Gamblers is a podcast about men and women who live by their wits and wagers. People who bet big on themselves, and won. From a road-hustling pool shark to a punk-rock horse handicapper to a sports bettor who could move lines, the six-part anthology series focuses on the fascinating lives of professional underground gamblers and how they make their money.
Michael Sall is a living legend among gin players and professional gamblers. He’s the best money gin player in New York City since the 1980s. The square public, if they know him at all, know him as the guy who was arrested and lost over a million dollars during the infamous “Molly’s Game” indictments they made a movie about. But he’s no poker player. He’s the man who literally wrote the book on high-stakes gin rummy—a book that sells for hundreds of dollars a copy, a book that changed the way gamblers all over the world play gin.
Back in the 1970s, Sall was winning so much money playing in the gin game at his club in Philadelphia that he decided to branch out. At the time, outside of Las Vegas, there was perhaps no higher concentration of gamblers in America than in New York City. In New York, you could find any game that you could name for any amount that you could count.
And you wouldn’t just find action in the fancy private social clubs. Some of the wildest gambling in New York went on in dimly lit basement cardrooms like Manhattan’s storied Mayfair Club, where the surroundings may have been unimpressive but the stakes were eye-popping. When Michael Sall first arrived, he didn’t find a lot of gin. In those days, the game that was all the rage was backgammon.
“I used to come to New York to learn. They were playing, in those days, $25 a point at the Mayfair. For them, it was all the money in the world.”
In backgammon, games often finish with scores in the single digits, so each game could end up costing anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand dollars at those stakes.
“We were playing a peculiar structure, but it was the equivalent of $500, or maybe $1,000 a point at my club,” Michael recalls. “So, while these guys were there, trying to squeeze every nickel out of it. But here, although there were occasional backgammon games where guys would lose $100,000 or $200,000, the games I was playing in, in the beginning, if you won or lost $4,000 or $5,000, it was a lot. So, if you had a bankroll of $75,000 or $100,000, you were well protected against any bad streak.”
Michael had heard that New York gamblers were the cream of the crop. This was the stomping ground of legends like Stu Ungar. Gamblers in New York were supposed to be the toughest to beat. But Michael quickly found they weren’t as good as they thought they were.
“Well, they suffer from the illusion that all wisdom resides between the East River and the Hudson,” Michael says. “All the good food does in the country; I’m not sure all the wisdom does. There’s no egos in the world like New York egos. I must have won nine out of ten weeks—at least six out of seven—for a year, before anyone figured out, ‘Hey, you know what? He must be a better player than us.’
“In other words, they couldn’t believe that this local yokel from Philadelphia came up and was actually a better player.”
Michael found games to gamble on all over the city. Backgammon, poker, whatever he could find. There were regular gin games at the Town Club on 86th Street, or at the famous Friar’s Club, a private club for celebrities and people who worked in the entertainment industry.
“I like to say you can make more money in New York by accident than you can make on purpose anywhere else,” Michael says. “They have boatloads of money here.”
Michael spent the next decade dominating the gin games of New York City. During that stretch, he kept refining his craft, and although gin had been around for much longer than he had even been alive, he was able to unlock secrets of the game perhaps unknown to any player before him. He built up his bankroll into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, played regularly in the highest stakes games in town, and invested his winnings in businesses and the stock market. It wasn’t too long before he found that he didn’t have to rely on his gambling winnings to make a living, so gin became less a job and more an intellectual pursuit for him. He started to think that he should write down all he knew about gin—that he should write a book.
“I always get comments. People tell me, ‘You should write a book about this, about that, your life, your stories from the poolroom,’ but I never pay attention,” Michael says. “In a sense, it was almost an easy book to write, because I didn’t do any research. Granted, I thought through a lot, but I was basically just writing down stuff I already knew.
“The funny thing was, at the beginning of the book, I didn’t understand nearly as much as I did by the end of the book … Not to say it’s the great literature achievement of our time.”
It may not have been the great literature achievement of our time, but it sure looked a lot like the Holy Bible. Bound in fine leather with gold lettering on the cover and spine, he called his magnum opus Gin Rummy: A Predator’s Guide, and the price of the book said a lot about how much the author valued the wisdom within its pages. It sold for $200 a copy.
“I had a publisher willing to publish my book,” Michael says. “I forgot what he was going to give me; $5 a copy, sell it for $25, something like that. I decided that a book of this nature, nobody’s going to read unless they gamble. So, I priced it at $200.
“At first, it’s funny. Howard Schwartz used to own the Gambler’s Book Club. He told me people would come around. They’d see $200, and they’d say, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ Then they’d open it, and they’d start browsing it and so forth. He said most of the time, they’d wind up buying it.”
According to John Schultz, a young poker player from New York, the Predator’s Guide is worth every penny.
“I bought Michael Sall’s book back before I even played gin for money, and I was like, ‘I’m just going to spend 200 bucks on this book,’ Schultz says. “I have, basically, every single gin book ever written, at least that I’m aware of. There are some books that have okay advice, there’s some with just terrible advice. Michael Sall’s book is the only one that I think is truly high level.”
The Predator’s Guide doesn’t just look beautiful, it has some awfully romantic prose for a book about a card game. When warning the reader against putting too much value on a single card he says “beware of falling in love.” When writing about reading opponents he talks about their “pain, anguish, or joy.” He calls some poor decisions “bureaucratic disease.”
There’s plenty of technical writing, and concepts that are over my head, but there’s also a personality that shines through. Read this from the book’s opening:
“I am often asked how much luck is involved in gin. I do not want to sound simplistic but luck is not an issue … very weak players can win in any given session, or even for a month straight. But as folks in North Carolina say, the sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass every day. The weaker player will eventually lose.”
To hear the full Michael Sall episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new Gamblers episodes. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.