James Garner: TV's First Poker Star

Maverick was a Role Model for a Generation of Card Players

Today's poker players are all over TV, but at one time there was only one poker star, and he truly was a star: Bret Maverick! At the table he was cool, good-looking, likable and charmed his way out of trouble. Women wanted to know him, and men wanted to be like him. And the man who made the character immortal is the equally affable and charismatic James Garner.

A generation of players tried to emulate his cool, calm and collected style, and his calmness and confidence at the table.

It was the perfect marriage of actor and role, but how much is the fictional character like the man who portrayed him? When he was cast, Garner knew how to play the game, but says, "Bret is a much better player than I am, plus he had the advantage of having his winning hands written in the script!"

'I Play the Other People'

Garner is self-depcrating when it comes to his own game. Asked to describe his style, he says, "I'm not anything in particular. Sometimes I'm aggressive, sometimes I'm not. I'll bluff and then I won't. I really play the other people more than I play the cards."

This definitely contrasts with Bret Maverick's cool bravado. In nearly every episode of the classic late-'50s Western (Sundays on ABC), Bret would be plying his trade at a poker table in the corner of a saloon, always well-dressed, suave, sophisticated and in total control. Five-stud or draw were the games of choice, and his defeated opponents would have called him a card sharp (using card tricks to cheat) or a card shark (an expert who feasts on weak players).

Poker the Marverick Way During the show's run, Garner and show creator Roy Huggins released a book, which was published again when Mel Gibson re-created the role in 1994. Included were the gambler's Ten Commandments of poker. "Don't Cheat" (rule 1) is one every player should live by, but rule 7 is controversial today: "Don't play with women."

Would Garner violate his TV alterego's rule? Yes, as long as the lady doesn't take his mind off the game.

Now, Bret Maverick had a different attitude. He learned about life from his father. To quote from the show, "As my old pappy used to say, if at first you don't succeed, try something else. And never cry over spilled milk, it could've been whiskey."

On the subject of luck, Bret's dad had another pearl of wisdom to offer: "Son, luck's only important when you sit down with men who play as smart as you do. When I find that out, I quit. It's gambling."

It was more than luck that sustained James Garner's incredibly successful show-business career over the past 40 years. The son of a carpet layer in Norman, Oklahoma, the star's mother died when he was just 4 years old, and he was sent to live with a wealthy uncle who had six other children. He learned to play poker around the kitchen table and recalls, "My uncle was a very good card player. I remember he'd always say: 'We used to be very wealthy. It cost me a lot of money to learn how to play poker this good.'"

Close