While a chosen few were able to break through and achieve a certain amount of mainstream recognition, for the vast majority of players being one of the greatest poker players meant little more than a line or two on Wikipedia.
The player I’ll be discussing in this column is a perfect example of this.
Ken “Skyhawk” Flaton, is a man who, in my opinion, belongs in the Poker Hall of Fame.
Before I begin I’d like to thank World Series of Poker Media Director Nolan Dalla and Team PokerStars Pro Daniel Negreanu for contributing to this article. Their insights, experiences, and stories about Ken Flaton made this article come to life.
Kenneth Flaton was born in North Bergen, New Jersey, just outside of New York City, and lived the kind of life that is the beginning of most movies.
According to WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla, “As a kid, he used to sell peanuts at New York Yankee baseball games,” before joining the army.
Following his time in the US Army, Flaton moved to Las Vegas where he became a card-counter, a career choice that got him banned from the blackjack tables across Las Vegas in the early 1980’s. With blackjack no longer an option, Flaton turned to another form of advantage gambling, poker, a game he first learned to play in the Army when he was stationed in France in 1964.
“He worked a few odd jobs here and there,” Dalla said, “but his real forte was low-stakes cash games, mostly Seven-Card Stud, a game he would come to master over time.”
In the 1980’s Stud was the game of choice in Las Vegas, and Flaton honed his skills in the $1-$3 and $1-$4 games in Vegas according to Dalla, eventually moving up to the higher stakes games and becoming one of the great stud practitioners the game has ever known.
Flaton left us far too early, passing away at the age of 64 from a heart attack in 2004, ironically just as the poker boom was getting started.
There is not a doubt in my mind that Flaton would have excelled during the boom years, and not just because he was one of the greatest Stud players of all-time. The man known as Skyhawk was still a force at the tournament tables even in his 60’s, evidenced by his tournament results from 2000-2004.
The genesis of the “SkyHawk” moniker
“I believe Flaton was given his nickname by Stu Ungar,” Dalla said.
“He used to slouch down in his chair and rake the chips in a way that made him look like a hawk. It wasn’t a deliberate act, just the way Flaton was. So, everyone started calling him ‘Skyhawk.'”
According to a Las Vegas Sun article following Flaton’s passing in 2004, this is precisely how the nickname was created by Stuey “The Kid” Ungar:
After watching Henderson gambler Ken Flaton spread his arms and scoop up pot after pot in a poker tournament, the late Stu “The Kid” Ungar commented that Flaton swooped down on piles of chips like a “skyhawk.”
Dalla thinks there might be another reason the nickname stuck as well.
“He never talked much while at the table. He was very cordial to everyone, but also quite serious. Flaton always watched every card and all the action, like a hawk — which is another reason he got that unusual name,” Dalla remarked.
Skyhawk won his only World Series of Poker bracelet in 1983 in his favored discipline of Stud, but his lack of jewelry was more than likely a matter of variance, considering he accumulated 18 career top 10 finishes in WSOP events, including nine top 5 finishes according to his Hendon Mob results.
Flaton’s grandest achievement at the poker tables came in 1996 when he won the inaugural and very prestigious US Poker Championships (USPC) in Atlantic City, booking a $500,000 win, the largest of his career.
One person who was there that day was Nolan Dalla, who remembered:
“I was sitting at tableside when Flaton won the biggest cash prize of his life, which was the first major televised tournament ever held in Atlantic City.
It was back in 1996 at the U.S. Poker Championship, held at the Trump Taj Mahal. Trump himself was even there. Flaton beat Phil Hellmuth, who I think finished second or third.”
Hellmuth was indeed the 3rd place finisher that day, but he wasn’t the only notable player that Flaton triumphed over on his way to victory.
Surinder Sunar was the runner-up, Paul McKinney (who I plan to profile in this series as well) finished in 5th place, Mike Sexton finished in 8th place, Donnachea O’Dea in 9th place, and Freddy Deeb in 10th place.
Just outside of the top 10 were the likes of Tom McEvoy, the 12th place finisher; Cyndi Violette, who finished in 13th place; and Ted Forrest in 15th.
Flaton is widely considered one of the top Stud players of all time, something that requires not just skill, but a special set of skills.
“One thing about Flaton, even though he was a full-time professional poker player for many years, he wasn’t actually much of a gambler,” according to Dalla. “He always had a steady and consistent approach to the game. He never went on tilt. He never became emotional about winning or losing a hand. He was a real pro — at all times.”
Flaton was also a shrewd operator, which one needed to be in the cutthroat world of professional poker. Daniel Negreanu relayed a Ken Flaton story to me “that shows Flaton’s genius” as Daniel put it:
“He was playing 7 Card Stud against Stu Ungar and he was drawing to a flush going to the river. He missed the flush, and couldn’t beat the pair of sevens that Stu was showing on board.
He figured if he raised as a bluff it would be suspicious and Stu would call, so instead he CALLED not being able to beat Stu’s board!
He did so knowing Stu’s tendency to muck his hand when called on a bluff. Sure enough, Ken called and Stu threw his hand into the muck!”
Ken Flaton the husband and father
We often forget that poker players are people, and by all accounts you’d be hard-pressed to find a better person than Ken Flaton.
“Flaton will be remembered as one of the best Seven-Card Stud players of all time. He’ll also be forever known as a gentleman, a family man, and the very definition of a true poker pro in every way… He was absolutely devoted to his wife and even more so to his son, who was born late in Flaton’s life,” said Nolan Dalla.
“He was beyond just a proud father. As much as he loved poker, Flaton adored his time with his family,”
“From my standpoint, Ken was one of finest gentlemen I ever met in the poker world or in life — he never squawked, he just played the game,” TJ Cloutier told the Las Vegas Sun following Flaton’s death in 2004.
“I want to mention one of my friends who passed away — Kenny Flaton. Kenny was one of my best friends. And he passed away. He was one of the very best in Stud. We both played many, many years. I mention him because he (belongs) with Artie Cobb. I have been with Kenny many times. This is for you, Kenny,” said Men Nguyen after winning the 7 –Card-Stud World Championship at the 2010 WSOP and being told that he had tied Stud Poker legend Artie Cobb for the most Stud Poker wins in WSOP history.
Read Nolan Dalla’s musings on poker and life at www.NolanDalla.com.
Daniel Negreanu is a Team PokerStars Pro and blogs at his website www.FullContactPoker.com.