Every day I wake up fully aware that reality is far from what I’d like it to be. These two articles brought the subject to the front of my mind today; so here goes (long; feel free to skip to bolded if you just want my takeaways):
I spent much of my time from ages 16-22 learning how to play poker. I became fascinated with the game, both due to the intellectual stimulation provided and the opportunity to test my abilities while risking real money. I enrolled in college at Cornell University and completed a degree, but poker remained a main focus throughout my time at Cornell. By junior and senior year, I realized that I needed to spend more time on my studies anyway. Completing my degree was an important personal goal and one that many close friends and family members advised me to try my best to achieve. I adapted and made poker more of a 10-15 hour/week side job, which actually likely helped me to play my A-game a larger % of the time than I would have otherwise, ran pretty well, and made a very good living while getting my degree.
Life was going great, but soon after graduation, Black Friday happened and changed my (and many of my closest friends’) world. Prior to that, I had little interest in live poker, as I was an introverted guy who appreciated working from home and did well enough doing that to have to really care about live poker. The 2011 WSOP was the first time I really took it seriously. I read books on poker tells and focused on paying attention at the table and limiting device time at the table, which I had previously struggled with. But I felt a lot of stress about the future (a bad relationship didn’t help). At the end of the summer, the relationship ended, and I had no sense of direction. I ended up deciding to move to Vancouver to continue my online poker career. I did very well on the tables during my 3 months in Vancouver (actually closer to 2 due to a trip to Europe for EPT London and WSOPE in Cannes), but I missed my family, friends, and freedom dearly. I developed some serious depression, moved back in with my parents, and started seeing a therapist.
At the therapist’s office I completed a career inventory exam, which took about 3 hours to complete. I was unhappy with what poker had become, but uncertain about what else I could do. I completed my degree but felt ill-equipped to make a transition given my mental state and the abruptness of online poker going away. I placed high for computer science though, so I started taking a low-commitment online class on Udacity.com on Python. I completed half the class or so while also trying to change my living situation as a potential path to happiness. I rented a place in Hallandale Beach, FL with some friends for a month in April 2012. To some extent, being with friends, the weather, and experimenting with the South Florida poker scene was a positive change for me. I was certainly much happier than I was on the couch at my parents’ house, leaving occasionally just to walk and to see my therapist. I met a realtor playing a $1k NLH tourney at Seminole Hard Rock (love you Jackie!) and decided that maybe impulse buying a condo on Fort Lauderdale Beach would make me happy. I bought the condo, won my first bracelet that summer, and moved to Florida part-time.
I also experimented with Chicago, since my friends had an intriguing start-up company (DraftDay.com, a daily fantasy sports site) that I had invested in and was eager to try to get more involved with. Unfortunately, at that stage of my life there just wasn’t much of a fit for me in the day-to-day operations, so I just played a lot of DFS on the site, played some U.S.-facing online poker on wonderful sites like Carbon and America’s Cardroom (note: wonderful is used very sarcastically here; play these sites at your own risk), and made some trips to the Horseshoe Hammond to play some 10/20 PLO. It wasn’t quite the 200/400 PLO games I was beating pre-BF but at least I got to play some poker, right? I also got Bulls season tickets (been a fan since watching Jordan growing up), but I got depressed, left Chicago for Florida when the weather got bad, and went to 4 or 5 out of 41 home games (it was a running joke amongst my friends – what happens first: DRose returns or Brian attends a game?).
During this time, I also tried some staking deals, since the poker games available to me weren’t very stimulating or lucrative. Part of the motivation was that after BF some good friends were having a tougher go of it and I wanted to help. Some went well, some went poorly, I felt wronged by the way some turned out, but I didn’t risk too large of a % of my net worth doing it and I learned some valuable lessons at least.
I tried to get into a daily routine built around online play (US sites), diet, exercise, and social life. It worked to an extent but poker just wasn’t fun anymore. I started playing online chess as an alternative means of stimulation. I even got hooked on Candy Crush at one point while depressed and spent hours a day lying in bed playing it. I found a good therapist in Florida as well as some social groups and activities that I thought could help cheer me up. It wasn’t easy, but I tried hard. Before the 2014 WSOP, I decided to sell action to tourneys for the first time. My finances had deteriorated due to a combination of poor financial decisions, calculated financial risks that didn’t work out, reduced earning potential, regression in my poker game due to depression/lack of motivation/lack of opportunity to play tough games, and lack of liquidity (condo mainly). I sold a package for WSOP 10ks and final tabled two of them (10k Stud8 and 10k Razz), still breaking even or so for the series due to bricking smaller buyin events that I did not sell for. I sold and swapped most of my WSOP main action, made a deep run (64th), and then shipped most of my earnings away to investors and swaps. During the course of all this time, I got into OFC, but my lack of game selection and motivation to learn the game (due to depression and just not enjoying it as much as other forms of poker) made that a bit costly.
I came back to Florida after the 2014 WSOP feeling pretty lost and directionless. My finances were a shell of what they had been on Black Friday. I made a regretful career decision that I didn’t love but at least gave me a chance to be happy for the first time in years. It certainly helped more than the traveling or the condo.
I also continued to play some live poker, although I had mixed feelings about it – especially given my depression, which had improved but not entirely. In November 2014 I traveled to Jacksonville to play WPT BestBet (great poker room btw!). I was on the fence about whether to make the 4-5 hour drive, but they lured me in with a golf outing at TPC Sawgrass prior to the tournament. I had also been talking some with Sonya, whom I had met over a year prior in Florida via mutual friends. We made tentative plans to hang out in Jacksonville. I showed up to the golf course and Sonya was there bright and early at 8 or 9am (after getting off her dealing shift at 4am, I’d later learn). I wasn’t in the most social mood, but Sonya was very friendly and offered some shots to break the ice a little. We ended up hanging out that night, hit it off, and have been together since December.
My professional year has certainly been interesting and buzzworthy, and I’m proud of what I accomplished this year at the WSOP (and excited to gun for POY in Berlin next month), but Sonya has been the real change in my life. From summer 2011 until that Jacksonville trip in November 2014, I honestly had no sense of purpose. I liked poker but lacked the means to play the game on my terms. I tried to start paths toward other careers but my mental state made that very difficult and I wasn’t able to make it happen really. Sonya changed my entire perspective and helped me to really believe in myself again (beyond being a guy who could show up at a poker table and win). It’s no accident that the 2015 WSOP was my most successful to date. Between sidebets that drove me to play 60+ hours a week of live tournament poker and Sonya’s help in keeping me sane and balanced, I was well positioned to succeed.
Since the WSOP, I’ve been at a weird crossroads. I think my poker game is sharper than ever, but I have limited desirable ways to actually put it to use (Twitch streaming NJ sites at coffee shops or an office I’d rent, teaching a college class on poker, attending charity events, and writing books being the only four I can really think of at the moment). I’m also goal-oriented and see very few interesting goals I can set going forward with poker. And there’s a faction of the poker community (many of whom have never actually tried to get to know me in any way) who bring a high level of hate and hypocrisy to the table (this includes some media and industry people as well as players). I realize that poker (and the broader gambling world) is cut-throat, but I question whether that kind of environment is worth the aggravation. I know many people who love their jobs, and in 2015 I’d have to say very few are poker players (props to poker players out there who do still love their job – not easy sledding in today’s poker economy). For me, I value things like freedom, quality of life, and time spent with loved ones strongly. I’ve tried hard to integrate poker into this lifestyle but on a full-time basis I don’t really see how it can work in today’s poker economy. Going forward, I plan on diving into a few other potential career paths (with a clear mind and Sonya’s love and support) and relegating poker to part-time status (while trying to do good in the process). I still love the game itself, but the economic and political forces driving it have left it in a place in which I just can’t continue to focus on it and remain happy/sane.
I want this post to have a happy ending, so here are some
lessons I have learned about happiness:
- Money can buy happiness….to an extent – There is some research indicating that self-reported day-to-day happiness virtually plateaus after one has enough money to essentially live without having to wake up worrying about money. Also, there is plenty of research indicating that money only drives happiness when either spent on experiences or given away (presumably to loved ones and/or causes one is passionate about). Playing poker is a volatile job; even those more well-off spend time stressing about money. Obviously other professions (stock trader, business owner, service industry, etc) contain similar stresses (due to income variance), but for most people this is not reality. The competitiveness of these types of industries can be stimulating but also can be very stressful. At a very minium, I think it’s important to truly understand variance to be happy in these types of jobs.
- Life balance is crucial – HBR take Happiness is difficult (maybe impossible) to achieve when one bases his/her sense of worth on one aspect of life. At my lowest points, I relied on my poker talent to help me believe in myself. This was a short-term band-aid that helped a bit, but I didn’t truly become happy until I fell in love and refocused my energy on all kinds of things – relationships, work (of varying natures in my case), hobbies, fitness, learning, social media (too much recently – I need a job…), just general self-improvement really. I’ve found that goal-setting drives happiness for me. When I lack concrete goals, I lose focus and direction. I’ve had days in which I’ve won substantial sums of money and still felt empty. Balance is really important, IMO.
- All you need is love – Love is the one thing that has consistently brought me happiness. I’m lucky to have been raised by some amazing parents who have always had my back, unconditionally. I’m lucky to have plenty of other close family members and friends and for the experiences we’ve shared. And I’m especially lucky that Sonya believed in me at a time in which I was struggling to believe in myself. At my lowest points (without going into graphic detail – they were quite low) I always had the knowledge that I had people who loved me and I loved back, and this gave me hope for a day that I could recover from my depressive state and start working toward new, exciting goals once again.
Happy to discuss. Thanks for your time, brave souls who read this entire thing.