Joseph Walsh drove up to Las Vegas the last few days of the World Series of Poker to spend some quality time with old friends... the world of gambling and its rhythm of compelling vibes. They have filled much of his life.
Oh yes, he also had a new book to hype. It's called Gambler on the Loose. All in all, he had a good excuse to leave his Southern California home in favor of a room at the Bellagio and his kind of crowd for a few days.
And if things went as he imagined they would-and they did-there would be time for poker in the Bellagio's card room.
Walsh was responding to the urging of Gamblers Book Club operator Howard Schwartz, who told him World Series time was the right time to come up to Vegas for a bit of promotion-book signings, interviews, and the like.
It's not as though Walsh's arm needed a lot of twisting.
"I figured to probably play some poker, but, no, I wasn't playing in the World Series."
Has he ever been a serious tournament poker player? "Yeah, as a matter of fact. I've played poker all my life. That's better than 50 years here and there."
People have been hammering away at him with the argument that the World Series was where he should be, some of them even offering to back him. Walsh's reaction was, thanks, maybe next year. He's remained comfortable with his world of house games... cash games.
He began acting in New York as a child actor and went to the west coast when he spotted opportunity there. And there was always the gambling... the poker, the sports betting.
Talking with a reporter, Walsh wanders through the memory of a long ago 15-game parlay in which he invested $60. It produced 14 wins and a push.
"The games," he muses, remembering the appeal of that we-can-do-anything kind of feeling, "We couldn't lose."
Walsh and his young pal Elliott Gould in the world of young New York actors embraced these experiences as though they had been created just for them.
The product of it all eventually drove him to write the script that became the Robert Altman-directed California Split in 1974.
When he got to California, he found he could support himself playing in house games as much as five times a week.
"I went to the West Coast looking for my career, and what I found was a lot of poker. New York was no longer the right place for me. The circumstances and the people there," giving it a dry laugh, "I was thinking I might get myself killed."
On his way west he stopped in Las Vegas for the first time and was "absolutely enthralled."
His kind of town, he would say later.
"In California I was still doing some acting, but here I was 20 or 21 and I wasn't the cute little kid any more... It's a different story now, but that's was then-the early 1960s-I had hit 17 and I was seeing myself as the has-been kid, thinking my life was over."
He found the house games and they kept him busy maybe five days a week as he waited for the world of show biz to point him where it would.
The years slid by and along came California Split getting a lot of nice attention. It has repeatedly been hailed as the best gambling movie ever made by anyone anywhere. The stars were his old pal Elliott Gould and George Segal.
Walsh says, "The character Elliott played, "That was me."
Now he's got another project, Gambler on the Loose. It's the book that brought him to Las Vegas on his recent trip, a book that may be his bitter sweet, humor-laced love song to gamblers everywhere, telling them that he knows what they're feeling because he has been there and back.
"I've got some stuff about celebrity poker in there... But this not a how to do it book, more like a mirror, mirror on the wall kind of thing. I hope people read it and think about who they are, maybe even find an answer to the Big Why.
The Big Why?
Yeah... why gamblers do the thing they do.
"These pages are for the people experts exploit, the people who walk in with their eyes wide open and are soon blinking a lot."
About his own approach to gambling he says, "Needing money was the issue and how to get it through wagering was probably heredity. Gambling led me to set records at Household Finance for the number of times I needed to buy a new washer and dryer."
After California Split, Walsh became the target of countless offers that he either briefly considered or side-stepped as quickly as he could.
"I got hit with every kind of gambling project but I just did not want to follow it (California Split) up at that point."
With Gambler on the Loose, which he began writing it a little over a year ago, Walsh thinks he has arrived at the right time for a thoughtfully done gambling project because of the "explosion" of interest in the subject.
More than ever, he maintains, people are fluent in the language of a gambling-oriented culture. The world of gambling was a much, much smaller place when California Split was released in 1974. As far as big parties go, there was Las Vegas and, well... that was about it.
As always, it is the why that intrigues Walsh, why he did the thing he did. "Why do people," he says, "give their egos so much free rein?"
Answering his own question, he adds, "Because we're having a good time."
The result: people give themselves away.
Walsh remembers a night of hold 'em years ago. Amarillo Slim and Sailor Roberts were at the able. "I had really wanted Slim to be in California Split." Slim starts talking to me, asking me about my hand. I realized that he needed me to talk, to trap myself with whatever I might say. I said to him, 'Slim, don't waste your time because I'm not gonna talk to you the rest of this session.' He grinned at me with that look of his and said, 'Ah-hah, clever boy.'"
Successful poker, Walsh makes the point again, is a matter of hunting and trapping egos.
As Slim would tell Walsh, "I talk to them to get them talking to me and pretty soon they're just about telling me what they have."
The world of gambling can generate the kind of vibes that go with a big party no one wants to leave.
And in Gambler on the Loose, Walsh says he offers readers the chance to look in his metaphorical mirror...maybe even come up with answers to the Big Why?