Sid Richardson, known as the most secretive of the Big Four Texas oilmen, wasn’t exactly big on charity. While others donated millions to various causes, Richardson saw no need. “Why, Sid has no more civic responsibility than a coyote,” an oilman who knew him reportedly said. “But he’s a nice guy.”
Perhaps Richardson had been hardened by the challenges he faced earlier in life. “In the fall of 1928,” Burrough reports, “Richardson was thirty-seven years old, flat broke, and deeply in debt.”
For the bulk of the 1920s, Richardson struggled anonymously while America boomed. During an epic period of speculative and economic euphoria, a man destined to become one of the country’s wealthiest saw no fruits from his labor to speak of. (Which in and of itself goes to show – it isn’t how you start, but how you finish that counts.)
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Then, finally, in 1929 Richardson got his first real break. Just as America’s fortunes were about to crash – literally in the case of Wall Street – Sid struck oil with a borrowed rig on a West Texas ranch. Burrough writes:
It was a small well, but it got his name known around the county, and a number of neighboring ranchers happily signed over leases he promised to drill. Other independents had begun wells on the Estes ranch in northern Ward county, and Richardson, paying his drill hands in groceries and promises, plunged into the play with vigor. In the coming months he struck a half-dozen good wells in what became known as the Estes Field. He began paying off his debt and looking for more land. For the first time in thirty-seven years he was a successful independent oilman.
Sid Richardson’s first love was trading cattle, but that dream was not to be. Soon after purchasing a herd of livestock with borrowed capital in 1914, his herd died of tick fever – at which point Richardson “went back to Wichita falls to get me some oil money.” His ups and downs would put him on the edge of financial solvency for the next 15 years.
One of the things that stands out about Sid Richardson – a man who amassed a sizable fortune in the badlands of West Texas – is the length of time he spent in purgatory. From his early 20s to his late 30s, Richardson worked hard, lived hard and fought hard (literally with his fists in some cases), but made no mark to speak of.
And yet, where other men would have thrown in the towel, Richardson persisted, until his big break finally came in 1929. There were still instances of hardship and setback after that, but the tide turned for Sid Richardson around age 37. One gets the sense that had it been 47, or even 57, Richardson would have kept on keeping on.
“A Deck of Cards and Some Poker Chips”
Like the others, Haroldson Lafayette (H.L) Hunt Jr. did not start out as an oilman. Instead, H.L. as a young man used most of his $5,000 inheritance (a goodly sum in 1911) to buy a 960-acre cotton farm just outside the town of Lake Village, Ark.
The future oilman was also a budding card shark. “When he was flush,” Burrough writes, “Hunt took a train to the big-money poker games in Memphis and New Orleans, where he adopted the moniker Arizona Slim, a nickname he kept for the rest of his life.”
In January of 1921, Hunt overheard talk of a red hot scene in El Dorado, an appropriately named Arkansas town 70 miles west of Lake Village. As the result of a promising oil find, El Dorado’s population had exploded from somewhere around a thousand people to well over fifty thousand in less than a year – the very definition of “boomtown.”
Determined to try his hand at something more exciting than cotton, Hunt scraped together the princely sum of fifty dollars and headed for the promised land. As Burrough reports,
There were no rooms to rent. People were sleeping in tents all over town; the last available berths, the barber’s chairs, rented for two dollars a night. Space was at such a premium that the city council had begun renting space on the sidewalks, transforming the eastern side of South Washington into a row of outdoor grills dubbed Hamburger Alley. This, Hunt saw, was a place a smart man could make easy money. “All I need,” he muttered, “is a deck of cards and some poker chips.”
As you can imagine, H.L. ran that fifty bucks up pretty good. In a relatively short period of time, Hunt had a big enough grubstake to open his own gambling hall. Being a sharp observer, Hunt couldn’t help but notice the oil money flowing all around him, and soon enough traded the casino business for the oil business. He raised money from investors in two hundred dollar lots, finagled his way into an attractive lease, and hit his first string of strong producing wells in 1922.
While Hunt wound up living an extremely colorful life – not to mention the disastrous tale of his son, Nelson Bunker Hunt, who nearly went broke trying to corner the silver market – what’s notable here is the way he started out.
H.L. didn’t have to work through a spell of hard lean years like Sid Richardson and Roy Cullen did. (The famed “Hunt luck” helped him avoid that.) What Hunt demonstrated from the beginning, though, was an eye for opportunity and the flexibility to seize chances as they arose.
In a way, one also might say Hunt owed his oil fortune to the game of poker. If not for his card playing skills, Hunt the cotton farmer might not have been attracted to an oil boomtown like El Dorado in the first place. (And of course, Hunt’s initial winnings, parlayed from a borrowed stake of 50 dollars, paved the way for all that followed.)
Other notable men have used poker to build their fortunes too. Kirk Kerkorian, the multibillionaire real estate mogul, used poker winnings to purchase Trans International Airlines, a fledgling air-charter service that flew gamblers from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, for $60,000 in 1947. Kerkorian sold out for an estimated $85 million profit some two decades later, and parlayed that somewhat larger sum into a Vegas megaresort empire.
Richard Nixon, too, is said to have been an excellent poker player. Tricky Dick reportedly used his World War II poker winnings to fund his first congressional political campaign. As Nixon liked to say, quoting an old college professor, "A man who couldn't hold a hand in a first-class poker game isn't fit to be president of the United States."
Why is poker so potentially useful as a foundation, apart from the grubstake-building aspect of the game? Perhaps because winning big at poker demands many of the traits required for winning in life (and markets) too: Patience, skill, mental toughness, emotional composure, an understanding of human nature, and the ability to “shift gears” between conservative and aggressive at the appropriate times.
And by the way: If you’ve enjoyed these glimpses into the lives of the “big four” oilmen, you will almost surely enjoy Burrough’s book. We’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of wild stories, fascinating characters and tales well told. What’s more, the second-generation triumphs and tragedies (remember, it’s about the rise and fall of the greatest Texas oil fortunes) are perhaps as compelling to read about as the exploits of the first.
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