The many paths to and away from a WCOOP title
I asked David Funkhouser to send me a picture of himself, and he did. I don't even have to publish it because you've seen it or one nearly identical to it.
It was the shot everyone knows: a stoic man sitting at a table. It could be any poker table in any casino in any country in the world. No doubt, it was Funkhouser in the photo, but--if this makes sense at all--he wasn't entirely there.
So, I asked him to send me another photo--maybe one of him somewhere else, maybe one of him doing something else he enjoyed. That's when the big email came in. Every picture had two things in common: there wasn't a poker table anywhere to be seen, and the man some people call "Funks" looked simply elated to be alive.
Funkhouser has every right to be happy. He won a WCOOP event this year. His bracelet win came after years of grinding to get one.
"As all tournament grinders know, the vast majority of tournaments end in disappointment," he said. "Day in and day out, we give it our all. We study the game, hone our strategies, tame our emotions, and risk our hard-earned money, only to come up short time and again."
But now he had broken through, won his bracelet, and found a small stamp of inspiration on a poker career that had serious ups and downs. He survived downswings, Black Friday, selling more action than he wanted, and things he doesn't even want to talk about in a public forum. Now he had a bracelet.
"As tough as the struggle can be at times, the excitement and accomplishment we feel when we succeed is easily worth the pain we endure," he said. "Deep runs, and more specifically the rare tournament wins, are what inspire us to continue."
This is the point in most poker stories where a big winner will want to talk about what's next--the next stop on the tour, the next online festival, the next poker goal, the next hero they want to topple.
That's not what Funkhouser wanted to talk about. He wanted to talk about a different kind of heroism.
"My heroes are the people of my life and of this world," he said. "Every day I see heroism everywhere. From simple joyous events like a man teaching his daughter to ride a bike, to difficult, complex and profound actions, such as a cousin forgiving his father for years of abuse and neglect. Human life is heroic to me."
Funkhouser is 31 years old. He learned the game 25 years ago at his parents' tableside. He played it through his young years in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He's been grinding as a pro for the bigger part of his adult life. Now?
Well, now is different. Poker still pays for his life. And yet...
"Basically, I am now at a point where I am questioning how I spend my time, and my professional trajectory," he said.
To many a professional player, it may seem counterintuitive. How can a man who just won one of poker's most coveted prizes start questioning...everything?
"I am realizing that perhaps much of my frustrations over the past 10 years as a poker pro were more than just frustrations about the game and results," Funkhouser said. "Perhaps, I was also frustrated that poker--win or lose--was not providing me the happiness and contentment that we all desire."
Funkhouser--now a decade into a poker career--is still fascinated by the game, the brilliant minds it attracts, and the how success often depends on immersing one's brain entirely in the pursuit. But there's something else.
"The emotional swings that accompany the variance and luck factor in poker can be dangerous if you allow them to permeate your mind," he said. "The key is to maintain your passion for the strategy, your competitive edge, and your desire to succeed, while at the same time being able to walk away from the table when the grind is over. Walk away physically, but also mentally."
Funkhouser is the first to admit, he's no expert at balancing his poker life with his personal life. He shares barely anything about poker with his friends outside the game (a rare exception was telling his new fiancee about his WCOOP win; she congratulated him on "killing everyone"). With that said, he thinks the next few decades will see the best of the game populated with players who have best figured out how to balance their poker and non-poker lives.
"That will be the key to longevity in this business," he said.
So, there hangs the big question. He's been leading up to this. What happens to the man they call Funks? If the NFL Super Bowl winner is going to Disney World, where does one go when he wins a WCOOP bracelet?
Back to school, apparently.
At age 31 and newly-minted as an online poker champion, David Funkhouser is going to college with the aim of changing the trajectory of his career and his life.
"I know I will always play poker, but I feel something lacking in my life. I want to get more involved in my community. I want to have a directly positive impact on the lives of those around me," he said.
David Funkhouser has walked many a path to end up with his WCOOP title. It now seems he has also found a path away from it, one that doesn't say goodbye to poker but leads him toward whatever he's missed in the decade of battling for gold.
"I am not sure how or in what capacity I will accomplish this, but I am hoping that by returning to school, I will start my way down a path toward a more fulfilling existence," he said.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging