For nearly half a century, Huntsville has been legendary in its ability to produce top-rated poker players. Many of these players went on to achieve national recognition among their peers. They were part of a small fraternity, willing to bet tens of thousands of dollars on a single card, and win or lose, were always trying to find another game. Oftentimes, in the wee hours of the morning as the games were breaking up, some of these men would sit around and tell war stories of previous games. Invariably, the name of Charlie Esslinger would come up. There would be a pause in the conversation as each man remembered his favorite story about sitting across a card table from Esslinger. Finally, the silence would be broken when someone would say, with certain amount of awe, "He was good - no, not just good - probably the best in this part of the country."
Charles A. Esslinger was born in 1927 in the Dallas Mill Village where both of his parents worked. As a student at Rison School, he was, as one friend described, "a mediocre student; he just didn't care for book learning." While in elementary school he received a book on "Card Magic and Tricks" for Christmas. Although he didn't care much for other books, he devoured this one. He would sit in his room and practice for hours with a deck of cards trying to perfect each move. "Everywhere that boy went," recalled a friend, "he had a deck of cards. He had big decks, small decks, trick decks and some decks that he made himself."
Huntsville was a small town and it wasn't long before word of his ability to do card tricks spread. Although still a youngster, he would often hang out at a local pool hall where there was always a poker game in the back room. Many of the players took a liking to the young boy, asking him to show them card tricks and often tipping him to fetch soda and hotdogs.
Sometimes, if one of the players had to leave the table to take a phone call or go to the bathroom, he would ask Charlie to sit in his place for a few moments. They probably thought it was "cute" to let a small boy in their game. Before long, some of them were letting Charlie play their hands and giving him a few dimes or quarters if he won.
Although Charlie didn't care much for "book learning" he was getting an education that no public school could ever provide. Often times when there was not a game going on, some of the men would invite him to sit and play a few hands for fun. The men, probably amused by the lad's eagerness to learn, would spend hours teaching him the finer points of the game. By the time he was barely a teenager he could quote the odds on drawing an inside straight or filling a flush. He could spot a second deal or a shaved deck, and tell when the man on the other side of the table was trying a bluff.
This was all just a hobby though and most people, Charlie included, thought he would probably join his parents working at the mill when he got old enough. Fortunately, fate intervened in the form of a summons from Uncle Sam announcing his induction into the United States Army.
Anyone who has ever been in the service can describe the scene that greeted Charlie in his new home. The inductees were mostly teenagers, fresh off the farm with no worldly experience. More important, however, were the constant poker games. There were poker games on every other bunk, poker games in the day-room and even poker games in the latrine.
An old friend laughed as he recalled Charlie's Army career. "That boy thought he had died and gone to heaven. He had been used to playing older and more seasoned players and all of a sudden those kids, who had probably never played before in their lives, were lining up to give him money."
Needless to say, he thrived in his new environment and probably would have enlisted for a second term if it had not been for several officers who lost their paychecks to him. "They had me cutting grass all over Texas," he later told a friend.
After leaving the Army, and still poor, Charlie returned to the same Huntsville he had left; with the only prospect of a job being in the cotton mills.
A friend, Larry Buttram, later told of helping Charlie get a job at Merrimac Mills. "On the very first day he came up to me at lunch and said, "Larry, I'm sorry but this isn't for me." He walked out the door and no one saw him for several weeks. We heard later he went to Birmingham and got into a big game."
If there had ever been any doubt about Charlie's career path, the game in Birmingham settled it when he walked away with over $23,000.00 for one night's work.
"He was a different man when he came back," Buttram recalled. "Probably for the first time in his life he had a purpose - he was going to be a professional poker player."
"One of the first things he did," said a lifelong friend "was to make his parents leave the cotton mills. He purchased a small general store and farm for them near Farley with part of his winnings. No matter what people might say about his gambling, that boy loved his parents."
Within a few short years he was well on his way to becoming one of the most well-known poker players in North Alabama. "You would never have known he was a gambler," recalled Robert Owens. "He was one of the nicest, and most polite, men you would ever meet. He was well over six feet tall, about 250 pounds with dark wavy hair and always immaculately dressed. If you didn't know better you would think he was the CEO of some large company. He was the kind of guy that women would stare at all the time."
Charlie understood there was more than luck involved in playing poker. F.D. Cantrell, a retired gambler in Birmingham, remembered Charlie buying twenty decks of cards at a time and sitting in a hotel room practicing until he wore them out. "That boy would take a deck and turn the cards over one at a time as fast as he could. Then he would try to remember each card in the order it was laid down. He could actually tell you that an ace of spades was the 23rd card from the top!"
It is a well known fact that no two cards are exactly the same on the back. Sometimes the design might be a little off-center, the coloring might be a tiny shade different or the cards might have been cut differently. Most of the time the flaws are so small that they are almost impossible to detect.
Charlie, however, spent years training himself to spot the flaws. "I knew he was doing something but I didn't know what," said Cantrell. "Finally one night we were sitting in a hotel room and he told me to call downstairs and get a couple of decks of cards. We played maybe a half dozen hands and then he laid all the cards fact down and picked out 5 or 6 of them, telling me what they were. Even after I knew what he was doing I couldn't do it, and I practiced for years!"
"Charlie had the most perfect self control I have ever seen in a gambler. We were playing a game in Birmingham one time when he lost about $5,000. That night we stopped to get something to eat and the whole time he never said a word; he just set there and kept going over the game in his mind. When I dropped him off at his hotel. I asked him what he was going to do the rest of the night."
"I'm going to get a chair and set outside the rest of the night to punish myself," Charlie said.
"Sure enough, I drove by there a couple hours later and Charlie was sitting on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. It must have been about 20 degrees out there!"
Discipline is important to a gambler. One night after a few too many drinks he lost $40,000 on a craps table in Las Vegas. The next day he swore he would never get drunk or play craps again, two promises he kept all his life from that day forward.
While most gamblers hid the fact that they gambled for a living, Charlie was very open about it, betting his notoriety would draw big money players willing to try their luck against him. For a while it worked, but as his reputation spread it became harder to get a game. Few people wanted to risk their money with a player of his caliber.
In the late 1950s Charlie began "working the road," traveling from city to city, picking up a game and then moving on to the next one. For a while he worked with an outfit out of Cincinnati that was supposed to "steer" him toward big money games, but the deal collapsed when he realized the games were controlled by the mob and he was supposed to "kick back" a hefty percentage of his winnings.
The lesson about the mob was reinforced several years later when he was in Newark, New Jersey. He had stumbled on to a game and after several days was about $7,000 ahead when two goons showed up at his hotel room early one morning. The men informed him that they were messengers sent to tell him that he was playing in an "owned game" and "certain people" didn't like "outside" professionals butting it. If he was going to play, they told him, he was going to pay. The first payment was $7,000.
"I paid," Charlie later said, "but I got the hell out of there and came back south!"
His next, and most valuable lesson came in 1959 in Nashville, Tennessee, at the old Jefferson Davis Hotel. A hustler by the name of Detroit Red was running a game with players made up mostly of ordinary businessmen. It should have been an easy game for Charlie but at the end of several days he was flat broke, having lost almost $38,000.
That night Charlie invited Red to have a drink with him. Finally the conversation turned to the game and Charlie asked Red what he had done wrong.
"Charlie," Red laughed, "You were set up. Everybody in that game knew you were a hustler. You had told them! Remember how I kept playing with my cigarette lighter whenever I had a bad hand or how I tapped my fingers when I was getting ready to bet? I knew you were a hustler and I knew you were watching for things like that and all I had to do was set you up. Remember, it's not about winning the hand, it's about winning the money!"
Charlie learned the lesson well. From then on, when working the road, he would lead people to believe he was a wealthy cotton farmer looking for a little excitement.
One of the only fears Charlie had in life was the Internal Revenue. He had a phobia about any kind of written record with his name on it. As hard as it may be to believe he never had a social security card, bank account or even a drivers license! His idea of investing was to give the money to friends and let them buy property in their names. According to several close associates, he had interests in a dry cleaning company, a restaurant, and a motel as well as numerous residential properties.
When one of his "partners" questioned him about what would happen to the investments if he died, Charlie replied, "Well, I guess you won't owe me any more money!"
Charlie's method of doing business was cash only. A local retired automobile dealer remembers when Charlie called him about a new car. "I drove the car over there," he said, "and after we set around and talked for a while, he went out to his car and brought in a paper sack of money. He counted out $22,000 in cash to pay for it."
Another friend told a story about going to Nashville with Charlie. When they realized they were hopelessly lost, "Charlie told me to get the map out of the glove compartment. When I opened it all I could see was stacks of twenties, fifties, and hundreds with rubber bands around them. I bet I dumped a hundred thousand dollars on the floor while I was trying to find that damn map!"
While cash is a necessity in a gambler's life, it also brings problems of its own. One late night in Jackson, Mississippi, Charlie was involved in a game when two armed men broke in and robbed the players of almost $40,000. In Huntsville a game was robbed at the Kings Inn with the bandits forcing the players to remove all their clothes. They got away with all the clothes and $30,000 in cash. In Guntersville, Alabama, Charlie lost another $25,000 when a pizza delivery man turned out to be an armed robber.
Strangely, none of the thieves ever thought about breaking into his car which he used as his bank. At various times he would have up to $75,000 stuffed in paper bags lying in the trunk of his car.
While most people have a romantic idea of a professional gambler, the reality is much harsher. True, Charlie lived in hotels most of his life, ate in fine restaurants and always had plenty of money and beautiful women. But he also spent countless hours every week, sitting in a hotel room by himself, practicing with a deck of cards or on the telephone trying to line up another game. His occupation forced him to be a loner, with few close friends to confide in. The people he associated with daily were the same people who would try to take his money that night. There were no holidays, birthdays or walks I the park like ordinary people.
The only lady Charlie ever professed to love left him once she realized that his true mistress would always be a deck of cards.
By the early 1990's Charlie was recognized as one of the best players in the country. It was a bittersweet tribute, however. He was tired of traveling and it was becoming harder to find a local game with players willing to risk their money against him. His eyes were getting weak and his medical problems made it difficult to play the game he loved so much.
When a friend asked him if he missed not having a family or regular life like most people, Charlie grew somber for a minute before replying, "I've wondered about it sometimes, but you don't cry over a lost hand."
Then a twinkle came into his eyes. "But it's still been better than working in the cotton mills!"
In November of 1993 there was a high stakes poker game at the Haystack Apartments. Late that evening the game was interrupted by a phone call telling of Charlie's death. The players, all of whom had played with Charlie hundreds of times, sat stunned for a few moments. Finally one of the players threw a bill into the middle of the table. "Raise a hundred for Charlie." The other players covered the bet.
Charlie Esslinger would have liked that.