From “tinhorn gamblers” to stay-at-home entrepreneurs, the attitude towards poker-professional parents has changed dramatically over the years. But do the stresses remain the same?
“We had never talked much about gambling in my household,” writes Doyle Brunson in SuperSystem 2. Think about that for a moment. Brunson is arguably the most iconic player poker has ever had, making an easy living the hard way while raising three children with his wife Louise, and yet poker was rarely discussed among his family. Growing up, his children might have been completely unaware that their father, by this time a multi-time World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event and bracelet winner, was one of the best poker players on the planet.
Today that would be like basketball rarely coming up in LeBron James’s house, or Roger Federer keeping the tennis schtum and telling his kids his fortune was amassed solely from starring in Gillette commercials.
So why did Brunson opt to keep his profession mostly private? Well, despite all of his success, parenting and professional poker — particularly during the era in which Brunson rose to the top — didn’t necessarily seem like a good fit, thanks in part to its representation in popular culture. “Going back in history through movies and TV shows, poker is shown creating various problems for families, with the game often producing the conflict that has to get resolved,” says poker writer and historian Martin Harris, author of Poker and Pop Culture.
The game obviously still had a positive impact on the Brunson family. Doyle, as we all know, remains a legend, and is still playing in the biggest mixed cash games in Las Vegas at the age of 86. His son, Todd, also became a professional in the late 1980s, something Doyle was oblivious to at the time. “The old saying, ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, is certainly true when it comes to my son,” Doyle writes. “I didn’t even know Todd knew how to play poker.” (Todd remains a successful pro to this day.)
Regardless of how well a grinder was doing, the public perception of a professional poker player in the 60s, 70s, and 80s involved spending a lot of nights in casinos, staying up for days on end, and constantly risking it all instead of taking responsibility.
“I remember one episode of the old TV western The Rifleman starring Chuck Connors in which his friend thinks he was cheated at poker, and so Connors’ character decides to go play in the game himself to see if his friend was right,” Harris says. “But he has to hide his reason for playing in the game from others, and that creates a scandal in town. Even his son is embarrassed about him being called a ‘tinhorn gambler’ — it’s as though playing poker makes him a bad parent.”
Of course, that’s not the whole picture. It never was, and as time has moved on and poker has evolved, that attitude has changed. One player who led by example is Erik Seidel. “The advantage of making a living playing poker is that you get to set your own hours,” Seidel says in the PokerGo documentary Pokerography | The Story of Erik Seidel. “I could drive my kids to school in the morning, I could pick them up, and that was a very big deal for me.”
In the mid-1990s, at the recommendation of his wife, Seidel moved his family from New York City to Las Vegas. There, in poker’s capital, his two young daughters grew up knowing full well what their father did for a living. “He’s the best dad,” says Seidel’s youngest daughter, Jamesin. “He’s really attentive, he was always at all of our sporting events.”
Seidel’s career flourished just as poker found a place in the mainstream, thanks in no small part to ESPN’s WSOP Main Event coverage. Being seen on TV winning hundreds of thousands of dollars, as Seidel had done when he finished second to Johnny Chan in 1988 for $280,000, helped legitimise poker as a career choice.
Despite this, turbulent parent-child poker playing relationships remained a common thread in poker movies into the 2000s, including the big-budget Lucky You (2007). In the film, Eric Bana plays a talented young poker player who makes some bad life decisions, while his father (played by Robert Duvall) is a poker legend who had abandoned his wife and child decades prior. Attempts to draw parallels between poker and parenting fall flat, according to Harris. “This might suggest there’s a problem with trying to apply poker, a self-interested game, to parenting, which is necessarily selfless.”
The next generation
With the introduction of online poker and the poker boom in the mid-2000s, professionals began to find themselves with even greater freedoms. Not only could they continue to set their own working hours, but now they didn’t even need to leave their homes to play. You could be both a professional poker player and a full-time, stay-at-home parent.
“I love the idea of being able to do both,” says Celina Lin, a professional poker player and PokerStars Ambassador, who gave birth to her first child towards the end of 2019. “I want my poker career, but I also want to be a really good mum. Being a professional poker player really gives me the freedom to do that. That’s what I’ve always loved about this career. The freedom to be it all.”
Playing poker from home comes with its own set of challenges, however, as high stakes pro Max “goodeh99” Silver, creator of SnapShove and a 29-year-old father of two, can attest. “With my first child, it was just a huge adjustment,” Silver says. “I went from being in a job where I could pick all of my own hours, to suddenly having very defined hours where I was at the whim of a young child. That can be a big change for poker players.”
It certainly has been for Lin. Whereas she used to travel to every Red Dragon stop–the tour on which she’s had the most success over the years–her entire work schedule has now changed. “Since I’ve been pregnant and given birth, I’ve missed two of them,” she says. “At this point, instead of chasing glory and trophies, I just want to be with my baby.”
One can imagine that being pregnant at the poker table would bring all levels of discomfort. However, Lin says she managed to avoid a lot of the usual irritations by preparing her body prior to her pregnancy.
“I did a lot of yoga and pilates in the build-up, and I always ate healthily, avoiding sugar,” she says. “That definitely helped when I got pregnant. I would say that for the first eight months of my pregnancy, it was as if I wasn’t pregnant. At six months I went to play a tournament, and nobody knew I was pregnant at all.”
A healthy diet even helped her avoid morning sickness.
“You have cravings when you’re pregnant, but you need to feed your baby healthy nutrients,” she says. “My mind was set to ‘what can I eat to provide the most nutrients for my baby?’. I guess as a poker player I was making positive +EV decisions and the optimal plays, even in my eating.”
The one thing no parent can escape from, however, is a lack of sleep. Lin says she has slept 10 hours a night for most of her life, and that only stopped in the last few weeks of her pregnancy. Now that her daughter is with her, a solid night’s sleep is no doubt a thing of the past. Not only that, the idea of grinding until two or three in the morning when you have a baby is far from ideal.
“A lot of poker players are used to sleeping in until 2pm, and that’s obviously not going to be the case anymore,” says Silver. “To try and fix a poker schedule around a baby is particularly hard.”
It would be virtually impossible to do it alone.
Trying to focus on your children while multi-tabling online would be at the detriment of both. It’s certainly not something that Charlie “JIZOINT” Combes, who chopped the Sunday Million in 2019 seven months after his fiancée Nicola gave birth to twins, could have done were it not for Nicola’s support. “I was a mess after that Sunday,” Combes says. “Thankfully when I’ve got to work I can zone out and do my own thing and Nicola deals with the brunt of the stress.”
Lin’s husband, Randy “nanonoko” Lew, is also a successful professional poker player and commentator. The couple have travelled the world together playing poker for the past few years, but now they have their daughter they’re beginning to take it in turns to play.
“If you have a partner who also plays poker, you always have someone you can root for,” Lin says. “If I’m unable to play, I’ll say to Randy ‘I’ll feed the bub, and you go play the tournament’. I can live vicariously through him. Then when he comes home and tells me the bad beats, I can say I’m glad I’m not out there playing.”
Leaving your kids is never easy though, and spending time on the road when you’d much rather be at home with the family is something many of us can relate to. Niall Farrell, a poker triple crown winner and new father, recently found himself having to leave his newborn son to go work in Nottingham.
“It was a pretty strange feeling, to be honest,” Farrell says. “My son Ruairi was born two weeks late so we had expected to have him home and settled in a bit longer than four days before I had to leave. Fortunately, my partner is an absolute natural and a lot of my family live nearby so there was always plenty of help on hand. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had won a free package to the event, I probably would have just stayed home with him being so late.”
Staying at home is now something both Lin and Farrell plan on doing a lot more of. But while Silver decided to switch his focus from online tournaments to online cash games (“They’re a lot more flexible and it means that I can stop for a period of time and help out with the children should I need to,” he says), Farrell doesn’t believe that route would work for him. “My partner doesn’t work at the moment so it’s not too bad for me to have set hours [for tournaments]. Also for me to make anywhere near the same amount in cash games compared to tournaments would require a lot of work.”
Besides, moving away from tournaments might cost Farrell his so-called “baby run-good”, a phenomenon accentuated by the likes of Mike “goleafsgoeh” Leah and Stephen “Stevie444” Chidwick.
Back in June 2019, Leah was adjusting to fatherhood (his son Grayson was born on June 2, 2019) when a spontaneous splurge of Deal Jackpot spins on PokerStars landed him on the brink of a $79,000 score.
“I took the first 30 seconds trying to convince [my girlfriend] to bring the baby over to watch,” Leah told PokerStars Blog when the huge windfall was still sinking in. “She didn’t believe me, she thought I was trolling her.” Eventually, Leah persuaded her and she turned on her camera to capture the moment.
Baby run good off to a good start 😅
— Mike Leah (@GoLeafsGoEh) June 7, 2019
“It was great timing because we just had [Grayson] and just bought a house right before that so it definitely helps out with a lot of the expenses and replenishes the bank account a little bit — or pays for a week of buy-ins in Vegas,” Leah said at the time. “It’s either a really good salary for a year for someone or a week of tournaments.”
For a super high roller like Stephen Chidwick, $79,000 is sometimes just a fraction of a tournament buy-in. It’s certainly a fraction of what Chidwick has won in tournaments over the past year, having binked his first WSOP bracelet last summer in a $25,000 buy-in Pot Limit Omaha event for $1.61 million, placed fourth in a £1 million buy-in event for £4.41 million, and won the €50,000 Super High Roller at the European Poker Tour stop in Prague in December for €725,710. All of these scores came after Chidwick’s wife, Marine, gave birth to their first child, a daughter.
“Being a father now is surreal. It’s really hard to describe,” Chidwick told Poker Central in the summer. “Looking at my daughter and seeing her smile makes up for any pot in any tournament I could ever lose.”
Playing for someone else
Fatherhood hasn’t translated into poker success just yet for Farrell (“I’ve heard about the mythical baby rungood but I spent the last 10 days losing flips in Nottingham,” he says), but it’s early days yet. Perhaps there’s something about becoming a parent which puts poker in perspective and subsequently allows the player to think clearer and play better.
“I’m not sure if being a father will change how I play at all,” Farrell says. “But maybe it will help me focus a bit better now that I’m playing for someone else.”
The idea of playing for someone else is something all poker parents can understand. For Lin, becoming a mother completely changed the way she thinks about her bankroll.
“When I started playing poker in my 20s, it was much more about taking shots and trying to play as much as I can, making money so I could play bigger events,” she says. “Now I think about what a buy-in amount is worth for my baby, in terms of buying diapers, formula, future schooling, all that stuff. It’s a different perspective. From here on, everything we do, we really have a reason for it.”
The best possible reason.
“Every time my daughter looks at me in the eyes, those are the special moments where I realise it doesn’t matter how much money I have or how many trophies I win,” Lin says.
Recently, Silver decided to set up a Discord support group for poker parents as a way for them to share knowledge and experience.
Had this on my mind for a while so gonna throw it out there, more and more of my poker peers are becoming parents and it can be a tough time for anyone, interest in a discussion group for support/advice/random bullshit?
— Max Silver (@max_silver) January 1, 2020
“I had my second child two months ago and obviously I’m really enjoying it, being a parent is a wonderful thing, but in poker, you don’t meet a lot of people from the real world who have kids as you’re working for yourself and you work from home a lot of the time,” Silver says. “As my generation of poker players is getting older and more of us are having kids, I think it can be very beneficial for parents to have other parents to bounce things off, so you can find out if your experiences are normal, and offer support to others.”
Response to the group has been “massive”, according to Silver, so if you’re a poker parent with young children, or you’re awaiting the birth of a child, you can get in touch and get involved.
Just launched the poker parents discord channel, think I’ve DM’d everyone who expressed interest but if I missed you or you’re intrigued please get in touch.
Going to limit the audience to parents and parents to be.
— Max Silver (@max_silver) January 2, 2020
One thing poker parents might be umm-ing and ahh-ing about is how much time to spend at home and how much time to spend travelling. For Lin and Lew, they plan on showing their daughter the world.
“When she gets older we’re going to take her travelling,” Lin says. “We’ve had so much fun travelling the world and absorbing cultures these past few years, and we can’t wait for our daughter to get to do the same. It’s priceless, and it’s all thanks to poker being our jobs.”
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