Something you didn't know about... Victor Ramdin
The Team PokerStars Pro opens up about swapping sun-kissed Guyana for the mean streets of the Bronx, his inspiring career journey and his devotion to helping sick children in his home country...
With over $4m in live poker earnings, 49-year-old business owner and philanthropist Victor Ramdin has sure come a long way since he first landed in New York City in the late 1980s with just a backpack and $40 in his pocket.
Born in Guyana's capital, Georgetown, in 1968 - shortly after the South American country gained independence from the UK - life was tough for Victor and his family. Facing a lack of job prospects and poverty, he upped sticks and emigrated to seek a better life and achieve the American Dream.
There were ups and downs along the way, but the entrepreneur was determined to succeed in both business and poker. "You have to take a punch, get back up and go again," he explains.
What was it like growing up in Guyana?
I lived in Guyana until I was 21. Guyana had a dictator and the regime was very tough. We also had very bad racism in our country and jobs were hard to come by. I was a taxi driver and I worked the entire month to buy one tyre for my car - that's how difficult it was. The cost of living was very high and it was very hard to survive. Not having much education and a proper job were my big reasons to move, so I left my parents and brothers and sisters and moved to New York City in 1989, arriving in the middle of winter.
Arriving in a new country must have been quite daunting and bewildering for a 21-year-old?
I had to fend for myself. The very first job I had in America was working in a morgue. I went in at 6pm and I was supposed to work until 6am but I didn't last the night. There was a dead guy in the freezer who had been shot in the head and I walked off the job at 1am after seven hours. From there, I worked in another freezer where they stored fish. However, I lived in the Bronx and I used to ride on the train smelling of fish every day and passengers would get up and move away from me. But I did that job for a few years.
Describe life in the Bronx in the late eighties.
Before former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani came into power [in 1994], it was horrible and very rough. I witnessed so many robberies. One time I was at work and a guy came in with an Uzi sub-machine gun. I got robbed a couple of times, but Giuliani took a lot of criminals off the streets.
How did you go from working in a fish freezer to running a chain of stores?
In 1992 my grandfather lent me some money and I opened a 'mom and pop' store selling various items for a dollar. I eventually had ten of these dollar stores in New York, although I only owned one because my employees put up their own money and I gave them my expertise for a commission. For seven straight years I never lost a single employee. All of them are financially comfortable today and have done well for themselves. I always tried to look after my staff because I knew that way the business would flourish - and it did. I also got into real estate, which was tough but I learned a lot. You have to take a punch, get back up and go again.
I've always had a quick brain for business and buying and selling. I used to visit auctions where they sold stuff from bankrupt businesses. In fact, I'm opening a pizzeria right now and I need equipment so I'm hoping to buy a lot of it from an upcoming auction at 10 to 15 cents on the dollar. Am I going to make pizza? Who knows - I'm a quick learner. No, I'll be getting the experts in to run it and hopefully it succeeds. To use a poker term, I'm pretty much all-in with this project and I cannot fail.
How do you strike a balance between running and opening businesses and playing poker at a high level?
I don't play as much as I used to, but when I do I give it 1000%. I still love poker and play online when I'm in Canada. And I always look forward to the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) and the World Series of Poker. I'm there every year. But I have a major distraction that has stopped me playing a lot over the years. My son, who is 21 now, has had a dreaded form of cluster headaches, which are chronic migraines that last four or five hours, on and off for the past nine years. He has suffered so much and missed a lot of school over the years. So it's very hard for me to sit down and play a $5,000 or $10,000 tournament. I can't focus. Sometimes we have to weigh up what's important in life. I absolutely love to play poker, but you have to make sure everything is right at home.
How is your son today?
Fortunately, he is getting better and studying architecture. However, he still gets the migraines. I bought a used car with 15,000 miles on the clock and in the last year I've put another 45,000 miles on it. Every time he is not well I drive to his college, which is a 400-mile round trip because I want to comfort him. In some cases these cluster headaches lead to the sufferer committing suicide, so I want to make sure I'm there to support him as much as I can.
You have long been involved in a medical outreach program for children in Guyana. Can you tell us about Guyana Watch's work and its achievements?
It started 20 years when Guyana Watch's president saw the need to help get people medication that they can't afford. However, it took a big turn 15 years ago when we realised that there was no surgery available for children born with heart defects. This is a third world country, which means if you are poor in Guyana and you have a child with a defect you can consider them dead because the chance of surgery is slim to none. And these are very easy surgeries for something like a hole in the heart. We also have a lot of blue babies [newborns with a blue complexion from a lack of oxygen in the blood caused by a defect of the heart or blood vessels] in Guyana.
Once a year, we go for about 12 days and take doctors and medication. Yet we may find 55 kids who need heart surgery and we can only fix seven or eight of them. You know how painful that is? I used to cry every day because how could we say yes to this child and no to that one? We then have to fly the kids to the US, get them and their parents accommodation, put the kids in the hospital - the logistics are mindboggling. So many famous poker players have supported Guyana Watch wholeheartedly and have been to down there to see what it does. When certain poker players do well, Guyana Watch does well. Some have given incredible amounts of money; they are incredible human beings.
How do you like to relax when you're not working or busy with Guyana Watch?
I love to play pool in bars, and I still play in a team. I also play a weekly stud poker game with a bunch of guys in their seventies and eighties. I'm the youngest there, yet I really look forward to it every week. I also want to say that for the PCA in January I'm hoping to be in the best shape of my life. I've gained weight lately and I'm not happy about it. But I've been carefully watching what I eat and trying to get healthy.
Finally, your real name is Annand. So where did 'Victor' come from?
Victor was my father's name. I love his name and I decided to use it as people found it easier to say Victor rather than Annand. It just stuck!