Tie your horse to the hitchin’ post, amble through the swingin’ doors, elbow your way to the poker table in the back of the joint, and plan to set a spell…Cowboy just rode into town and he’s got a saddle bag full of stories to tell about the days when he roamed the range rodeoin’ and playin’ poker.
Byron “Cowboy” Wolford has won as many titles roping calves in big rodeos as he has playing poker in major tournaments. From the late ’40s through 1960 he traveled the rodeo circuit with famous cowboys such as Don McLaughlin and Casey Tibbs. All the while, he was playing poker with his cowboy compadres, running games out of hotel rooms and horse trailers. “I didn’t know until now that I was having so much fun. I just thought it was a natural thing that you did back then,” he said of that time in his life.
When his rodeo career ended, he turned to poker full-time as a road gambler on the Southern circuit traveled by Doyle Brunson, Bobby Baldwin, Titanic Thompson, T. J. Cloutier and other legendary gamblers who faded the white line from Houston to Dallas to Shreveport.
Although he won the $5,000 limit hold’em title at the 1991 World Series of Poker and finished second to Jack Keller in the 1984 championship event, it is his adventures as a champion calf roper that the gifted story teller and gracious cowboy gambler talked about first when I interviewed him. “I’ve won every calf roping event in the world,” he began. “I won the title at the Calgary Stampede three times and was the Canadian National Champion three years in a row.
At Madison Square Garden in 1951, I broke the all-time record for getting off a horse on its left side and that record was never broken.” Born in Tyler, Texas, Cowboy started roping at age six when his father, who was a cowboy and an expert horse trainer, threw him on a Shetland pony and started teaching him to rope.
“I started by roping the little milk-pen calves,” he said. “When I was about eight years old, my daddy started taking me to the rodeos with him. I’d put on a ป๊อกเด้ง ไฮโล exhibition by roping a smaller calf and I could tie ’em faster than the big guys did in their events. When I was 15 years old, I turned professional. The first big calf roping event I ever won was at Shreveport, Louisiana, and when I went up to get my prize they said, ‘Your daddy’ll have to come get his money.’ I answered, ‘My daddy didn’t win it — I did!’ Finally, they gave it to me.”
Dana Smith: You’ve roped with some pretty famous cowboys.
Cowboy Wolford: Yes, I have. I rodeoed back when Jim Shoulders and Casey Tibbs were on the circuit. Jim was the world champion bull rider back then and Casey was the champion of saddle bronc riding. Casey used to go home with me every winter after the rodeos at Madison Square Garden and Boston Gardens and stay for about two months and then we’d take off for Denver.
He was a famous cowboy, Casey was — there’s a big statue of him at Colorado Springs with him riding a bronze horse. The first time I ever saw him was at Meade, Kansas. When school was out in 1947, Daddy and I went rodeoing and the first place we stopped was Meade. We were about the same age, and he was kinda slender, always wore a tie ’round his neck, and he was kinda frail looking. “I wonder who that sissy-lookin’ guy is?” I said.
Then we made it to a rodeo at Soldiers Field in Chicago where they played ป๊อกเด้ง ไฮโล. We had a pretty rough summer our first year there. I’ll never forget it — it rained every day and the other guys and I had our bunks in the horse trailers and we cooked out. But comes the last calf, I won second in the averages, which is the best overall time for all the calf ropers, and I won the last-day money, too.
Nobody even knew that I was there, I was only 17 years old. In all, I won $1,400 and that was a lot of money then. They hadn’t had any crowds and when the rodeo was over it didn’t look like they were gonna pay it off — back then the rodeo sponsors guaranteed the prize money but they didn’t have to put it up in advance.
Well, we knew a guy named Speedy Dinsmore from Chicago who was a bulldogger, a steer wrestler. We called him and he came out to the rodeo office. Within an hour, we got our money. It’s different now — the money has to be posted in advance, but back then if the crowds weren’t there, you might not get paid off. I made a rodeo one time at the stockyards in Chicago and two days before the rodeo started, Gorgeous George was wrestling there. 16,000 people came out to see him, but when the rodeo started only about 1,000 fans showed up!
DS: How often did you travel?
CW: I was on that circuit 10 months a year. I’d take off for Denver in January and get home in October after Madison Square Garden and Boston Gardens finished. I might go by home two times a year and pick up a fresh horse because sometimes my horse would just burn out from getting hauled around day and night, you know what I’m sayin’? Of course, you can rope all your life and probably own only two good horses if you’re lucky. But back then, you could buy a good horse for $1,200 and now they’re $50,000. You could buy a good car for $900 and now they’re $60,000. I wouldn’t doubt but what we made more money then than they do now when you take expenses into account.
DS: 1951 was a watermark year for you at the rodeos.
CW: Yes, that’s the year I went to Madison Square Garden and tied the fastest calf ever tied there in 38 years. I also won the Houston Fat Stock Show that year and finished fifth in the United States. In 1956 I tied the fastest one ever tied at Calgary, too, in 12.06. I won every dollar I could win there, $4,500 — I won second in the first-day money, took the short-day money, and won the record. And I won an original bronze statue.
DS: Making a fast tie was harder to do back then. Why?
CW: I’ll tell you why it was hard to tie one fast — because the calves weighed an average of about 330 pounds. I was 19 years old the first year I went to Madison Square Garden back in ’49 and I went with Don McLaughlin, who was a five-times World Champion in calf roping. Everett Coburn and Gene Autry furnished the stock for the Garden. They put ’em on oats about 90 days before the rodeo to fatten ’em up, and those calves were wild. The Humane Society liked to see the cowboys get eaten up by the calves, so if you jerked a calf down up there, it was an automatic 10-second fine and you’d have to let him up.
DS: Slim Pickens was a rodeo clown at that time. Did you get to know him?
CW: Yes, he was a good friend of mine. He became a famous movie star and made 200 movies after he quit rodeoing. Ben Johnson (who won the academy award for “The Last Picture Show”) was another cowboy friend of mine who went into the movies. One winter I went with Ben to Newhall, California, where we could practice our roping before we took off on the circuit; and where Ben had been hired to wrangle the horses for a movie that John Ford was directing.
The female star of this Western was riding in a buggy that really did run off like you’ve seen happen in the movies. When he saw what was happenin’, Ben jumped on a horse, ran after the buggy, and stopped it just like it was a stunt. Well, Ford was watching and said, “I’ll never have another movie that Ben Johnson’s not in.” After he got into so many movies, Ben started buyin’ up land around Malibu in California. One time when Ben and I were at Binion’s Horseshoe together, Benny Binion told me, “You know what he’s worth now? Over $600 million!”
DS: You also played poker during the time that you were a rodeo star.
CW: Yes. A lot of people have asked me if I’ve played poker all my life and I answer, “Not yet.”
DS: What did you play during the rodeos?
CW: It was all no-limit “wheel” lowball. We had some big games back then. We stayed at the Belvedere Hotel across the street from Madison Square Garden and our lowball game would never break up during the whole rodeo – it was a 30-day marathon. If a seat came up at 3:00 in the morning, you’d get a wake-up call to come play.
I ran the game up there and charged ’em $1 an hour to play. Of course, I played in it, too. One time when Roy Rogers was at the Garden starring in the show, the Sons of the Pioneers played in our game and they lost everything but their guitars! I’d keep saying to them, “Why don’t y’all bring Roy up here?” We knew he had plenty of money. “No,” they said, “he’s real religious. Don’t tell him we’re playin’.” They were some of the worst gamblers I’ve ever seen…I don’t know how they sang about the tumblin’ weeds at the night shows after losing all that money.
DS: Lowball must be your favorite game?
CW: I like to play lowball, but I don’t like the California rules where you have to bet a seven and all that stuff. I won the deuce-to-seven championship in 1979 at Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker when it had a $10,000 entry fee. Then I split first place money with Bobby Baldwin at the World Series of Poker. I had him down to $15,000 and he made a comeback and broke me.
I think I stood pat on a jack and he drew three cards to beat me, and I never won another pot after that, but you know how that goes. (Bobby’s a good friend of mine; I’m the one who introduced him to the Binions.) Then I came in second again at the Horseshoe, Billy Baxter beat me in that one. I’ve also won third at the Hall of Fame.
S: You used to run a club in Dallas where a lot of famous gamblers played poker.
CW: Yes, I had a place in Dallas down on Greenville Avenue that I ran for about five years. We kept the joint open 24 hours a day, had a couple of limit games, but mostly it was no-limit poker. I had games where there was $200,000 on the table. Bob Brooks, Bobby Baldwin, Everett Goulsby, T. J. Cloutier – a lot of people played there. The cardroom was upstairs. Downstairs was the entry and then there was an iron door where I could buzz them in or out (everybody had to have a membership card).
The police didn’t bother us back then, but now they’ve been known to raid games with a $10 limit. Of all the times and in all the places that I’ve played poker, I’ve never seen any trouble. On the whole, there are a lot of pretty nice gentlemen who play poker. (It seems, though, that that was more true 20 years ago than it is now.)
We had a big no-limit game and a guy named Hugh Briscoe from Denton, Texas, lost a lot of money in it. Of course, he had a lot of money to lose. In this one big game, a fella named Speedy and Mr. Briscoe were in a big hold’em pot together. Mr. Briscoe flopped three jacks and Speedy flopped three fours.
Everybody took turns dealing back then and we had a rule that you could cut the cards at any time during the game if you threw $5 into the pot. With one card to come, there was about $30,000 in the pot when Mr. Briscoe threw in $5 and said, “Cut the cards.” The dealer cut the cards, burned one, and out came the case four — Speedy made quad fours! That was one of the worse things I’ve ever seen in a poker game. Of course, everybody was pulling for Mr. Briscoe to win it because he played all the time and had money and we liked to see him win, you know.
DS: I’ll bet he never asked for the cards to be cut again!
CW: There was another guy who played with us, “Big E” they called him, who owned a carpet store down below my club (in fact, he was my landlord). Big E was a really big guy, he wore a size 19 ring. One day while he was playing he said, “Cut the cards.” So the dealer cut them and then somebody said,
“It costs $5 to cut the cards, Big E.”
“Who’s gonna make me pay it?” he asked. I said, “Nobody!” Two guys tried to rob Big E one time, they hijacked him, and he killed one of them. Big E was tough. Nobody was gonna get away with robbin’ him unless they killed him.
DS: Were there a lot of guys toting guns in those days?
CW: No, not too many, but I played in Oklahoma one time when I was the only who didn’t have a gun. We mostly played at the Red Men’s Club right there in downtown Dallas. O. T. Bounds, Titanic Thompson, all these ol’ guys I used to know played there. It was quite a time. Titanic (we called him “Ty”) was quite a character. He was a scratch golfer, left or right handed, a proposition man. One time back in ’60 when he was stayin’ in Dallas, he said to me, “You’re from Tyler, Cowboy, why down we go down there and open up a Red Men’s club.” So, we did.
DS: Cowboy, how ’bout some of your famous Titanic Thompson stories for next time?
CW: Yes, ma’am, I’ll be happy to oblige you.