COLUMBUS – Poker isn’t the only game of chance Tom Lutjens plays.
But it’s probably the one that wins him the most recognition.
The Platte Center native ended in the top 1 percent of this year’s World Series of Poker senior event. Finishing 35th of 4,407, he played and usually beat players from all over -- English players, Germans, Spaniards, all in town for the Las Vegas, Nev., event.
“Quite a lot of people from Canada,” he noted, settled back into his Columbus home a little wealthier, though he declined to say exactly how much and only gave a rough figure after some goading.
Lutjens estimates he’s made around a quarter of a million dollars over his entire 20 years of play. “But this has been by far the biggest payday,” he said, making about a year’s worth of earnings in one weekend.
Now he’s back home playing his other game of chance.
After being diagnosed with bone cancer, doctors gave Lutjens 18 months. That was just over three years ago.
Lutjens holds no illusions about where this is going to end.
In semi-retirement, he still helps out sometimes at the farm he passed down to his son in between regular hospital visits where doctors check the progress of an experimental cancer drug. But that’s only when he’s not heading to the Columbus Aquatic Center for his thrice-weekly water therapy.
“The cancer’s spreading. I can’t do much, just help (my son) move stuff,” Lutjens said prosaically, adding he could only plant a couple hundred acres this spring of the 2,000 the family owns, a fifth-generation farmer who refuses to quit.
Lutjens can’t get through the day without pain medication, but he still counts himself very lucky watching his three children raising his two grandchildren alongside his spouse Deb Lutjens, who he emphatically describes as “the best wife ever.”
Except the two big games of chance in his life, Lutjens describes himself as a typical guy from the area.
“My story isn’t much different than most people you’ll talk to,” Lutjens said, detailing a high school career at Lakeview High School, where he played basketball, ran track and made it to state in football with teammate Jim Pillen, now a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents and local businessman. That Lakeview team only lost one game his senior year, he reported proudly.
He went on to study accounting at Wayne State College and play running back before becoming a farmer who moonlighted as a poker virtuoso at the casino near Onawa, Iowa.
But everything’s changed so much since then, Lutjens said, explaining television has popularized the game to celebrity proportions. It’s still got the same spirit as when he and his parents were playing cards growing up, but now with more eyes and flair, hands played to a soundtrack before a broadcast audience.
He’s been to the World Series of Poker before and was going to sit this one out because of medical complications, but a friend talked him into it. He said having people close who don’t let him languish makes him feel pretty lucky.
So is being able to cross off a major life ambition.
“This was kind of the last thing off my bucket list,” he said.
Other than that, all he hopes to do is be with his family, continue going to University of Nebraska games and play poker games with friends as long as his good luck will allow him to, as long as his friends don’t sit out maybe lacking interest in challenging a world-class player.
Patience is really the only useful skill in poker, Lutjens said. You get a good hand, and you can build a hot streak go from 17,000 in chips to 240,000 in 45 minutes like he did Saturday, but it’s never going to happen if you don’t have the resolve to stay steady when it’s looking thin, he added.
Lutjens plays two games of chance, but his approach to both is about the same.