Brian “Sailor” Roberts

Brian “Sailor” Roberts

Saturday, 27 October 2012

By Johnny Hughes

When one of the name road gamblers would show up at the legendary "Shop" in Lubbock, it would stimulate the play. A sucker couldn't get up to the table for all the hustlers. Folks would play higher, and those folks who had won big in the World Series of Poker didn't do so well. Bill Smith and Amarillo Slim couldn't beat the joint.

When Sailor Roberts came to play a few days, sometime in the early 1990s, it was anticlimactic. He'd play tight and slow and quit early. Drugs already had his soul.

Sailor was Doyle Brunson's best friend. Doyle said they were like brothers. In his wonderful autobiography, The Godfather of Poker, Doyle said of Sailor: “Sailor really had a heart of gold and was a genuinely colourful character – kind, caring, and generous to a fault.”

Sailor was up with a good bankroll about 12 times and back broke. He would borrow money to loan it to some guy with dry pockets, down on his luck, who would never make Sailor whole. Doyle, Amarillo Slim and Sailor travelled the old Texas road gambler's circuit and moved on together to Las Vegas. They shared the bankroll, but often Doyle got half the winnings and the other two got one fourth because Doyle was a better bankroll manager, and could hold on to his end of the scores they tipped over. Sailor never could. 

When I write about Doyle Brunson, Sailor Roberts, Crandell Addington and Jack Binion, the giants of poker history, I am reminded of the famous men of the Old West whom I have written about. It is lifelong friendship and rare loyalty that define these men, just as it defined another group of well-dressed square gamblers: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson.

Doyle Brunson and Crandell Addington are the two most famous living members of the Poker Hall of Fame. They are very fine gentlemen and we are pen pals. They are my two best sources to write poker history. Crandell wrote me this:

You might want to think about adding this to any quote about Sailor:
Would the WSOP have ever evolved without the formidable team of Doyle, Sailor and Slim as the core that transformed Vegas from a few cheap games at the Golden Nugget (at that time a sawdust joint) into the colossus that all the players and the media are feasting on today? No! I know because I was there.
Have a nice evening,

Drugs got Sailor. Cocaine has killed more good gamblers than the Comanches. Doyle has written that the transformation was rapid. Cocaine. Crack. Smack. An emaciated ghost. Hep C Death. He died in a Los Angeles hospital with Doyle’s wife Louise there to hold his hand. Doyle was on his way but did not make it in time.

Sailor was a legend as a card player. Some of the greatest card players, such as Jack “Treetop” Straus, Stu Ungar and Sailor, could not hold on to money. Straus said, “If God wanted me to hold on to money, he would have put handles on it.” These men had more leaks than the levees in New Orleans.

One of my favourite stories from Doyle’s delightful autobiography is how he won Sailor’s dog, a German shepherd. Your average square John, a nine-to-fiver gawking from the rail, would think that was downright Texas mean to win another man’s dog gambling, but a verbal wager is sacred. A gambler's word is his stock in trade. He can't abide liars because he couldn't make a living if he were one.

Road gamblers had to play all games. Sailor won a bracelet for Kansas City Seven-Five low ball and the Main Event in Texas Hold’em. Gamblers played a lot of bridge, usually auction bridge. I travelled bridge tournies and was a Life Master. The greatest bridge player of all time was Oswald Jacoby, whom I have written about, knew and played against often. Doyle wrote me this letter about him and Sailor beating the most famous bridge player in the world after I sent him something I had written on Jacoby:

"Sailor and me were the best bridge players in that time. We beat Oswald Jacoby and a man named Goodman in Waco. I beat all the gamblers, including Jacoby in "double dummy" bridge. I never got beat, nobody ever snapped about the position. You always wanted your opponent to your right where you would have position when you both had big hands."

Sailor was such a legend among the Texas road gamblers. As we go to print, he is amongst the nominees for selection for the Poker Hall of Fame. Let’s hope we can honour this great but tragically flawed gambler. I know he gets my vote.

Famous Gamblers, Poker History and Texas Stories by Johnny Hughes is available now from all Amazons.

Tags: Johnny Hughes, Texas Poker Wisdom, Sailor Roberts, Columnist