which they sat, then the reveal was a stunning one. Mister X had been caught and was looking at a very long stretch behind bars.
“It was over a course of ten-year stretch that he did it, at banks all around the area. I remember it coming across the news that a County Bank was robbed and that was where the money was from at the felt. You couldn’t make it up. You never know who you’re playing with.”
Len remembers fondly a time when he was at college two decades ago (OK, he remembers the length of time ago less fondly). During a psychology class, he learned that there are certain crimes that subconsciously, the perpetrator wants to tell us, law-abiding citizens, about.
“It’s not enough to keep doing the crime and getting away with it,” he reveals. Now it’s me who’s in class and I’m hooked on the lesson. “They need to tell us about it too. I think Mister X did that. Who in the world would rob 14 banks then bring the money that has the crime on the money to a place that is under heavy surveillance?! It’s the worst place to bring the money. It’s crazy.”
“When I get buried, I think I can play better than anyone.”
Len played with Mister X for well over a year, but although there were ‘no signs of it’ at the felt, Len’s friend shared a story from the blackjack tables.
“My friend told me he’d played blackjack with Mister X, who once broke from his near-silent persona. He said, ‘He was talking crazy. He told me some guy owes him money and was supposed to send him x amount a month. And he said ‘If he misses it this month, I’m gonna kill him.’ It shocked him that he said that in casual conversation.”
Len recalls that farther down the road, ‘around a year later’, while Mister X was in prison for his bank-robbing exploits, a body was found. ‘They investigated that situation and found out what happened. Can you imagine; they knock on his cell, “We got some bad news’. It was wild.”
Perhaps Mister X was giving money back. I once spoke with Elliot Roe, who developed the Primed Mind app with Fedor Holz that helps players get in the right frame of mind. One of the most common problems was that many poker players subconsciously give money back by losing when they feel they’ve been lucky. Essentially, ill-gotten gains are subconsciously given away. Mister X could have done that at the poker table. Len thinks 100% that it goes on in gambling and poker.
“I used to say that about myself,” he admits. “I used to say I’m the worst player when I’m stuck in a cash game, not a lot, but when I don’t feel it. But when I get buried, I think I can play better than anyone. Playing a game and being down $10,000, it’s not that much, I’m playing horrible. I either want to get back to where I’m winning or get really stuck so I can start playing my best again. I still feel that happening at times.”
Len’s fondness for this long-gone age of poker is like looking back in time for anyone listening, me included. The game of poker is different now, there are, in Len’s words, ‘tonnes’ of very good players.
“I miss poker how it used to be,” he finishes. “The non-politics of it. You used to turn up and get on a list. Now you have to game select, and you never had to do that! There was so much action it was crazy. There’s a little of it coming back now with circuit stops. I hope so.”
It may be a very long time since Len remembers Mister X sharing his felt and reaching for his dollar roll, but he’s never forgotten the lessons it taught him then and continues to teach us all now.