The Windmills of My Mind: Remembering Gavin Smith
This is an article I never expected to write.
Gavin Smith died last night.
Did I just type those words? Gavin Smith died? Using Gavin’s own words, “what the fuck?”
Life’s not fair. This isn’t right. It can’t be. It’s a mistake. This must be some kind of cruel joke. Yeah, it’s a joke. Gavin can’t possibly be gone. He’s a survivor. An iron man. Nothing stops Gavin. He’s indestructible. At least, he seemed that way.
I’ve seen Gavin pull more than a few all-nighters and then come back and do it all over again. I’ve seen Gavin wreck brand new cars. I’ve been wild and crazy enough to get on the back of a motorcycle with Gavin wielding the handlebars. I’ve seen Gavin utterly penniless and still somehow show up at a $10,000 buy-in tournament gushing with a huge smile on his face acting like he was the luckiest man alive. I’ve seen Gavin slam down 20 cocktails in a single bar session. Numerous times. I’ve seen Gavin up and down and over and out — and yet I never envisioned this most sobering and shocking moment.
I haven’t read anything yet about the reported “cause” of death nor do I want to know. That’s because I can’t bear the pain of going there. Not yet. I don’t want to break down and be left in some darker and sadder place pondering questions to which there are likely no answers. They all want to know what happened, to know how he died. Well, I don’t care how he died. Right now, at this instant, all I want to do is cherish this moment and relish some memories of how he lived. All I care about is my dear friend — and he’s gone.
I’ve known Gavin Smith for more than 20 years — 22 years, to be exact. I deliberately write “known” instead of “knew” because I can’t put Gavin in the past tense. Not yet. Not now. That painful reality of life in the past-tense will take time. Lots of time. I chose to squeeze Gavin for one more selfish minute if I can. Let this reflection be that elusive embrace.
No poker player, past or present, provided me with more laughter. No friend made me angrier. No one drove me crazier. No colleague inspired move genuine love and compassion. No person was more infantile yet also so eloquently expressive. No man in the game I spent much of my life covering was such an open book.
Gavin’s flaws were many and they were glaring. Those flaws only made his virtues all the more spectacular. Gavin was everybody’s merry sidekick, a man-child, a motley court jester who spoke an unfiltered truth on all subjects. He sputtered whatever popped into his mind and often expressed sentiments everyone else in the room was thinking but who lacked the courage to speak. Gavin may have lacked proper decorum, at times, but he was brutally honest. Sometimes, way too honest.
Gavin was the toughest not on others, but on himself. He acknowledged his many failings. He did make earnest attempts to correct some of them. He cleaned up his act when it came time to do the right thing. Sometimes, he succeeded. Other times, he failed.
A few years ago, Gavin showed what he was capable of doing when he set his mind to a goal. He quit drinking for nearly a year, cleaned up his act, straightened his life out, and won custody of his two children. Gavin loved being a dad. He even put poker on hold to be with his kids.
Gavin is the most loyal and devoted person I’ve ever known in the game of poker — selflessly loyal to his friends, loyal to animals which he absolutely adored, and loyal to his children who shall someday remember their dad in ways that will surely be as painful as proud and pleasing.
HERE’S A LINK TO A GOFUNDME PAGE SET UP FOR GAVIN’S TWO SONS.
Portly, half-shaven, a terrible dresser — he was just some obnoxious Canadian kid no one had ever heard of who didn’t seem to let anything faze him at the poker table. We spent an entire week together playing nothing but single-table satellites. Gavin knocked me out of more than a few of those tables, and I busted him a few times, too. Win or lose, Gavin’s reaction was always the same. He’d smile and laugh. His cackle drove people crazy.
Months later, we hung out together at the World Poker Open, at the Gold Strike in Mississippi. Gavin watched me take a few particularly brutal beats and would laugh uproariously when I slammed the table with my fist. He drove me utterly insane. Man, was he obnoxious. What a loudmouthed son-of-a-bitch.
Well, one thing led to another. Resentment faded. Laugher won out. Arguments led to cocktails and the trading of deeply personal confidences and eventually friendship and love. Gradually, I came to realize that Gavin’s life-of-the-party persona masked some deeply concealed vulnerabilities. He wasn’t alone.
You know when you try to fall asleep at night and you can’t turn your brain off and thoughts and memories tumble — those are the windmills of the mind. And I can’t turn them off. Gavin is windmill of memories, some painful, all fond.
Money never mattered shit to Gavin. Perhaps that’s a serious flaw in these times so obsessed with money and materialism. I don’t know. But being so selflessly carefree provided a sense of liberation most of the rest of us lack, but silently do seek.
I hung out with Gavin the night after he won a million dollars. I also hung out with Gavin when he wasn’t just flat-ass broke, but well over six-figures in debt to backers. He was the identical person in both circumstances. No one could tell the difference. Gavin might have $2 or $20,000 in his pocket and he was exactly the same person. Gavin just had a completely different mindset. He had his own barometer for success and happiness. Money wasn’t an end. It was merely a tool. He didn’t use the tools of his trade well, but if friendships were gold then Gavin was the federal reserve. He had the King Midas touch.
Gavin knew every bartender in every casino from Pompano to Poughkeepsie, and they all knew him by name and remembered precisely what he drank. I walked into at least 50 bars with Gavin where time and time again a tall greyhound with a double vodka pour was served and garnished on the counter by the time I had a chance to take a seat. The man was a living legend. He’s the only guy I ever met who could drink on credit. Perhaps that endearing generosity made us all his enablers, guilty contributors to his ultimate sad fate. Let such judgment be reserved until later. All I know is, Gavin was as brutally honest and devotedly loyal after 19 drinks or on the wagon. Vice might have been Gavin’s crutch. But vice was never Gavin’s illusion.
Gavin held my sick cat for hours like a baby at a poker table at Binion’s Horseshoe (true story). Once, Gavin showed up in upstate New York with no money and no credit card, expecting to play and stay for a week in an expensive hotel (yes, he got everything comped and left with cash in his pocket). Gavin and I once talked about writing a book together on (get ready to laugh your ass off) — “how to pick up girls.” I shit you not. That was the subject matter. Gavin was a master craftsman. He was the most unsexy man alive who somehow had a quality that endeared him to women, and everyone else.
His passions and his laughter were infectious. Whatever you were discussing before Gavin walked up, the subject was about to change one. He was a mover. A shaker. A force. A terror. An earthquake.
Here’s an article I wrote years ago about going out to a bar in Las Vegas with Gavin when neither one of us had any money.
Gavin was one of the very few people I’ve ever known who could and often would change an entire room….simply by walking into it.
Years ago, I was at a fancy steakhouse in Chicago. This was one of those crusty old-fashioned places ranked with lots of stars, with walnut-wood paneled walls, where everyone inside whispered, where they sipped martinis, where the establishment ruled and people like Gavin Smith usually bused tables if they were allowed inside, at all. Chris Bell was there with me as we waited in the bar for Gavin to arrive.
The bar was filled with blue-haired women, old bartenders sporting white beards like ship captains, accompanied by a pianist playing Tony Bennett songs. Neither Chris nor I knew what condition Gavin would show up in. But we feared the worst.
Gavin busted in the door and every head turned.
“Hey, you fuckers, I’m here!”
Over the next 15 minutes, I witnessed an absolute transformation that defies any logical explanation. Gavin was spewing out wild stories, going up to blue hairs on barstools offering to do shots together (some accepting his outlandish offer), introducing himself to everyone as a poker pro who somehow blew through a million dollars within three months. Any other loudmouth jerk would have been tossed out on the sidewalk as an insane crank.
To this day, I still can’t explain it. I can’t explain his appeal, I mean. Call it a gift. Gavin had those blue-hairs and bartenders eating out of his hand like mule deer at a petting zoo. He changed that room simply by walking into it. If he was selling aluminum siding, everyone in that bar would have left holding a signed contract, convinced they not only got a great deal but made a new friend.
As I said, I can’t explain. But I do know he possessed was a gift.
That’s the story I recall when thinking about Gavin in a bar. Or, anywhere.
I had the occasional honor and fleeting privilege of being present at the high point of the careers of many poker players — which is when they finally win a gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. I’ve witnessed and presented on occasion about half (around 600) of all the gold bracelets awarded in history. I’ve seen them all — Brunson, Chan, Ungar, and the rest.
In the span of three decades I’ve attended the WSOP starting in 1985 up through 2016, no single moment gave me more joy than what happened on June 27th, 2010.
That day, Gavin won his first and only gold bracelet.
The specifics of which event he won or what hands he played or the amount of prize money isn’t what I recall, now. That money’s long gone. What I do remember was — all the love. The fucking love, man. The love everyone had for Gavin. What I remember was the spectator rail, stacked 10-deep. What I remember was not just Gavin’s tears flowing down the side of his face but the tears of everyone who was there that day. Grown men were tearing up. I think we all saw a bit of ourselves in Gavin. What I remember was my own tears flowing and of being so proud of the marvelous mess of a man who had made the long day’s journey into night and then had survived long enough to see a new sunrise.
READ MY OFFICIAL REPORT OF GAVIN’S VICTORY: WSOP NEWS — POKER’S COURT JESTER
The next day, presenting Gavin with his gold bracelet wasn’t at all about poker or prize money.
Gavin’s real victory was in standing upon a stage and peering out into a vast sea of beloved friends and colleagues and well-wishers, many of whom had vociferously battled him at the tables days earlier to prevent that moment from happening, but then taking absolute joy in watching the joy of another.
History loves the flawed hero, the victor who struggled most, the honest and the brave.
Gavin has been compared to Ken Stabler in football and John Daly in golf. All three were lovable lions who were the life of the party, but who struggled in the dark when party time was over. He was like sticking Robin Williams, Ozzie Osborne, and San Kinison into a giant blender, dousing the concoction with vodka and grapefruit juice, then hitting the puree button. There was only one Gavin. And, thank goodness for that. One Gavin is all we could handle. Barely so.
When Gavin accepted his gold bracelet upon that stage, they all cheered. Everyone was rooting for him. Indeed, Gavin had changed yet another room, this time a much bigger room, just by being in it.
Let’s not gloss over the obvious. Gavin was a man with serious problems and severe troubles.
Gavin fought many battles, not so much with what was on the outside, but what was hidden on the inside. If the highs were high, the lows were cruelly low — his restitution.
Those of us who knew him well were aware that he never shied away from those personal deficiencies, nor did he ever deny talking about them. But those flaws and failures also were composed into a rough uncut diamond of lasting friendship and loyalty. Gavin was a gemstone for those lucky enough to have ever heard him tell a funny joke, or share a cocktail, or been involved with him in a hand of poker.
Everyone who met Gavin probably remembers some kind of story. As so often was the case, Gavin often became the story, by being there. Just by being in the room.
How I wish to spin the windmill of my mind with Gavin, just one more time.