By Christopher Cosenza
Hoyt Corkins always will have a special place in his heart for Ebro Greyhound Park.
“It was a big thrill coming here,” the two-time World Series of Poker bracelet-winner said in his unmistakable southern drawl. He grew up in Glenwood, Ala. (pop. 191), a little more than a stone’s throw from Ebro. “You couldn’t come (to Ebro) till you was like 18 years old. Back then the drinking age in Alabama was 19 and in Florida it was 18. We’d come to the dog track here and bet a little bit on these dogs. It was a fun deal.”
But a lot has changed since then — in Hoyt’s life and at Ebro Greyhound Park.
“It’s really improved,” said Corkins, now 49. Sporting his trademark black cowboy hat he sat on a stool near the bar and looked out the window at the grandstands. “Ya know, back then, it was all just benches, weren’t no cover, no indoors to it.”
And now that Ebro has an “indoors to it,” one of its best amenities is its poker room, which lured Corkins back for the Ebro Greyhound Park Charity Poker Challenge on Dec. 9. The event benefited the American Cancer Society, a very important cause for Corkins.
“My father died of cancer,” he said. “I do a couple of these a year. This one is really the first one I’ve done for the (American) Cancer Society outside of Vegas.”
Corkins’ dad, Bricken, who died in 1996, would let the teenaged Hoyt (his only son) watch his home game and occasionally sit in. It was his dad’s approach to poker that shaped Corkins’ style at the felt … and in life.
“He was sort of a country gentleman gambler,” said Corkins, who still maintains a home in Alabama (as well as one just outside the Las Vegas strip). “He really didn’t want to beat a game too bad; he just wanted to enjoy the game, sort of like a club. It was the ’60s and ’70s; he wanted to make $15,000 a year. If he got to making more than that he’d lose some of it back. He lived a real simple-style life, a real enjoyable life. He wanted a good used pickup and a good used boat, to play poker two days a week and fish two days a week.”
And on those fishing trips, when the young Corkins tagged along, they discussed hands from the night before. He admits those talks and his father’s tight-but-fearless play are the biggest components of his success. “I really believe to be a professional you gotta have a conservative foundation.”
That’s not to say Corkins doesn’t stray from that conservative style, otherwise he’d never have earned nicknames such as “Mr. Move All-In” and “Nightmare” from fellow poker pros. Corkins has parlayed his intimidating nicknames (and presence) into more than $4 million in career tournament winnings, including a million-dollar World Poker Tour title at Foxwoods in 2003 and a sixth-place finish at the WPT’s Five Diamond World Poker Classic just days after Ebro’s charity event.
But it hasn’t always been this lucrative and rosy for Corkins, a father of three. In 1993, less than a year after winning his first WSOP bracelet, he left poker to deal with the struggles of divorce, often drinking heavily and losing his money on craps. A decade later, however, Corkins had straightened out his life and was ready to return, just as the poker boom was, well, booming.
“When I first came back people sort of played the way they used to when I left,” he said, still a bit tired after his flight from the Dominican Republic where he was an instructor for a WPT Boot Camp. “Now people are playing faster and it sort of makes you play trap poker, more conservative, because you don’t feel like you can just run over a game like you used to seven or eight years ago.”
The influx of millions of players, mostly young Internet up-starts, certainly posed an interesting dilemma for Corkins and his fellow old-school rounders. On one hand there was a lot of dead money to be won, but on the other hand more players meant more pitfalls to sidestep.
“Occasionally you run into a really good one,” he said of the next generation of poker players. “You run into kids all the time and it’s hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones, and most times you can’t tell the real good ones until after they bust ya.”
During his hiatus from professional play, Corkins came upon a situation similar to what Floridian poker players face every day: state-enforced small-stakes poker.
“I went to Montana in 1996, just traveling the country, and they had a $300 maximum on their pots there,” he said. “I was playing in Billings, and it makes it so you won’t make a whole lot of money.”
The limits didn’t change his style, however; it just kept him from winning enough to really make a difference. And it’s days like the ones spent in Billings that made it impossible for Corkins to envision the kind of popularity poker now enjoys … the kind of popularity that’s produced a Hoyt Corkins bobblehead doll.
“Yeah, I got one,” he said, sheepishly. And, of course, the doll wears a black cowboy hat and sunglasses, which is essential in capturing the persona of the “Alabama Cowboy.” But is the all-black outfit now a crutch for the real Corkins?
“No, I don’t think so. In the ’90s I wore a golf hat or just a cap,” he said. “I don’t see where it’s a crutch. It’s just the look, with the media the way it is today. I’m with Doyle’s Room and Doyle likes the cowboy hat.”
Ah, Doyle Brunson. The Big Papa of Poker. Corkins has been associated with Brunson’s online poker site for nearly four years, and it’s no surprise why.
“I’ve always had a big admiration for Doyle,” he said. “You know, growing up it’s always been Doyle and Chip Reese, the two best players in the world since ’78, when I first started playing poker. I’ve been hearing their names all my life. Doyle’s got a very good reputation, extremely honest, man of his word. It’s just a pleasure to be a part of it.”
And though he may have been talking about playing for Doyle’s Room, you get the impression Corkins also feels that way about poker in general: “It’s just a pleasure to be a part of it.”