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LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- If poker's current popularity had been around when Puggy Pearson ruled the Las Vegas card rooms some 30 years ago, he might have become an even larger poker legend.
"He would have been the biggest name and the biggest poker star out there along with Amarillo Slim and Doyle (Brunson)," 1989 World Series of Poker champion Phil Hellmuth said Friday. "Puggy had so much personality and character, he made poker what it is today."
Pearson, 77, one of the World Series of Poker's founding participants, died Wednesday at his home in Las Vegas after a long illness. A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Monday at the Bellagio in the Da Vinci meeting rooms.
Born Walter Clyde Pearson on Jan. 29, 1929, in Adairville, Ky., he won the World Series of Poker in 1973, the fourth year of the tournament. He was known for the sometimes elaborate costumes and wacky hats he would wear at the start of each World Series of Poker competition. But he was also a legend at the tables.
"He'd sing and tell stories, and he was an unbelievable player," Hellmuth said. "I wouldn't have gotten to where I am today without Puggy."
Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, who won the 2000 World Series of Poker title, said he enjoyed the few times he sat at the same table with Pearson.
"He certainly would have been entertaining on television," Ferguson said. "There are so many great stories about Puggy."
Pearson, who was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame at Binion's Horseshoe in 1987, is credited with starting tournament poker, called "freeze-out," in which players start a game with the same amount of money and play until one player owns all the chips.
With his ever-present cigar, Pearson was a staple in Las Vegas poker rooms in the 1970s and 1980s. He won four World Series of Poker events during the years, as well as a Super Bowl of Poker title at Lake Tahoe in 1982. Pearson has been featured over the years in many books on poker.
"My dad certainly had character, and it looks like he was ahead of the times," said Pearson's daughter, Andrea Elaine Phelan of Nashville, Tenn. "He was definitely one of the game's legends, and he might have been even bigger today the way poker is televised. He would have been a star."
Pearson's cash prize for winning the World Series of Poker in 1973 was $130,000, penny ante compared to the $7.5 million collected by Joseph Hachem last year.
He defeated another poker legend, the late Johnny Moss, winning an $80,000 pot with an ace-high.
Pearson last placed in the World Series of Poker in 1989, finishing 35th. Still, he was welcomed by today's Internet poker-bred superstars as one of the game's legends.
Although he didn't participate in the 2005 tournament, Pearson made one last appearance at the final table at Binion's, brought on stage to sing his self-penned theme song, "The Roving Gambler," in which he says he'll gamble anywhere with anyone as long as there's a deck of cards.
The room gave Pearson a standing a ovation.
"I was commenting on the tournament for the Card Player dot.com Web site, and I made Puggy come on webcast and sing the song again because we had to have it," Hellmuth said. "He's a personality we're going to miss."
Pearson is survived by his companion of 16 years, Simin Habibian of Las Vegas; his daughter, Phelan; a son, Stephen Mark Pearson of Las Vegas; one grandson, Walter Frank Phelan of Nashville; a brother, J.C. Pearson of Las Vegas; and two sisters, Bobbie Jean Bailey of Florida and Gladys Gracie Pearson of Clarksville, Tenn.
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