The popular comedian and poker player Norm Macdonald, died at the age of 61 yesterday in Los Angeles after a nine-year battle with leukemia.

The passing of a poker legend is always a moment of poignancy and regret if only for the hands we’ll never get to see the play. In the case of Norm Macdonald, however, the sadness is so much deeper because of the laughter we will inevitably miss even more.

A Saturday Night Special

It’s impossible to speak of the impact that Norm Macdonald had on the world without starting with his comedy. A gifted stand-up comedian, Macdonald cut his teeth on Saturday Night Live, where his infectious brand of tongue-in-cheek humor regularly thrilled audiences. The master of a dry one-liner, his adaptability was incredible.

Working on the show for five years, Macdonald anchored the hilarious Weekend Update segment for three years during a period which many now say was the series’ peak. After SNL, Macdonald had his own show on television and appeared numerous times on shows such as Late Night with David Letterman, to whom he gave an emotional tribute when the host retired.

Macdonald was the master of wit, a commodity not as rich in comedy as many might assume. He could deliver a one-liner with aplomb, or cut audiences in half with observational humor. But it was in what you didn’t know was coming from Macdonald that he got you. His invention and cerebral ability could make comedy fans laugh out of nothing — often about next to nothing.

Norm Macdonald SNL
Norm Macdonald was a cast member of Saturday Night Live for five years. 

A Love of Gambling and Poker

Macdonald’s love of gambling and poker is well documented and was not restricted to glorious cameos on popular shows. He admitted a few years ago that at points his love of gambling was an addiction and went broke on a number of occasions.

In a 2018 interview with PokerNews he said about the closing of online poker in the United States: “Since they went offline, it kind of saved my life. Because I was just grinding out and couldn’t even sleep.”

Macdonald was a dream ticket in poker. He was easily the most entertaining player at the table, but he could actually play, too. He was a bonafide superstar, a celebrity whose magic had never waned, yet he was humble, down to Earth, and fun on and off camera. He didn’t have to turn it on. It was just always ‘on’.

A regular on shows such as Poker After Dark, Macdonald was as addictive to watch for viewers as he had found gambling at points in his life. Towards the end of his time, Macdonald conducted several interviews with poker outlets. Always original and generous with his time, that kindness was not able to be fully appreciated until learning of his passing.

Norm Macdonald PAD
Norm Macdonald was a star whenever he was on a show such as Poker After Dark (pictured)

A Seat at the Table

Macdonald’s foibles were there for all to see, as was his genius. In that sense, he wasn’t a celebrity, but more someone of vast popularity who remained in the realm of ‘real’. His comedy, like his conversation, cut to the truths we all know but so few of us are able to excavate and polish for display.

The one thing Macdonald hid was a nine-year fight against leukemia, which claimed his life on September 14h, 2021. Upon his passing, several poker players expressed their sadness, along with celebrity friends who believed him to be the very best of his kind.

Joe Stapleton, a friend of ‘Norm’, posted this glowing tribute to his mentor on Twitter:

Elite poker professionals adored MacDonald, as Scott Seiver so wonderfully summarized with this homage to a hero:

David Letterman, so fond of Macdonald on the show, mourned his passing on the social media platform:

If poker is a multi-table cash game with open registration, then Norm Macdonald passed through the game on his way to or from a show. While so many who do that are in for self-promotion, a salary, or simply free advertising, however, Macdonald did it purely out of a love of the game.

He could’ve stuck to stand up and been phenomenally successful. He could have taken TV work only and been a star. Somehow, he managed to do both yet give hours and hours to the poker industry.

Norm Macdonald sent people home crying with laughter, giddy with happiness, or just happy to have bathed in a little of the light that seemed to follow him around. He always seemed to give more than he took away from the poker table, and we’re not talking about the buy-in.

A seat is open at the table that can never be filled.

James Guill

James Guill is a former professional poker player who writes fro about poker, sports, casinos, gaming legislation and the online gambling industry in general. His past experience includes working with IveyPoker, PokerNews, PokerJunkie, Bwin, and the Ongame Network. From 2006-2009 he participated in multiple tournaments including the 37th and 38th World Series of Poker (WSOP). James lives in Virginia and he has a side business where he picks and sells vintage and antique items.

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