The Cowboy Loses His Horse in a Poker Game and Pulls the Biggest Bluff of his Life
“Cowboy” Wolford is pretty easy to spot in a poker game. He’s the tall, mannerly gentleman with the perfect smile who’s wearing the distinctive cardroom apparel that Evelyn, his wife of 24 years, designs and sews for him. His signature denim overalls with bib and suspenders carefully coordinated in various Western motifs make a standout fashion statement.
Add to that his congenial ways, soft Texas drawl, and superior poker skills and he’s hard to miss in any crowd. Evelyn also has decorated their golf carts and once fashioned two look-alike dolls for Benny Binion and his wife that have become collectors’ items. Cowboy describes them in more detail later, but in this finale to our interview, he begins by telling about the time that he lost his horse in a poker game.
Cowboy Wolford: A funny thing happened to me once up in Weiser, Idaho. I had this sorrel mare that we called “Glass Eye” because she had a white eye. She could see out of it, it was just a different color than her other one. I’m up there and get to playing poker with these cowboys from California — they probably had more cards in their boots as they had on the table — and I lost ol’ Glass Eye, my roping horse. So, I started driving back home real slow to get me another horse. My daddy had trained ol’ Glass Eye and I hadn’t seen him in three months – I didn’t know what I was gonna tell him and that’s why I drove slow.
When I pulled in the driveway he was out walking under the pecan tree, just like he had been waiting for me. I pulled in, he looked in the trailer, and ol’ Glass Eye wasn’t there. He didn’t say “Son, how you doin’?” or “Glad to see ya,” he just asked, “Where’s ol’ Glass Eye?” I’d been building myself up for four or five days to answer that question, you know.
“Well, I hate to tell you this, Daddy, but I lost her in a poker game.”
“Do you mean that you lost that horse in a poker game?”
“No, I didn’t put her up in the middle of the table and bet her,” I answered. “I sold her and lost the money.”
“Boy, you’re really a dandy!” he said and strode off. Well, I’d rather have had him whip me than to say that. I knew he wouldn’t but I didn’t want to stay around the house too much, so I took my car and empty trailer the next day and went on down to the San Antonio rodeo. I knew I was liable to run into somebody along the way whose rig was broken down, load his horse up, and we’d hit the rodeo together. Didn’t make no difference where we’d go – hell, the world was our oyster back then. So anyway, I went down there, got in a poker game, and won me a horse.
Dana Smith: You won a horse after losing one?
CW: Yep. I won him on three aces and named him Ace. Went back home, pulled in the driveway, and Daddy says, “Where’d you get that ol’ gray sonnabitch?”
“Won him in a poker game,” I answered.
“It’s about time you won one, you’ve lost enough of ’em,” he said. I put ol’ Ace up and went out that night, knowin’ that by 7 o’clock in the morning Daddy woulda already been ropin’ off that horse. He could train a horse better than anybody. So when I came downstairs to have breakfast with my mother, I asked him what he thought of Ace. Check out UFA
“I wouldn’t give you a quarter for him,” he said. I asked him why.
“He can’t even jerk one down,” he answered.
“Well, Daddy,” I said, “I’m going up to Canada and there’s a 10-second jerk-down fine there, so Ace oughta work out just fine.”
“Well, good luck, but don’t call me for no money,” he answered. I took ol’ Ace up there and won the Canadian championship with him. He was perfect We got our picture on the front page of the Calgary newspaper, me and ol’ Ace. And oh, my daddy was proud of that one.
DS: Somewhere along the line during your rodeo days, you got married but it didn’t last long. What happened? Did you just change wives back then like you did your horses? (jokingly)
CW: Well, yes, when we were in our twenties. I remember one time with my first wife when I’d been playing poker and I got broke. It was about three in the morning when I came in from rodeoing and pokering. I woke her up and said, “Honey, I got broke. Do you still love me?” She said, “Yes, but I’m really gonna miss you.”
DS: Your wife Evelyn plays poker — I’ve seen her name among tournament winners.
CW: Yes, she’s a good player – she was trained by an expert, you know! And Evelyn can sew anything. Did you ever see the Benny Binion dolls that used to be in a display case down by the restaurant in the Horseshoe? She made that pair of dolls to look just like Benny and his wife, made them from scratch, about three feet tall. She put boots on them, made up a pair of glasses for Mrs. Binion’s doll, and even put a gold dollar on Benny’s shirt.
I had a size 4 cowboy hat made in Fort Worth for his doll that cost me $200. It looked just like Benny standing there with Mrs. Binion beside him. Evelyn was offered $20,000 for them before she gave them to the Binions. Benny loved those dolls, but when the Horseshoe was remodeled somebody just threw them into a back room. I finally went down there and got them, a little messed up. Ten million people looked at those dolls and some folks still ask about them.
DS: How did you make the transition from traveling around playing poker to getting settled in Carlsbad and acting as a host?
CW: I like the weather in Southern California and the folks at Ocean’s Eleven have been nice to me. Bob Moyer’s done a good job managing the place and I like it there. I don’t have any certain hours to work, I just goodwill the joint to help business.
DS: If you had your druthers, would you still be rodeoing at this stage of your life?
CW: I just rodeoed because I liked to eat. I was a road gambler for most of my life. We’d all go from one town to the other for a poker game, but it was different back then. It was pretty dangerous: We sometimes got hijacked or arrested or put in jail.
DS: Were you ever hijacked?
CW: I’ve been hijacked three or four times and I’ve been in one shootout. That was the biggest bluff I’ve ever pulled. I was down in Texas playing poker and about 3 o’clock in the morning I went home. I lived in a townhouse in Dallas with iron gates around it and parked my Cadillac about 40 feet from my front door.
Under the seat in my car I had an automatic .45 that Curtis “Iron Man” Skinner had sold me out of his hock shop. I stuck it in the vest of my three-piece suit before I got out of the car and had just started walking toward my house when two guys wearing ski masks jumped out at me. One of them put a pistol to my head saying, “Get over there where your car is.” So, I gave him my keys, got in the back seat, and laid down.
One guy was driving and the other one was leaning over the front seat with his pistol aimed at me. “Give me all your money and your jewelry,” he demanded. So I got out my money and took off my diamond rings and handed them over. He halfway frisked me and asked, “Man, do you carry a gun?”
“Hey, I don’t even carry a nail file,” I answered. They already had my money and I knew that they were gonna kill me. So I said, “Man, it’s a cool score. You’ve got everything in my car, just kick me out somewhere and go on.”
He answered, “Don’t look up here or I’m gonna shoot your head off.”
As we’re driving, I’m trying to figure out how I can get ahold of my pistol and shoot him without his shooting me first. He had the gun right on me…if we’d hit a bump I was afraid that the cocked hammer might go off accidentally. So, I figured I’d better wait ’til they got me out of the car to make my move.
Sure enough, in about 30 minutes, they stopped out where a bunch of houses were being built. The gunman opened the door and said, “Pull off your boots.” I was laying in the back seat of the Eldorado and the dome light came on and I was afraid that if I raised up to take off my boots, they’d see the pistol in my vest.
“I hurt my back rodeoing,” I said, “and I can’t hardly move.”
“Stick your feet out here,” he said. I did and he pulled my boots off and threw them on the ground. Getting out of the car, I acted like I could just barely raise up. I started walking down the road like my back was killing me, with him right behind me. Suddenly, I kicked the safety on my .45, whipped around and said, “Now, you sonnabitch, you’re on the other end!” and shot at him right there in the dark. He fell back and shot one back at me. Then he ran over to my Eldorado and they took off in a hurry. I shot through the car three times, but I was shooting low so the bullets just went through my golf bags and out the side.
There I was with no shells, barefooted, cold – and here they came driving back again! I didn’t realize that it was a dead end road and they’d have to turn around to get out of there, so I started running through the construction area where the houses were being built, afraid I’d cut my foot off on something, but still running like hell.
But they didn’t stop; guess they didn’t know I was out of shells. Then I saw a light in a house way up on top of the hill. It was 3:00 in the morning and when the owner came to the door I told him, “I don’t want to alarm you, but I’ve been robbed and they stole my car. Would you mind calling my home and seeing if everybody’s alright? And call the police. And turn off that porch light!” Pretty soon the police arrived and took me home to Evelyn and our boy.
DS: You had a son?
CW: Yes, my boy was named James Alan and he worked at the Horseshoe for seven years, dealt craps there. When I first took him out to Vegas, Benny said, “Teach him whatever you want to and give him time.” He wound up being one of the best hands there. Didn’t ever mess with drugs, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t gamble, worked all the time, even drew a double shift.
Just before the World Series in 1997 they called me – they’d found James Alan dead in his bed. He was 31 years old and in perfect shape, but he had a rare heart disease that had gone undetected. I was so depressed I couldn’t even play in the Series.
DS: I am deeply sorry about your tragic loss. It makes losing the World Series seem like such a minor thing.
CW: Yes, it does. But you know, I’ve won seven seconds and one first in the World Series. I won the $5,000 limit hold’em championship and bracelet in 1991; took second a few years ago in the $1,500 no-limit hold’em; finished second in deuce-to-seven twice; won second in the $1,000 hold’em event years ago; and two years ago (2000) I took third in the $2,000 pot-limit hold’em tournament for $65,000.
DS: Tell us about playing with Jack Keller and Jesse Alto at the final table in 1984.
CW: That’s the year I took second in the $10,000 big event. Bobby Baldwin wrote an article about the bluff I pulled on Jesse Alto at the final table. It was me and Jesse and Jack Keller, and Jesse had all the chips. He was just raising every pot, you know. So I decided that on the next hand, I was either gonna get broke or whatever. So I put in a couple of big bets to bluff him and then I bet him $200,000 on the end.
There were something like two kings and a nine out there and Jesse must’ve held me up for five minutes – he held ’em, held ’em, held ’em with all the cameras running. I looked over at my boy and I winked and all that.
Finally, Jesse threw his hand in and I showed him my 5-3 offsuit. He went nuts. I’d known Jesse for a long time, knew the way he was. He dumped off all his chips on the next deal to Jack. He had $600,000 and dumped them all off to Jack! So, Bobby Baldwin wrote a magazine article saying that I won the World Series for Jack Keller with one of the biggest bluffs of all time.
DS: You’ve recently taken up golf, haven’t you?
CW: Yes. I’ve had a lot of fun playing poker, but all I want to do now is settle in for three or four more years and enjoy my memories and play a little golf on a par three. I can’t hit the ball a long ways but I hit it pretty straight. I can’t practice on account of my back (rodeo took its toll on me physically), but I like to golf even if I have to stay in bed the next day.
DS: I hear that they can see you and Evelyn carting down the course from two miles away!
CW: That could be true. I have a golf cart that Evelyn decorated with red naugahyde upholstery, indoor-outdoor red carpet and fringe around the top. It’s painted like a Holstein bull, black horns on it, big eyes — it’ll stop traffic! We named it Ferdinand, looks like a bull coming down the street. Evelyn decorated her golf cart like the queen of diamonds, rhinestones on each side, purple seats
DS: Anything you’d like to say to the poker public?
CW: Yes, I wish all of you good luck. And don’t get too upset when you’re playing poker — it’s just a game, you know! I’ll bet I’ve been broke ten times more than anybody else down there in that joint where I play, but my daddy told me something that’s stuck with me. I’m usually real polite to poker players, you know, but this one guy just kept going on and on and finally I said to him, “Man, like my daddy told me years ago, I’d rather hear a sucker holler than a pretty gal sing.” He didn’t say much after that. Of course, I’ve always maintained that a good poker game is one that you’re beatin’, no matter what kind of game it is.