Connect While You Can: A Missed Opportunity

Connect While You Can: A Missed Opportunity 0001

Did I ever tell you about the time I gave a man his money back after I won it from him fair and square in a poker game?

I was playing at the Harrah's in Cherokee, North Carolina. People got to talking about where they were from. Fellow to my left says, "Grayson County, Virginia."

Well, Grayson County is a rural Appalachian region a solid three hours from Cherokee and I'm surprised to hear it mentioned. I lean forward and say, "Do you happen to know Wayne Henderson?"

He chuckles, and his eyes crinkle in a smile. "Well, I've worked in his shop for 25 years."

Suddenly the missing note in the chord sounds — I realize that I recognize him. "You're Gerald Anderson, the mandolin luthier that works with Wayne."

There's a pause, then his face lights up. "Wait — you're Lee Jones — you've got the cherry guitar and I shouldn't be at a poker table with you."

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Luthier at work: Gerald Anderson, in his shop

I guess I need to tell you about Wayne Henderson and the cherry guitar. Wayne is a regional legend as a guitar maker and player, and was a 1995 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellow. His guitars are in huge demand and command absurd prices. I've known of Wayne since childhood — he was good friends with an uncle of mine.

About 20 years ago, I decided I wanted one of Wayne's guitars. The short version is that I found some cherry wood in a cousin's barn and brought it to Wayne asking if he'd make a guitar out of it. He paused, "Well, I've never made a cherry guitar, but the Martin fellas do...."

Two years and a lot of culinary bribes later, I got guitar #246, the only extant cherry Henderson I know of. It had been played by two dozen pickers better than me (including Gerald) before I got my hands on it, and it is how I am recognized in the county. They can't necessarily tell you my name but they recognize me as the guy with the cherry Henderson. Gerald had heard of my involvement in poker and had somehow conflated that into my being a professional player.

Couldn't be more than 30 minutes after that exchange that I check in the big blind with nine-five-offsuit and promptly flop quad fives. I don't remember the betting except that on the turn, Gerald shoved all in. I called without a second thought, but then instantly regretted it.

You see, Gerald has a reputation as being one of the sweetest, gentlest, most generous people around. I'd heard nothing but fine things about him, and the man has made mandolins and guitars that weave magic into the air around them. Not to mention that he's one of the hottest bluegrass and old-time musicians in a county where such hot pickers grow on trees.

People who make good music and fine musical instruments are some of the purest angels in this world and a blessing to all of us. I could never properly thank Gerald Anderson for all the good he's done, but what if I'd just shrug-folded those quads? Nobody would ever be the wiser and he could take a story back to Grayson County about how he beat that poker guy out of a pot at Cherokee.

That's what I wished I'd done. But my poker instincts were too fast for me and I called, busting him. Gerald was wontedly gracious about it and left the game to go play a tournament.

I felt bad enough about it that when I got home, I put $100 in a greeting card and sent it to him, c/o Wayne's shop. Ever thereafter, Gerald introduced me as the only person who ever gave him a poker pot back, and Wayne would introduce me as the guy not smart enough to keep Gerald's money when I won it. I was tickled by both versions of introduction.

Last year, I had Gerald build a mandolin for me, and I'm proud to be learning to play it. I saw him just a couple of weeks ago when I was in Grayson County for Wayne's annual guitar festival. He called me a scoundrel because I was coming out to the World Series of Poker, and we agreed that we needed to go up to Cherokee together sometime.

But see, I got an email not long after that Gerald had suddenly passed away at the age of 65. It had been less than a week after he seemed to be in fine health and fettle at the festival. He didn't show up at the general store where he always had breakfast, so the owner and her boyfriend went to his house and found him lying peacefully in his bed. I don't know how he died, but it doesn't matter. What I know is that the music community there is reeling, and I'm struggling to imagine a world where he's not waiting to tell me his most recent tournament story over coffee at Sarah's store in Troutdale, Virginia.

You know, I never got to play music with Gerald, which hurts my heart even more. We came close a couple of times, but for one reason or another, I was never in a jam with him. My life, rich as it is, will be a bit poorer that I'll never have that opportunity.

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Gerald Anderson, with bass

I write all this, right now, as the 2019 WSOP is careening into its fifth week, with the Main Event soon to begin. I write it because maybe you saw an old friend there and said, "Hey, let's have coffee or grab a drink." And your friend said, "Yeah, that'd be great." But then tournaments and cash games and yadda yadda and nobody actually schedules it, and then the WSOP is over and you never had that coffee together.

I'd give a lot of money to spend an evening picking with Gerald Anderson, and I kick myself for the times I could have made a decision that would have ensured that happened. If you see somebody who matters to you at the WSOP — somebody who you don't see on a regular basis — don't just suggest coffee or a drink. Break out the phones, put in a date, time, and place, and then be there, come hell or high water.

Don't be like me and miss an opportunity that will leave you regretful for a very long time.

* * * * *

Postscript: I learned that Gerald died of heart failure — he had had heart trouble since he was a small child. Back then and there, he wasn't even expected to live to see his teens. So there was a fairly small window of outcomes in which he lived to 65 and did all that good in the world.

Earlier, I said it didn't matter how he died, but maybe I'm seeing it wrong. I think I just want to be grateful that Gerald beat the odds when it really mattered — and that the universe allowed him and me to share a few steps on the journey through life.

  • Have a chance to connect with a friend at the WSOP? Don't miss the opportunity, advises @leehjones.

  • A story of winning a pot and then giving it back, then regretting not having followed up further.

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