Refinding My Voice

When I first got into poker I was a wide-eyed girl with a rebellious streak who wanted nothing more than to see the world. I saw winning at poker and becoming recognized as the ticket to free hotels and flights. I had reasonable success and was able to maintain the jetsetting life for many years, but I was never really prepared for much of what it entailed. I’ve since had a lot of time to reminisce some of the highlights of those times.

My family is a classic tale of immigrants who came to North America with virtually nothing. My mother left for Canada by herself when I was three, and she was already with my stepdad when I saw her again at five. My parents worked incredibly hard to stay afloat. I got hired for my first job at twelve, and worked part-time throughout my school years until I found poker. I grinded cash games and SNGs for several years against my parents wishes before my mother finally gave me a blessing: she allowed me to travel and play for one more year, as long as I agreed to quit and focus on a career in finance afterwards. Luckily, my European adventure began with an Italian Poker Tour side event win and ended with a third place finish at EPT San Remo for ~$500,000. Suddenly I was being flagged for money-laundering and getting my bank accounts closed. I casually passed around an amount of money that didn’t feel real at the time, and managed to convince my mother to keep letting me play poker by paying for trips and appeasing her with luxury gifts. But my shortsightedness and lack of financial maturity eventually caught up to me.

I’d paid out well over a million dollars worth of tournament winnings to investors, but there was a period of time where I owed $100,000 from mismanagement and misjudgment of future sponsorship earnings. I was negotiating multiple offers that were dragged on and had some eventually fall through. I was embarrassed and stressed about it every day, and it was a huge blow to my self-confidence to have gotten into that spot in the first place. 

I remember telling my partner near the peak of my grinding days that I would not ever want to win the WSOP main event, that I’d be happiest with a final table result and the cash. I didn’t think I’d be able to handle the attention at the time. As a huge introvert I often only found fleeting solace in the bathroom stall on tournament breaks. 

This isn’t to say I never enjoyed being social. I felt insanely privileged to be invited to hang out with the best players in the world and meet smart and beautiful people all the time. But I often needed so much liquid courage to be outgoing and fun, and I would always wake up to gut-wrenching feelings of cringe the next day, wondering just how obnoxious I acted, or whether I made a fool of myself. 

I gradually lost the intrinsic motivation to improve and grind. I was discouraged and annoyed by a lot of patterns and behaviours I saw on the scene, and it always subtly felt kind of awful knowing that my winrate in any given field is mostly inflated by the presence of recreational players; the same types of players a sponsored pro like me were supposed to attract. It felt disingenuous to put on a smiling face, but hope to take their chips and send them home. I think the best players are ones who can separate that sentiment and be as compartmentally cutthroat as needed.

My other dilemma was that while I didn’t like having to rely on winning for income, I regarded myself as too serious of a player to focus on being primarily a sponsored brand ambassador. I was happy to take photos and chat with other players, but in general I think being too social was a net negative for my focus and edge. 

My departure from the game was further fueled when several poker projects I was a part of deteriorated. The Girl Got Game reality TV show turned out to be a lot of smoke and mirrors, the Global Poker League’s attempt at merging poker and esports was not renewed for a second season (after my team won season one, nbd), and I simply did not have the grit and consistent extraversion to reach the next level of success as a Twitch streamer, even though I had the luxury of being paid to represent a site.

But the biggest reasons I broke off with the game was because I fell in love and got married. I wish the story ended there, but the details of that story are not for this post. Divorce is always hard, especially when it makes you question everything you know about the world. I knew it would be impossible to move on without separating myself from poker as well. 

I detached myself from the outside world and read, reflected, meditated, gamed. Resources that helped me immensely, aside from the angelic support of a few close friends, were forums and some very niche YouTube videos that validated my experience. The literature that helped me the most was When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. I was able to grasp my way back to the outside world with some of her teachings: 

What makes maitri (Sanskrit for unconditional friendship with oneself; benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others) such a different approach is that we are not trying to solve a problem. We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time. Thoughts, emotions, moods, and memories come and they go, and basic nowness is always here.

For a while I was overcome with feelings of guilt, shame, and unworthiness, from both my distancing of poker and my divorce. I felt I did not deserve to move on, that I was being ungrateful for wanting to walk away from the poker dream I took so long to build. I’ve since made plenty of space for new possibilities, and am grateful to refind my voice and get some self-confidence back. 

Poker to me has always been a vehicle for self-expression and an idealized path towards more opportunities. I recently signed on as an instructor with Poker Powher, an organization with similar values as me that is using innovative technology to teach more women how to play poker. I can’t wait to pass along my experiences and let the old dream live on through others. And for the record, I’d be thrilled to be the lucky rec who wins the main event.

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