By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
They slide into their chairs and complement the scenery--a hip little place with low-slung lights that cast shadows just right on the postmodern tables and wine-red walls. He orders pasta with a heavy cream sauce, gives some to his girl Brittany. He lets her finish his sentences once or twice; other times he needles her.
It's odd, because this is how a normal person acts--someone who wastes away on the couch, letting the television soften his brain, someone who inches along the highway each morning in a plastic-metal coffin just to get to some job he doesn't like.
That's usually not David Williams. He isn't normal. He never was really, and that's truer today than it was when he was growing up. As a teen he was one of the area's brightest, attending the Academy of Math and Science and making thousands of dollars on the side as one of the world's best "Magic: The Gathering" players, a sword-and-sorcery card game for self-avowed nerds that Williams describes as "Pokemon for the advanced." He's constantly on the go now, flying from L.A. to Aruba to Paris to wherever. His passport stamps--Netherlands TaiwanSpain--bleed together into a blur on the pages. So he'll take these quiet moments when he can get them--enjoying the serenity that comes after a storm so big you can't be sure that it ever happened.
"Things have been kinda crazy, yeah," Williams says, rubbing his face. His glasses are off now. His short hair and tight beard make him look like a scale model of Tim Duncan. He hears that from people all the time, he says, even though he'd rather not hear it at all.
"The other day, this woman recognized me," he says. "I'm just walking along, and she says, 'Hey, aren't you that poker guy?' And I say yeah, and she asks me how much I won. I say a few million. So she says, 'I want you to meet my daughter.' There may have been a pause in there, but that's pretty much how it went."
Brittany shoots him a little smirk and snuggles closer. They've been together for three years and share an uptown apartment. She knows this is how things are going to be from now on. Her boyfriend is a celebrity, and there's no going back. People are going to demand his time, shout his name, try to get close to him and take his millions.
More than a month ago, Williams went to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker. It's the end-all for card players, where amateurs can sit at the tables with professionals. Anyone who puts up the $10,000 entry fee or wins a qualifier tournament known as a satellite can participate. You're as likely to be seated next to someone you've seen making million-dollar decisions on television as you are to be plopped down next to Joe Nobody. Even before this year's WSOP, Williams wasn't a nobody at the tables. He wasn't the guy who drops a few hundred at your local home game because he doesn't know the difference between having balls and having the nuts. He played in the underground card rooms around Dallas and online--a highly skilled player who made more than he lost. Maybe he wasn't a pro just yet, but he was good enough to build a serious bank roll and make people notice.
"Dallas players are some of the best in the world; all they need to do is get out there and show it," says Dallas pro Clonie Gowen (see "Poker Face," by Robert Wilonsky, April 1, 2004). "A lot of these players in Dallas make a good living from playing in the underground games. David is one of them. I remember seeing him pop up around town a lot, and he was faring well. You could tell he could play.
"There's a reason they call it Texas hold 'em. David and so many of the young guys that play in the games around town are really good--good enough that I'm just happy more of them don't make it to events on the pro circuit."
Williams had played in a pro tournament before, but he'd never played at the World Series of Poker. He figured he'd take a shot--if he played well, great. If not, he did his best. His best, as it turned out, was better than all but one player. Williams finished second and won $3.5 million. A few weeks later, he turned 24. He needs just two more semesters to graduate from SMU with a degree in economics and a minor in math. After that he could go to work for the rest of his life...or not. Play poker for the rest of his life...or not. He's young, rich and bright--and he has options.