Story by Brad Willis
Over the last two days, Brad Willis has taken Bitter Southerner readers deep into the poker underground of South Carolina. Today, we visit with some Southerners who are among the world’s best card players — and look at why their game isn’t welcome back home.
Hank Sitton belongs in the South. It’s not just his baritone drawl or his ability to spin a yarn that will set bellies to laughing. It’s not just his politics or the fact his annual family vacation only requires a ride down to the Carolina coast. It’s that he still wants to live here after having a gun pointed at his head for doing what he loves.
He wants to talk — there are stories to tell — but there’s business. He’s just rushed in from the service department where his manager of 40 years has recently had to retire. There’s a file on his desk and a phone call about some tax thing he has to handle. The stories are going to have to wait for the business at hand.
“I’m just glad there is business to do,” he says under his breath.
The 63-year-old, third-generation car dealer is a fixture on Greenville's Motor Mile. He’s seen the business at its best and its worst. After spending his young years as a restaurateur and nightclub owner, he’s made a 26-year career in the car business. He’s headed the state auto dealers’ association, been recognized by Time magazine, and survived the 2008 economic crisis. He’s ready to step back and let somebody else take over the family business.
“I’ve put in my dues,” he says. “This is a six-day-a-week, 12 to 14-hour-a-day business.”
But it’s more than that. There is another thin manila file on his desk. It’s a flight itinerary to somewhere else, somewhere he has to go if he wants to play poker and not get arrested for it.
Sitton grew up playing poker in a friend’s attic. Back then, he played the games with the sexy names: Follow the Queen, Guts, and High Chicago. Like the rest of the world, he caught the Texas Hold’em bug in 2003 and went out in search of poker glory.
Poker, like any internationally popular game that keeps score, has databases that break down the biggest winners and where they are from. If you search for South Carolina’s most successful live tournament player, Sitton’s name comes up. It was going well until 2008 when the nation’s economy fell apart. His business suffered with it. He had to lay off 20 percent of his staff.
“It broke my heart,” he says.
Sitton left the poker road and stayed home to tend to his business and the remaining employees he loved. It wasn’t long before he realized he could play as often as he liked without getting on a plane. The underground Greenville poker scene was as vibrant as any legal gambling city within an eight-hour drive. Better than that, there was something a Southern man can’t get enough of.
“It’s fellowship with all kinds of diverse people,” he says, “from the guy who digs ditches and flips burgers to the guy who works in a bank. Older guys, younger guys, rednecks, businessmen, high society guys. They all played in the same games.”
Before long, Sitton was trading chips and stories with the most diverse group of people a man could hope to meet. Color and creed didn’t matter. The green felt was one of the few places you’d find guys from the Middle East teaching an old man from South Carolina how to say dirty words in Arabic or Southern Baptists trading jokes with Catholics from south of the border.
Two years after he stopped traveling to play, Sitton sat down with a couple dozen other people for a poker tournament on a January night in 2010. They were only a couple of hours into it when the front glass broke. Chaos took over.
“The whole room was like the food fight scene in 'Animal House,'” he says. “Then I saw all these guys in SWAT gear.”
It was the first of the big no-knock poker raids that would happen that year and eventually lead to the bloody one on Pine Knoll drive in November. It was the end of Sitton feeling comfortable at home as a Southern poker player.
“I’ve still got an empty poker table with boxes stacked up on top of it,” he says.
Sitton wasn’t the first man to discover his kind wasn’t welcome at home. Like the old bartender benediction, in South Carolina the rule is clear: You don’t have to stay home, but you can’t play here.
Don’t come to Phil Collins with a map of the easy roads. He doesn’t like it easy. When he was a kid in Aiken, South Carolina, he rolled his eyes at the word searches on restaurant kid’s menus. His dad sketched out advanced math problems in the margins to pass the time while they waited on their food. At the University of South Carolina, Collins was an honors graduate. He needed a challenge. He needed competition. He needed something to fire the critical part of his brain. He got accepted to law school, but he passed it up, because he’d found poker. By 2008, he was among the top finishers in Card Player magazine’s Online Player of the Year race. He was on his way to being a star.
“Poker combined competing and critical thinking and also offered the chance to win money,” Collins said.
He loved South Carolina. He loved the Gamecocks. If some other passion had put its talons in him, he might have been able to be a South Carolinian forever. If he had stayed, he might have been the state’s most successful poker player in history.
“South Carolina has no outlet for me to play poker. Not only is it my profession, but it is also my favorite hobby,” he said. “Even if I were to pursue another career, I can't help but assume I will be miserable never being able to play poker legally.”
Today, when you search Phil Collins’ name in those big poker winners’ databases, you’ll find his combined poker earnings total more than $5 million, but you won’t find South Carolina mentioned anywhere. Collins now officially belongs to Henderson, Nevada.
A poker exile from the South, part of Collins aches not just to be home but to help his state’s thinking evolve.
“I'm seriously considering returning to South Carolina to attend law school and begin work in politics to fix problems like this one,” he said.
If Sitton was the big winner who stayed, and Collins is the big winner who left, Tim Watts might just be the dreamer who stayed in the South a minute too long. He is a man of vice, but you’ll never see him with a drink in his hand, a cigarette in his lips, or his nose down in a pile of coke. His weakness, aside from poker, is coffee, almost to a ridiculous extreme. There are countless YouTube videos of him loading up on caffeine before a night at the poker table. He’s dreamed of opening a coffee house, but more than that, he dreams of making it as a poker player.
Once convinced he was going to Vegas to be a casino dealer, he found a poker game in Greenville and a talent for pitching cards. Before long, he was making a good living. Players considered him Greenville’s best poker dealer.
“It felt like freedom,” he said. “I was still kind of trapped to a job, but not really. It was fun. It was adventurous. It felt like I was living off the grid and sort of on the edge of society. All of us thought it was going to last forever.”
He made enough money playing and dealing that he went out to Vegas to live for a bit. Eventually, he came back to Greenville where he found he could still stay in the game. That decision landed him on Pine Knoll Drive the night Greenville’s poker scene became front-page news. The $100 ticket he got was routine. The emotions afterward were not.
“It was eerie, surreal, and an eye-opening experience,” he said. “I really just didn’t think that going to an underground poker game was worth it anymore.”
So, he did the only thing he could think to do. He’s back in Vegas. He hates the dust. He hates the traffic. He misses his mom. He lives in an apartment he hates, but he’s playing the game he loves in a place where he is less likely to get shot while doing it. It’s the only thing he can imagine himself doing. Nevertheless, he wonders what might have been if he went a different direction.
“Maybe I would’ve had the time to settle down, meet the right girl, and get married,” he said. “Or maybe not. Who knows?”
Sitton has that manila file in his hand. His travel plans for the year are inside. He’s going to Palm Beach in 24 hours to play in a legal poker tournament. A plane ticket is the only safe way he can plan to play. He looks around his office.
“The last thing I need is a bunch of SWAT team guys coming in,” he says.
He’s done what he can to convince lawmakers that it’s time to update the state’s gambling laws. He spoke before a legislative committee where he decried the absurdity of a state that runs a lottery worth $309 million a year and outlaws friends playing small-stakes poker.
“I’m Rotarian, for God’s sake,” he told the committee. “I’m the face of home game poker.”
The only move the legislature has made on the gambling law in recent years was a 2014 amendment to make it legal for people to play games with cards and dice. That means, after 200 years, it is now legal for South Carolinians to play Monopoly. All betting, however, is still illegal.
Sitton misses sitting across the table from his South Carolina friends so much that he tries to make a new friend every time he sits down in Palm Beach, Las Vegas, or Tunica. He hopes to make a lot more when he returns to the poker tables in other states. As for his itinerary, he’s keeping it open-ended.
“I’m not going to book a return flight,” he says. “I hope that doesn’t flag me with the TSA.”