A man wearing a faded Phoenix Suns T-shirt, leaning back in a wooden chair on the front porch of the shack, pointed us inside. Used tires, torn screen doors and other various junk was propped against the wall.
Inside the building, past the small barbershop and left of the pool hall, was a small room, dimly lit by a couple of fluorescent lights hung directly above a poker table. Framed prints of dogs playing poker adorned the walls. At the table sat a man with a torn white T-shirt and spiky white hair. A jagged scar ran down the left side of his neck. His name was Danny. He would be our dealer for the day.
We took our seats at the table -- one of those with the folding legs and cup holders that could be had on eBay for a couple hundred bucks -- and handed Danny $110. The Benjamin was for the buy-in, the Hamilton his to keep for his trouble.
Seven of us were playing in this No Limit Hold’em tournament, my friends Lane and Scott, two brothers from Tuscaloosa called Tony and Taco, two men I had never met and myself. Danny, who could barely see straight, appearing to be in a drug-induced haze, started dealing the cards, two to each player. Although he wasn’t playing, Danny kept mistakenly dealing himself in.
The game took place in rural Walker County, Alabama, in a small community called Kansas. Legend has it there is a stump somewhere in the county where one can insert a $100 bill wrapped in a piece of paper containing a person’s name if they want that person whacked. The winner of this tournament would make off with about $400.
Early in the tournament I was dealt 7-8 in the big blind, the largest of two forced bets used in Hold’em instead of antes. The hand was checked to me and Danny dealt the flop, or first three cards. The board came 5-6-8, with two clubs, a great flop for my hand, giving me top pair and an open-ended straight draw. I tossed in a $100 bet of the $1,500 in tournament chips I started with. Only Tony called. He gave me a semi-smile. The turn brought a queen and I decided to check. Tony fired out $400. I thought for a long time, my concentration interrupted by a break shot on a pool table in the next room. Was Tony bluffing? I stared over at him. I felt he didn’t want me to call. I pushed all-in and he quickly called. Tony had the A-2 of clubs, giving him a flush draw only, and making his call of my all-in bet a poor one, given his poor odds of making his hand. The river missed him and I scooped the pot. Scott looked at me as if I was one of those “gift-wrapped ATM players” he loves to poke fun at, so named because of their bad play and plentiful cash. “How could you go all-in there?” I could hear him thinking. After careful analysis, the play proved easy. I went on to split first place, but did not seek the stump after my victory.
It’s telling how popular poker has become that I spent this Sunday afternoon in rural Alabama playing with a few guys who barely knew how to determine their Hold’em hands only four months after playing at a table with top professionals like Phil Hellmuth, Amir Vahedi and Dewey Tomko in a $1,000 buy-in tournament at the 2004 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Only a year prior to that I was pleased to win $100 in a $3/$6 limit Hold’em game, if that’s any illustration of how far my poker maturation had developed in 12 months.
Thanks to the advent of the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, increased coverage of the World Series of Poker on ESPN and other poker programs like Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo, the popularity of poker continues to grow. The game has not just spread to all parts of this country; it appears to have taken a stranglehold on our culture. Bars are finding loopholes around existing gambling laws to host tournaments on their property. Casinos, having shut down their poker rooms to make space for more slot machines, are bringing the games back for the increasing numbers of poker aficionados. Fraternity brothers, returning from summer vacation, throw their bags down on their beds and don’t even bother to unpack before the first game starts in the fall.
I’ve been able to witness much of that growth first hand in the past few years, from my trips to major tournaments such as the WSOP and the World Poker Open in Tunica, Miss., on the Mississippi River, the birthplace of modern poker. I’ve walked the not-so-dusty streets of Deadwood, S.D., the town famous for the death of “Wild Bill” Hickock, that is now a tourist and small casino mecca. I’m traveling to Connecticut later this month to visit a friend who works for ESPN, and plan to play in the World Poker Finals.
I like to travel and I like to play poker, but I’m not about to claim I’m a world beater at the game. Just like you, my dear poker peers, I win sometimes and I lose sometimes. I do win more often than I lose, or obviously it would be pretty hard financially to make the trips I have discussed. What really spurred me on was an unbelievable winning streak in the last half of 2003 that had other local players watching me in amazement and earning me the nickname “Tuscaloosa” Johnny, after the city in which we live and play in the back rooms of social clubs and car dealerships.
After that success and a final table finish at a major Tunica tournament in January, I began to ponder a new move for myself. I watched in excitement the growth of the game and knowing my way around a pen, pondered a foray into the book market. Of course, in the past year numerous people have had the same thoughts, as the plethora of new books has led booksellers to increase their shelf space. Some of you may have visited Jay Lovinger at ESPN Page 2 online and read some of his entertaining columns that describe his adventures in poker and discuss his book plans. (If not, I highly recommend it.)
But I believe there is room still on those shelves for a different kind of poker book, a travelogue that details how poker has expanded -- some might say infested -- this land, from the glitzy cardrooms of Vegas and LA, to the seedy backrooms in New York, and, yes, even Walker County, Alabama. (And yes, I know the title Poker Nation is already taken, as any connoisseur of poker literature is aware. Damn you Andy Bellin!)
My goal, beginning in June 2005, when the WSOP moves to its new home, the Rio, is to take a year off from my reporting job here at The Tuscaloosa News and travel the country, spotlighting the poker culture while trying to make a living at the game for a year that would end at the 2006 WSOP. I will post updates on here frequently and would love for you, dear readers and poker friends, to follow me on this journey.