My Bridge Mentor (Lem Harkey)

When I moved to Lawton in the summer of 2002 after graduating from OU, I didn’t know a single person there. I wanted to get involved in the community, so within my first week of living there I did two things — found out where the pickup basketball games were and called the local bridge club.

The basketball deal worked out great. The YMCA had competitive runs every Tuesday and Thursday, and they gave me a discount on my membership because I would write blurbs in the newpaper promoting their youth camps and tournaments. (That’s probably an ethical violation but it was 18 years ago and I needed the discount.) I made friendships through basketball that I’ve maintained all these years later.

Whereas I’d played pickup basketball my whole life, bridge was a different story. My parents and grandparents would play friendly games on occasion, and I learned the basics from them. I still have fond memories of sitting on my grandpa’s lap and telling him what I thought his next bid should be. He’d tell me whether I was right or wrong and why.

By the time I was 13 or so, they’d let me jump in on the games sometimes. But these weren’t competitive games, they were just for fun. I remember getting in trouble for doubling my grandma (in bridge terms, this is the equivalent of betting that she couldn’t make her contract) even though my bid was correct.

We played rubber bridge, which basically means that whichever team gets the best cards will win. Competitive bridge is played under a different format, called duplicate, which is far more skill-based. When I moved to Lawton, I had never played duplicate bridge and didn’t know how any of the scoring worked. I also knew nothing about the myriad special bids used to communicate to your partner to arrive at the best contract in the more competitive system.

I looked up the bridge club in the yellow pages, which was the last time the yellow pages were useful to anyone in humanity. I got ahold of the bridge club’s director, Bev Drzka. She offered to play with me since I was new to the city and new to the world of duplicate bridge.

The stereotype of bridge players is that they are all old ladies. I’m here to tell you that this is entirely accurate. There were a couple of older men mixed in, but it was 90% old ladies. And those old ladies are awesome. They immediately embraced me and treated me like a son.

After playing with Bev for a couple weeks, she told me that Lem Harkey thought I had potential and wanted to play with me. She said he was an excellent player who could teach me a lot, so I was excited to play with him. Several of the other ladies, however, said he was a mean old man and told me they’d have my back if he was ever mean to me.

He had no tolerance for shenanigans, something the old ladies would occasionally dabble in. He’d curtly tell them to quit gossiping and start playing, and he’d nip any illegal table talk in the bud immediately. But since I didn’t do any of those things I never faced his wrath. Lem was never anything but perfectly kind and patient with me.

Part of his reputation came from his demeanor. He had a perpetual scowl on his face, which didn’t have anything to do with his mood, it was just the way his face rested. He was also a large African-American man, so it’s possible there were racial reasons behind some of the animosity towards him.

I played with him for almost two years and learned almost every bid I know today from him. His teaching method was quite unique, but it worked. If he wanted me to learn a new bid, he’d just bid it, knowing I’d have no idea what his bid meant. We’d get a terrible score, sometimes tanking an otherwise very good session. But then afterward he would explain the bid to me, and I’d never forget it because of how bad a score we got. I remember giving him a bewildered look after one such hand, and he just grinned back at me and started chuckling. “That’s called a splinter bid,” he’d say. “Now you know it.”

After awhile, I started giving him a ride home from the weekly bridge games. We’d also occasionally travel to Oklahoma City or Wichita Falls, Texas for a tournament. During those car rides he shared a lot of stories from his fascinating life.

Lem was a fullback at the College of Emporia in Emporia, Kan. If you haven’t heard of that it’s because the college has been closed since 1974. But when Lem was there he led the nation in rushing with 160 yards per game and was drafted in the sixth round of the 1955 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s one of only three Fighting Presbies (yes, that was their nickname; the college was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church) to play in the NFL.

A College of Emporia football game from around the time Lem Harkey played there. I couldn’t find a photo of Lem playing, and this photo was undated but he was one of only three people from the school who went on to play in the NFL.

While Harkey was picked in the sixth round, the Steelers’ 9th-round selection that year went on to have the more prolific pro career. Pittsburgh picked Johnny Unitas but cut him in the preseason before he latched on with Baltimore and began his Hall of Fame quarterbacking career. Harkey played a couple of seasons with the Steelers and San Francisco 49ers before hanging up his cleats.

Racism affected his competitive bridge life, as Blacks weren’t allowed to join the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL). Harkey was a member of the American Bridge Association (ABA), where he accumulated thousands of masterpoints and found success in tournaments all over the country. When the ACBL integrated, Harkey and other ABA player were given only pennies on the dollar for the points they had already accrued. Nevertheless, he still had so many points that when I played tournaments with him, we were automatically placed in the highest level of competition.

I had virtually zero points and was a long way from being good enough to play against such stiff competition. Lem could have partnered with someone much better and would certainly have had better results. But he never complained, or even talked down to me when I made a mistake that cost us points. After the tournament, he’d let me know some of the more intricate plays or bids that our opponents made to beat us, and how I could start to incorporate those into my game. I can’t even describe how much I learned from Lem over those two years.

Unfortunately, Lem’s health began to deteriorate pretty quickly. Some of that had to do with his football career, which had given him bad knees and a bad back. His legs were incredibly swollen and he had more and more trouble getting around. Eventually he moved in with his daughter in San Antonio, and I never got to play with him again. I talked to him on the phone a couple of times, until he wasn’t in good enough shape to do that either.

I’ll never forget the phone call I got from Lem’s daughter while visiting my family in Oklahoma City for July 4 in 2004. She said, “I just wanted you to know that my dad passed away the other day. He didn’t have a lot of friends but he sure loved you and thought an awful lot of you.” Lem was 70.

After Lem passed I again partnered with Bev. After moving to Oklahoma City I’ve largely just played online. Francine and Will have been my two most frequent partners there, and I’ve learned a ton from each of them. But that’s all built on the foundation that Lem taught me.

He’s been gone for 16 years now and few of you reading this will have ever met him or even heard of him. But he was a great man who had a hard life, and he taught me a lot about bridge, perseverance and character. He always stayed so calm at the bridge table, even when I royally screwed up a bid or our opponents were doing something that seemed kind of fishy. I’ve thought back to moments like that during similar times at the poker table. Lem has undoubtedly helped me make money at poker even though he passed away before I even started playing.

For whatever reason, he’s been on my mind a lot recently. He’s a man worth telling you about.

Love you and miss you Lem.

From two Bud Lights to near death to Paw Patrol cake

I’m a rule follower. Always have been. (Mom, this is when you should stop reading).

That’s why my first drink of alcohol came on November 12, 2000, the day I turned 21. I went to O’Connell’s (back when it was still on Lindsey St.) and had a Bud Light with a couple of my journalism colleagues. Thought it tasted terrible, then ordered another one. Still tasted terrible.

No shots, no beer bongs or shotgunning. Just two shitty BLs followed by the usual games of dominoes at the apartment.

Over the next several months I would occasionally have a beer or two, but never mixed drinks, liquor or shots. Maybe it happened and I just don’t remember it, but I don’t think I ever got drunk until the day I puked in my own car and almost died 600 miles from home.

I covered the OU football team for the school newspaper, and in 2001 they played an early-season game against the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I had to go to cover the game, but several friends wanted to check out the AFA and the beautiful scenery around Colorado Springs so we made a trip of it. I know Keith, Josh and Ryan were there, and we took my old Honda and split one room. My memory is that we had another carful of friends who drove separately and stayed in the same motel but I don’t remember who was in that group or exactly how many we had. Probably our photographer Paul and maybe George or the douchey yearbook guy they stuck with us a lot. Maybe one of these guys can add some details in the comments.

Anyway, we got to Colorado Springs on Aug. 31 and found a bar the night before the game. The fact that we were completely outnumbered and stood zero chance in a fight didn’t stop us from talking some good-natured smack to the cadets. It was a lot of fun hanging out with them and at the end of the night we made a friendly wager on the next day’s game. We wagered a shot of alcohol on whoever covered the point spread. They had the exact same number of people in their group as we did ours. My (probably faulty) memory is that each group had eight people in it and that OU was favored by about 28 points. We agreed to come back to the same bar the next night after the game and settle up.

Whatever the point spread was, OU covered it. The final score was 44-3. Immediately after the game, everyone else in our group went to eat dinner while I did interviews in the locker room and wrote my story. I sent that Pulitzer-worthy piece in via dial-up internet (no joke!) and my boys picked me up at the stadium when they finished eating.

We headed over to the bar, although I was convinced there was no way these Air Force dudes were going to show up. Why go out after your team got throttled just to buy shots for obnoxious Oklahoma punks? But not only were these gentlemen there, they paid off the bet in a much more generous way than I would have ever guessed.

Since our groups had the same number, I assumed that we were betting one shot per person. Had OU lost, I would have bought one guy in the other group a shot. I can assure you I didn’t have enough money in my wallet to buy all eight guys a shot, yet that’s what they decided to do for us.

By now, I’m sure you know where this story is headed. Guy who doesn’t drink that much and didn’t eat dinner gets presented eight shots in a 30-minute span from Air Force cadets who were cool and being super generous. These weren’t the first shots I’d ever taken in my life, but I do remember thinking it couldn’t be that big a deal because shots are so small. I also remember Keith asking me how many of those shots I’d taken and seeing his eyes widen when I answered, “all of them.” He knew I was in trouble.

I still contend that the eight shots of Jagermeister put together didn’t do as much damage as the single shot I took with Josh shortly thereafter. We happened to be walking past the main bar when the bartender climbed on top of the bar and yelled, “Free tequila while it lasts!” He had a fountain spray like they use to add Coke or water but it was full of the lowest-quality tequila the world has ever seen. He was just spraying a shot of it into the mouths of whoever was in front of him, which unfortunately included me and Josh. I remember turning to Josh immediately afterward. We both had looks of utter disgust on our faces and we knew our stomachs would not soon recover from this blow. I’ll never forget him saying, “Dude, we’re fucked.”

The next thing I remember is being outside of the bar with Josh, trying to find an alley to throw up in. That didn’t pan out and the other guys thought we should head back to the hotel. Ryan was our DD and hadn’t drank anything so I sat in the passenger’s seat. As we’re driving on a winding highway back to the hotel, I can tell I’m not going to make it. I tell Ryan to pull off and he does. Josh and I get out. He threw up (maybe he threw up back in the alley, but he got it out of his system anyway). I decided to just lay down on the grass next to the highway. I knew I was going to throw up but it wasn’t coming out and the other guys were worried I’d get arrested for public intox so they loaded me back up into the car. Couldn’t have been more than a mile from there when I puked violently all over my own car.

We get back to the motel and I pressed the elevator button corresponding to whatever floor we were staying on. I remember one of the guys saying, “I can’t believe he pressed the right floor.” The next thing I remember is laying in the bathtub, shivering and dry heaving after throwing up everything in my body. I really thought there was a decent chance I’d die from alcohol poisoning. So far in my 40+ years of life, that’s the closest I’ve ever felt to dying.

Just as my stomach gave up everything it had, I must also give it up to my boys. They completely cleaned out my puke from my car that night. We had a 10-hour drive to make the next day and I don’t remember it smelling at all. I also have to give it up to 21-year-old me for being able to recover so quickly. I felt like crap when I woke up the next morning, but we ate a super-greasy breakfast in Colorado Springs and I slept for the first couple hours of the drive home. Then — voila! — the well-oiled machine that was my 21-year-old self felt more or less fine. I took the wheel and drove the last eight-ish hours home. Didn’t miss a class the next day. Age-40 Matty Frankles would be hooked up to an IV for three days after a night like that.

Actually, age-40 Matty Frankles put his stomach through a different kind of test today. Cheap pizza, ice cream, and a delicious homemade birthday cake to celebrate my youngest son Hawk turning 5. (I used to have a baby…my kids are growing up too fast!)

The weather was beautiful and Hawk loved riding his new bicycle around the block. This being 2020, my mom was only one invited to his birthday party.

In 16 years, perhaps Hawk will have two Bud Lights at O’Connell’s to celebrate his 21st birthday. Ten months later, assuming college football still exists and they allow fans in the stands, I hope he gets to go someplace like Colorado Springs, see the beauty of it and meet some new people. But do your tummy a favor, son, and stick to the Paw Patrol-themed birthday cake instead of nine shots of liquor.

My Favorite Poker Story

Some of you know this story and the person involved but I’m changing his name anyway since I didn’t get his permission to share it. Warning: this story contains a couple naughty words.

When I first caught the poker bug, I couldn’t get enough of it. I was working full-time at the newspaper but still finding 30 or so hours a week for poker.

“Jason” was one of the most entertaining guys to play with during that time. He was funny, had money to burn, loved to gamble and would bluff his own mother if she were in a pot with him. When the poker boom hit, there were tons of micro-stakes games for broke people like me. I could enter a $5 tournament, then buy in for $15 or $20 in a dealer’s choice cash game. If I lost that, I was done. Jason usually didn’t even bother with the $5 tournament. He’d show up late, when the biggest chip stack in the cash game would be $50, and buy in for $500.

There was one other guy who played with us who also had a successful business and a similar mindset. Frequently, these two would get into a macho pissing contest. I’ve never seen ace high win so many pots. It was kind of amazing how these two could never make a pair no matter what was on the board. At the end of the night, one of them would be up $2000 and the other down $2000. Everyone else would be within $50 of even.

One night, I hosted the game at my one-bedroom apartment. Missy and I were dating at the time and she drove down from Norman to surprise me, arriving around midnight. By 1 a.m., everyone else had quit the game and left but these two were battling it out. We both dropped a few hints about being tired but they refused to quit. Missy was ready to kill the both of them by the time they finally left around 3 a.m.

After graduating from the $5 home games, I started playing small stakes at the casinos. At first, the closest poker room to Lawton was the Red River casino, which was a 40-minute drive. Then a room in Lawton opened up, but it was smaller and wasn’t open 24 hours a day. Sometimes, a few of us would carpool down to Red River if we wanted to play all night.

On more than one occasion, Jason talked me and Spike into going down to Red River. Once, he went out of his way to bust me with a crappy draw, then I had to sit down there and do nothing until they were ready to leave because I was out of money. Another time, Jason bluffed both of us on separate pots with absolutely nothing, then showed us and made fun of us. About 30 minutes later he bluffed another guy all in with seven high and no draw. The other guy had flopped a royal flush. So Jason lost the entire carpool’s money on one hand.

This brings me to my favorite poker hand of all time, which is a hand I wasn’t even involved in. We were in Lawton, and I was sitting next to Jason. This was just a $1-$2 game, but Jason was running hot and had about $1000 in front of him. There was a decent amount of action preflop, including a guy who was all-in for his last $15. So there was maybe a $60 main pot but a $200 side pot between the other three players who had more money to start with.

The flop comes out AJ2 with no flush draw. An older woman in a mink coat and big sunglasses bets $100. Jason calls. The third player folds. The turn is a 9 and now it’s back on Cruella DeVil. She bets $200 and Jason calls again. The river is a 6 and Cruella checks it to Jason. He goes all in for about $700. She thinks for a really long time. She’s talking to herself and to Jason. “You must have me beat…You’d better have me beat.” Jason isn’t saying a word. Finally she folds.

Jason reaches over and starts stacking up the side pot, which was about $800. He starts to just throw his cards back to the dealer but the dealer is attempting to give out the $60 main pot. The guy who was all in turns over KQ, so he didn’t even have a pair. Jason then shows his hand, which was 23. This is technically the worst starting hand in poker. On this board he had a pair of deuces, which was just enough to beat the all-in hand but obviously worse than whatever the lady had.

She loses it. “WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?” she says loudly. Jason pauses stacking up the chips, looks her dead in the eye and says…

“Motherfucking check wasn’t going to win it.”

The whole table burst out laughing but this woman jumps up from the table and storms off, cursing Jason as she goes.

A minute later Jason nudges me. I lean over and he whispers, “I think I just fucked up pretty bad.” I ask why, since his bluff worked out perfectly and he even won the main pot. He points over to the lady, who is standing 10 feet away pointing at Jason and telling her husband what happened.

“Her husband is a surgeon. He’s one of my biggest clients.” He then told me how much money he makes every month from this couple. Needless to say it was a lot more than the pot he just dragged. I asked if he knew who the lady was before he bluffed her. He said yes.

I couldn’t control my laughter. This was quintessential Jason, bluffing a top customer and talking trash to her, probably costing himself five or six figures worth of future income to win $860. I can’t think about this story much less tell it without cracking up, even 15 years later.

I don’t think I’ve seen Jason since I moved to Oklahoma City. Every once in awhile I’ll ask Spike about him and he seems to be the same guy with the same personality. His business survived the probable loss of this one customer.

When it was me getting bluffed and busted by Jason five minutes after riding in a car with him for 40 minutes, I wasn’t a happy camper. Now, it’s pretty funny. And this other story is even funnier, since I got all of the entertainment without losing any of the money.

Chicago 2019

Four years is too long to stay away from your favorite place on earth, and 30 hours isn’t nearly enough time to spend there. But I had a great time and packed about as much as possible into my quick trip to Chicago this week.

I had been talking to my friend Randy, an equally avid Cubs fan, about going for years, but with seven kids between us it’s hard to find the time. About a month ago, we were playing poker and Randy says, “We just need to make this happen. Talk to Missy, figure out what dates work and we’ll go.”

If I were to go, it needed to be before September when Missy’s teaching gig at OU starts back up, and the Cubs were on the road for 10 straight games in mid-August, so we didn’t have a lot of options. I suggested going Wednesday, attending the game that night and the game the next afternoon, then coming home Friday. But Randy needed to be back Thursday night so we settled on the super quick trip.

Wednesday was a long day. It started at 5 a.m. when we headed to the airport for our 6 a.m. flight. I usually don’t wake up quite that early. But it allowed us to be in Chicago before noon, so we had time for a quick nap before the game. Randy’s daughter lives in Chicago and found a perfect hotel for us in an area of the city I hadn’t stayed in before. One of my favorite things about Chicago is walking through the neighborhoods, so after resting for a couple of hours that’s what we did. We were near the Lincoln Zoo which was a cool neighborhood only about 10 minutes from Wrigleyville.

We ate a late lunch at a sports pub in the neighborhood. Can’t say it was one of the better meals I’ve ever had but the White Sox were playing a day game and we got to see the end of that, so it was a good way to get integrated into the city and the baseball vibe. Then we headed to Wrigleyville, arriving about two-and-a-half hours before the 7 p.m. start.

Randy and I in front of the famous Wrigley Field marquee.

The last time I had been to Chicago was in 2015, which was a year before the greatest World Series ever played. The Cubs were in the middle of their Wrigley Field renovations then, so I got to see the new giant scoreboards but not the completely redone area around the ballfield. It was bizarre, seeing a stadium I’ve been to about 10 times surrounded by strangely new buildings and attractions, with several of the old merchandise shops and bars like Murphy’s Bleachers sprinkled in and still looking exactly the same as they always have.

We hit a home run on the weather, if you’ll pardon the pun. It was about 80 degrees with a cool breeze coming in off the lake. It actually rained for about 15 minutes before the start of Wednesday’s game while we were sampling a couple of Chicago’s finest beers at the Big Star next to the stadium. The perfect weather continued a streak for me on my short baseball trips the last few years. Chad and I had magnificent weather in Minneapolis, Denver and Phoenix the last three years, and this was just as good. It felt amazing to get out of the sweltering Oklahoma heat.

We were planning on buying tickets from the scalpers in front of the stadium but there weren’t many of those to be found. The scalpers were all yelling at people trying to buy tickets, so we figured we’d have better luck online. At Rizzo’s Bar and Inn, while drinking a Next Coast IPA from Chicago’s own Goose Island brewery, we found the seats we wanted to buy. Randy ordered them on his phone, then received a text from his bank to check whether this was a fraudulent purchase. The text said to reply “YES” if this was a legitimate purchase or “NO” if it was not. Despite being one of the smartest people I know, Randy managed to fail this 50/50 test. (And we had only had a couple beers, I promise!) So he had to deal with that headache before getting it sorted out and getting our tickets.

Our seats were great, on the lower level down the first base line. And it was quite a game we got to see. The only other MLB game I’ve been to this season was the first weekend of the year, when James and I went to Arlington to watch the Cubs against the Texas Rangers. Texas won that game 11-10, and for awhile it looked like the Giants were going to beat the Cubs 11-10 on Wednesday night too. That was the score in the bottom of the eighth inning when Kris Bryant played the hero to give the Cubs the lead. Craig Kimbrel closed it out in the ninth and the Cubs won 12-11.

Our view for Wednesday night’s 12-11 victory over the Giants.

After the game, which lasted about three and a half hours, I was pretty well exhausted. But getting to bed wasn’t quite the emergency our taxi driver seemed to think it was. This guy put New York City cabbies to shame. Randy thinks he might have hit 100 mph on Clark Street at one point. By the time he slammed on the brakes directly in front of our hotel, I was about ready to throw up.

On Thursday, the Cubs had a 1:20 p.m. game and our flight was scheduled to leave Midway at 5:30 p.m. We decided to go back to Wrigleyville and watch from one of the bars there until we needed to leave for the airport. We asked multiple people how long it would take to get from there to Midway and everyone said an hour. So we figured we could hang out until 3:30 p.m. and still make it an hour before our flight.

Despite the perfect weather and the fact that the Cubs had just moved back into first place the night before, the old-school scalpers were out in force on Thursday hawking tickets. We weren’t planning on attending the game, especially since we’d have to leave early, but figured it couldn’t hurt to see if the scalpers would give us a good deal. Although the negotiating process was predictably annoying, we did manage to score tickets for less than face value.

Our view for Thursday’s game. The Cubs won 1-0 behind a gem from my favorite Cubs pitcher, Kyle Hendricks (below).

We sat in right field, under the second deck, which was perfect because we would have gotten sunburned in the bleachers. Again, the weather was perfect. I have to confess that Chicago style pizza isn’t my favorite thing, but I felt like I had to get a mini Giordano’s and a beer while I watched this one. It was blissful.

Giordano’s + pale ale + baseball = magic.

If the game progressed at normal pace, we would get to watch about six innings before needing to leave for the airport. But this game went very quickly as both pitchers threw gems. The Cubs scored a run in the fourth thanks to a routine fly ball that was lost in the sun. With both teams putting zeroes onto the scoreboard, our 3:30 p.m. deadline didn’t arrive until the bottom of the eighth inning, with the Cubs clinging to that 1-0 lead.

The Cubs closed out the 1-0 victory as Randy and I were on our way to the airport. That routine fly ball which fell for a hit and the subsequent Anthony Rizzo RBI single were the Cubs’ only hits the entire game, making it just the fifth game since 1990 that the Cubs have won with two hits or less. And it was quite the departure from Wednesday night’s game, when the Cubs needed every one of 14 hits to eek out a victory. Things like that are what make baseball so fun.

Our Uber driver on Thursday was the polar opposite of the insane guy we had Wednesday night. He was very safe and in no hurry, which turned out to be a bit unfortunate since we mistimed our trip to the airport. With traffic, it took a full 90 minutes, which meant we arrived at Midway at 5 p.m. for a 5:30 p.m. flight. We were getting a little stressed but got lucky that there was virtually no line at security. We walked up to the gate as our boarding group was getting on the plane.

It was great to see my family again when we got back. The whole trip kind of felt like a dream since it was so quick. And I did a lot of dreaming last night, when I passed out and slept like a baby to make up for a little of the deprivation I had accrued over the previous two days.

See you soon, Chicago. Hopefully in less than four years.


Recently I’ve been asked by a few different people to do a blog with some poker stories. I love poker and I love telling stories (spinning a good yarn, as they say), but the only problem is that I haven’t had time to write this week.

So I’m resurrecting an old blog I wrote several years ago about a guy named Captain. I actually saw him in the poker room about a month ago, but he wasn’t at my table and I didn’t get a chance to say hi to him. He looked the same though. I hope Captain is doing well, and I hope you enjoy a couple of old poker stories.


Captain is an African-American in his early 50s. He exclusively wears Fubu velvet sweatshirts with matching sweatpants. His favorite colors are — in order — gold, white, and black. Kangol hats. Sunglasses with no tint. A fair amount of bling. Salt and pepper goattee, always freshly trimmed. He’s about 5-foot-8, 275 pounds. Enough muscle to keep you from going nose-to-nose with him but enough fat to know you can win a race to the door if you have to. And don’t worry, he’ll give you plenty of chances to fight him. He says lots of inappropriate and offensive things, and he talks a good fight. But mainly he just likes to drink and gamble.
I don’t know Captain’s real name. He always signed up for the poker games as Captain, and he liked to drink 7 or 8 Captains while he was playing, so it seemed like a good name. 
You want to play poker with Captain. The later into the evening the better. And if you write a blog, he is an absolute goldmine.
I have played a lot of poker with Captain. It seemed like he would magically appear wherever I happened to be playing, which was great. He had some ties to Lawton and played there frequently when I lived there, but he also played at Riverwind and Newcastle a lot. These are my two favorite Captain stories.

Captain’s poker winrate hovered right around 5 percent. But when he won, he won BIG. One night at Riverwind, Captain was winning every hand. He was ordering double shots every time he busted someone, which was quite frequently.
As Captain drank more and more, he was being more and more inappropriate with the waitresses, and his distraction with the waitresses was slowing the game to a halt and driving off the players. But I wasn’t about to leave. For one thing, Captain had already won a big pot off of me, so I wanted to get my chips back. Besides that, his luck was bound to change, and this was a rare opportunity to win some serious money from a terrible poker player. Usually, Captain would just run $1000 straight into the ground, and one entertaining hour later he would be gone for the night. This time he had over $3,000 in front of him, a very big stack for a $2/$5 no limit hold em game.
Of course, on this night it was impossible to tell exactly how much money Captain had in front of him, because he was too drunk to stack up his chips. They just lay in a multi-colored mound in an area generally in front of him. He was taking up enough space for two or three players but we were playing short-handed so it didn’t matter. When he wanted to bet, he just slammed his forearm on the table and shoved out a random number of chips, usually about $500 worth, whether the pot had $20 or $2000 in it. After winning one pot, he tried to scoop his chips onto his pile, but his pile was too big and some of them went over the rail and onto the floor. One of the poker room managers went over and picked up about $30 worth of chips that had fallen to the ground. For some reason, Captain was convinced there was one more dollar on the ground.
He got so worked up about this single $1 chip that he got on all fours under the table looking for it. That’s when I discovered Captain’s drunk superpower.
You know how some people have superpowers that only come out when they are absolutely wasted? Well, the guy sitting next to me in the game had gone to the restroom, and he returned to see Captain on the ground looking for this chip. We are on the opposite end of the table from Captain’s scavenger hunt. The guy next to me leans over and says, “What is he doing?”
I whispered, “I think he left a drink under there.”
Turns out, Captain’s drunk superpower is supernatural hearing. He shot up from under the table, stared right at me and said, “You mother******, what did you just say to me?”
I may have crapped my pants a little bit.
I don’t remember what I said, but I backtracked and apologized well enough to avoid getting shot.

On another night in the old poker room at Newcastle, Captain was in an especially abusive mood. He was mad about losing and was three or four drinks over his average consumption level.
The Asian man on Captain’s immediate right was also drinking heavily, so much so that he was almost passed out. This man was probably 45 years old, weighed 110 pounds and could not speak a word of English. He muttered Chinese under his breath and took a long time to make any decision. Captain was not a fan of any of these things. 
I’ll save all of the racist vitriol Captain spewed that night. Luckily, the other guy couldn’t understand a word of it anyway.
I’ve heard that burping is an accepted thing in some Asian communities. Nevertheless, I was pretty surprised when this middle-aged Asian dude let one rip without the slightest attempt to cover his mouth. He was just sitting there, staring straight ahead, and let it fly. I remember being seriously afraid that Captain was going to hurt this guy. Captain leaned over, looked right at the guy, stared him down for a good 30 seconds, and even lowered his sunglasses to look him dead in the eye. But Captain never said a word, and after an awkward 30 seconds, play resumed as usual. I was utterly shocked that he didn’t say anything. Captain doesn’t go 30 seconds without saying something under any circumstances.
A good 30 minutes passed, and Captain was on his best behavior. The Asian man’s wife was now sitting behind him. I figured maybe Captain was going easy on him because of her.
Then, out of nowhere, breaking the dead silence, Captain attacked.
He turned, got right in the guy’s face, and let out a burp three times as big as the first one. He shrugged his shoulders with his palms up, the ultimate “What you gonna do now?” pose. But the Asian guy was so drunk/tired that his wife was literally having to wake him up to look at his cards every hand. He probably didn’t care about Captain’s burp and definitely had no interest in fighting him, so he just went back to sleep. Captain stared at him for a good minute or two.
I tried to keep it together but I couldn’t. As soon as I realized that no physical harm was going to be done, I burst out laughing. Captain turned to me and said, “You think that’s funny?”
This made me laugh even louder and I said, “Yeah, actually I think it’s really funny.” I couldn’t stop laughing for at least five minutes. I have no idea how the rest of the table kept from laughing, but I was the only one.
This incident came after the first one, and after I had played with Captain many times. Because he knew I lived in Lawton, he always thought I was in the military. I probably told him 10 times that I had never been in the military, but eventually I realized that my military experience was the only thing he liked about me. This allowed me to get away with an ill-timed bout of the giggles.
“I like you cause you’re in the Army,” he said, “but I’m still gonna bust your m************ a** on the poker table.”

Jack Willis

Whenever I bring my copy of The Oklahoman to the poker table, there’s a 100% chance I’m going to hear one of the following comments.

  1. “I didn’t know they still made newspapers.”
  2. “You must be the last person alive that reads those.”
  3. “Is that a newspaper? God, you’re old.”

This is roughly my reaction to any of those:

In the bygone era in which I grew up, lots of people read the newspaper. But when I was at OU and working for the school newspaper, only one person read THE newspaper, and that was Jack Willis.

All of my fellow OU Daily alums know what I’m talking about. The first thing we did every day upon entering the room was head toward the back, where a copy of the paper was tacked onto a corkboard. Jack’s paper. You immediately turned to your story and hoped to see as little red ink as possible.

Jack was the Daily’s adviser during my time there, and on Saturday he and five others will be inducted into the OU Student Media Hall of Fame. It’s a well-earned honor, and since a prior commitment will keep me from attending the ceremony I thought I’d share my two-cent tribute here.

2019 OU Student Media Hall of Fame inductees, clockwise from top left:
• Harold Keith, public relations pioneer and Newbery Medal-winning author
• Ed Livermore Sr., Oklahoma newspaper pioneer
• Carol Burr, award-winning editor and university patron
• Jack Willis, former Daily adviser
• Johnny Rard, award-winning corporate marketing executive
• Karen Wicker, founder and CEO of Candor PR

My high school newspaper adviser, Sally Burr (aka Aunt Sally) was extremely involved in the making of the Jag Wire. She read every word before it was printed and probably wrote half of it herself. This was a necessary function of having 17-year-olds with extremely limited time and maturity from which to work.
In contrast, the OU Daily was truly a student newspaper. We wrote all of the copy, all of the headlines, and did all of the editing. It’s the best way to learn, hands down. I never understood why or how some of my J-school colleagues would get a degree in print journalism and graduate with zero experience in actual print journalism.

Jack was always in his office, willing to offer advice or answer any questions we had. But he let us make the newspaper, for better or for worse.

I mentioned looking at Jack’s paper every day and hoping to see as little red ink as possible. That’s not entirely fair, because it implies that all of the feedback was critical. If you wrote a good story, or even just had a good lede, segue or metaphor, he’d point that out too. He was a fair judge, and we all respected his opinions.

That doesn’t mean I always agreed with him. Like many a 20 year-old kid, I often thought my shit didn’t stink. I’d be interested in going back and re-reading the stories I thought were unfairly criticized, and I imagine I’d fall on his side more often than not now. But even back then, I only cared about what he thought because I respected him and his work/reputation in the field.

When I became sports editor of the paper during my junior year, Jack’s comments were even more valued. I had been the editor of the Jag Wire my senior year in high school, but that carried very little actual responsibility because in truth Aunt Sally did most of the heavy lifting there. So this was really the first time in my life I was responsible for more than just getting my own story in on time.

I had to come up with story ideas, assign stories, write headlines, and edit stories for both length and content. Quite frankly there were times I wasn’t very good at any of those jobs. Being able to walk to the back of the room and just look at a copy of the newspaper without being tongue-lashed or made to feel incompetent while also learning was huge for me. At the top of the sports section, in that famous red ink, it might say, “Why is Story X ahead of Story Y?” or “Why don’t we have a story about X?” I was able to process that information on my own and become better at the job. And when that red ink would say, “Great sports section today” I knew Jack wasn’t just being nice, he actually meant it. He was a straight shooter, and that’s what journalism is all about at its core.

I’d be remiss not to mention Jack’s class, which was a requirement for all journalism majors and the reason many a journalism major became a something-else major. It was a tough class, no doubt. Probably the only class I ever took in my life where I put in my best effort and didn’t get an A.

It was essentially just a basic news reporting class. We had to draw for a random beat assignment (I got the College of Education and the Honors Program, snoozefest galore) and then write news stories once or twice a week about those beats.

At the time I didn’t understand why Jack graded the class so harshly. I’d guess about half the class or more got a C or worse, and I think only one out of 30 got an A (Jennifer of course). It’s easy to see now that by setting the bar so high, it would make our transition into a professional newsroom much smoother. Also, it helped ensure that when a major newspaper was looking to hire an OU grad, they’d know they were getting a quality journalist.

A major part of Jack’s job was helping to bridge the gap between professional newspapers and his students. Every year he set up summer internship interviews with several media outlets. Every year he specifically asked me which papers I was going to interview with. As I mentioned in my blog about Joey Goodman, I never intended to be a professional journalist. So every year I blew off the internship opportunities and worked a regular job to make some money. And every year Jack seemed to be disappointed in that decision.

Maybe he knew my future better than I did at that point. A month before I graduated, Joey had an opening at the Lawton Constitution and called Jack to see if he had anyone to recommend. Jack gave him my name despite me telling him 20 times over the years that I wanted to be a teacher and a basketball coach, not a writer. I never considered applying for the job in Lawton and never would have ended up there if not for Jack. I can’t imagine what my life would be like now without those seven years in Lawton and the hundreds of amazing friends I made there (including one who got me started playing poker, what up Mike Carroll!)

Clearly, Jack had a pretty profound impact on my life. Even had I blown off the Constitution and gone into teaching, the lessons I learned about leadership, straightforwardness and integrity would have paid huge dividends on their own. I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend the ceremony on Saturday, but I know that many of my friends whose lives were also bettered by Jack will be there. Congratulations to a well-deserved Hall of Famer.

Card Games

When I was 14 years old, my birthday present was a subscription to Sports Illustrated. It was a big reason I pursued a career in sports journalism. A quarter-century later, I still have that subscription.

In the most recent issue, there is a photo montage of scenes from Major League Baseball’s Spring Training. One picture shows members of the Boston Red Sox playing a card game called “casino” in the clubhouse.

I was shocked. This was a game our family had played for years, but I’d never heard of single person outside of our family who had ever heard of it or played it. I thought there was a 50% chance my dad had just made it up.

It’s a great game for 2-4 players, and I’ve shown a few of my friends how to play over the years. (If you’re interested, check out the link I posted to the origins and rules of the game. I’ll include that for most of the games I discuss here).

Seeing that picture got me thinking about all of the different types of card games we played in the Franklin house growing up. I never played poker or gambled in any way while I lived at home. One time in college I remember having a poker night with my roommate and couple other buddies, but we were so broke that we were literally playing with pennies, nickles and dimes. I don’t think anyone won or lost more than $1. I didn’t risk more than $5 until I was 23 years old and working at the newspaper in Lawton.

There’s no doubt in my mind that learning and getting good at a dozen or so other card games while growing up laid the foundation for what I do now. Just like that Sports Illustrated subscription (and reading The Daily Oklahoman every day) launched my first career.

I decided to rank all the card games we played at least semi-regularly growing up. Keep in mind, we played board games, dice games, basically any kind of game you can think of. We played a ton of games, and I loved it. But for purposes of this post I’m only discussing the card games.

The Boston Red Sox play casino in the clubhouse

10. 10-point pitch (aka Partner Pitch) — I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t watch this whole video about the game, just enough to see that it was basically the same version we played. But it was my least favorite of the games we played because there was just a massive amount of luck involved. I think spades is the most overrated card game ever, but I’d rather play spades than 10-point pitch.

9. Kent — This is a perfect game to play if you have 8 or 10 people and want to do something fun. It requires no card skills at all and is a lot of fun. (In the version I found today online, it’s called Kemps, but we always called it Kent. Anyway, same game/concept). We would never play this game with just our family of five, but we would frequently have friends or the church youth group over to the house and this was a favorite. Not to brag, but I’m pretty sure Kevin Ash and I have the best record at Kent of anyone in the history of the universe.

8. Spades — It seems like everyone who only knows how to play one card game knows how to play spades. Personally I don’t think it’s that great a game, but I’ve probably spent more time playing it than any of these other games.

Here are my problems with the game of spades. First, everyone has slightly different rules so you spend 10 minutes negotiating them anytime you play with someone new. Does the high bidder lead first or left of the dealer or the deuce of clubs? Are we playing sandbags? Do you get to pass a card on a blind nil? Etc. Second, if you’re playing with halfway competent opponents it’s almost all luck. Adding sandbags into the mix raises the skill level but it feels communistic to not just want to win every single trick you can. Third, nil bids are worth too much. They should probably be worth about 72 points.

Moving on from that, spades are a great way to witness fights between siblings, spouses or friends. My sister Allison and her husband Matt love to play spades so we still play with them when they are in town. There’s nothing better than seeing the looks on their faces when they realize they’ve been set, followed by one of them saying, “Well, I got my bid.” Allison pays less attention to the game than anyone I’ve ever played with but she still knows she got her bid 90% of the time. If mom is playing, you can just mark her down for a 2 bid every time no matter what. Another staple of Franklin family spades games is that after every hand, 3 of the 4 players will get up from the table for various unspecified reasons, doubling the length of the game. (I love you all!)

At Westmoore High School, I was involved in many a game of spades with my fellow members of the Class of 1998. In Mrs. Liston’s algebra class, Matt Fallwell and I came up with the “Matt Theorem,” which stated that we would win every game of spades. We were pretty successful until Mrs. Liston confiscated my deck of cards for playing during class. She gave it back to me on the last day of school. In Mr. Chance’s class, Chris Myers and I dug our way out of a hopeless blind nil situation by sliding cards down the chalkboard rail to each other, behind our opponents’ heads.

7. Cribbage — This is the only game on the list that I didn’t play with my dad. My mom and her dad (my Papa) taught me cribbage, and it’s a pretty fun game to play if there’s only two of you. I’d still rank it just below the other two-handed games on this list.

6. Four-point pitch — This is a really fast game with quite a bit of luck but also some skill. If we were waiting for dinner or about to go to bed, either dad or I would just deal six cards and we’d play a quick game without even discussing it beforehand.

5. Gin rummy — This is the only card game Missy will play with me, unless you count Skip-Bo or Uno. My favorite aspect of our trip to Paris several years back involved gin. After a full day of sight seeing, we’d return to our airbnb and Missy would put Addie to sleep while I walked to different small businesses in the neighborhood and bought a baguette, wine and cheese. Then we’d eat, drink and play gin at a low enough volume not to wake up the baby.

After I moved away for college, I always enjoyed coming home and playing card games with dad. Mom might play a game or two but she always went to bed early and dad and I would play for another hour. Our rotation (in no particular order) was gin, four-point pitch and casino.

Because it’s a game that can be gambled on, I’ve played gin with several of my poker friends (though never for more than a few bucks). I can remember playing with Randy Clark, Noah Nodine and Jake Steele at different times, and I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting.

4. Moron — Surely this game goes by another name, but this is what my family always called it. I couldn’t find it anywhere online, so let me describe it and maybe someone can help me out with the name.

This is the best 5-handed game in the bunch, and we played it a lot growing up when all five of us were able to play. It’s a bidding and trick-taking game like spades, but there are no teams. It’s every man for himself. You start by dealing 10 cards to each player, then flipping up the next card which determines the trump suit. The player to the left of the dealer bids on how many tricks he thinks he will take, then everyone else bids. The catch is that when it gets back to the dealer, they must make a bid that doesn’t add all the bids up to 10. So if the players bid 3, 1, 2, and 3, the dealer can’t bid 1. And you have to get your bid exactly to get any points.

The next hand only 9 cards are dealt but the rules remain the same. Dealer can’t make a bid that adds the total up to 9, so somebody has to go set. If you make your bid you get 10 points, plus one for each trick you bid (a successful 3 bid nets 13 points). If you don’t make your bid you get 0. This continues until on the final hand only one card is dealt. This can be pretty annoying if you happen to be the dealer and the bids are 0, 0, 1, and 0 and you are forced to bid 1 holding a crappy card. But such is life. It’s a fun game.

3. Casino — Casino is a great 3-handed game, and I played it a lot with both mom and dad, or with dad and my brother Andrew. I also taught it to Kevin Ash and Chad Anderson and we’ve played it several times over the years. I remember playing it a lot during our 2002 college graduation baseball road trip to Kansas City, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago even though I was sick with mono the whole time. It’s cool that the game is popular in the clubhouse of the defending world champs.

2. Hearts — Some of you probably haven’t played hearts since the year 2000, or whenever it was that hearts stopped becoming a feature of the home computer. (Remember the sound of breaking glass whenever hearts were broken or the sound it made when the queen of spades was dumped on someone?)

Anyway, I can’t even begin to add up how many hours of my employers’ time has been wasted by me playing hearts online. One summer in college, I got a full-time job at OU with the office of telecommunications. It was a complete joke. There was literally about one hour of work to be done, not just in a given day but over the course of the entire week. I found a site called Pogo where you could play different games online against real people, which was a lot more fun than those dumb computers. Hearts was my game of choice and I ran up a really good rating on there.

When I graduated and started working in Lawton, there were many slow nights when we had everything done but needed to wait for MLB or NBA games to finish so we could run the recaps and box scores to fill out the rest of the sports section. I would frequently play hearts or bridge (spoiler alert) on Pogo.

I think hearts is a great and underrated game and I wish I got to play it more. Really have hardly played at all in the 10 years since leaving the newspaper.

#1 Bridge — I’ll rank bridge ahead of any form of poker all day every day. It’s the best card game in the world.

I learned the game by watching my parents play against my grandparents. Mom would always get on to dad for bidding too aggressively, which he was definitely guilty of at times. But they were a good bridge team because his aggression canceled out her conservative nature. I usually sat with Papa and watched him play.

Bridge is the only card game on this list that I still play semi-regularly. I’ve gotten a ton better since I started but there’s still so much I can learn and so much room for improvement. I’ll do a full post about bridge at a later time, but for now I just want to thank Francine, Will and Bev for being great and supportive partners and for teaching me a lot. Those are really the only people I get to play with these days.

I’m sure I forgot about a card game or two that I once played regularly. Please comment and remind me of those! Also, I’d love to hear about some of your favorite card games. Missy’s family used to love to play rummy (not gin rummy; this kind can be played with up to six people) and some friends taught us canasta (shout out to the Hicks’!). I didn’t include them on this list because I didn’t play them growing up but those are both fun games too.

In 1960, Sports Illustrated put a bridge player on the cover. 59 years later casino made it into the magazine. I wonder which game from this list is next?

Buddy Williams

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. 

Buddy Williams. Picture courtesy of Jesse McVicker.

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.
Buddy Williams. Picture courtesy of Jesse McVicker

Joey Goodman

In April of 2002, a month before I graduated from OU, I got a call from Joey Goodman offering me a job at the Lawton Constitution. I hadn’t applied for this job, had never been to Lawton in my life and had no idea who Joey Goodman was. I had no plans to work in journalism. I wanted to be a high school teacher and basketball coach; the only reason I was a journalism major is that I had a scholarship requiring it.

A couple of months earlier I wouldn’t have even considered this job. While my J-school peers got internships at big papers every summer, I just worked full time to make as much money as I could because I wanted to be a coach more than I wanted to start at the bottom of a sports desk. But one of my classes during that final semester of school was Community Journalism, and the idea of being an integral part of a smaller community and doing everything on a sports desk from writing to editing to page design appealed to me. Also, it was a month before I graduated and I had no other job prospects.

So I went to Lawton to meet Joey and it ended up being one of the best decisions of my life. When I took the job I thought I’d be there a year, maybe two, then either move into coaching or on to a bigger newspaper. I stayed seven years, and that’s 100% because of Joey. He was absolutely the best boss I have ever and will ever work for, and he was the perfect man for that job.

Joey gave 45 years to the Constitution, more than 25 of it as sports editor. You’d think that would earn you the right to leave the paper on your own terms, but such decency was not offered by the corporate chain (Southern Newspapers) that bought the paper a few months back. They rejected his offer to work through the busy basketball season and offered no severance package. Tuesday was his last day, although he will continue doing freelance work for the paper.

Joey (left, with notepad) hanging out with Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy and other media members

Instead of ranting about the demise of local journalism or basic human decency, I’d rather celebrate Joey.

“I never thought about being a writer,” he told me. “In high school I had a horrible English teacher; he was only interested in theater and never had us write anything. He got fired before my senior year and they replaced him with an old biddy who actually made us write. That was big for me. I was only a C student, so I thought I’d maybe go into TV or radio. But I figured out pretty quick that I didn’t exactly have TV looks.”

Joey went from Apache High School (near Lawton) to Oklahoma State University before going to the Constitution. His first assignment was to take a press release about the Harlem Globetrotters coming to town and turn it into a brief, maybe three paragraphs long. It took him an hour.

“Gene Thrasher told me, ‘If it takes you an hour to produce four inches of copy, you’d better find a new career’.” (Thrasher was retired when I started at the Constitution, but he still did some freelance work and was always ribbing me with lines like, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were a halfway decent writer.” But he always said it in a way where you knew he was joking. I miss Thrasher).

Joey and Herb Jacobs (then the sports editor) were a perfect pairing to lead the sports department for decades. Herb was detail-oriented and made sure all the stats were correct. Joey was the people person focused on the bigger issues. In the early 1990s Joey took on the title of sports editor but Herb continued to work there until 2002, when I was hired. Even after that, Herb still helped out with local events and wrote a great weekly “Where Are They Now?” column catching up with different Lawton sports legends. Herb is quitting that column in a couple of weeks — it’s truly the end of an era at the Constitution.

When I joined the paper the sports desk consisted of four people. Besides Joey and I, we had Steve Sinderson and James Royal. One of my first assignments was to get in the car with James and drive around to the 30 or so high schools in our coverage area, meeting the football coaches and introducing myself. Almost every single football coach I met had great things to say about Joey, like each one was Joey’s best friend. That’s how Joey makes everyone feel. And that’s what’s needed when you run a staff of four trying to get news, scores and information from 30 different schools. We focused most of our efforts on the three Lawton city high schools, yet so many of those rural school football coaches would call the Constitution every Friday to give scores and stats and chat with Joey so he could write a round-up of all the games we weren’t there in person for.

As the sports editor and senior member of the staff, Joey had every right to go to all of the marquee sporting events and leave the junior staff in the office to do the boring grunt work. But he took the opposite approach, allowing the youngsters to go to OU/Texas, the bowl games (even national championships) and the occasional Thunder game while he stayed back. He also chose to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas so the rest of the staff could be home with their families. Gestures like that go a long way when you’re working for barely more than minimum wage.

A childhood bout with polio made it hard for Joey to get around, but he never let that hold him back from doing his job. Cameron Stadium didn’t have an elevator to the press box, so Joey just kept the stats on a legal pad on his lap, moving his scooter along the sidelines to keep up with the action. I was always impressed by how he could keep accurate stats this way — I had a hard enough time with it up in the press box where I had a good view and could spread my stat sheets out on a table in front of me.

I spent a semester as sports editor at the OU paper and quickly decided it wasn’t for me. You take crap from three sides — your bosses, the people working under you and the consumers — with very little positive feedback. We got some wacky calls from the public. I loved answering the phone, hearing a lady yammer on about how we needed more coverage of women’s professional tennis, then cutting her off and saying, “Let me transfer you to our sports editor, Joey Goodman.”

Speaking of answering the phone, Joey had a trademark way of doing it. Loudly. I used to joke that he didn’t even need the phone, whoever was calling could probably hear him yell “SPORTS!” from anywhere in Southwest Oklahoma. I loved watching Sinderson wince and clasp his hands over his ears when Joey answered the phone.

I joke, but Joey was excellent at fighting for the sports department with the higher-ups at the paper, making the staff under him feel appreciated, and presenting a good image of fair coverage to the public. He was also the glue that kept the staff closely-knit. I’m still great friends with several of my co-workers (special shout outs to James Royal, Jacob Unruh and Nick Livingston) despite having left the paper 10 years ago.

“Joey passed down so many basics I use in my current job, but I think the most important was his ability to grind. This isn’t an easy job, and taking too long to produce copy or too long to complete a task really puts you under the gun. 
My desk faced Joey’s office and I was always grateful for that because I could watch him through the glass window. When he took phone calls from coaches, he’d put his phone under his shirt so it would stick to his ear. And he did this thing where he’d start working so hard he would literally grunt and pant at his keyboard; I always thought that was so funny, but it was a real indicator of how hard he worked. 
No matter how frustrated or overworked he got, when the night was over he would complete downshift. Like, he’d just forget all the work. He’d come out to our desks and crack the whole staff up. He was a constant source of laughter. He’s one of my favorite people and always will be.” 

Tyler Palmateer, sports editor, Norman Transcript

Very rarely did Joey write anything negative. The sports section is a place for entertainment and lighthearted debates about topics that don’t really matter. Joey loved to highlight the people behind the facemasks and under the cowboy hats (we all gave Joey crap about how much he loved and wrote about rodeo). He won “writer of the year” in the paper’s Reader’s Choice awards every year in a landslide, competing against everyone at the paper, not just the sports section.

He used that clout to help bring about positive changes to the Lawton sporting community. For years he lobbied to bring amateur softball tournaments and the like to Lawton as part of the chamber of commerce. He organized an annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament that attracted some really good players from all over the region. Joey cites the new lights at Cameron Stadium and the upgrades to the Great Plains Coliseum as two of the improvements he’s most proud to have seen come to fruition over the years.

By the time I arrived in Lawton, Joey was already a full-blown celebrity. You couldn’t go to lunch with him without being interrupted several times by friends. So when I asked him what his favorite aspect of the job was, his answer was hardly surprising.

“Getting out and seeing people. I’ve always enjoyed people. There are a few families around here that I’ve covered for three generations. Guys who were playing high school ball when I started and now have grandchildren that are old enough to play. I think that’s pretty neat.”

In 2004, my dad passed away unexpectedly. There were hundreds of people at the funeral in Oklahoma City, but I was especially touched to see Joey and James Royal because I knew they drove all the way up just to be with me in my time of need for an hour, then they’d have to drive back and put in a full day’s work to get the sports section out that night.

Joey met with the paper’s general manager, Mike Owensby, and they agreed to give me as much time off as I needed. Paid. Would a national newspaper chain have shown that kind of compassion?

Although nobody can replace my dad, Joey definitely became a father figure in my life from that moment forward. I was working for him when I got married, bought my first house and had my first kid. Those are pretty big moments.

His family became a part of ours. His wonderful wife Brigitte is our accountant, their son Russ is about my age and his wife Tanya actually worked at the paper part-time with me before they were married. We have forgiven all of them for being OSU fans and love to share a meal whenever we can. My kids love Joey, and not just because he brings a bag of Tootsie rolls for them every time he sees them.

“Joey took a chance on a kid out of a small college with no experience. I went to Northeastern State, had little to no connections but a huge desire to be a great sports writer. He taught me fairness, how to be a good communicator and what it takes to make it.

I was the new area sports reporter who had no idea what the area even was around Lawton. I had never been to Lawton before my job interview. Joey took me from town to town, showing me the schools and football fields, showing me where he grew up in Apache and showing me some great places to eat. He also introduced me to several key people.

It was his steady guidance that will always stick with me. He let me write and grow on the pages of the newspaper. If I wanted to write something he rarely, if ever, said no. If I made a mistake or misjudged something, he never got mad. He made sure I learned from it.

He became a sort of father figure during my three years there. I was four hours from my family and knew very few people in Lawton, but he made Lawton a friendlier place and set me up to make it in this business. I’ll be forever grateful.”

Jacob Unruh, sports writer, The Oklahoman

I cried when I heard that the paper was laying Joey off, and I cried some more when I scrolled through the hundreds of loving Facebook comments under his post announcing it. Newspapers around the country have been shrinking or disappearing for more than a decade, so it wasn’t completely shocking, but I was surprised they did it now after Joey survived the initial round of cuts made when the paper was first bought.

I was also surprised that less than 24 hours after finishing up his final shift at the paper, Joey’s view of the future of community journalism is brighter than mine.

“Right now the chains have formulas for how to run these papers, but they don’t adjust for each market. What works in Lake Jackson, Texas, might not work here. We’re more of a regional paper. The people in Elgin, Chattanooga and so on are looking to us but we’ve stopped delivering to any place that isn’t right off the highway. Our circulation has dropped from 16,000 to 10,000 since they took over, but I do think there’s a place for mid-sized papers. I actually think they have a better future than the big metro dailies.”

If the next Joey Goodman were to graduate from college this May, he might be able to make it in print journalism. But it seems more likely to me that he would go the PR route. Joey could sell the hell out of Oklahoma State University athletics or the National Finals Rodeo or whatever else he wanted to sell. He’d do a great job of it, but it wouldn’t have the same impact on a community that 45 years of Joey Goodman at the Lawton Constitution has done for Southwest Oklahoma.

Southern Newspapers is about to find that out the hard way. Right now, I’m brushing aside anger and looking at two positives. One, that Joey will still do some regular writing for the paper. And two, that 17 years ago I took an interview with a guy I’d never heard of who ended up having a bigger impact on my life than I could ever have imagined.

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