Last week, I was flying home from Montreal after spending 4 nights there and playing a World Poker Tour event. The tournament ended up disappointing for me (bagged top 10 stack on Day 1, out 3 hours into day 2), but the trip was great. I loved getting to explore an amazing new city, especially since my favorite person was able to make it for 2 nights to explore with me. It did dawn on me that the highlights of my trip had nothing to do with poker itself (nor would they have even if I made a deep-but-not-first-place run). In that moment, I decided I was ready.
It was about 7 years ago that I first experienced the dark side of poker in a meaningful way. In December 2009, I beat Viktor Blom for $4.2 million in a single four-hour session of online $500/1000 HU PLO, the largest single-day win in the history of online poker. Six-tabling HU PLO does not leave much time for thinking or reflecting; it’s all about preparation and instincts. I was the better player on that day and lady luck was kind to me also. When the dust settled and I checked my Holdem Manager, I was on cloud nine. The euphoria of that moment has been replicated only a few other times in my life (although similarly happy and arguably more healthy feelings surface more often, mainly due to loving relationships I have). I grabbed a drink and tried to get my roommates and friends to join in the celebration, but it was finals week at Cornell and there were no celebrations to be had. I ended up just having a drink or two by myself, watched some late night TV, and called it a night.
The next morning, I was flooded with interview requests. Wow, people want to hear what 21-year-old me has to say! How cool! Of course I tried to accommodate as many as I could. Some of the interviews were easy enough. One, however, would be my introduction to the dark side.
As I noted above, preparation is key when playing 6 tables of HU poker, regardless of opponent. Viktor had a very unique style and had been playing anyone who would step up to the plate. I personally spent a bunch of time watching him play as well as reading the 2+2 High Stakes Thread in NVG for some hand analysis samples. A friend whom I studied poker with regularly took it a step further and purchased some of Viktor’s hands off a website, a practice that violated the T+C of Full Tilt Poker but was relatively common in those days and not established as taboo (you can find posts of several reputable players trying to do the same right out in the open).
I did an interview with Gary Wise for ESPN. 21-year-old Brian was humble by nature and felt kind of awkward doing an interview touting me, so I went into it thinking that I wanted to credit my friends for their help in preparation. Somehow that lead to socially awkward 21-year-old Brian uttering the phrase “conglomerated hand history databases” on tape in the interview (For the record – I don’t even know if that’s an actual thing that can be done. Mania and anxiety phrased that sentence for me.). I explained to Gary post-interview that the words were inaccurate and taken out of context. He replied that I said them on tape, so of course they were true. That was when I first learned that poker media probably doesn’t have my best interests at heart.
In the ensuing weeks, I received a lot of heat, albeit mostly from NVG-tards and failing players (most real pros had my back, FWIW). I remember being at an Indiana Jones show at Walt Disney World with my parents and frustratedly scrolling 2+2 watching my character be defamed. Eventually, FTP investigated, stripped my friend of red pro status for a month, and found that I did nothing wrong. Still, from time to time I would hear people label me a cheater. It ate at me some.
I got over it though. I spent the rest of college focusing mostly on my studies and relegated poker to 10-20 hour a week status, because I thought it would always be there after I graduated. Then, four months after I graduated, I was visiting my parents in PA. I tried to log into online poker sites, and got the DOJ screen of death. I saw everyone around me panicking, but I knew that would do no good. I tried to take a deep breath and calmly assess the situation. It wasn’t pretty.
I shifted my focus from online poker to live poker for the next few months, got 2nd in a HU tourney in Madrid to Andrew Lichtenberger, made a run or two at the WSOP (my first full WSOP), won some money playing nosebleed games in Bobby’s Room at Bellagio, then came back to my parents’ place in PA and tried to plan my next move. Moving abroad sounded kind of fun at first. I narrowed my search to Vancouver, Montreal, Playa del Carmen, Barcelona, maybe one more that I’m forgetting. I chose Vancouver due to quality of life, similarity to America, and the existing poker community there. I moved there for 3 months in September of 2011 to try it out. I did all the research by myself, and made a few rookie mistakes (building wasn’t great, not close to a grocery store, meh surrounding blocks). I went to 3 banks on morning 1 before one would finally let me open an account. After jumping through a few hoops, I finally got set up online again.
From a poker standpoint, Vancouver was great. I left for 3 weeks mid-trip to play EPT London and WSOP Europe in Cannes, but when I was in Vancouver playing online, I crushed it. 50/100 PLO games were great; I focused on those and banked $350k or so online during my 3 month stay. Something else was happening though. I felt really far away from home. I missed my friends and family (not hating on the good friends I made in Vancouver, much love). It started to be cold and rainy every day in November, and going outside was no longer fun. I was seeing a girl casually, and one day I called her and told her I had to stop, not because of her but because my depression made leaving my apartment unbearable. Prior to Thanksgiving, I booked a flight, took what felt like 3 or 4 hours to pack up all my stuff, and flew back to PA, swearing to never be an expat again.
After 3 or 4 months on my parents’ couch trying to convince myself that my brain wasn’t actually disintegrating, some friends suggested renting a place in Hallandale Beach, FL for a month. It seemed better than continuing to wallow in my own misery, so I did it. And I fell in love with South Florida. Part of that was a manic love because simply palatable was so much better than my status quo. I found fun, big live cash games to play in (games which I mostly get shut out of today). I played some live tournaments from $1k to $10k buyin and found out that they were actually pretty fun (I had barely played live MTTs at all pre-Black Friday. Less than 10 lifetime prior to BF). I met some people I liked, one of whom was a local realtor I met playing a $1k at Hard Rock. I decided that buying a $790k beachfront condo and putting 30% down due to the nature of my profession was expensive but justified because I wouldn’t go back to hopeless depression.
Less than two years later, I lied in bed in that very beachfront condo, hopelessly depressed. Life comes at you fast.
I saw my net worth plunge by something like 70% from 2012-2014 due to a combination of ill-advised (poker staking) and unlucky (DraftDay) investments as well as being hustled by my “friends”/peers in games I was new to like Super Stud 8/b and Open Face. I tried renting a place in Chicago and getting more hands-on with DraftDay, only to realize they had actual employees to do all that was necessary and I didn’t really have a role. I played on USA poker sites some, then read a book called Alligator Blood by James Leighton that explored the underworld of Daniel Tzvetkoff and black market payment processors. I withdrew my balances.
I befriended a poker pro who lived nearby. We bonded over common interests and talked poker a bunch. At one point, he said he could set me up with a PokerStars account that I could play on from Florida with no trace. I was depressed again and missing online poker dearly and feeling out of good options, so I took him up on it. It was the wrong thing to do, but I justified it by how wronged I felt by the entire industry. Mental health played a big role in my decision. When the sky fell, I quickly found out that this “friend” didn’t have my back at all (in fact, he would go on to double cross me in ways too repulsive to even post on a public blog). Nor did quite a few others whom I expected to. I didn’t respond to the attacks well, and lashed out back some. When the dust settled, I realized I had effectively turned into the person that I resent (if only for a short period of time).
I can remember seeing therapists 4 and 5 years ago taking career inventory tests and talking about how I needed to move on from poker to be happy. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the self-confidence to do it until now. Sonya, whom I met in August 2013 and started dating in December 2014, has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s been a long, sometimes painful journey, but with her help I have realized that yes, I am brilliant, and yes, I am capable of great things bigger than mastering a game and winning other people’s money. And while I love the game itself, I loathe the politics and a number of industry players.
The time is now for me to shift my focus to my new company – UniTea (@uniteafl on Twitter and Instagram). More details on that in a blog to come. I feel reborn and I can’t wait for this new journey. If you didn’t notice, UniTea is a pun on unity, something we are in dire need of these days.