Hanging with Chad Brown, poker pro

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There’s a scene in Field of Dreams where Ray Kinsella says to “Moonlight” Graham, “It would kill some men to get that close to their dream and not touch it. They’d consider it a tragedy.” Doc Graham replies: “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes … now that would have been a tragedy.”

Chad Brown once was like Ray Kinsella, craving the immortality a World Series of Poker bracelet seemingly grants a poker player. But these days Brown is more like Doc Graham, content with a terrific life and accomplishments that others can only dream of having.

On paper, the Stepfords would have trouble living up to the life Brown has built for himself. He’s a former soap opera heartthrob; he’s starred in films; he had a chance to play pro baseball and still plays competitively; he’s won millions playing poker; he once hosted a poker TV show; he co-authored a poker book; and he just married one of the most beautiful and incredibly successful young pros on the poker scene. Vanessa Rousso … perhaps you’ve heard of her.

Pretty perfect, yet the lack of a WSOP bracelet still lingers. Is it a tragedy after all?
“With all the accomplishments that I have, it was something that was important to me a few years ago,” Brown said while driving to the Delray Film Festival to be on-hand for the viewing of Faded Glory, a baseball documentary featuring … yep, you guessed it, Chad Brown and his team. “But it doesn’t have the same necessity now after winning (2006) player of the year. Phil Hellmuth actually has a book coming out about his top 20 best players in the world, and I’m one of those players who are in his book.”

High praise indeed.

But before pressing on, you have to go back to the beginning to appreciate his story. Brown, who turns 48 in August, was born and raised in the Bronx, where his dad’s home game served as the backdrop for his love of 7-card stud. Then as a young twentysomething he found his way into Italian cafes where goombas with names like Vito and Pepe often played cards for modest stakes. This was Brown’s real introduction to poker.

“I’ve been playing over 20 years now, but I was making money playing socially in those Italian cafes,” said Brown, whose first WSOP cash came in 1993. “I played against pizzeria owners, bakery owners, mafia … it was an eclectic group of people. Everyone had a business they were involved in, not playing for a living. There were the people who won on a regular basis and those who lost on a regular basis. And, of course, the ones who lost thought they were unlucky.”

Poker was a way of making friends and making ends meet in those days, but Brown had so many paths to choose from that poker only came back into play by chance a little later in life. More on that in a bit.

One look at Brown and you know he’s in great shape. His athletic build served him well as a star outfielder and pitcher in high school. He was so talented that the hated Mets offered the Bronx standout a minor-league contract (he’s a lifelong Yankees fan, obviously). But he had a heart-to-heart talk with a scout and the underlying current of that conversation wasn’t something Brown was willing to navigate.

“He said if I gained 50 pounds in a couple of years (he weighed 175 at the time) that I might be able to hit more home runs and be more attractive to major-league teams. I took that as ‘Do steroids.’ This was more than 20 years ago, and a young guy like myself, I was totally anti-drugs, so I just said ‘I’m definitely not down with that. If that’s what it was going to take I’ll just pursue my acting, which looks like it was very promising.’ The other thing that made me decide on acting was I knew baseball had a lifespan of how long you can play professionally. Whereas an investment in acting is a lifelong investment, as opposed to baseball, which may be only like 10 years.”

Brown trained with some of the best acting and voice coaches in New York, and then he headed to Hollywood, ready for a life of taking orders during the day, making drinks at night and cramming in acting auditions whenever he could. But that’s when poker re-emerged in his life.

“When I moved to L.A. to be an actor I was prepared to get a job as a waiter or a bartender,” he said. “I didn’t know they had casinos out there that were legal for poker, and I said to myself ‘Hey, wow! I was winning money on a regular basis in the Bronx, maybe I can do this and I won’t have to work as a waiter or a bartender.’ Fortunately that was the case.”

He wasn’t a star overnight, however … on the felt or on the screen. He had some moderate success as an actor, landing a role on the soap opera Another World, and Brown said that experience was nothing but “really hard work.”

“It’s like 14-hour days, go home and you gotta come back the next day and have your script ready. Soap work is really more of a prelude to bigger things. You make a name for yourself and you hope to make it in films or a nighttime TV series. … I loved acting. I worked in some films in my career. Actually, the first big film I did was with Woody Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser (of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman fame). She was the star of the movie and we filmed it on location in Jacksonville. That was a lot of fun. Film work was something I was looking to be successful in. But, you know, life happened.”

And “life” in this case means poker. Brown says there isn’t much difference between poker and acting.

“There’s a parallel to being a professional poker tournament player and being an actor,” the Margate resident said. “In both of them it’s a numbers game. You have to be good and you have to able to sustain failure. In poker tournaments you’re only going to succeed — if you’re great — 20 percent of the time. In acting, it’s similar. You’ll go on a whole bunch of auditions and if you get a big role maybe one out of 10 times you’re doing well.”

But you can’t act in “side” plays or “side” TV shows if you don’t land a major role elsewhere. If you don’t have a job you don’t eat. In poker, if you fail in tournaments you can always play side cash games to supplement your income. And that’s what he did, playing in the California card rooms, all the while honing the skills that would earn him 24 WSOP cashes by 2008 and Bluff Magazine’s 2006 Player of the Year.

Mr. and Mrs. PokerStars

Sometime during Chad’s run to the 2006 Player of the Year title, he and Vanessa crossed paths on the tournament circuit. Their three-year-plus courtship, including an 18-month engagement, didn’t have the type of hype and anticipation of Brangelina’s nuptials, but it certainly had the poker world wondering when they’d finally tie the knot. During an April Ante Up interview Vanessa mentioned the rigors of a poker pro’s demanding schedule as the main reason for not setting a date and not having a planned wedding. Chad echoed that sentiment.

“The plan changed throughout,” he said. “Originally we were going to have a big wedding and then a small wedding, but because of our schedule, where constantly new dates kept coming up where we had to travel to, it was just too difficult to plan anything out. So it was Vanessa’s idea to just elope.”

The PokerStars Team Pros got hitched in May by a pastor in a small ceremony in Florida, just before they traveled to Monte Carlo for European Poker Tour events. How did they celebrate their marriage? Well, Vanessa took down the EPT High Roller tournament (besting Ft. Lauderdale’s Randy Dorfman heads-up) to pocket a reported $800K.

“In Monte Carlo when she won the High Roller event I got to watch the (final two days) and she just played great poker,” Brown said. “So she deserves all the accolades she gets this year.”

The victory came on the heels of her second-place finish at the NBC National Heads-Up Championship (the same position Brown grabbed in 2007 after falling to Paul Wasicka in the final). Plus she just had a Sports Illustrated swimsuit spread and was named the latest Go Daddy girl. Is it tough to deal with all the attention your new spouse gets?

“I think it’s great,” Brown said. “Vanessa’s having her best year as a poker player. There’s always some good fortune involved when we have a good year, like in 2006. I played well, but obviously I had some fortunate things happen along the way. Vanessa’s been playing very well. I got to watch her play every single match at the heads-up on NBC and she played great poker, with the exception of the match against Huck. He played great and she was really fatigued and she didn’t play her best match against him. … All the matches preceding that she played fantastic; she played perfectly.”

If you read it too quickly you may have missed Brown mentioning she was “fatigued,” which likely is tied to the hectic schedule. He has said before that he wants to have children someday, but that he only wants to start a family when they can afford the time to spend with them. Is that still the case?

“Step by step,” he said. “Since we’re both pretty busy, when the iron is hot you gotta take advantage of it. In the meantime, we’ll start evaluating what’s going in on our professional careers. Maybe like a year from now. But right now … as PokerStars is growing we’re Team Pro members and it’s our job to grow with them.”

Growing as professional poker players also means spending time with your public, such as when they toured Florida as a way to introduce Vanessa’s Big Slick Boot Camp. It’s something Brown cherishes since he knows how dealing with the public might have been for him had his career path gone differently.

“It’s just something that comes with the territory,” he said when asked about dealing with guys swooning over Vanessa. “A while back I was asked about my former acting career and if I had any regrets. I feel very fortunate to be in the situation I’m in as a poker player. If I were successful at acting the way my goal would have been, it would be on the level of like a Tom Cruise where you’re making $20 million a picture.

“But the downside is, in that particular celebrity category, all the paparazzi and stuff. You have no privacy. Although we’re celebrities in poker, we still have our private life, which is great. When we go to the World Series or we go to events like the Bay 101 Shooting Stars, all the fans are there and they’re looking to take pictures with you and get autographs signed. We enjoy doing it because it’s in the setting that we expect it to be, as opposed to being a movie star and you want to go out with your wife to dinner and just have a private, quiet evening. The celebrities are getting harassed and they’re not really getting their privacy. But we do get our privacy.”

And soon they may be enjoying that privacy full-time in Florida. It’s no secret Vanessa’s family lives here, as does Chad’s mother. Now that they’re married there’s no need for each of them to have Florida homes, but the Seminole Compact likely will play a role in their next real-estate acquisition.

“Vanessa loves Florida,” said Brown, who lived at Lighthouse Point near Pompano Beach for a few years as a child and has lived in the Sunshine State on three separate occasions. “So she asked if (Florida lifts the restrictions on) poker can we make Florida our No. 1 home. I said sure. So Vanessa and I will, at some point in the near future, be permanent residents here.”

They’re leaning toward the Aventura area and Brown says they’ll most certainly frequent area card rooms.

A Series of near misses

“Downtown” didn’t always garner the poker respect he does now. During his first televised WSOP final table in 2004 (7-card stud) a near-drunk Men “The Master” Nguyen essentially berated him, and ESPN color man Norman Chad made jokes at his expense. He was called a “stud specialist” and wasn’t given much of a chance as the commentators continued to refer to him as “the actor.”

“I played great against Ted Forrest for the bracelet (in 2004),” he said. “We played for like 5½ hours heads-up and in all that time there were only two hands going to the river where I was behind (It’s at this point Brown remembers with amazing clarity every detail of both hands). That’s not taking anything away from Ted; it’s just the way it went. That day I should have won with the way the cards went. … I think I had the better cards and the better strategy where I think he had underestimated me.”

Even now, five years later, you can still feel and hear the disappointment in his words. But in 2007 the WSOP was at its most cruel for Brown, who takes everything in stride and prides himself on never going on tilt.

“The last time I had the best shot was two years ago in deuce-to-seven no-limit and I was heads-up against Erik Seidel. Vanessa and couple of my friends were sweating me, and I had him all-in three times to win the bracelet. Two of those times I was a 2-to-1 favorite and the third time we were even money. All you can do is the best you can do. If you do everything you can and it doesn’t work out, and you pressed every correct button and it still doesn’t work out, that’s just the way it is. If I would have screwed up …” He doesn’t finish the sentence, and there’s no need to. Brown does everything to the best of his ability and if it’s not in the cards then he accepts that.

Another year, another shot

Though Brown has successfully shaken the “stud specialist” label from his resumé, his preference is still a mixed event. The WSOP has an eight-game mix that he relishes and would love to take down as his first bracelet.

“Most world-class poker players enjoy that because that’s really a game the most-balanced well-rounded poker players use as a barometer,” Brown said. “It’s not just being a specialist in one game or another; it’s being able to play all the games well.”

That won’t stop him from playing quite a few WSOP tournaments this year, however. When asked how many he might enter his answer was lined with optimism and quiet confidence.
“A lot of the tournaments are three-day events,” said Brown, who had five WSOP cashes last year. “Some guys, like Phil Ivey, have prop bets for who’s gonna win the most bracelets. Even if they’re in an event going into Day 2, they’ll buy-in to another event even though they can’t really play the event, just in case they get knocked out of their Day 2 event. I won’t be doing that because I won’t have any prop bets. But it will be predicated on how many Day 2s and Day 3s I make. Hopefully I’ll make a lot of Day 2s and Day 3s and I won’t get to play as many events, but will be at a lot of final tables.”

Two years ago, when he made his monumental run at a bracelet (he cashed for a then-record eight times), he had predicted he would win two bracelets. Obviously he fell short of that goal, but was proud of his record and performance nonetheless. Any predictions this year?

“Nope. I don’t have any predictions this year. The way it was a couple of years ago there were pretty much only one-day events with the final table being the next day. There’s a much better structure (now) so it’s a different scenario. It’s gonna come. If it doesn’t come this year, it’s gonna come next year, or the year after that.” This from the man who once jokingly said the only way to win a bracelet was to bring a gun.

If Brown never wins a bracelet it won’t haunt him to his grave. He’s happy with his life and his accomplishments, and why shouldn’t he be?

“When you’re able to do something you love and you’re not forced to do it, it doesn’t matter what it is,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there that have jobs, whether it be a lawyer or a doctor or whatever, that make a good living, but they hate their job. … I see it in their eyes in the way that they express it when they say ‘Oh, Chad, I wish I could do what you’re doing.’ They almost feel like they are locked in. I know me; it wouldn’t matter. If I went to school to be a doctor or a lawyer, just because I went through all that and put all that time in, it wouldn’t prevent me from saying, ‘Hey, you know what? I don’t enjoy this. And this is not what life is about.’

“Whatever your job is, if you’re working five days a week, that’s a major part of your life. If you’re unhappy you gotta do something about it. … You just have to have the courage to actually go out and be proactive and make that change in your life. And it’s not about making the most money; that’s how a lot of people fool themselves. … It’s about doing what you really enjoying doing and as long as you make enough money to live in the type of comfort that satisfies you, that’s what it’s all about. I don’t need the biggest house in the world and the best cars or private jets or anything. I just need to do what I really enjoy doing. … I’m very lucky.”