Beating the games was the easy part. Getting out of town with the money was the tough part.
~ Johnny Moss
Once I got to Ohio State, I discovered that I was much more talented than the other guys in the dorm at playing cards, whether it was gin rummy, hearts, euchre, or poker. As a kid I had paid my dues with Danny, but I discovered that I was now in a clover patch in college. These guys were not nearly as good as I was at any card game. It was time to get some “Danny money” back.
I won at whatever card game we were playing most of the time. Whenever someone on the floor asked how the game came out, the answer was usually, “Sexton smoked ’em again.” Because of that, the guys in the dorm started calling me “Smoker”. I never told anyone about that nickname after I left college. I didn’t like that nickname because I thought it would make everyone think I smoked – which I didn’t. Maybe I should have kept it. Nicknames go a long way in getting publicity in the poker world.
I also learned how to play bridge in college (ironically, from Danny’s older brother, Jimmy). And I played a lot. Jimmy was three years older than Danny and had gone into the Air Force after high school, so I didn’t really know him well when we were kids. But after he got out of the Air Force, he went to Ohio State and we became good friends and bridge partners.
We started playing bridge together nearly every day – at the student union in the afternoon and at the dental fraternity or local bridge club at night. You might say we became obsessed with bridge – and we started getting pretty good at it. (Jimmy later became a world-class bridge player, an American Contract Bridge Grand Master, and I later taught bridge classes in North Carolina.)
Between bridge and poker, I played cards just about every day during my college years. You could safely say that I majored in cards in college. And it worked out well for me.
Bridge Ace at Bragg
Having done somersaults all my life, it was only natural that I wanted to jump out of planes. So, after college, I joined the Army. I wanted to be a paratrooper. (Hey, life’s a gamble!) It was during the Vietnam era and my draft number was high enough that I wouldn’t have been drafted, but I always believed (and still believe) that everyone should serve a couple of years in the Armed Forces. (Speaking of side bets and gambling, on our dorm floor, we put up a pool of $5 each, that whoever’s birthday was called first on the day of the draft lottery would win the money.)
I can remember how crazy everyone thought I was for volunteering to go in the Army. They thought for sure that I would go to Vietnam. They also said I’d make a lot of money playing cards. Well, that turned out to be rubbish. I didn’t find a poker game over a 25 cent limit until I got to jump school.
After basic and advanced individual training at Fort Knox, KY, I went to jump school at Fort Benning, GA (August 1970). After just a few days there, I got an opportunity to play in my first poker game in the Army.
During my first week of Airborne training, a guy was going around asking, “Does anybody play poker? Anybody play poker?” I said, “Yes. I like to play.” And he said, “Great. If you want to play, we’re going to have a $5 limit, Seven Card Stud game tomorrow night on the latrine floor after lights out. Cash only. It’ll be a $1 ante and $5 limit.” I said, “OK. I’ll see you tomorrow night.” That may seem like a small game, but when you’re only making $138 a month with an additional $55 for jump pay, it was pretty big.
I showed up in the latrine the next night (we played there because that was the only place the lights were on) and six of us sat on the tile floor and started playing. After about an hour and a half, the officer of the day came in and just glared at us. He then bellowed out, “You guys haven’t got enough to do around here, huh? Well, we’ll see if we can change that.”
He put us on Kitchen Police (KP) for three days. From 4 am until about 11 pm, we were assigned to the mess hall. My assignment was to scrub pots and pans. It was brutal. (When they got rid of the draft and went to an all-volunteer Army they did away with KP duties for soldiers. They had to if they wanted anybody to join.) I’ll never forget that poker night though, not just because we got busted, but because I beat the game for $43.
After jump school, I was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. This division had just returned from its second tour of duty in Vietnam, which turned out to be a blessing for me, as I didn’t have to go to Vietnam. In fact, I never left Fort Bragg while in the Army.
I was assigned to Headquarters & Headquarters Company and worked for the 82nd Airborne Division Schools Detachment, which ran the Jumpmaster School and the Recondo School, and sent guys to the Non-commissioned Officer Academy and other schools. I had a great job working in an office. I was allowed to live off post and miss reveille and morning formation every day. I just had to show up for work and everything was Jake. Airborne!
It was a great setup for me because I loved to make parachute jumps. I could go out to the drop zone with the Jumpmaster School, jump out of helicopters a few times with the students, and drive back in, all in an hour or two. When the rest of the division made a jump, they had to go to the Green Ramp at Pope Air Force Base about 5 am, sit there for a few hours, fly around all day, and then jump once late in the afternoon. I did that once and it was a very long day. Give me those chopper jumps!
It’s amazing what you can do in the Army if you try. Here’s a fond memory. I played a fair amount of bridge back then and wanted to go to the American Contract Bridge League Nationals, which were being held in Atlanta – and I came up with an idea. The Army sent guys to sporting events temporary duty, so I thought, How about the Army sending me to the National Bridge Championships?
The guy I worked for at the Schools Detachment thought this was a great idea and felt challenged to do it. He looked in all the Army Regulations but couldn’t find anything about sending someone to a bridge tournament. He then said, “Let’s forget about the Army sending you. Let’s see if the 82nd Airborne Division will send you.”
He put together a letter with a list of my qualifications, wrote that I was an outstanding soldier, that I would wear my uniform when I played, that I’d represent the 82nd Airborne Division in an outstanding manner, and that I’d report back daily on how I was doing. He sent the letter to the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division for approval.
The truth is that my qualifications were a joke to any serious bridge player – I was an advanced senior master – which is below Life Master (and Life Masters were a dime a dozen). I won the Ohio collegiate championships (a designated tourney at the Ohio Union one Sunday where five or six other teams from colleges around Ohio came and played that day), etc, etc, – but I knew my “qualifications” would look impressive to someone who didn’t play bridge.
I was, however, a good soldier – clean, smart, did what I was told, always maxed the physical training tests, and would represent the 82nd well. Sure enough, the 82nd Airborne Division approved it. They sent me temporary duty to Atlanta for two weeks to play bridge!
I was happy to get to go, but was now worried about getting results as I had to report in daily. Luckily, I somehow won a one-session event (all the major events were two- or four-session) called the Georgia Pairs, but still that was a good result. I called the guy who sent me and told him about my win. He was feeling good knowing the brass would eat this up.
When I got back to Fort Bragg a reporter came to see me. I thought he was with the Paraglide (the 82nd’s newspaper) but it turned out he was with the Army Times (a paper that goes all over the world). I did the interview and the next week nothing appeared in the Paraglide.
Two weeks later, on the top of page 2 of the Army Times, in bold print, the headline read, “Bridge Ace at Bragg!” It was an article on me that took up over half the page. I had brought good publicity to the 82nd Airborne Division and my man was right, the brass was happy about it. In today’s terms, it went viral. It’s amazing what can be done if one just tries.
I loved the Army. I came very close to making it my career. Then, I realized I might have to leave Fort Bragg some day. With that in mind, when my enlistment was up, I left the service.
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