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Buffalo Bills Bond at Star Receiver Gabe Davis’ Home Poker Game

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The Buffalo Bills are a storied franchise, with plenty of highs and lows. Fans of a certain age will remember them as perennial also-rans in the 1990s, making four straight Super Bowls, and losing all four. They followed that up with a record-setting 17-season stretch without even making the playoffs.

But just as Bills fans nearly lost all hope, the team turned things around in 2020, winning their division and making the playoffs for the first time since 1995. They’ve gone on to become a football powerhouse, dominating the AFC East by winning three straight divisional titles and competing for a championship every season. 

What was behind this remarkable turnaround? Was it because the New England Patriots, their division rivals and six-time Super Bowl champions, lost Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady to Tampa Bay that season? Was it because of the impressive play of their own new starting quarterback, Josh Allen? Or could the secret to Buffalo’s success lie in something less obvious? Something that doesn’t have anything to do with football at all? Could the Buffalo Bills be one of the NFL’s best teams right now…because of poker? 

In the fourth round of the 2020 draft, the Bills selected a wide receiver from the University of Central Florida named Gabe Davis. Davis grew up in Sanford, Florida, and was First-team Florida Class 8A All-State for Seminole High School. His focus in those days was primarily football, but he had other interests, too. 

Davis spent a lot of time in nearby Lake Mary, an affluent suburb that was home to people like Stan Van Gundy and Lee Corso. When he was 17, Davis attended a home poker game at a friend’s house in Lake Mary; it was his first time ever playing the game.

“I don’t even think we were playing for money,” Davis said. “If we were, it was probably only five bucks.” He was instantly hooked, and would spend literally hours at his kitchen table dealing out hands and studying the game. He consumed poker television shows and online videos. His favorite player was Phil Ivey.

“I just loved his game. He was never scared to put money in the middle,” Davis said. “I was like, ‘yeah, I’m trying to get like him.’” 

Davis took his love of poker with him to UCF, but soon learned that Division I football required far more of his focus than high school did, and he’d have little bandwidth for poker.

“Poker kind of took a backseat. Football kept me real busy and I didn’t even have any money.” He also didn’t have a car, and the closest casino was 40 minutes away. So for all intents and purposes, Davis quit poker, ironically right as he was old enough to play for real money. 

His decision to focus on football paid off, as he started nearly every game of his college career and entered the NFL draft in 2020. He joined the Bills right as they were catching their stride, finishing the previous season with a 10-6 record. In 2020 they improved to 13-3 and got their first playoff win since 1995, making it all the way to the AFC Championship game. 

Davis was immediately thrown into a program that was focused on winning championships, and it required all of his time, energy and focus. Being completely focused on football was a bit easier being in a part of the country where, for better or for worse, there were no distractions. 

“Being in Buffalo, there’s not a lot to do here,” Davis said. Players on teams in bigger markets had plenty of nightlife and other pleasures to indulge in on their off days. For the Bills, their leisure time often consisted of Games of Bourré, a trick-taking gambling card game. 

Bourré is notorious for causing major beef between professional athletes. It was responsible for Gilbert Arenas getting suspended from the NBA and even caused a physical altercation on the Grizzlies team plane.

“There’s definitely more tension when it comes to playing Bourré,” Davis said. “Especially at the stakes us NFL guys play at.”

In Bourré, players sometimes have to match the pot after a hand instead of anteing, which means even at modest stakes players can sometimes lose way more than they bargained for.

Instead, Davis reached back into his past. He felt like poker would be a lot more laid back for everyone, since it was far less volatile, and it could be played for far lower stakes.

One night after Davis and some of his teammates went to see comedian Shane Gillis (a friend of Davis’s) perform in Buffalo, they all ended up back at Davis’ house. He suggested the six of them play poker, and everything came together. The next week at the practice facility, word got around about the poker game, and some more of Davis’ teammates asked when he was going to host another game so they could join. They ran it back the next week, and then the week after that. 

“Everyone’s having fun. I’m like, ‘Well, shoot, I might as well get a table. We can do this every week.’ And the guys were like, ‘Yeah, we’d be here every time.’”

Davis’s friend and manager Bert Whigham suggested they could turn a room in Davis’s house into a cardroom. “So I just said, ‘You know, fuck it, I’m just gonna go all out,’” Davis said. He bought a top-of-the-line table, 12 chairs, four TVs. He hired a chef to cook a meal for everyone while they played. And Davis’s former high school coach back in Sanford even introduced him to someone in Buffalo who was an experienced professional poker dealer to deal the game. 

It didn’t take long for Davis’s crib to become the most popular hangout for members of the team. “We’ll have people literally sitting inside waiting,” he says. “The table’s gonna be maxed out every single night.” 

The game at Davis’s house serves as more than just a way to pass the time, in Davis’ estimation. He believes it helps the Bills’ success, even if only in smaller, more subtle ways. For one, Davis pointed out how some of the skills that make someone a good poker player are useful on the field, and vice versa, like the patience and discipline to wait for a good hand.

“For me, at the receiver position, there can be a game where I get 10 balls. There can be one where I got zero balls,” said Davis. “But at the end of the day, you still have to have patience and play good because you know that one time, that one play could be a big one. That one catch can be the game winner.”

There’s also the ability to put another player on tilt by getting in their head, a skill Davis took from the poker table to the football field.

“For some guys, you have to throw’em off their game a little bit or get in their head to where it forces them to make a mistake that they usually wouldn’t make,” Davis said. “Maybe you’re needling a guy a little bit too much and now he’s getting frustrated and mad and maybe he might hit you a little bit after the whistle. Or maybe he might grab your face mask at the line of scrimmage and now you got a 15-yard penalty. Things like that can definitely give you the advantage. And I will definitely say something to somebody if I know I can get in their head to where I can make them make a mistake down the road.”

But the most important role Davis’s game plays in the team’s success is fostering a camaraderie that is, to hear a lot of folks tell it, all-too-rare in the NFL. When Davis made an appearance on the Pat McAfee Show on ESPN in September, McAfee expressed surprise to hear that the team’s kicker, wide receivers, and defensive players were hanging out together on off days. “It’s not like that everywhere,” McAfee told Davis. “You guys know that’s a special thing, right?” 

As one of the team captains, Davis sees fostering team morale as his responsibility, and feels like running his poker game is simply part of the process in a winning program. “It’s part of having team camaraderie and having a better team,” Davis said. “We’re sacrificing all of our time with our family each and every week. We put a lot of time into football. So being able to get together with the guys you play with, that you go to war with, and smile on a Monday night is big.” 

McAfee is right that a lot of the players on a football team don’t always get to know each other on a personal level, since the focus week in and week out is on the game. But Davis’s house is a place where players, and even their families, forge relationships.

“The guys, all their girls will come – the wives will come hang out and drink wine in the kitchen or the living room. And everyone is getting to know everybody just by being around each other.”

The weekly poker game can help players deal with the stress that comes with playing professional sports at such a high level, too. When players have a bad game and their confidence gets rattled, players have a tendency to get stuck in their own heads, worrying that their teammates have also lost confidence in them. But when they hang out at Davis’s house and play cards, they build that confidence back up. “You get around the guys and you know everything’s all good,” Davis said. “Everyone still loves you, everyone’s still got your back.” 

They may take each other’s chips, but Davis makes sure it’s never enough for hurt feelings, and that they never play all night (last hand is at 10 p.m.). While poker is ultimately a competition, and one he takes seriously, at Davis’s house its primary purpose is pleasure and leisure. He uses poker, and all the mental and psychological warfare it entails, as a means to build his teammates up and encourage cooperation. It sounds counterintuitive, but the results so far speak for themselves.

“I’m telling you I know, I know it’s special,” Davis said. “I know there’s not a lot of people that are doing this and that’s what I’ve always wanted in my house. I always wanted to be the house everybody wanted to come to. And that’s what I did.”

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