By Ant Furnier
Donnie Vann never has splashed the pot, stacked his chips or pitched his cards into the muck. He can’t do any chip tricks or card tricks, nor has he ever turned over the nuts to take down a big pot. If you think he must not be a poker player you’re wrong.
He’s a regular in tournaments and cash games at Jacksonville’s St. Johns Greyhound Park and Orange Park Kennel Club. So how’s this possible? Vann was paralyzed from the neck down 27 years ago after he dived into a lake with some friends.
Since then he’s been in a wheelchair, and while that presents some obstacles, it hasn’t stopped him from becoming a passionate and dedicated student of poker.
While most take a seat at the table, Vann rolls up to the table. A nurse or friend shows him the cards and then he tells them his intended action. This keeps opponents from picking up a tell on how he puts chips into the pot, but he has to verbalize every action, so he’s well aware of this and delivers his instructions with this in mind.
And don’t think he’s there just to experience the game. He plays to win. Since learning poker on a field trip in the ninth grade, Vann always has had the itch to play. About 10 years ago he found his way into the poker room at the President in Biloxi, Miss. He started with the $1-$2 limit games, having fun and learning to play. Now he makes yearly trips to Biloxi, and one year he found himself at the Grand during a big storm. Due to some difficulties with the barge no one could get back to the hotel. Did he complain? Go to sleep? No way. He played a 24-hour session.
When the St. Johns poker room opened in 2004 Vann quickly became a regular. While he enjoyed the limit play, the no-limit tournaments were what really captured his interest. He has taken down his fair share of sit-and-go tournaments as well as several cashes in the multitable events. One of his biggest wins came in a $45 buy-in, 200-player event, pocketing more than $1,200 and his first trophy. But his best moment came in a $1K event at the Southern Poker Championship at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi. After more than 16 hours of play over two days he finished 17th out of the 484-player field for $4,500.
So, why does he play?
“I don’t need to use my arms or legs to compete on an even field with everyone else, just my head,” he said.
He lists Chris Ferguson and Gus Hansen as his favorite players. His style, however, is much more like Dan Harrington.
“I sit back and watch, pick my spots,” he said. “And I don’t bluff very often.”
He might just get his chance to play with his poker heroes next year. Vann is planning a two-month trip out West during the World Series of Poker. He’d like to play about 10 events. A five- or six-hour plane ride for most, Vann has to make a three-day trip in his van. He’ll be towing a trailer to carry all of the special things he needs to make the trip.
He plans on selling advertising space on the trailer to help fund his two-month voyage. Anyone wanting to advertise (email firstname.lastname@example.org) is going to get a great deal as the van makes its way across the country, ending up in Las Vegas for the two-month stay.
While his list of poker accomplishments is impressive, it doesn’t begin to do justice to what kind of player Vann is. Winning or losing, he has the same easygoing attitude and personality that makes everyone else’s day a little better. If you want to try your luck against Vann, you can find him at any of the big events at St. Johns Greyhound Park.
And he says don’t bring your pity; he doesn’t want it. He just wants your chips.