So, you’re a poker tourney regular. It’s your job to size up your competition as quickly as you can. Put a name to a face. Create a backstory you can use. Do anything to gain an edge. It’s what you do. You’re a pro.
So, what’s your read on this guy?
What do you think? Are you a favorite against him? Maybe he’s an old home game player who has more money than fear. Maybe you think you got lucky to have him at your table.
He would agree with you. He didn’t start playing poker until he was nearly 50 years old, and as far as he’s concerned, that’s much too late.
“My belief is that you can’t be world class at anything unless you start young,” the man said this morning. “I just started playing poker, unfortunately, late in life.”
This guy knows a thing or two about being world class at cards. After all, he is Harold Lilie.
Who is Harold Lilie? Well, you can Google him if you like. Or you can just try to walk him through a bridge tournament.
“I’m in bridge what these people are in poker. Or I used to be anyway,” Lilie said.
Harold Lilie is a multi-time national bridge champion. He started playing at age 18 and turned himself into one of America’s best.
“In bridge, I’d have the equivalent of five or six bracelets,” he said today.
This is not something Lilie advertises. You have to corner him in the hallway just to confirm the details of his background and ask a relevant question: how are you still here?
That question means a lot of different things. First, it’s a question of how he is still alive after five days of WSOP Main Event play. He started Saturday among the final 240 out of the 6,737 who registered for this event.
“To me, this is a miracle. I’ve seen the way these people play. I know I’m not that good, but I enjoy it so much, and that’s the important thing at this stage in my life,” Lilie said.
When he says that, “this stage in my life” means a lot more than the fact he’ll turn 70 next year. Why? Because it’s not just a question about how he is still alive in this tournament. It’s a matter of how he is still alive at all.
See, Lilie has been playing poker since 1990. He started playing in the World Series in 2010. Since then, he has managed to cash every year he played, including making a Seniors event final table. He got to the point he called himself a “Seniors Specialist.”
And then his doctor called.
“It was a complete shocker to me, because at that point in time, I was strenuously exercising every day. Walking at least three miles. Losing weight. Getting in shape. I had no pain. No shortness of breath. No problems,” he said.
He felt fine, but he wasn’t. He needed a kidney transplant. He ended up on dialysis and couldn’t play poker most days of the week.
Never one to back down from a fight, Lilie dug in, found a donor, and got ready for his surgery. That’s when his doctor called again.
“They said you have six major blockages. Your heart is working at like 30 percent,” Lilie remembered today. “At no point in time in all my problems did I feel anything but great. I was exercising like a demon.”
It was one of those real life bad beats, one you don’t see coming. He went from thinking he was completely healthy to needing bypass surgery, six months of recover, and then a kidney transplant.
So, that’s what he did. He spent most of 2015 going through surgeries and recovery, and on December 20, he received his transplant. By this summer, he was healthy enough to enter the WSOP Main Event.
Lilie has his doctors to thank for his new good health, but he has only himself to thank for making this far in the WSOP. He’s was among the oldest people to start the day.
“That’s a miracle. That’s a bigger miracle than my medical problems!” he said.
Lilie set a goal for himself, and it wasn’t just to cash here. The WSOP paid out a bigger percentage of players this year, but Lilie wanted to cash by old standards. He wanted to make it to the top ten percent.
He ended up doing a lot better than that. He made it to 237th place, the top four percent of the field.
“If you told me I would’ve gotten this far before the tournament and not go a step farther, I would’ve said, ‘Where do I sign?’ I’m thrilled,” Lilie said. “I feel totally blessed. Here I am, an old man who started poker late in life who’s cashed in the Main Event. I’m very proud to have done this.”
For everyone watching here (including his stepdaughter, Jayne Furman, who is one of our valued photographers), seeing Lilie go was a tough thing to watch. Nevertheless, if Lilie has proven anything in the past year, it’s this: he’ll be back to fight again, and next time, you’ll know his name.
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