Living in Chad Brown's orbit
Chad Brown traveled the world. Country to country, continent to continent, he put his bags down in more places than most people can name. Regardless, no matter where he went, he was always looking for an opportunity to look up. If there was a planetarium near by, that's where Brown spent his time.
There was a night several years ago where Brown stood in a planetarium with his then-wife, Vanessa Rousso. They looked at the stars and the vast expanse of everything. Rousso wondered if she could ever live in a world that didn't have Brown under those stars. She told him so.
Brown squared his body to Rousso, lifted his muscular arms, and put his hands on her shoulders. He looked in her eyes.
"I've lived my life my way. I have no regrets," he told her. "I have had careers most people only dream about. I have hundreds of stamps in my passport. I have loved, and I have adventured. Of course we never know how we will handle something until we're in that situation, but I know you will have the strength to overcome whatever comes your way."
This month, Rousso and everyone who was part of Brown's life found themselves wondering if they could find the strength Brown promised would come when his cancer finally took him.
Yesterday, Brown's friends remembered him at a memorial service in Las Vegas. They gathered at Binion's Gambling Hall where Chad made his name playing poker. They told stories. They cried. They marveled at how Chad changed their lives.
"He told me I was part of his inner circle," said one friend.
Brown might have called it his inner circle, but was something else.
Brown had a certain gravity that pulled people into his orbit like planets around a sun.
It only took looking at the people at the memorial service to know just how strong Brown's pull was. The seats in the old Binion's room were full of poker legends and people who hope to be. In one seat sat Phil Hellmuth, one of poker's most famous (and infamous) players. In another sat Brandon Shack-Harris, one of poker's hottest young guns.
"I just wanted to come and thank him for the opportunity and the honor to have spent time in his presence," Shack-Harris said. "He always had a smile on his face. He was the perfect guy to have at the table."
That message was universal. People were drawn to Brown because he radiated kindness and understanding. He never had a bad thing to say. He always had time to listen. He always went out of his way to help. He didn't want to argue.
"It takes a brilliant mind to want to be calm and reasonable with everybody," said Hellmuth.
"In any industry, when somebody dies, everybody will say he was one of the nicest guys," Todd Brunson said. "Chad wasn't one of the nicest guys in poker. He was the nicest guy in poker."
Even so, being nice isn't how Brown changed lives. He didn't do it simply by helping people out or smiling at the right times. There was something else, something people tried to put their finger on as they worked through the loss.
WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla was honest.
"I was mad!" he screamed. "I was angry. Why does it have to happen to the good guys?"
There is no answer for that, but as the stories went on and the players went to honor Brown with a charity poker tournament in his name, some things became very clear about Chad Brown's pull.
In Binion's poker room last night, Brown's life sat in orbits of their own. There was the Mississippi crowd, the Texas rounders, the LA folks, the Vegas locals, the Londoners. Every one of them could've been doing something else, but they chose to spend their night raising money in Brown's name.
Because not only did living in Chad Brown's orbit make people feel like they were part of his circle, but it taught them something. It taught them how to live. It taught them how to be brave.
Matt Savage met Brown in 2002. Savage is a sought-after tournament director and credits knowing Brown for helping him be the strong-willed person he is.
"The thing I learned most from Chad was courage," Savage said.
Brown held on to that courage all the way until the end. People spoke of warning Brown they would cry when they came to visit, but the only tears they wiped away spilled because they laughed too hard around him.
"He was fearless and so very strong," Rousso said.
People spoke of Brown's gifts--both tangible and intangible--like people worshipping the sun. As he neared the end, many of them tried to find a way to repay him for his kindness. Friend Laurence Hughes flew a Kobe steak from Vegas to New York, dodged cranky nurses, and cooked it on a hot plate in Brown's hospital room. Despite the effort, Hughes somehow came away feeling as though Brown had turned the tables on him and given him a story he could tell for the rest of his own life.
"I'm not sure who gave who a gift," Hughes said through tears.
Anyone who might have wanted to find the secret code to living a life like Brown's might have overlooked the simplest answer there was.
"He chose to live his life happy," friend Ali Eslami said
It was as simple as that. Brown's closest friends said he was an eternal optimist, and he wanted other people to be optimistic, too. He considered happiness a choice, and he chose it for himself.
Chad Brown's life was a series of orbits. His life circled a poker table. His life circled the globe. Each time, Brown's courage, kindness, and optimism drew in more and more people, all of whom are still dealing with the fact that one of their stars burned out too soon.
Nevertheless, they are all taking heart in the fact that, like light born of a star long ago and still traveling to Earth, Brown's hope and kindness will radiate for many years to come on the people who traveled in his orbit.
"Is there anybody who has had a better 52 years or given more in 52 years than Chad Brown?" Dalla said. "Chad lived to a 100."