Where are They Now is a series of an in depth look at all poker players - not just the pros - as they travel through one long game. Some of the players profiled are deceased but not forgotten.
Often times, the past of a professional gambler is hard to uncover, and that curiosity starts as early as his birth in the case of the 1975 World Series of Poker champion Brian “Sailor” Roberts. Roberts is believed to be born sometime in the early 1930’s in the small dusty Texas town of San Angelo. Like many of the earlier WSOP champs we have revisited, the gambling bug also hit Roberts early.
At 12 years old Roberts was asked by his family to take a job as a caddie at a local golf course. It was here that Roberts embarked in his first form of gambling, playing craps with the other caddies. Unlike his buddy Slim Preston though, Roberts still had interest in other things. In high school he was a star on his football team, and it is even believed he entertained the thought of playing in college before signing up for the Navy.
Roberts’s stint in the Navy coincided with the Korean War, and he spent the majority of his time, as you would expect in the Navy, on a boat, earning the nickname “Sailor.” With the many hours of idle time, being impossible to ignore on a boat, he again took up playing craps with the other sailors. While it’s unclear how much money he made during his four year stint, it’s apparent he did well.
When Sailor stepped off his last boat, as a member of the Navy, he immediately dedicated his life to being a professional gambler. After a brief return home to spend some time with his family and old friends, he realized there wasn’t exactly a lot of money to be made playing craps for a living. It was then he decided to hit the road looking for any decent poker game he could find. Poker was another game he learned on the ships.
After a few years of traveling over the south in the 1950’s on his own, he decided to join up with a couple of guys he constantly ran into at all the games, Doyle Brunson, and "Amarillo Slim" Preston. Joining a pact was a good way to protect against robberies that were very common during this time. It also allowed the trio to save on gas and hotel prices, as they were on the road nearly 365 days a year. It was also during this time that they also started taking action on sports betting, supplementing their income tenfold.
The group proceeded to travel together for six years, until one disastrous trip to Las Vegas, one of the group’s first.
After just a few days, the group had lost their entire bankroll, and the desire to keep playing with each other. Despite the breakup of the group, they remained friends, which was most apparent when Brunson unexpectedly got sick around 1961. After complaining of a sore throat for a few days, a pea sized lump in his throat quickly grew to that of a golf ball. Brunson needed emergency surgery, and was told by doctors to remain in bed for a minimum of two weeks. During those two weeks Roberts dropped what he was doing and drove to Texas to be with his friend. This was just one of the many examples friends used to describe the generosity of Roberts.
In September of 1961, the Federal Wire Act came into existence, making it illegal to use the phone for anything gambling related. Brunson and Preston immediately got out of the business, but Roberts decided to stick with it, not fearing much of a threat. Shortly after Brunson’s throat scare in 1962, Roberts found himself in jail. A year later, after a stay in a minimum security prison, Roberts decided to concentrate on poker, and if he was going to bet on sports, he was going to do it where it was legal - the city of Las Vegas.
In 1975 the hard work paid off. Although Roberts had already won a World Series bracelet in the 1974 Deuce to Seven Draw Event, he still wanted to win the big one. It’s said that when Roberts won the 1975 World Series there wasn’t any jealousy in the room. Roberts had an up and down gambling career, but a lot of the downs weren’t a result of too much gambling, but a result of too much heart. If any gambler came up to him and gave him their hard luck story, he was always quick to lend a generous amount of money. As expected, Sailor rarely ever saw this money again. With $210,000 dollars sitting in front of their good buddy, Preston and Brunson could do nothing but smile.
Roberts would go on to find only mild success the rest of his poker career, with his best WSOP finish being eight in the 1982 World Series main event. Roberts died after a long battle with sclerosis caused by hepatitis. Despite not being as well known as his counterparts, Brunson and Preston, it is still safe to say he helped captain the ship with those players who helped shape the game into what it is today.