How Jeremy Pruitt won big in a World Series of Poker tournament — as told by his competitors | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK
View Comments

As the clock hit midnight, turning Thursday into Friday on an August night, Jeremy Pruitt sat at a casino poker table in Cherokee, North Carolina, with stacks of chips in front of him. The most chips, in fact, of anyone at his table, which included seasoned players.

The no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament began at 11 a.m. Pruitt received 30,000 in chips for his $1,100 buy-in. Half a day later, his stack housed several hundred thousand chips.

This marked Pruitt’s first entry into a World Series of Poker Circuit event, but other players at the table learned Pruitt was no novice.

“He played like an experienced player,” said Daniel Pearlman, 48, an avid poker player from Miramar, Florida, who sat two seats to Pruitt’s right that night.

“Most players are passive and weak. He did not play weak. He played a game of strength, and aggression often wins in poker.”

Less than two years ago, Pruitt looked out of his element as Tennessee’s floundering football coach on his way to a firing. Anemic offenses plagued his tenure. But at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, Pruitt played assertively. He built his chip stack and kept the pedal down. He looked like he belonged.

“He was actually pretty relentless at the table, in a good way,” said Preston McEwen, a 34-year-old poker professional from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. McEwen, who placed fourth in the event, played at Pruitt’s table for much of the tournament’s first day.

“Honestly, we had a table full of professionals," McEwen said, "and he was definitely holding his own, putting a lot of pressure on people and taking down a lot of pots."

Pruitt finished the two-day, 415-entry event in 23rd place for $2,964 in prize money. His chip count took a hit about a half-hour before stopping time on Day 1, when Pearlman bested Pruitt with pocket 10s to win a big pot. Pruitt had Ace-King off the deal but didn’t catch a pair.

Relaxed, friendly demeanor at the poker table with aggressive bets

Pruitt arrived at Tennessee as a defensive guru. When he exited, the guru had become “Gump” or “Cornbread” in the lexicon of some Vols fans. But I never bought the bumpkin persona Pruitt sometimes displayed as UT's coach, and I'm not surprised he managed his cards better than he developed quarterbacks.

Pruitt took a shine to Gen. Robert Neyland’s maxims that form the Tennessee football canon. He particularly liked the maxim stating: If at first the game – or the breaks – go against you, don’t let up … put on more steam. A useful mantra in poker, too.

Entering his first WSOP Circuit event was easy enough. All Pruitt needed was the $1,100 buy-in, plus a players rewards card.

Pruitt’s participation didn’t cause a stir. He kept a low profile. A couple of players who ran deep in the tournament told me they didn’t know who Pruitt was, and they were unaware he played in the event until I contacted them.

McEwen, a Tennessee Titans fan who doesn’t closely follow college football, learned from a friend during a break that Pruitt was playing, but the table talk didn’t trend toward football.

Pruitt kept to himself and let his chips do the talking.

COMMENTARY:'Gumpfellas' could bring Tennessee football cheating scandal to cinema

TOPPMEYER:Tennessee football hopes NCAA is merciful. Remain wary of the punishment, though

OPINION:John Calipari-Mark Stoops spat makes me wonder if Tennessee is a basketball school | Toppmeyer

“He had a pretty relaxed demeanor,” McEwen said. “He wasn’t super talkative, but he was very friendly, pretty courteous. He seemed like a good guy.”

And he conducted himself with class, even after losing a big hand.

How Jeremy Pruitt played Ace-King

About 20 minutes past midnight on Friday morning, the blinds were 8,000/4,000, and Pruitt was dealt an Ace-King, a hand known as "Big Slick."

Five community cards would come – three on the flop, one on the turn and one on the river.

Seated to the left of the big blind, Pruitt had the first move after the deal. He called the blind. Another player raised to 23,000. Pearlman, who was the small blind, called the raise, and the betting circled back to Pruitt.

To fold, call or re-raise?

“He reaches for chips to call and then changes his mind and raises to 103,000,” Pearlman told me, while consulting his notes of the hand. 

The player who had raised to 23,000 folded. That left Pearlman as the only other player left in the hand. He paused to think. Pearlman held a pair of 10s. His read was that Pruitt had Ace-King. Pearlman knew that if his read was correct, odds favored him to win the hand. He called.

“If I thought he had a better hand than 10s, I would have folded,” Pearlman said. “… Once he reached for calling chips and then changed his mind and reached for more chips to raise, that was suspicious to me.”

The flop of 9-9-5 helped neither Pearlman nor Pruitt. Each checked, meaning neither placed a bet.

The turn produced a 3. Again, no help.

Pearlman checked, and Pruitt bet 100,000 hoping to claim the pot.

“I think once I checked (after the flop and the turn), he sensed weakness,” Pearlman said, “and he hoped that if I had a (small) pocket pair, that by making a 100,000 chip bet, that I would (fold).”

Pearlman stuck to his read of Pruitt having Ace-King, placing Pearlman in the lead.

He called Pruitt’s bet.

Pruitt needed an Ace or a King on the river, the final community card. Instead, a 4 appeared.

Pearlman believed he held the winning hand, but a bet could cause Pruitt to fold. So, Pearlman checked, hoping to lure a big-bet bluff from Pruitt that Pearlman would call, increasing the pot.

Instead, Pruitt checked.

“A very smart play on his part,” Pearlman said.

The players revealed their cards to show Pearlman’s winning hand. Pruitt reacted graciously to the result.

“He played a very tough game. He was a tough opponent,” said Pearlman, who placed eighth. “Aggressive. Very aggressive. I thought he played good poker, but that hand, I stuck with my read, and my read was correct.”

The hand's outcome made Pearlman the table's chip leader and dented Pruitt’s stack. Still, Pruitt was among 27 players advancing to Day 2. He did not reach the nine-player final table.

Pruitt’s Tennessee teams never finished in the Top 25, but his top-25 finish in his WSOP Circuit debut was no fluke, Pearlman said, and he should be taken seriously if tries his luck at another event.

He’s got the time for that.

Tennessee fired Pruitt for cause, while the program was under NCAA investigation, in January 2021 after a 3-7 season. He’s not coaching this year after spending last season as a senior defensive analyst with the NFL’s New York Giants.

An NCAA notice of allegations issued to Tennessee last month accuses Pruitt of having a direct hand in a scheme that funneled $60,000 in impermissible benefits to recruits or their families or rostered athletes. He faces the possibility of a show-cause penalty, and he’s unlikely to return to a college sideline anytime soon.

That affords Pruitt the opportunity to master the "Big Slick."

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.

View Comments