Standing on the fault line
This week, we are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the PokerStars Blog with a series of articles looking back on the blog's history and the people who make it what it has become.
Tim Fiorvanti's dice--and make no mistake, the dice may have been the property of the Mohegan Sun, but they belonged to Tim--tumbled against the wall in front of us. Before their energy had fully seeped into the felt, we were screaming. Tim was in a trance, and he'd just hit the point again. It was the middle of one of the most amazing craps rolls I've ever seen, and there was nothing wrong in the world.
The PokerStars Blog team and the other assembled poker media (including Tim) were celebrating the end of another successful North American Poker Tour stop, and we were doing it by, of all things, crushing a craps game. It wasn't how we normally chose to celebrate, but there had been nothing normal or predictable about that stop.
We'd witnessed one of the most ridiculous things that had happened in poker. Vanessa Selbst and Jason Mercier (who had, respectively, won the Main Event and High Roller the year before) had both repeated as champions in the same events.
"The Jason Mercier/Vanessa Selbst combo repeat at NAPT Mohegan Sun in 2010/2011 was just gnarly," said Kristin Bihr, who was there for the PokerStars Blog. "Two players at the top of their respective games, just crushing it two years in a row. I think Howard (Swains) and I figured out that the odds of two repeat High Roller/Main Event champions in those particular events were in the neighborhood of 27,000 to 1."
So, as we stood there waiting for the witching hour and knowing we all had to fly out the next morning, we had no reason to believe we were standing squarely on a fault line that was about to shake the poker terrain to its core and change the lives of every poker player in the world.
We couldn't have known that. The event had been a resounding success. The champions had established themselves as young living legends. And Tim couldn't miss the damned point. Everything was perfect that night.
The date: April 14, 2011.
By the time our planes landed the next day, April 15, 2011, poker's Black Friday, the only thing that hadn't changed was our memory of just how perfect everything had been just 12 hours earlier.
That 24-hour period represented one of the best days and worst days ever for those of us who work on the PokerStars Blog. When we went to sleep, online poker in America still existed. The North American Poker Tour still existed. The world as we knew it still existed. By the next time our heads hit a pillow, all of that was gone. Though the memory still stings, we've long since found our footing and returned to normalcy. Regardless, the story represents something bigger about what it has meant to work on the PokerStars Blog for the last decade.
Implicit in the job of our reporters is the understanding is that our responsibility is to find those fault lines where lives change and bear witness to them. Sure, we understand poker is just a game, and, yes, we do our best to not overstate the game's impact. With that said, over the years, we have been fortunate to watch lives change time again. We've seen fortunes won and lost. We've seen no-names become stars and we've watched the brightest stars burn out.
Kristin Bihr traveled all over Latin America for us and one day ran into a young Brazilian woman named Daniela Zapiello.
"No one had ever heard of her. She had most recently been working in a shoe store in Sao Paulo for the equivalent of something like $9 US an hour and was supporting her entire family," Bihr remembered. "At the time, she was playing low buy-in 27 and 45-man SNGs on Stars and had won her way in to the LAPT on a satellite. I was so impressed by her, not only how good a player she was, but at the composure she had being thrust onto a TV final table out of nowhere."
Zapiello went on to finish fifth in that event for $52,000. For today's big-money pros, that wasn't a lot of money, but for the young shoe salesperson, it was a fortune.
"That money was life-changing and set off her entire career," Bihr said.
Bihr's story is one we could repeat a few hundred times. It's easy to support the PokerStars Makes Millionaires promotion because we have seen it happen time and time again.
But it's more than that. It's more than the lure of seven-figure wins, huge trophies, and world travel. It seems like we have an opportunity to see lives changed every week, whether it's in the PokerStars Sunday Million or on one of the ubiquitous regional tours.
Few people are better suited to see it happen than our own Nick Wright who has worked on nearly every one of our European tours.
"I've had the opportunity to watch many of today's stars cut their teeth before moving onto bigger events and have continued success," Wright said. "However, my most memorable moment surrounds a man who has no ambition of moving up and could barely comprehend the money he was playing for on the UKIPT let alone the EPT."
Wright saw it happen when Richard Evans made an insane comeback victory at UKIPT3 Dublin in May 2012. Evans had been down to two big blinds with 27 players left. He went on to win €75,000 after having qualified for only €15.
"Think for a second about what you'd do with €75,000," Wright said. "It doesn't necessarily sound like life-changing money, but for Evans, a self-confessed micro-stakes player who at the time was a cashier in the Portmeirion village where he lived, it truly was."
Evans went on to win the UKIPT Champion of Champions event which earned him seats to every event in the next season. He used the money he earned to buy his own business.
Wright said, "Evans' win certainly didn't create a poker boom in Portmeirion. He didn't win a bracelet, and few people outside of the UK poker scene will know his name. But did his win change his life? You bet it did."
There have been countless moments we stood on that fault line, those tiny little divisions between good luck and bad luck, those quick moments that can send a life in one direction or another. There was that half-second in the 2005 WSOP where Greg Raymer was just one card away from having a chance at making a second consecutive WSOP Main Event final table. There was the moment Matt Affleck lost everything. We could list them for hours.
Instead, there are two stories of changing lives that stand out after ten years.
The first came in 2013 in Queenstown. Jonathan Bredin was a fighter. No one ever denied that. Confined to a wheelchair due to Cerebral Palsy, Bredin needed assistance to even play poker. He used an iPad to communicate with an assistant. Bredin might have been a long shot for a title. Instead, he again defied the odds, and did so in a fashion that was too good even for Hollywood. How often is your winning hand the same one you have tattooed on your arm?
Heath Chick wrote the story for us at the time, and he still recalls it as the best thing he and fellow reporter Josh Bell have covered in our Asia-Pacific region.
"The fact that Jono overcame his disability to win the trophy and the final hand couldn't have been scripted any more perfectly," Chick said.
Indeed, a great many times, it's the poker changing a player's life. However, we have also been fortunate to watch players work to change lives on their own. It's happened with PokerStars' many charity relief efforts, Barry Greenstein's philanthropic work, and on countless other occasions.
Of all those stories, our young gun writer Alex Villegas may have told it the best.
Villegas traveled to Guyana with Team PokerStars Pro Victor Ramdin where Ramdin had been traveling for years to help provide medical care for the needy in that country.
"I promised God that if I ever won a major tournament, I'd make a lot of people happy," Ramdin told Villegas at the time.
"Before then, poker-related charity was always a side-note, just a percentage of a prize pool or a pin on a jacket," Villegas remembered this week. "Victor made it real."
The story Villegas produced might have been the best account of a life-changing moment we've ever covered. You can read it here: Team Pro giving back: "I know Victor is going to take care of me."
"Victor didn't just donate money. He donated time and sweat. Victor worked 15-hour days alongside doctors and dentists in brutal humidity and heat setting up clinic an helping the Guyanese," Villegas said. "You could see the lives they saved. Every day at least one child who'd received life-saving heart surgery thanks to Guyana Watch would show up. They were bigger, stronger, and older than they ever could've been without Ramdin's helping hand."
We have now spent a decade on this fault line. Our goal is always to see history happen and report it for posterity. Along the way, we have been privileged to see what happens when lives change. It's not always good, and it's not always ever-lasting, but those moments stick with us. They remind us anything can change in an instant, not just in poker, but in life, too.
Thanks for reading all these years. If you'd like to play in the April 21th 20:00 ET PokerStars Blog 10th Anniversary freeroll, you can find it by searching "Blog" in the PokerStars lobby. The password is comprehensive.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging