As the clock hit midnight from Thursday to Friday one night in August, 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 started at 11 a.m. Pruitt received 30,000 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 an event on the World Series of Poker circuit, but other players at the table learned that Pruitt was no novice.
“He played like an experienced player,” said Daniel Pearlman, 48, an avid poker player from Miramar, Fla., who sat two seats to the right of Pruitt that night.
“Most players are passive and weak. He didn’t play weak. He was playing a game of strength and aggression often wins in poker.
Less than two years ago, Pruitt looked out of his element as a floundering Tennessee football coach on his way to a layoff. Anemic offenses plagued his tenure. But at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, Pruitt played with confidence. He built his stack of chips and held 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 first day of the tournament.
“Honestly, we had a table full of pros,” McEwen said, “and he was definitely holding his own, putting a lot of pressure on people and winning 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 half an hour before time stopped on Day 1, when Pearlman beat Pruitt with a pocket 10 to win a big pot. Pruitt had ace-king on the deal but didn’t catch a pair.
Relaxed and friendly behavior at the poker table with aggressive betting
Pruitt came to Tennessee as a defensive guru. When it was released, the guru had become “Gump” or “Cornbread” in the lexicon of some Vols fans. But I never bought into the hunchbacked persona Pruitt sometimes displayed as a UT coach, and I’m not surprised he handles his cards better than he develops quarterbacks.
Pruitt shone through General Robert Neyland’s maxims that form the canon of Tennessee football. He particularly liked the maxim saying: If at the beginning the game – or the breaks – goes against you, do not let go… put more pressure. A useful poker mantra too.
Participating in his first event on the WSOP circuit was quite easy. All Pruitt needed was the $1,100 buy-in, plus a player rewards card.
Pruitt’s participation did not cause a stir. He kept a low profile. A few players who played deep in the tournament told me they didn’t know who Pruitt was and didn’t know he was in the event until I contacted them.
McEwen, a Tennessee Titans fan who doesn’t follow college football closely, learned from a friend during a break that Pruitt was playing, but the table chat was not football-oriented.
Pruitt stayed alone and let his chips do the talking.
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“He had a pretty relaxed demeanor,” McEwen said. “He wasn’t super talkative, but he was very nice, quite 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 after midnight on Friday morning, the blinds were 8,000/4,000 and Pruitt was dealt 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.
Sitting to the left of the big blind, Pruitt had the first shot after the deal. He called the blind. Another player raised to 23,000. Pearlman, who was the small blind, called the raise and the bets went back to Pruitt.
Fold, call or re-raise?
“He’s looking for chips to call, then changes his mind and raises to 103,000,” Pearlman told me, while consulting his hand notes.
The player who raised to 23,000 folds. This left Pearlman as the only other player left in the hand. He stopped to think. Pearlman held a pair of 10s. His reading was that Pruitt had ace-king. Pearlman knew that if his reading was correct, the 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 looked to call chips, then changed his mind and looked to raise more chips, that looked suspicious to me.”
The 9-9-5 flop didn’t help either Pearlman or Pruitt. Each has verified, which means that none have placed a bet.
The turn produced a 3. Again, no help.
Pearlman checked and Pruitt bet 100,000 hoping to win the pot.
“I think once I checked (after the flop and the turn) he sensed weakness,” Pearlman said, “and he was hoping that if I had (small) pocket pair, that making a bet of 100,000 chips, I would (fold).”
Pearlman stuck to his reading of Pruitt having ace-king, putting Pearlman ahead.
He called Pruitt’s bet.
Pruitt needed an ace or king on the river, the last community card. Instead, a 4 appeared.
Pearlman thought he had the winning hand, but a bet could cause Pruitt to fold. So Pearlman checked, hoping to draw a big bluff from Pruitt which Pearlman would call, increasing the pot.
Instead, Pruitt checked.
“Very smart play on his part,” Pearlman said.
Players revealed their cards to show Pearlman’s winning hand. Pruitt reacted graciously to the result.
“He played a very difficult game. He was a tough opponent,” said Pearlman, who placed eighth. “Aggressive. Very aggressive. I thought he was playing good poker, but this hand, I stuck to my reading, and my reading was correct.
The result of the hand made Pearlman the table chip leader and shook Pruitt’s stack. Still, Pruitt was among 27 players who qualified for Day 2. He didn’t make the nine-man final table.
Pruitt’s teams in Tennessee have never finished in the Top 25, but his top-25 finish in his WSOP Tour debut was no fluke, Pearlman said, and should be taken seriously. tries his luck at another event.
He has time for that.
Tennessee fired Pruitt for cause, while the program was under investigation by the NCAA, 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 sent to Tennessee last month accuses Pruitt of directly participating in a scheme that funneled $60,000 in ineligible benefits to recruits or their families or registered athletes. He faces the possibility of a cause penalty, and is unlikely to return away from college anytime soon.
This gives Pruitt the opportunity to master the “Big Slick”.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s cover, consider a digital subscription which will allow you to access all of this.