When you think about the history of poker in geographical terms, the first states that come to mind are Texas and California. Throughout its evolution, however, the game has flourished in nearly every state in the country at one time or another and a case can be made that Alabama is the most overlooked of them all.
During poker's formative years in the 1940s and 50s, playing the game professionally was very nearly considered a legitimate job in Texas, thanks mostly to the prowess of players like Johnny Moss and Felton “Corky” McCorquodale. Meanwhile, Julius Popwell and Henry Green were crushing the games throughout the state of Alabama, making just as much money as the Texans and yet earning only a fraction of the notoriety.
Of the two, Popwell is the better-known. Born on June 1, 1912, he quickly adopted the life of a hustler. While playing billiards as a teenager, he regularly won money from men who were twice his age. His humbled opponents were so in awe of the advanced skills the teenager possessed they started calling him “Little Man.” The nickname would later take on a somewhat ironic tone as the little boy grew to be a very large man. Although Popwell stood just five foot six as an adult, he weighed well over 300 pounds.
Like many poker players of that era, Popwell’s specialty was five-card stud, which was the most popular variation of poker in the country until it was ultimately displaced by seven-card stud. While traveling around the South in search of live games, Popwell often butted heads with Henry Green, a fellow road gambler from Alabama whom Popwell generously acknowledged as the finest stud player of his generation. Green was just as well-known for his relaxed and gracious demeanor at the tables, which – despite his skill at separating his opponents from their bankrolls – enticed others into wanting to play against him.
Popwell was equally well-liked by his peers. Most described him as being honorable and generous, traits best illustrated by one of the stories most often told about him. After taking several big pots off the owner of a toy-making business, Popwell allowed the man to pay off his debt in toys, which Popwell then distributed to the poor children living in the hills just outside of Birmingham. This was not his first act of generosity, only the best-known. According to his obituary in the Birmingham News, he was “a soft touch” who was constantly coming to the aid of those who were down on their luck.
When the itinerant life began to wear on him, Popwell turned his home in Leeds, Alabama into a casino that featured a numbers racket, craps, and of course poker. The operation was so big that local bank officers would often go there to buy large quantities of change, which Popwell stored in 55-gallon barrels in the basement. Popwell had so many coins he once paid off a $12,000 football bet he lost to someone he didn’t particularly care for using change taken from the barrels. To play in one of his poker games, however, required dollar bills – mostly of the higher denominations. Popwell offered games with buy-ins as high as $100,000, and it wasn’t uncommon to see a game spread with over a million dollars sitting on the table.
Popwell’s game was so big even the “Grand Old Man of Poker” himself ventured out of Texas to play in it. After losing over a million dollars playing craps in Las Vegas, Johnny Moss traveled the Southern circuit looking for the biggest games he could find, and very few were bigger than the one at Popwell’s casino. It didn’t take Moss long to find Popwell’s house in Leeds, and once he got there he felt right at home.
Popwell felt equally comfortable around Moss. One afternoon, Popwell counted out $296,000 in front of Moss before asking him if he could borrow $4,000. Moss wanted to know why he needed the money, and Popwell explained that he’d found a juicy bet on a baseball game and wanted to wager an even $300,000. With that kind of money being wagered on a daily basis, Moss had found the perfect place to try to win back the million dollars he owed the casino bosses in Las Vegas.
As successful as Popwell’s business was, it was still illegal, and raids by the Birmingham police were common. When Popwell refused to cease and desist, the police arrested him on April 3, 1954, and the judge fined him $250 and sentenced him to 366 days in jail.
Despite serious health problems, Popwell played poker until the very end of his life before finally succumbing to cancer on May 19, 1966. Thirty years later, he was posthumously inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame, joining his old rival Henry Green, who had been enshrined a decade earlier. It is a testament to their skill that, despite playing in an era when poker players didn’t receive much publicity and coming from a state that has always played second fiddle to Texas and California, Julius Popwell and Henry Green are still considered to be two of the greatest players in the game’s history.