Poker Faces in the Crowd: Brian Williams

Ben Saxton
Jun 10, 2018 · 8 min read

It’s 2017, not 1967.

Gone are the days where people graduate from high school or college, immediately get a great paying job or career and work that bitch for 40 years, retire with a gold watch and a phat pension, then go wait to die while playing shuffleboard and bingo and eating jello at the understaffed nursing home.

You’re 40 and going back to school for a career change?

I commend you.

You’re 45 and decided to follow your dreams and devote more time to your passion?

I applaud you.

Don’t let anyone make you feel anything less than mothafuckin’ proud about any decision you make for YOUR life.

— Brian Williams

If you visit Harrah’s New Orleans on a Friday night, you might see Brian Williams slouching in gray sweats at a no-limit hold ’em table. Judging by sight — 6’4’’, imposing bod, hefty water jug at Brian’s feet — it’s easy to assume he’s a powerlifter or a basketball player. Except for one little detail: the front of his hoodie reads LSU NURSING.

I met Brian a few years ago at Harrah’s. Back then I was tempted, probably, to recruit him for my rec league basketball team; nowadays I’d solicit his advice on how to write well. A father of four who lives in New Orleans, Brian’s wit finds outrageous expression on Facebook, where he posts about all kinds of social quirks and quibbles — hook-ups, friendship, dating, you name it. His style reminds me of comedians like Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle. Our recent conversation touches on growing up in Los Angeles, nursing’s appeal, poker wit and wisdom, what it means to be a man, whiteness, and unconventional career paths.

Ben Saxton: Where are you from in Los Angeles?

Brian Williams: I grew up in south L.A. in the eighties and nineties. Menace II Society, Boyz n the Hood, all those “hood” movies — that’s where I grew up. Friday was actually filmed five minutes from my house, Menace II Society was filmed twelve minutes from my house.

Do you have a big family? Brothers and sisters?

I grew up in foster care, man.

I didn’t know that.

Most people don’t know that. Now they gonna know. Without getting too far into it, growing up was rough.

Are you still in touch with your foster family?

Hell, no. I don’t even remember their names.

When did you part ways with them?

When I turned sixteen I was emancipated. For people who don’t know, “emancipated” is when the state gives you a piece of paper that says you’re an adult. In the foster care system, if they have a reason to emancipate you early, then they will. My reason was that I finished high school at sixteen. And I wanted to come to this great city of New Orleans for college, which I did.

When did you get down here?

I came in the fall of 1998. People think I’m joking when I say this, but I’ll tell you with a straight face: I thought that everyone took the same classes in college, that college was high school Part Two. I went two years at Xavier [University] not knowing what a fucking major was. Eventually I majored in chemistry with a minor in biology.

After that, I chilled and ran a couple of businesses. Then I went overseas from 2008–2013 as a contractor for the military. I was a soldier out of uniform, as they say. When I was overseas, I noticed that a lot of people didn’t have adequate health care. I also noticed that I liked helping people, and I wanted to find a purpose now that the Afghanistan War — which was a bullshit war — was winding down. So I thought to myself: Why not nursing? I don’t want to be a doctor because all my doctor friends are miserable. But the nurses I know are happy. So I started my nursing journey.

How long is the program?

I’m in my second year as a part-time student. I’m a father of four, as you know, so I’m on the slow boat to China. It’ll probably take me five or six years to graduate.

Are you doing clinical stuff yet?

I am. This is my first semester.

How’s clinical going?

I like it. I like hands-on stuff, talking to people. My second patient ever was basically an invalid. And his wife needed comfort, you know what I’m saying? We spent hours talking about everything under the sun — I can talk about anything with anybody — because that’s what she needed. She needed comfort. That’s something you can provide as a nurse.

Also, I like to break barriers. There aren’t too many nurses who look and act like me. Seventy-five percent of my class is little white girls, white boys, black women. There’s like two black guys.

And you’re a big guy.

Yeah. That’s why I make sure I’m seen in my clinical uniform when I visit my kids at school, to let people know you ain’t gotta be a rapper or a basketball player. It’s crazy, man. I’ll go to the casino, and people will ask: “Do you play for LSU?” No, mothafucka! My sweatshirt says LSU Nursing!

When did you first get into poker?

I started playing online back in the day, in like ’05. I sucked, but I sucked slightly less than others, so I was able to make a little bit of money. And I decided that this was a game that I really enjoyed. I started playing live poker around ’09, when I was on R&R from Afghanistan and had some free time. I was the guy on the table who was tipping greenbirds, I didn’t care about money. That was before I became a semi-grinder.

Your favorite poker book isn’t Doyle Brunson’s Super System but a lesser-known collection of his stories called Poker Wisdom of a Champion. I think poker tactics are played out. Plus, they’re ever changing: you buy a book and it’s obsolete the next year. Super System was good in ’78, but it’s 2017. Poker isn’t about cards or math, it’s about people. Anybody who’s been in the poker room for a significant amount of time knows that the game is about people. And the stories that go with these people are hella fascinating to me.

You also mentioned to me that your favorite Two Plus Two thread is Truestoryteller’s The Home Game.

I don’t know if that’s a “true” thread, but I don’t even care. It’s awesome. I think it has a basis in truth, but he has dialogue and shit from years ago, which I doubt someone could remember with complete accuracy.

Which raises other questions about writing, and representing the past, and all that

But it’s so well-written! Who gives a shit!

I want to read it more closely. I’ve skimmed it.


I doubt you’ll admit this, so I’ll say it: you’re a bad-ass writer. How’d you get into writing?

I never really got into it. I just use that shit as an outlet. And I get in trouble sometimes.

I can imagine.

Well, when I was married, people would tell my wife about some of my posts. And I’ll get in trouble with friends — female friends, obviously — ‘cause people mistake a lot of my writing for being misogynistic, which it isn’t. I’m very pro-woman, but I’m also pro-logic. A lot of times those things bump heads. I hate to say it, but they do. I’m often coming from a traditionally masculine standpoint. Nowadays we’ve got girls joining the Boy Scouts and shit like that, and men are supposed to be quiet about that shit even if it offends us. We only have outlets like the barber shop, football games, the poker room —

Traditionally masculine spaces.

Yes. We shouldn’t have to fucking censor ourselves.

You recently wrote this:

Fragile Masculinity.

Toxic Masculinity.

Anything Masculinity.

When is the last time you heard a group of men using terms like this?

These stupid ass phrases are nothing more than words that feminists and their supporters use to do what they always do: shame, scold, and mold weak ass men into conforming to their agenda.

Women defining masculinity is like Kim Jong-il defining what it is to be a true American, or like Bill O’Reilly defining blackness in modern society.

What do you think it means to be a man? How should a “real man” act?

I love this question. Number One: have you ever heard men talk about what it takes to be a “real man?” You don’t hear that. Let me tell you why: because every man understands that’s a bullshit phrase. I think men understand, at a certain point in their lives, that they have to define masculinity for themselves. Not once in my life have I told any of my friends or my associates, “Hey, you’re not being a real man.” That’s a bullshit phrase. I define masculinity for myself. It has nothing to do with sexuality. It has to do with your goals, tenets, and beliefs. The second you let somebody impose their beliefs on you — and I’m talking about women — you’ve already lost. Because women are the ones who say, “Oh, you’re not acting like a real man.” That phrase is just used to guide and shape, and that’s bullshit.

You have another post that touches on male identity:

How do young, white guys ever frown?

If I was young and white, every morning when I woke up I would run to the nearest mirror to confirm I was still white, and once I see the pale skin and red hair, I would turn on Pharrell’s “Happy” (Or Tag Team’s “Whoop there it is”…you mothafuckas LOVE that song) and throw a second line (parade, for y’all non New-Orleanians).

Every. Single. Fucking. Morning.

Being white in America is like getting a fifth down in football, an extra out in baseball, a 20 meter headstart in a 100 meter race, and the button every hand in poker.

You got to really suck as a person to lose.

What do peopleand specifically white menneed to know about the experience of being a black man?

Nothing, really. I can’t explain it. I’m not prejudiced — I have a lot of white friends, and my daughter’s first boyfriend was white — but I celebrate differences. It goes back to that man-woman shit: Men and women aren’t equal, and white men and black men aren’t the same. We have different experiences, different backgrounds, and different cultures. For me to explain what it’s like to be a black man — it’s futile. Just as it would be for you to explain what it’s like to be a white man. Louis C.K. has some funny things to say about choosing a race. There are advantages you’ll have as a white guy that I’m not gonna have. Black people know this, and we adapt.

You’ve also written about the value in taking an unconventional career path.

I had a frat brother who inspired that post. His grandparents had worked in the Domino Sugar Factory for fifty years. They were posting pictures, celebrating their hard work and how they’d never missed a day, and all I could think was: I’m sure that’s not what they wanted to do for fifty years. Kudos to them, but I wasn’t happy about that. I felt like like it was borderline slavery. Gone are the days where we graduate and work for a company for thirty years and get a gold watch. I’m thirty-five years old and I’m a nursing student. A dude in one my classes was pursuing a second career at sixty-five, and that’s becoming more common—as it should be. Nowadays we have so many things to explore, and so much information, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to do it.

*Originally published in the November 2017 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine

Ben Saxton

Written by

reading, writing, teaching, pokering @McGovernCenter

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