A full house was an entrepreneurial enterprise requiring special skill, knowledge and eventually an ingenious device.
The first slot machine, a gambling device, was invented in 1895 by Charles Fey, an auto mechanic. In 1901 Fey modified the design of the mechanical “slot” and produced a mechanical poker machine. An electronic poker machine first appeared in 1964. The first-generation of these electronic devices used a relatively simple technology. The machines were programmed to run a lengthy pattern of cards. When the pattern was exhausted, the machine would return to the beginning and run the pattern again.
Back in the 1970s a local youth we’ll call Home Boy for now spent a lot of time in Rutherford County pool halls, where he was showing promise as a young hustler.
“Betting on the play was not really gambling,” explains Home Boy. “The payoff was determined by your skill at the game and your hustle.” Gambling was, however, part of the lifestyle. “As a teenager, I ran with a bunch of gambling fanatics–David Caldwell, Chris LaForest, David Hawkins, Billy Reece and a few others who may still be around,” confesses Home Boy. “If there was no other action, we would sit around the Square in Murfreesboro and bet on the color of the next car.”
The first poker machine he remembers was at Family Billiards. “It was fast, lit up with dancing colors, and irresistible at a quarter a play. When you won a hand you got points that you could use for more play, but sometimes you could turn in the points for a cash payoff from the house.” This “payoff” changed the recreational activity into gambling, according to enforcement authorities. “Some of the local establishments were raided and charged with illegal gambling,” recalls Home Boy. “I quickly learned that anything that puts its back against the wall and makes a challenge usually has an edge.”
In the early 1980s, Eric Grooms and Tommy Bradford recruited Home Boy to be part of their “poker team.” They had memorized the first part of the card sequence for two of the popular machines (called Draw 80 and Western). To play the pattern and beat the machine, the machine had to start play at the beginning of the programmed pattern.
The first-generation machines had a not-very-well concealed “reset” button, which sent the machine back to the beginning of its pattern. The team also discovered they could restart the card sequence by unplugging and quickly replugging the machine.
“I was the unplug man,” remembers Home Boy. “I would go into the tavern or pool hall ahead of the others and make friends, flirt with the ladies, and spend a few dollars on drinks and losing play at the machines or pool table. When I had been there long enough to be fairly inconspicuous, I would get close to the machines–maybe leaning on the wall or the side of a machine while others played. Soon one of my partners would come in and start playing a machine near to me. That’s when I would hit the reset or unplug.”
On a good evening the team might turn a quarter into $1,200. (“I got a share,” notes Home Boy.) Sometimes a cashier would refuse to make a payoff, but by keeping the winnings in the low hundreds per machine and not staying long in one place, the team usually collected. “If someone got suspicious and refused a payoff, we never argued or complained,” explains Home Boy. “We just moved on.”
The team did some light work at the Rock Castle, Weeping Willow and 41 Club in Rutherford County, but tried not to hit hard and arouse suspicion on their home base. “We travelled all over the southeast,” Home Boy fondly remembers. “I really enjoyed the travel, the easy money and the socializing to blend in with the locals.”
But there were some scary moments.
“We were in South Carolina having a good evening at a local bar with several machines. There were five of us. Two of us had driven up in a Corvette. Three others came a bit later in a van. We were working two machines, and I was lounging on a stool pushed between the two.
“Seven fellows came in wearing long black coats with their hats pulled down in front. They circled us and ordered us out to the parking lot where we were roughed up and loaded into a black Cadillac and a limo. They may have been local vigilantes or mafia. Whoever they were, they had guns and we were scared. After more threats and roughing, they took us back to our cars and told us to get out of South Carolina. We never went back.”
Sometime after the South Carolina scare, Bradford and Home Boy were working in Cleveland, Tennessee. By then savvy machine owners were putting steel plates on the back of the machines and tying directly into the house wiring–no buttons, no plugs. Undeterred by the challenge, Bradford modified a garage door opener so that it would create an electrical surge that reset the poker machine. “I carried the opener in my shirt pocket,” recalls Home Boy. “When Tommy was ready to play, I would press the opener against the back of the machine, click it and reset the machine.”
But the Rutherford gamers hadn’t done their homework. “If we had known that the local sheriff owned most of the poker machines in Bradley County, we probably would have been somewhere else.” The two were taken into custody by a squad of deputies and locked up in separate cells. “They roughed up some, and then the sheriff brought in a poker machine,” remembers Home Boy. “He told me I would get out only if I showed him how we were beating the machine.
“I bluffed ignorance and took some abuse. I learned later that Tommy apparently convinced the sheriff that he was just playing the pattern that he recognized from memory and lots of practice. After about a day and a half, they escorted us to the county line and cautioned us not to return.”
By 1990 most of the first-generation machines had been replaced with machines programmed to “scatter.” There was no repetitive or predictable pattern. “That beat our system and shut us down,” concludes Home Boy. “I think Eric and Tommy had one more modest payday when a Rutherford operator paid them to explain how their system was able to beat the machine. At that point he must have just been curious.”
David “Home Boy” Kline lives in the Beechgrove community. For more about his story, see “Homeless Home Boy Housed Under Pool Hall” on pages 101-03 in “Remembering Rutherford.”