Lee Jones: Mike McClain's final lesson

Lee Jones poker writer
Lee Jones
Posted on: February 08, 2023 12:46 PST

I had just settled into my seat in my favorite $2/3/5 NLH game when I was approached by one of the floormen. I recognized him, but didn't know him by name.

"You're Lee Jones, aren't you?" he said.

"I am indeed. What can I do for you?"

"My name's Rex. I wanted to tell you that Mike McClain passed away yesterday. I know you had been friends with him. He spoke about you often."

I did the only thing I could think to do in the moment:

I asked the dealer to deal me out.

My friend, the professional stranger

You probably didn't know Mike. He played some tournaments, but mostly he lived in the shadowy world of cash game professionals – a place where, before the advent of live streamed cash games, even the best plied their craft in relative anonymity.

I had visited Mike back in June of 2021, shortly after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He was in good spirits then, and the sense of humor that endeared him to everybody was still intact. But he knew he was facing an uphill battle. As always, his focus was on his family.

Subsequent to that, we didn't have any contact. I am sure he wanted to put his time into his family and his energy into living the best possible life he could.

Mike McClain Joe Giron

Back in the day, Mike also inhabited the even darker forests of advantage play in casinos. Whether it was blackjack, an unbalanced roulette wheel, a +EV video poker bank, or a new casino game that had a loophole, Mike would analyze it, and then go exploit it. When Mike and his co-conspirators showed up in some casino, the house was about to have a bad day, though the management didn't know it.

There is one person who I am sure remembers Mike: Greg Raymer.

Greg and Mike got all the chips in pre-flop at the very beginning of the 2004 WSOP Main Event final table. Greg had tens, Mike had aces – there was a ten on the flop. No disrespect to Fossilman, but that ten broke my heart.

Mike had been a poker mentor to me. Just listening to him describe hands made me a much better player. He would drive down from his home in the Sacramento area and sit in Bay 101's $60-120 LHE game for a few days, make enough money to last a month, then drive home.

In 1994, he and some fellow advantage players invited me to join their blackjack team. That led to my first ever trip to London and more stories than a heart could hold. I was part of his merry band of no-good-niks for about three years. Then real-life responsibilities dragged me away from those shadowy paths. I'd check in with Mike every so often – he'd say that he was working on "some projects," and I'd giggle, wondering in what particular way he was out-thinking the person or people on the other side of the table. Whatever kind of table it was.

About two weeks ago, Mike sent me a text saying that he was ending chemo and switching to palliative care. He was going to spend his remaining days enjoying his family and closest friends.

Mike didn't make decisions like most people do, but in the years I knew him, he made many more correct decisions than he made wrong ones. His last important decision was certainly tougher than any of us would want to face, but I've no doubt that Mike made the right decision for himself and his family – that's all that matters.

Mike's lesson

It turns out that Rex the floorman and I shared something in common. We'd both been friends with Mike for decades. Though we could have shared Mike stories for hours, Rex was on the clock and had to go back to work.

I didn't share the good fortune of a welcome distraction, so I did the only thing I could in the moment.

I sat back down in my game.

I couldn't be somewhere quiet and think about Mike McClain being gone.

At some point, I walked to the convenience store down the block to get a drink. In front of the store, two cars were parked against the curb, both with their hoods up. A group of men were talking in Spanish, presumably trying to jumpstart a car. A tiny young woman stood on the sidewalk holding a one-year-old and waiting for their car to be re-started.

I came back out of the liquor store with my bottle of iced tea. The woman was still trying to keep her niño warm in the night chill.

As I watched her, I got to thinking about the final sentence of the last text that Mike McClain ever sent me:

Best of life to you, and keep your family and your friends high in your priorities, and you will be rewarded.

At that moment, that woman and her baby sure looked like family to me.

I approached her – slowly and keeping my distance. It was dark, and the casino is not in the best part of town.

"Disculpehabla ingles?"

She shook her head. "No."

When my Spanish is better than somebody else's English, we are about to have a conversational adventure. Fluent Spanish speakers, please avert your eyes.

"Necesita un Uber para ir a su casa?"

Her face brightened. "Uber? Si?"

"Voy llamar un Uber. Que address?"

She was kind enough to tell it to me slowly. Then smartphones, the Internet, and gig workers took it from there. The car arrived within five minutes – the card club is a strong gravitational force for app drivers.

She spoke briefly to one of the men working on the cars, and then got in the warm Uber. I gave the driver $5 and told him to get her to her door please. I think he figured out what was going on, and was fully on-board.

As I turned to leave, the fellow to whom the woman had spoken caught up with me.

"Gracias, señor."

"Con gusto, amigo."

I didn't have enough Spanish to say, "Just following directions from Mike McClain."

Had he been there, Mike would have chuckled in that lopsided way that only he could, and said, "That's good session break timing, right there."

Here's the last sentence of the text I sent back to Mike:

"Go in beauty and peace, and know that you are leaving us better than you found us."

Mike McClain, he left me better than he found me.

P.S. If you have a Mike McClain story, please drop me a note and share it. I know there are some great ones out there, and it will do my heart good to hear them.