Charles Gelvin was in a good mood. It was July 29th, 1976—Charles’s fifteenth birthday—and his dad Russell had given him fifty bucks as a present. Fifty bucks! That evening, father and son went to Eads Tavern, a New Orleans bar where Russell liked to play five-card poker. Short on cash, he borrowed fifty dollars from his son and lost it all. “I hope you learned a valuable lesson tonight,” Russell said as they left the tavern. “Never gamble.”
Charles, a retired car salesman and a father of four, has been gambling ever since. The Louisiana native lives in Meraux with his German Shepherd, Frieda, and enjoys tournament poker. One of his nephews calls him The Casino Man. Our conversation, which happened at the Starbucks inside Harrah’s New Orleans, touches on life in the Ninth Ward, Popeyes fried chicken, car sales, tournament poker, whether or not gamblers go to hell, and eternal salvation.
Charles Gelvin: My dad owned a sewing machine store, Gelvin’s Sewing Machines. So I’m the son of a sew-and-sew. I’m the son of a sew-and-sew—did you get that?
Ben Saxton: Yeah. I like that. Nice play on words, there.
Then he opened a furniture store, Gelvin’s Furniture. My dad was a millionaire three times and died broke. He knew how to make the money, but he didn’t know how to manage the money. I’ll give you an example. My dad was good friends with Jerome Copeland.
The brother of Al Copeland, the founder of Popeyes [Louisiana Kitchen]. Al had opened a little place in Arabi, and he needed $50,000 to get his chicken franchise going. So Jerome came to my dad back in ‘71—true story, now—and said, “My brother needs an investor. You’ll be rich.” My dad ate the chicken and said, “This is the worst [censored] chicken I ever ate in my life!” He passed on Popeye’s fried chicken. None of us seven kids would have had to work a day in our lives.
You’re one of seven?
Yeah. I’m the second of seven. Four boys, three girls.
What was it like growing up in the Ninth Ward?
Dude, I wouldn’t trade my childhood for nothing. We were drinking beers when we were ten years old. We used to get on our bicycles and ride the wharf all the way to Canal Street. We didn’t worry about nothing. We used to sleep with our windows open and our doors unlocked. It was a different time and place. My dad taught us Bourré, seven card Down-The-River, Dr. Pepper, Seven-Up. My dad was a true gambler. That’s why it’s in my blood. He used to say, “if you want to gamble for a living, you’ve got to live broke.”
After high school, what did you do for work?
Well, I never did finish high school. I got into some humbug with the teacher and quit a month before graduation. Ronnie Lamarque was our next door neighbor. Do you know Lamarque Ford?
He does those commercials—The Most Ordinary Man in New Orleans—he’s a big-time automobile guy. Back in 1978, Ronnie got me a job as an undercoat boy. Well, when it came time to register for school, I had a hundred and fifty dollars every Friday in my pocket. I was chasing girls, I had a car. School? School? Nah, I ain’t goin’ to school!
Did you stay in the car business?
Yeah, that’s what I spent my whole life doing. I went from undercoating cars to delivering parts, and then I did body and fender work. One day I looked at another body and fender man, old man Bobby Woods—the guy was fifty years old but he looked like he was a hundred—and said to myself, “Man, I’m only thirty years old. Do I want to look like him?” So I asked Mr. Ronnie if he had another position. He said, “Charlie, show up tomorrow morning at eight with a suit on, and go see Bob Scott.” So I showed up the next morning, and Bob said,“Got an ink pen?” I said yeah. He said, “You know how to talk people, right?” I said yeah. He said, “You know the cars, don’t you?” I said yeah. He said, “Good. Go outside and catch you a [censored] customer and sell you a car.” Those were his exact words. My first two days on the job I sold two cars. My first month I was salesman of the month.
So you hit the ground running. What made you so good at selling cars?
First of all, I knew cars. I was also a people person. That’s just the way we were brought up—no one was ever better than you, you weren’t better than anyone else. And I had a desire to succeed. I was so scared to fail when I was selling cars, and I always wanted to be the best. In my third year in the car business I was second in the nation with the Ford Motor Company in retail sales. This was in 1992. I stayed in sales my whole life till a bad wreck in 2009.
We were sitting on the railroad tracks near Press Street. My brother Kevin’s deaf in his right ear, and he was driving. There was a guy smoking a crack pipe who didn’t realize that the traffic had stopped. He hit us at about forty-five miles an hour and pushed us into the moving train, which was heading to the river. So when his truck hit, it took my side of the truck into the train and spun it. The only thing that saved my life was a switchman who radioed the engineer to shut the train down. My brother had a separated shoulder, and I had eight ruptured discs, two torn discs, three cracked vertebrae, and a knee that needs to be replaced that I never replaced.
Was that the end of your sales career?
Yeah. I’m what they called medically unemployable. You’ve seen the medicine bag that I carry with me. I miss the car business so bad, dude.
How are you liking retirement? How are you spending your time?
I did play poker before the wreck. Years ago, we used to play Bourré at my mama’s house. In the den they would play quarter-ante Bourré no-limit; in the living room they would play dollar-ante Bourré no-limit. So you’d have all the men in the living room, and in the den you’d have the women and some of the guys that couldn’t afford to lose a lot of money. They’d start on a Friday evening and would end on Sunday night. We’d have our kids there, and all our friends were there. My mama would cook for everyone, and if you got tired—my mama’s house was five bedrooms—there was a bed somewhere in the back. That was good good days, dude. That was good good days.
Does your family still play poker?
My dad died in ‘89. It really [censored] me up. He was my best friend. My dad used to come see me in the dealership every day. And when my dad died, I lost it.
Was it sudden?
Yeah. My dad was fifty-four years old. Congestive heart failure. My dad was a little-bitty guy: 6’3’’, 310. These days, I’m the only one in my family who gambles. My nephew calls me The Casino Man.
Do you have a weekly schedule?
Wednesday and Saturdays I’ll play here. On Sundays I’ll flip a quarter: heads, L’Auberge [in Baton Rouge]; tails, Beau Rivage [in Biloxi]. Mondays I’ll go to a $100 at the Beau, and Fridays they have a $225 tournament. And I may go to a couple of bar tournaments, depending on how I’m feeling. What’s been hampering me lately is that, six months ago, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Has that changed your schedule?
Yeah. Last Wednesday, when I played in the weekly [tournament], I felt really good and we did a four-way chop. Thursday and Friday I didn’t leave the house. It took so much physically and mentally out of me.
What’s the plan moving forward?
There’s no cure for Parkinson’s. There’s only treatments. We won’t know for a year or two whether I have secondary or full-blown Parkinson’s. But my grandmother and one of my aunts had Parkinson’s, so it’s hereditary, and they’re leaning towards full-blown. That’s why, if you’ve ever noticed, I get the trembles at the poker table. I want to sit on my hands, I get embarrassed, you might see me tear up a bit.
When we were setting up a time to do this interview, you mentioned that Wednesdays and Saturdays are the only days you don’t schedule a doctor’s appointment so that you can play poker. What is it about poker that’s so appealing to you?
Because that’s my release.
What kind of release?
My son’s staying with me, but I live by myself. So I don’t have a girlfriend—I’m not gay—but I live by myself. I don’t do drugs. I drink very rarely. I don’t go to bar rooms. I don’t go out a whole lot. Poker is what I do to get away from all my problems—to get away from my health problems, my stress problems, my mental health problems, to get away from whatever ails me, whatever bothers me: that room right there is my release.
When I sit in a poker room, I feel like I can play just as good as anyone. You’ve gotta feel like you’re just as good as anyone. I mean—who’s the best?—Steve Bierman? Kenny Milam? Bill Phillips? I’ve beaten them before. I’ve just never played in big tournaments like them.
Is that one of your goals?
I want a ring, dude. I want a WSOP Circuit ring. Or a bracelet.
You’ve been coming to Harrah’s [New Orleans] for about ten years. Where are you now, as a player, compared to ten years ago?
About eighty percent better. Before I never did think about pot odds, about putting people on ranges, about studying how people played. I would just jump into the fray. I was able to get lessons from friends that helped my game astronomically, and I’ve taken what they’ve given me and improved it myself.
I’ve made a lot of great friends in this game. Genuine people, dude. There’s always so much said bad about poker players. But if you really get to know people—like a Prissy and Jerry Giroir, and a Kenny Milam, and a Bill Phillips, and a Chris Canan, and a Steve Bierman—even though Steve’s got a swollen head sometimes—and a Ben Saxton, the list goes on and on. We’re all a bunch of gambling degenerates, I figure it that way, but when it comes down to it everybody’s got kids, and girlfriends, and jobs, and it’s good, good people.
Now I do have a daughter and a son-in-law that won’t talk to me.
‘Cause my youngest daughter is a preacher’s wife. And my son-in-law says that I’m condemned to hell.
Because I gamble. And I tell them they’re wrong because...because poker is not gambling, it’s psychological warfare. This is actually a sport. Am I right or wrong? They’re trying to make this a sport.
I think it’s a discussion. Where does poker belong? Should it be lumped with sports betting and table games, or is it closer to chess and other intellectual sports?
That’s one thing that saddens me, but poker is one thing I’m not willing to give up.
Do you mean you’re saddened that poker has changed your relationship with your daughter and your son-in-law?
Right. But then again, when you read the Bible, it says, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” It also says, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” If my daughter and my son-in-law want to have that kind of close-mindedness, then they need to get back into their Bible.
Where does your son-in-law preach at?
Summit, Pentecostal Church. In Mississippi. There’s a lot to that religion—women can’t cut their hair, can’t wear makeup, can’t watch TV ‘cause that’s the devil, men have to wear long-sleeve shirts.
Are you still Catholic?
I was born and raised Catholic, I was baptized Pentecostal, and now I go to a non-denominational Christian church. Me and the pastor don’t get along because he doesn’t think it’s right I gamble, either. But that’s between me and the Lord.
And what does the Lord think, in your opinion?
They cast lots over Jesus’s garments. I’m not hurting nobody. I’m doing right by my family. If my boys or my daughters need something, they call me. I pay all my bills every month. I’m not destitute. I don’t ask for handouts. I’ve got a good credit rating. I buy a new car every two or three years.
So you’re at peace with your relationship with gambling, even though it’s led to some difficult relationships with your daughter and your pastor.
Yeah. My health’s not the best, but if I die tonight, I’m sure that I’m gonna see the face of God.
That must be nice.
At least I hope I am. I know that we’ll all see the face of God, because we’re all gonna stand in judgment. I believe I’m gonna enter the kingdom of heaven. I believe my name is in the Book of Life. That’s just the way I feel. And it’s sad, because I wish I had a better relationship with my daughter and I don’t get to see my two beautiful grandbabies very much. But on the other hand, my oldest daughter, Claudine, who lives in Virginia Beach, bought a four-bedroom house and has been begging me for years to come up. You know who the spare bedroom’s for?
When you go up there, Ben, it’s like a suite. Bathroom, two closets, king-sized bed. All I hear is: “when are you moving here?” But hey, the problem is that the closest poker tournament is four-and-a-half hours away! What am I gonna do up there? If you take poker away from me, what the hell do I have to live for?
It’s a conflict.
Now it ain’t all about gambling, either. ‘Cause I have some killer hobbies. I restore pedal cars. I got eight of ‘em in my living room. Let me show you on my phone. Oh, here’s one of my dog Frieda. We don’t keep a water bowl in the house. She just goes to the sink and barks.
What a cutie.
Here’s one of my second ex-wife. And here’s one of the family on Mardi Gras day.
That’s a lot of crawfish. That’s fantastic.Yeah, everybody sitting around, eating crawfish at my brother’s house in Meraux. I don’t spend too many moments with my whole family. I love being with the family, dude.