Five years ago Monday, I was sitting at a poker table when I got a text from my friend Jesse McVicker. All it said was, “We lost him.” I knew exactly what it meant. Buddy Williams overcame a childhood trampoline accident which left him in a wheelchair to have a full and successful life. There was a helluva lot more to his life than poker, but he was pretty darn good at that too. In 2003, he finished fourth in the WPT World Poker Open while Phil Ivey stacked his chips for him. But his health had been going downhill for a couple of years, so I was saddened but not shocked to get Jesse’s text.
Today I’m re-posting (with slight editing) the blog I wrote in 2014 to honor my poker mentor.
In 2003, the WPT did a feature on Buddy as part of its coverage of the World Poker Open. In it, Buddy was asked how he got his start in the game.
Buddy answered that he went to a private poker game as a young man and noticed that a particular player won every time, so he sat next to that player and watched what he did. Soon enough, he was becoming a winner in the game.
A year after Buddy gave that interview, a different young man walked into a different private poker game, hoping to learn as much as he could from the best poker player in the room. Luckily, Buddy let me sit next to him, and his graciousness and knowledge has without a doubt changed my life.
I got swept up in the poker boom of 2003 just like a lot of people did. I was barely out of college, living in a new city (Lawton) with a lot of free time and not much else. I started playing micro-stakes poker with my friends and immediately fell in love with it. I had a pretty good card sense and started winning a little bit, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. After a year my entire poker bankroll might have totaled $800.
One of the guys I played with, John McGavic, said I should go to Buddy’s game. Buddy was already a poker legend in Lawton (you get automatic poker legend status when Phil Ivey stacks your chips for you), and I was brimming with excitement at the prospect of playing with him. I asked John what the buy-in was and he said $200. So I showed up at Buddy’s game with exactly $200 in my pocket and soon realized that $200 was the absolute minimum buy-in. In fact, it was common for people to win or lose a couple thousand dollars in the game. Common sense would dictate that it’s unwise to buy into a game for 25% of your entire poker budget with no backup money, but at that time in my life I listened to common sense about as often as I obeyed the speed limit.
I can still clearly remember having my entire $200 at risk about 30 minutes into the night. I was all in on the flop with top pair, trying to dodge Jim Shaw’s flush draw. My heart was beating through my chest. Had I lost that pot, I have no idea what I would be doing today, but it very well might not involve poker.
Not only did I win that pot, I got several other really good hands and wound up winning about $800 — basically doubling my entire bankroll. I still remember calling my future wife Missy the very second I hit the parking lot to share my excitement.
That night, I had gotten the last seat at the table, which just happened to be right next to Buddy. I was thrilled to be next to him and had hoped that my play was impressing him. I absolutely couldn’t get enough of his old-time poker stories involving Stu Ungar, Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim and all their crazy antics. I kept prodding him with questions, and he never seemed to grow tired of answering them.
The thing that surprised me, however, was that Buddy loved to talk strategy at the table. Not in the way that many of today’s pros talk strategy, where they ridicule the bad players and hurt the game. Buddy had a way — which is hard to describe — of making everyone at the table feel like equals. If someone put in a lot of money on a weak draw, Buddy might say, “We’d be having a totally different conversation right now if he’d hit it. Besides, Jimmy’s got so much money it don’t matter to him anyway.”
I decided that from then on, I was going to be the first one at the game, so that I could choose the seat right next to Buddy and learn from him, just like he did all those years back.
Buddy immediately recognized that I was someone who had a passion for the game, and maybe some potential too. He would talk differently to me than he would to the rich guys constantly chasing bad draws. He’d ask me for my thought process during a hand, then share his. When two other players were in a big pot, he’d ask me what I thought they had, or he’d ask how strong a hand I would need to call in that particular spot. He would lean over and whisper to me, so that the guys who were actually in the hand wouldn’t hear us and it wouldn’t affect the outcome. I could have read every poker book ever printed up to that point in history, and it wouldn’t have been as educational as sitting next to Buddy once a week for two years.
Think about this from Buddy’s point of view. He had absolutely nothing to gain by helping me. I was a young nobody showing up at his poker game once a week. I didn’t have any money. I wasn’t a customer at his full-time business, like most of the other players were. (He was a bookie, and I didn’t bet sports). I could either lose a little money in his game and be gone forever, or I could win a fairly significant amount of money from his business patrons. Not to mention the fact that he was playing against me with his own money.
And all I did for him was stack his chips when he won a pot.
I traveled north to Newcastle and south to Randlett just to play with Buddy and learn more. When I started branching out to a different form of poker (Pot Limit Omaha), Buddy was the guy I called after a session to ask about a tough hand. When I started considering quitting my job at the paper and playing full-time, he told me how difficult it would be and laid out many of the challenges. But he also told me he knew I was good enough to do it. As someone with an extremely conservative personality when it comes to money, I was at first easily flustered by the losing streaks that go along with playing poker. Many times, it was Buddy’s encouragement and confidence that allowed me to keep my head.
Our friendship wasn’t just about poker. When I bought Missy’s engagement ring, he was the second person I showed it to. (His brother Ronnie told me I was stupid for buying it at a jewelry store instead of a pawn shop). I introduced Missy to him and they immediately hit it off. When Addison was born, I showed him new pictures on my phone every week.
After I moved to Oklahoma City, I used to love Tuesdays, when he would come up to Riverwind and I would get to play with him again. I still tried to snag the seat next to him and stack his chips. But soon, his health started taking a turn for the worse. I would call sometimes, not nearly as often as I should have.
I’m far from the only person Buddy impacted in a positive way. Several fellow poker pros have told me how Buddy helped them, and I can’t think of one person who didn’t enjoy being around him, whether at the poker table or away from it.
Rest in peace, Buddy. I owe you more than I could ever repay.
P.S. — Random thoughts and memories
- That first night I played over there, I was worried about etiquette since I had never played in a private game before. When Buddy’s helper brought me a bottled water and a cup of soup, I tipped him $10. Buddy threw up his arms and said, “You trying to make me find someone new? Robert’s gonna quit me and go work for you if you keep giving him those red chips!”
- Ronnie was always telling Buddy he needed to get a newer and nicer wheelchair. The thing was definitely old and ricketty, but I guess Buddy liked it.
- The dynamic between Buddy and Ronnie was amazing. They had polar opposite personalities and poker styles, and if you heard them talk you might think they hated each other sometimes. But it was quickly apparent that either one would die fighting for the other one without batting an eye. I love Ronnie too.
- Remember when I said Buddy would ask me what I thought a particular player had in a hand? On one occasion, as a player was contemplating calling for all of his money in hold em before the flop, he did this and I said, “I think he has a pair of 10s, but I think that you think he has Ace-King.” He gave me that side-eye raised eyebrow look he liked to give and said, “You’re exactly right about what I think. Now let’s see who’s right.” A few seconds later the guy folded his pair of 10s face up and Buddy told me he thought I might be the best poker player he’s ever played with. (Don’t worry, I’m fully aware that he played with much better players than me. But I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.)
- When I first started playing, I would never bluff. One time I won a pot with a bet and someone at the table said they thought I had bluffed. Buddy said, “You could take every penny Matt’s ever won on a bluff and put it in your eye, and you wouldn’t even feel it.” He had a boatload of great phrases like that for everything and everyone.
- There was a cocky teenager constantly hanging out around Buddy’s game, watching the action and telling everyone how bad they played. He wasn’t old enough to play himself but was convinced he was better than all of us. Finally one night, Buddy says he’s sick of hearing this kid squawk and tells him he can sit in the game. I figured the kid didn’t want to go broke the first hand he played, and the kid was constantly talking about how I never bluff. So I bluffed him right off the bat. He showed his pair of kings and made a comment about how unlucky he is and how I obviously made my flush on the river. I complimented him on his fold and showed him a pair of 4s, which cracked Buddy up. Ten years later, Jesse McVicker is still the guy who thinks everyone else stinks at poker. But he was smart enough to learn a lot from Buddy too and I’m glad to call him a friend.