My Beloved Gambling Teachers: Moody Young, Sherman "Stinky" Davis, and Ray "Reverend" Pruitt

My Beloved Gambling Teachers:  Moody Young, Sherman

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

By Johnny Hughes

"A sucker out of Lubbock can beat a slick from any where else...” – Old West Texas saying.

The old gamblers I write about are very dear in my memory because they all helped me go to college. The outlaw lifestyle was forced upon us by society – the law labeled us "characters" and the old gamblers were characters in every sense of the word. The small community of professional gamblers, especially the poker players, had a real bond, and lifelong friendships were formed, and they all seemed like character actors out of the movies.

Moody Young, Sherman "Stinky" Davis, and Ray "Reverend" Pruitt were three Texas professional gamblers who never worked for wages or had to nine-to-five it like the square Johns. They all ran dice games and poker games; however, they were terrible poker players. In order to run a dice game, circa 1960, you needed a bankroll somewhere north of $10,000. Many of the stories, especially about Stinky and Moody, had to do with them throwing off a dice bankroll.

When Bill Smith and James "Tennessee Longgoodie" Roy moved to Lubbock, it was to run a poker game with Sherman Davis. Sherman got a third of the tea, house juice or five per cent on the chips. That all sounds great but Sherman was the all-day sucker, the legendary live one. Road gamblers came from 500 miles away for this poker game. Jerry, my best pal, and I were always on short bankrolls in the big no-limit hold’em game and Sherman always made it really hard on the short stacks because, as he said, "I have a lot of gamble in me. If you want to play me, you have to play for all my money."  He meant your money.

The games boiled down to how you did in a big pot against Sherman. I remember a hand when Goodie re-raised Sherman before the flop. They both had about $2,500 in front of them (like $25,000 now). A trashy flop came and Sherman fired at it. Goody smooth-called. On fourth street, Sherman fired another barrel. Goody beat him into the pot with his call. Before the fifth street card stopped bouncing, Sherman moved all-in. Goody called rapidly. Sherman said he didn't have anything and Goody announced he had "the no-pair nuts." He'd called all the way through with A-K, Big Slick.

In the autumn of the year, cash on the wood made gambling good in West Texas. The farmers were harvesting tall cotton, the college students had pockets full of Daddy's money, and everyone big enough to carry money was betting on football. Half the poker players were bookies and dice men, knee deep in money.

I'd always pump up a fat bankroll in the fall and go on a spending spree for lots of new clothes. We'd eat in fancy restaurants and take some nice trips. The big poker games were easier to beat in the fall. When I did embrace gambler's ruin, it was always in the summers. I was stuck with some expensive winter clothes that shouted out “gambler”. One summer, I was down to a brass watch and a big smile. My only saleable items were a diamond ring I had paid $600 for and a little pistol, easy to hide. I sold the ring back to the jewellery store for $150 and soaked the pistol for $40. I put in all in a no-limit Texas hold’em game and caught two aces the second round. Sherman re-raised me before the flop and I moved it all to the centre, like I did last winter. He had a Q-J off-suit and busted me with three queens. It is a hard go for your case dough. I had had some money less than an hour.

Moody, Sherman, and the Reverend were all in their fifties when I met them, but they seemed old as the hills to me. They constantly squabbled and ribbed each other and told stories in which the other guy was the rube. There is a correct Texas way to do this, but they sounded like old married couples bickering. The Reverend was very much like the insult comedian, Don Rickles. He ridiculed almost anyone he talked to. He might have gone by the name Reverend in public places, but he was most profane. He was funny enough to be a professional comedian, and lots of fun to be around, which is part of a gambler's job.

One night, Moody and Sherman started playing heads-up hold 'em for the craps bankroll they had been partners on. The word spread magically. When I got there at 6am, there were about six players. Moody and Sherman were both skinny old guys in baggy sports coats and full-brim hats. They deserved some serious bird-dogging, watching to see if they were cheating. I played about two rounds and won $400 – chicken feed – and quit. When I'd quit when I was ahead, Sherman would always say the same thing, "That boy just won't let himself win anything."

There had been a top road gambler in these parts called Sporty James.  He bought many farms with his winnings.  When I played him, he'd keep pulling white envelopes full of hundreds out of his suit pockets until he just overwhelmed the game with a sea of God's good, green money. When Sherman was forcing the action, they'd say, "He's speeding like Sporty James." I wanted to hang around to see how it all came out but sweaters were really frowned on. Never in our wildest dreams could we imagine that anyone would want to watch a poker game. Play? Sure. Watch? It didn't figure.

Another time, Sherman had called Moody on the phone and asked what time it was. Moody's watch was broken. They bet the craps bankroll on what time it was and Sherman won. When I was just turning out as a gambler, it was hard for me to understand why professional gamblers had so many leaks, especially gambling leaks. Great poker players lost at dice or sports betting. These great dice men were suckers for the poker and the horses.

They were often partners and often opponents, but they were always gambling at something. The time in New Mexico is one hour earlier than Texas. Sherman knew this and Moody did not. Sherman made Moody some big bets on some horseraces in Ruidoso, New Mexico, after they had already been run. This is called past-posting. Old gamblers would religiously pay off a wager whether it was on the square or not. They were best friends, and would cheat each other.

When times were really tough in the summers, I could be a shill at the dice game for the Reverend Pruitt. It was a rather easy gig; you pretended to gamble on the house money. The game was in the same apartment house where I ran a pot-cut hold’em game for the college crowd. I suspect the Reverend was not the most efficient businessman around. There were often as many house men as there were shooters. There was the Reverend and his partner who put up the bankroll, a stick man who sang out the corny sayings, and a payoff man. Part of the Reverend's hustle was that all expenses came out of the bankroll so the icebox was packed with good food and there was plenty of beer and liquor. My pay for pretending to be a customer and getting the game started was $10 a day, $15 if the house had a good day, and all the food and drink I wanted. I'd been a poker shill at the Golden Nugget for the great Bill Boyd and let me tell you, shilling is boring.

We played poker and craps with paper money. In the dice games, they waxed the new money to make it flow quicker and to keep bills from sticking together. The fanciness of the payoff man in flashing the money all around was this humongous part of the game, like to today's chip tricks. The craps bankroll was a six-inch-high stack of currency with the ones on top and the fives on bottom and the twenties and hundreds in the middle. The dealer would pay bets fast, dealing from the middle and the bottom of the stack of money in his hand. One night in a bar in Post, Texas, I lost my bankroll from my pocket. A drunk found it and I was able to identify it because the bills were new and waxed, dice money.

Before the game, we'd play gin rummy and I'd always win a little something, about as much as my $10 a day's wages. One day, the Reverend and Sherman, my mentors and dearest older friends, tried to run in a deck of ace-king strippers on me. These are usually for five-stud or hold’em, in which some of the cards, the aces and kings, have bevelled or rounded edges. You can "pull" the strippers to the top. If they are on the top, you either catch two kings, two aces, or you both catch A-K and the owner of the rounded deck knows it. Curly taught me to always pull on the deck to see if there are strippers. I caught them the first time I caressed the deck. These were industrial strength, big, round strippers which you could see with the naked eye. After that, I started to steal exactly $5 per day from my shill money. They had originally promised to pay me even if we didn't get any shooters, and they didn't.

The Reverend was a Casanova, befriending herds of young girls. After the game got started, some beauty would come in and say hello to everyone and promise to be back with a couple of her wilder friends to party later. The Reverend was always telling girls how much he had spent on other girls, buying them clothes.

The Reverend didn't actually do much. All dice games needed a lookout to watch for the Texas Rangers, aka the Big Hats. When you saw those big hats, you were supposed to get the door open fast or they would kick it in. The Reverend was mostly the lookout, laying up on the couch. Getting arrested for gambling rather often was just part of it. Early on they would lay a charge of vagrancy by association, aka vag, on us for a poker game. Later, the Supreme Court threw that law out. We'd go down to the jail and pay a $15 fine. If you lied and said you were sweating, the fine was $20. One night we were arrested at a big poker game and it was like a party. The identification officers got out all these old arrest photos and there were Sherman and Moody, really young, dressed up like characters out of The Untouchables. Odessa Red had $34,000 cash on him. All the gamblers exchanged jokes with the police and we roared with laughter.

The Reverend Pruitt was a tough guy and nobody messed with him. Once, the Sheriff's department sent a trustee out of the jail up to the Reverend's door asking if he could come in and shoot dice. It was night and the Reverend was alone with his girlfriend. The Reverend cracked the door a little bit and a real deputy sheriff pushed his way in, knocking the Rev back on the floor. The Reverend fired the gun he had in his hand once and hit the deputy in the stomach. The other deputies whipped up on the Reverend something awful but the gal jumped in to save him.

His picture was on the front page of the newspaper with his shirt off and in handcuffs. It said he had $3,100 (yeah, like $31,000 now) on him in the article. The lawyer came down to the jail and said he would need $3,100 up front which he could get from the property deposit. The Rev had to go down to broke-dick farm, as the old folks’ part of the prison at Huntsville is called. He was only gone a few years.

When the Reverend and Sherman were getting pretty old, they would come to “The Shop”, Ed and Gene Bradford's legendary gambling joint that lasted 35 years in Lubbock. The Rev would just tell stories, but Sherman would gamble at whatever was going on. In the big Hold’em game, he would sometimes try to steal a 20-dollar bill out of the pot, and folks would tell him mildly to put it back.

In 1979, I was managing a singer, Joe Ely, and going through the obligatory midlife crisis. We'd all hang out at an after-hours joint in the black area of town. One night, I was playing Leslie, the owner, at heads up Kansas City lowball, deuce to seven and all the white people had left. We duelled back and forth, about even, and both had $500 or so. I decided to stall until daylight which would make for a safer exit. The police raided the place and Leslie hid me in the bathroom.

Another night, I was playing Leslie heads up low ball, very drunk. As I headed home I crashed into a telephone poll in front of some all-black apartments. A crowd formed and got me out of the vehicle. The ambulance got me to the hospital with my $600. After eight broke ribs, head injuries, intensive care, and three weeks in the hospital, I made it home. That night I went to Gambling Bill's hold 'em game. It was kind of a tradition to go to a poker game after the hospital or jail or a divorce, or any life tragedy. 

Gambling Bill was a one-legged man. Once when he owed money to Big Ed Bradford. Ed came over and took his artificial leg to hold until he was paid. Folks would ask, "What did Bill owe, Ed?" 

The answer was, "An arm and a leg."

I made a little winning and when Sherman left I caught a ride home with him. When we got to my house, Sherman told me he couldn't find his way home from there, so we drove to a bigger street where he could see his streetlight in the distance. He was too old to find his way around, but not to old to play Texas Hold 'em against some real talent. The pain pills had worn off and I was in agony walking home, but I had seen my poker family. You make some of the best friends of your life through poker.

Johnny Hughes, author of the novel, Texas Poker Wisdom.

Tags: johnny hughes, columnist