John “Johnny Quads” Wenzel is the editor-in-chief of Poker Pro Europe, Poker Pro and Online Poker Pro magazines, the author of three books on poker and one of the most successful high-stakes cash-game poker players in the Southeast United States from the mid-1990s to the present.
Despite his success, what he is best known for today is his “Smashmouth Poker” philosophy and his double life back in the days before the 2003 poker boom, when he was a newspaper and tabloid reporter and editor and kept his more sordid life in poker hidden from friends and coworkers – even his own family.
As might be expected, this didn’t help his marriage any.
“After my divorce in 1996, I would have been living in a cardboard box if it was not for my weekend trips to Vegas, California and Atlantic City, and to various cities on the Florida circuit,” he has said. His card sense was developed early.
“My earliest memories are of playing cards with my grandmother,” he said. “When I started playing draw poker and then stud with friends in grade school and junior high, I was an immediate winner. I just naturally knew what to do. Looking back, these kids were some of the toughest players I have even played against, absolutely fearless and not afraid to cheat, but I won in my very first game and have been playing with other people’s money ever since. I have never had a losing year and still have every penny I’ve won at poker.”
Wenzel attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where Phil Hellmuth’s father was a dean, but took a year off after his sophomore year to hitchhike to Las Vegas in time for his 21st birthday. His intention was to play poker against top-notch talent, but before he could sit down to play, he lost all his money playing roulette and blackjack in a world-famous downtown Vegas casino. He ended up sleeping in a baseball field in the bitter cold of a desert winter night.
“Next morning some kids spotted me sleeping and called police, who thought I was a body dumped by the Mob! I awoke to something nudging me. I’m on my back and when I opened my eyes, the cops jumped about ten feet!” he recalled. “After hearing my story, they booted me out of town. They have no use for you in Vegas if you have no money.”
One lesson did come out of it.
“I no longer play roulette and blackjack,” he says today. “And I found out later the wheel was crooked. It was for tourists and everyone knew it but me.”
Eventually, Wenzel went back to university, then began his newspaper and magazine career, but wherever he was, poker was there too. He played in small games until of necessity he had to step up.
“My marriage went on the rocks in 1994, and from 1994 to 1996 I lived with the only woman who ever kept me away from the card table,” he said. “All I will say is that we were in love and happy to spend all our time together, but after that ended in 1996 I was hurting for money and owed child support. My weekly pay was not enough to cover it. It was time to play real poker.”
It took some doing, but Wenzel eventually was able to dive into the bigger games in Florida, which were all illegal and at times dangerous. His weekends were spent supplementing his salary by driving to the biggest games in the Southeast U.S., or flying to Vegas, L.A. or Atlantic City, often not returning until a few hours before he had to be at work Monday morning.
One game in Vegas in the early 1990s has now become the stuff of legend. He had a huge win in a big game at the Mirage, but remembers little of it besides what he was told.
“I’m not a drinker, but I had to drink with these loud, loose, crazy guys in cowboy hats to keep this very lucrative game going. These Texans were throwing hundred-dollar bills around like rain,” he recalls. “I had some Florida boys with me and they insist I got quads four times, though I only recall two or maybe three. When people ask me, I say four times, but I was totally out of it and a little sick and it’s always been fuzzy. I just kept betting and they kept calling. When they finally pulled me out of there and got me back to my room, I had pocketfuls of money and everyone was calling me ‘Johnny Quads.’ I do remember making quads with pocket fours, and that has been my signature hand ever since.”