CC: Let's go back to how you got started. When you got out of school, you lived in Washington for a year then returned to Dallas.
Nolan: You have done your research! I always thought I wanted to work in politics. I earned a degree in Political Science and did a year in a Masters program and was always fascinated by the political process and how Washington works. You talk about a tough town when you're 22 years old, going to Washington, knocking on doors, getting them slammed in your face, it was really a tough year. I did get a job at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is a fundraiser for the Republican Party, this is in 1985. At the time, I was a Republican, believed in Ronald Reagan and a lot of the really good, conservative fundamental ideas that were attractive to a lot of Americans: less government, fiscal responsibility, things I still believe in. At the time, it was an experience I was glad I had that I'd never want to have again. Political fundraising, you talk about a dirty, murky world, it was really shady, really shady. You talk about having to compromise ethics, it makes the casino industry look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It's really one of the great hypocrisies, politicians trying to legislate morality when they themselves are some of the most corrupt people on the face of the Earth in my view.
CC: You went back to Dallas and you played poker, right? How difficult was it to do that?
Nolan: I hated Washington initially and went back to Dallas. I went back with a degree in hand at 23 and had to figure out what I was going to do. Probably for three years I played nightly in a local $5/10 Hold'Em game, played no-limit in the 80's, I went broke several times and had to wait tables or bartend or drive a cab. I went through three years where I was either broke or had $5,000 in my pocket, there was no in between. I'm sure if you talk to anyone, Chris Ferguson, well maybe not Chris Ferguson; he's never spent a dollar that he's won! But if you talk to anyone who has been somewhat successful in gambling, the time they probably look back on the most fondly is the time where they really had to struggle and didn't know where their next meal would come from. That was what my time in Dallas was for me, but it was very exciting for me. Ultimately, I decided I needed to get back into a real job.
CC: Then you go to Romania.
Nolan: I worked with the State Department, actually it was very interesting. In 1988 which was when I joined the State Department, Eastern Europe was still behind Communist lines. I was assigned to the American Embassy in Romania, went through Romanian language school. Again, a marvelous experience working for the State Department. Representing your country overseas, there really is nothing like that.
CC: And you were there in the midst of the whole meltdown.
Nolan: That's true. I just happened to be over there when the Iron Curtain was falling. It started in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Romania was one of the last nations to fall. Interesting enough, it was the most violent of all the revolutions. Russia to a certain extent in 1991, but really Romania. When Nicolae Ceausescu fell in Romania, I just happened to be on the streets, I was there at the protest when he was on the balcony speaking when the 100,000 people stormed the palace, he lifted off in a helicopter fleeing a mob. Just incredible to be there watching history literally being changed right before your eyes.
CC: You were a spectator and a participant in that change; you had the intimacy of being involved there.
Nolan: As a diplomat, you're supposed to remain above the political process, but as a human being who cares about people, I was a cheerleader. I was in there with them as a tyrant was overthrown and justice prevailed.
CC: You were there two or three years after the fall of Ceausescu.
Nolan: Yes, and I met my wife there, she's a Romanian. I returned after service there and got a new assignment in Washington. But because I married a foreign national, I lost my Top Secret Security Clearance. That was a death sentence, career-wise. Then I got a job as a speechwriter for the Turkish Government, actually the embassy, for seven years. Working for a foreign government, it was like being traded from the Yankees to the Red Sox. There were certain things I would not have done: I would not have worked for countries or organizations that I objected to, but Turkey is really a fascinating country, and I always felt very warm toward their people and their country. Their people were very hospitable to me.
CC: Poker was legalized in Atlantic City when you came back.
Nolan: I always played private games, but soon after poker was legalized in Atlantic City, I didn't have anything to do on the weekends, so I spent a lot of time in Atlantic City. No one on the East Coast had ever seen Hold-Em. I wasn't an expert, but I had a few years of experience and was good enough to beat the game regularly. I started making more money there, then I started spending more and more time there, and then my life has been involved in gambling ever since. I found that the money was better there than with a nine-to-five job for me as well as just the excitement of the game. You just never know who will appear at a poker table, and the variety that you'll find at the table really adds a spice to life.
CC: When I talk to my wife or others about what draws me to poker, that's one of the main things I mention. You're with people you would never be with in daily life. I live in Suburbia and live a fairly homogenous life, but you look around the poker table and there is such diversity in nationality, ethnicity, age, all of these people who have gathered together to compete at this game, trying to be better at it than you are. It's unique, I think, really no other activity for adults.
Nolan: It's not about taking money from people, and it's not even about the cards. It's about the people, being with other people, winning and losing. I like what you said, that you sit next to someone that you normally wouldn't sit with. The interesting thing about poker initially is how easy you can make preconceived judgments of people, you think these are the two people I'd enjoy getting to know, these two people I would never speak to away from the table. I bet you after playing with them an hour those observations will change.
CC: And often the people are different at the table than they are in their daily life.
Nolan: I agree. Again, I believe that the personal components of poker are underestimated. The human connections inside the game, the interactions of people, these things are so valuable in poker, especially learning about people who are different from us, from other parts of the world, from different education levels. A bond is cemented not through those things normal in society but through cards.
CC: When you think about those times in the 80's and 90's for you in poker, these weren't necessarily the Wild West days of underground games, but these weren't easy times to be a poker player and a gambler. Drugs were quite prevalent in the 90's, gambling was less accepted by other Americans. What was it like making a living as a gambler then?
Nolan: I've never been someone who cared what the rest of the world thinks, not necessarily that I was always right, but I just didn't care what people thought. I do my own thing, and of course I feel more comfortable now in my forties. There is a certain amount of maturity that I have now. Washington was a very conservative city in the way society and the culture is, it's old money and old power, everyone wears a suit and tie, but sometimes when I was off work I wore my World Series of Poker jacket in the Washington subway system. I never did this consciously to initiate conversation; it was just a comfortable jacket, yet invariably I'd be stopped and people would ask me if I played in the World Series, if I played, this happened all the time. Everyone almost to the person would be fascinated, and it was then that I knew that poker was one of the great secrets of America.
CC: Nolan, you'll always be linked to Stu Ungar with your book One of a Kind. When you think about Stu Ungar, you envision this card prodigy as the master gin rummy player and the incredible poker success. My takeaway from your book was that he had great highs on the felt but had some real difficulties. Tell me about your view of Stu Ungar.
Nolan: I agree with your assessment, he had a manic-depressive personality. He was a real free-spirited gambler. He either had $100,000 in his pocket or he owed someone $100,000. He did everything to the extreme, there was really no even keel. I think the real tragedy with Stu Ungar is that he's not around today. A lot of people who knew him, and I consider him a friend, you can't look back on him without thinking what a waste of a talent his demise was. When he died, a part of the poker world died with him, because he was just such a character. I've seen celebrities, I've seen Presidents of the United States enter the room, and the environment changes, the electricity is there. I don't think I've ever seen someone in the poker world have that same effect as Stu Ungar did, maybe Doyle Brunson to a degree, but Stu Ungar was unique. His demons were a part of that because no one knew which Stu Ungar would show up or if he would show up, or what condition he would be in.
CC: When you think back on his play now, was he a loose-aggressive player who you would relate to some of the aggressive online players who would do anything at any time or would you characterize him as an aggressive player who could make great reads but a player of great adaptability?
Nolan: I've been asked before would Stu Ungar be a good online poker player. I must say he's capable of being a brilliant online poker player but he would have probably been a terrible online poker player. He was a small man of stature, but he was extremely intimidating to sit with. You couldn't be human and not be somewhat intimidated if you saw Stu Ungar sitting across from you. His ability to read people and to know the right time to pounce like a tiger. He had that gift in live play tournaments where he would sit and sit and then take your chips.
*Part I - Continued in Part III*