When 1999 World Series of Poker Main Event champion Noel Furlong passed away in late June at 83 years old, poker lost a champion, a fantastic storyteller, and an Irish legend.
And it all started because he took his dogs for a walk.
As fellow Irishman and longtime friend Padraig Parkinson tells it, Furlong had taken his dogs for their usual evening stroll one night when he ran into Irish poker legend Terry Rogers outside of Killiney Castle.
“Noel said, ‘What’s going on?’ and Terry said, ‘Oh, all the top Americans are here to play poker’,” Parkinson says. Inside the castle, which was more or less a hotel at this point, were Puggy Pearson, Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Amarillo Slim, and Stu Ungar. They had been brought to Ireland by Rogers to give Ireland’s best poker players a test.
“So he brought his dogs home, came back. Now, Noel’s idea poker at the time was like Draw poker, maybe Seven Stud,” Parkinson says. “But a couple of hours later he was playing heads up, … with Puggy Pearson and he’s winning $6,000. It was the funniest thing. So that was Noel hooked.”
From there, Furlong became a frequent visitor to the Eccentric Club, a card room in Dublin owned by Rogers. A regular game that ran every second Tuesday became Furlong’s stomping grounds and he was there for the atmosphere as much as he was there for the games.
“This place was like Disneyland for poker players. I mean, it was like Brigadoon. If you looked at the guy on the left, and you looked at the guy on the right, you could be absolutely certain that one of them was a great character,” Parkinson said. “It was just wall-to-wall characters. The fun was absolutely out of this world. And Noel was in the middle of it all, just lapping it up.”
In 1989, Furlong made the final table of the WSOP Main Event and finished sixth. Ten years later, Furlong was one of three Irish players to make the final table along with George McKeever and Parkinson. McKeever finished seventh, Parkinson busted in third, and Furlong defeated Alan Goehring to win the title and $1,000,000.
Furlong, who had won the Irish Poker Open in 1987 and 1989, was not a professional poker player, however. He played as a hobby and social activity, having turned his carpet business into an empire that some reports suggest was worth more than $100 million.
“He rolled off all those achievements without playing very much. But I mean, Noel could just look into your soul, and know what you were going to do,” Parkinson says. “People thought a lot of it was bad play. People thought a lot of it was just blind luck. But it’s only maybe the people that saw it more realized what was going on, that Noel would judge you, and figure out what you were thinking, and what you were going to do.”
“People used to just tell me, Noel was just a luck box. I mean, this guy has won two Irish Opens, he’s won the World Series (Main Event). He’s got to the final table of the World Series another time. He was at the final table at the $3,000 Hold’em a few days before the Main Event in 1999. Now, I mean, I’ve come across a lot of luck boxes in my time, but none of them were that good.” Parkinson joked.
Coming back to Ireland after winning the 1999 WSOP Main Event, there were more than a few Irish newspapers, magazines, and TV stations that wanted to give Furlong his time in the limelight as the first-ever Irish WSOP Main Event winner. The only problem was, according to Parkinson, Furlong wasn’t having any of it. In part because of his success betting horses and in part due to his booming carpet business, Furlong had already been in the media spotlight quite – and didn’t always appreciate the coverage.
“He’d had a run-in with the media a couple of years before. I don’t know. I didn’t ask him because he sounded so angry when he was talking about it, I thought maybe I better not stoke the flames here. I’ll just let it go,” Parkinson says. “But he didn’t want to talk to the media at all and there wasn’t anything in it for Noel to talk to the media because he was already worth $100 million. He wasn’t going to be taking a sponsorship deal from Coca-Cola to wear a t-shirt.”
Even with the two Irish Poker Open titles, and the WSOP Main Event title, Parkinson believes Furlong will be remembered for being a unique individual who shined bright in a poker world full of characters.
“He’ll be remembered as definitely one of a kind,” Parkinson says. “Noel was the kind of character, he was totally underestimated by people who didn’t understand, and partially underestimated by people who should know better because he just marched to his own drum. He made his own rules.”
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