Story by Brad Willis
After our three-day adventure through the wild — and sometimes wildly dangerous — world of poker players in the South, writer Brad Willis brings our journey to a close with his own story: the one about how the mild-mannered small-market TV reporter winds up on the poker beat.
If ever a story needed a full disclosure statement, this was it.
From 1999 to 2005, I was a television news reporter at WYFF-TV in Greenville, S.C. For most of that time, I was the crime beat reporter, working everything from the worst domestic murders to the craziest mountain manhunts. I heard a murderer’s confession, ran like an idiot toward gunfire, and had a bank robber lay a “your mama” joke on me. I saw more dead people than I hope to see for the rest of my life. Police trained me to shoot all their weapons. The Vice and Narcotics guys took me out for drug raids and prostitution stings. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies were my friends then, and some of them remain so today.
I worked the death of every officer, deputy and Highway Patrol trooper killed in the line of duty during that time. Their names, their stories, their parents and their widows are a part of me as much any story I’ve ever told. Last August marked 16 years since I first came to know what it means for a law enforcement officer to take a bullet, and I still can’t shake the look I saw on the face of that deputy’s parents.
In those same years, I began to play poker in Upstate South Carolina’s underground poker rooms. After playing friendly games in living rooms and kitchens for a few years, I found myself walking into a house in Fountain Inn, S.C., where I’d learned there was a place I could play poker all night if I wanted. Aaron Awtry was the man who pulled out the chair for me that first time.
Between 2004 and 2008, there weren’t many games I didn’t play or players I didn’t meet. I played as often as my schedule would allow, and sometimes more. Many of the descriptions in this story come from my first-hand experience.
I remember some cold Tuesday night in late January a few years before the Pine Knoll shooting. It was a wet, dark time of year when nothing happens. The only new thing on TV was the weather report, and even that sounded like a rerun. The weather guy said snow, and the regular people who ached for some sort of action were posting up at the grocery store milk cooler. It was the only place they could think to go. Preparing for the weather was something to do when excitement was in short supply.
But 10 minutes away, there was a warehouse with the word FIREWORKS in giant red letters across the top. The parking lot was necessarily dark and curiously full. Business hours had long since ended, but when I pressed the doorbell button, a pretty woman in a dark green tank top would spring a deadbolt and lead me into a dark lobby. Beyond one more door was a kind of sustenance I couldn’t find in the Publix bread aisle.
The games had been going for three hours already, and there were three poker tables in action. Semi-pro full-time dealers were pitching the cards, overseen by a laconic, smiling B2B entrepreneur who’d hit it big in the tech industry and opened an underground poker room for fun. He had started the game in his basement, and when those four walls couldn’t handle the wait list, he moved the game around, once to a rented back-off-the-road farmhouse in a neighboring town, this time in one of the most recognizable buildings along a major thoroughfare.
There was a four-figure jackpot on offer, a bench press competition, and a Ping-Pong match that—based on the screaming from the audience—carried the world’s fate on its outcome.
In the 10 seats around each table, the winners laughed, the losers glared, and the poker chips flew with enough combined energy to power the whole damned town if the predicted snow turned out the lights. It would’ve been a perfect night but for the argument that was ramping up in the corner.
Though the temperature was going to drop below freezing, Steve, a regular face in the games, was in cargo shorts, flip flops, a wrinkled T-shirt, and a hunter’s cap—the kind with the flaps that come down over the ears. Hard to understand when he talked, Steve was impossible to comprehend when he yelled. He was the guy who said he’d played with Conway Twitty, and he was the guy storming out the front door in a huff over one thing or another.
Though the squabble was done, there was new, different tension once he left, because no matter how much anyone wanted to take his opponent’s money, no one ever wanted anybody to leave mad.
Steve could’ve come back with the law. Steve could’ve come back with a gun.
Instead, Steve came back half an hour later with a song.
He sat down with a guitar, watched the Ping-Pong game, and, apropos of nothing, sang “Amazing Grace” prettier than that room deserved.
Two days later, an inch of snow melted just as fast as it fell, never enough to accumulate into a memory. But the night Steve sang “Amazing Grace” remains one of my favorite memories of any poker game I ever played.
And that was a normal Tuesday night.
I left TV news and the crime beat to write about poker full-time. The Moneymaker Boom had opened a lot of doors for writers who knew about poker, and I’ve somehow made a career of it.
Not too long after that cold Tuesday night, Greenville’s games started to get robbed. It’s easy to rob a place that already doesn’t want to see flashing lights outside. Nevertheless, law enforcement took notice, and poker raids became more common. Walking into a game took on a far different kind of anxiety than it had years earlier.
One night, I sat in a big room with dozens of other players. A guy walked in, and I recognized his face. I’d seen him in the Greenville County courthouse. He had been a deputy, one who had fired his weapon that night in 1999 when a Greenville County deputy had been killed under still unclear circumstances. It was the first fallen officer I’d ever covered.
I pulled the poker room operator aside and told him I knew the guy’s face. The last time I saw the guy, he wore a badge.
The guy who ran the game played it casual, and after a while came back and whispered in my ear.
“It’s OK,” he said. “He works for the post office now.”
Before too long, the risk of having a gun in my face was worse than losing my bankroll. It didn’t matter whether it was a good guy’s gun or a bad guy’s gun. There were too many guns. I wanted to play it tough, but at the urging of my long-suffering wife, I started to wean myself from the excitement of the little Vegas that Greenville poker players had created.
I have spent no small amount of time reflecting on the people I met during that time. Many of them remain good people, good friends, and some of the South’s truly good women and men. There were people from every walk of life, people who spoke languages I didn’t speak, and people with whom I shared a pastime and a passion. I still miss spending my nights trading poker pots with them.
In truth, like most of the players back then, I didn’t mind if I ended up getting a ticket for playing poker. The $100 fine was far less than I could’ve lost on a given night at the poker table. I was worried about a bad guy walking through the door, and eventually that risk became too much for a suburban family man to manage.
I was getting ready to head to Las Vegas to cover the final table of the 2010 World Series of Poker when I woke up to the news that Aaron Awtry, the man who first gave me a seat in an underground poker game, was in the hospital and likely on the way to prison. I drove the three minutes to the little house on Pine Knoll. It stood open. Aaron’s blood was still on the floor just feet away from a search warrant. A few days later, I stood in a private suite next to the World Series of Poker winner while he bathed in champagne.
Earlier this year when Chuck Reece asked me if I had a story about poker for The Bitter Southerner, I promised myself I would tell this story as objectively as possible. I spent months with thousands of pages of records and reports. I watched and listened to hours of video and audio recorded that night. I spent weeks interviewing people who were on Pine Knoll when the shooting started.
Before I was ever a poker player, before I was ever a poker writer, before I ever rode with the vice guys, I was trained as a journalist, and it was with that training that I told this story.
There are bigger problems in the South than its prohibition on poker. If lawmakers never find their way toward granting people the freedom to play a card game, the South won’t collapse. If those legislators can’t find their way around the hypocrisy of supporting Powerball but outlawing one of America’s most revered and popular pastimes, poker will continue in the shadows while lottery tickets get sold by the millions under fluorescent gas station lights. Meanwhile, we people of the South will continue to talk about liberty and freedom as sacred values while we watch and wait for another bust to go bad.