Heart of Louisiana: Convict poker

Image from AngolaRodeo.com
Image from AngolaRodeo.com

There's a reason they call it the wildest show in the show.  These aren't professional rodeo riders.  They are inmates, many of them behind bars for life, at Louisiana's maximum security prison at Angola.

Warden Burl Cain says, "You know, we are dancing with the bear. Keep your eye on your partner at all times. And so we keep our eyes on our partners at all times. But really they police themselves so well and that's a good thing because they don't want to mess up."

For 48 years, inmates have been riding bareback and mingling with the public, selling crafts and artwork.  10,000 people pack the prisoner-built arena for sold-out shows on Sundays in October and April.  The events require more guts than skill as inmates struggle to milk wild cows.

And there is a game of pinball, where inmates stand in hoola-hoops, daring a wild bull to knock them down.  The last man inside his hoop wins.

Cain says, "Once in a while we get a broken bone. We have not had anything serious. They wear helmets, they wear the vests so they don't get their chest crushed or anything.  It's good."

Inmate Marlon "Tank" Brown says, "It's just something I like doing. A challenge, you know. It's just a challenge."

Brown is serving a life sentence.  He's one of the players in a game they call convict poker.

Brown says, "Ain't no anybody can do this here. You've got to be built for this here and you've got to have the heart to do it."

Four convicts including Brown sit around a card table.  The last man sitting wins.  Brown is a poker veteran, and will do a little bluffing if there's a rookie at the table.

Brown says, "In April they had a guy sitting down there, his first time out there, and I looked back I said, oh, I said man that's that Mexican fighting bull. And when he heard that he jumped and he broke out running."

Each player holds a wooden card.  Nerves are tense as they await the bull.

Brown says, "Just hope the bull don't hit you. That's the only secret!"

Brown is the third player targeted by the bull -- he didn't win this one.

And there is one final event that's open to any inmate willing to step into the arena.  It's called "guts and glory".  The bull has the winning poker chip tied between its red-painted horns.  Whoever gets the chip, wins the game. Brown has won this event 12 times with his aggressive style.

Brown says, "I get in front of them and he charges me. As he's coming I reach my hand out or sometimes I reach both of them out. I brace with this here and I reach with this one to grab the chip. And as he's coming I just be laying back and he runs clean over me.

"You get caught up in the hype," Brown continues. "You don't really feel nothing until everything's over and the adrenaline stops pumping. That's when you're going to feel the aches and the bruises you got throughout the rodeo."

And after several face-to-face grabs at the bull, Brown snatches the poker chip and hits the ground.  It's win number 13, five short of the rodeo record.

These prisoners give 10,000 screaming spectators a wild show full of guts and glory.

The next Angola prison Rodeo is set for the third Saturday and Sunday in April.  For more information, go online to http://angolarodeo.com/?q=events.