My Poker Story

#Mypokerstory It was Christmas Eve, 2013, and I was alone in a hotel room in Fort Wayne, Indiana, terrified. I was about to take the biggest risk of my life. This was the same hotel that Andrew and I had spent our wedding night three years prior. We were happy, drunk, and in love. I never thought I’d be here, like this, about to ask him to love me. Love me instead of her.

I sat on the edge of the bed with my bare feet planted on the matted, maroon carpet. A soft glow, from a floor lamp in the corner, lit up half the room, leaving the rest in the shadows. I stared out into the night through a single, waist-high window. There was something about how gently the snow fell that deepened my sadness.

My heart felt heavy and tender in its’ cage. I worried that if I chanced my already fractured heart, it might shatter beyond repair. That thought had me second guess myself. I looked down at the black-lace lingerie and sheer, thigh-high stockings I wore, which only added to the feeling of being dangerously exposed. But I thought if he could remember our own love and passion for one another, then maybe he would choose us.

I thought back to our first date. We were just kids in the summer of 2004. Andrew, tall and handsome, with big round, brown eyes and shiny black hair, was a college dropout and the first professional poker player I’d ever met. He took me to a fancy dinner, and then, at my insistence, to an underground poker game.

We arrived at a two-story, dilapidated house with bars on the windows. He held my hand and led me through a dirty kitchen with old pizza boxes on the floor, and into a dining room attached to a living room on the right. In each room were poker tables, and on the right was a full, lively cash game. The sound of chips shuffling and snapping cards sounded like music to my ears.

“What are the chips worth?” I whispered to Andrew. Just as he answered, “$5,” a sloppy, overweight man with a trucker hat stood up and slammed his cards face up on the table. He raked in the pot, adding to the eight, 20-high stacks of chips he already had in front of him. I remembered thinking, holy shit, that’s $800? And then wondering if I’d ever be good enough to play for that much.

Everyone seemed happy to see Andrew, but a few groaned when he bought us both into the sit-and-go happening in the kitchen. I knew the groans weren’t for me. I promptly busted the tournament and sat behind Andrew to watch. A couple hands later, Andrew pushed all his chips in the pot against a squeamish kid wearing a button-up shirt and wire glasses. The kid stared at the board, then back at his hand, then up at the ceiling while he talked to himself, probably counting the few possible hands that beat his. As soon as the kid’s cards hit the muck, Andrew showed a bluff and shot me a wink, as if to say, “that one’s for you.” On his way to winning the sit-and-go, he bluffed the same guy two more times.

When we walked out with the money, I asked him how he knew the kid would keep folding.

“He was scared money,” Andrew said, flashing a sexy, mischievous smile. “Fortune favors the bold, Kristy. Remember that.”

From that day on, we were inseparable. We ran around town, chopping up tournaments at charity casinos, backroom bars and even at the local Navy Club. I fell in love with Andrew’s generous, loving personality. Every time we went out, he made new best friends. Andrew admired that I was motivated and had a never-settle attitude. Only a year into our relationship, we decided to move to Las Vegas when I turned 21. We packed our lives into my beat-up Chevy Lumina and drove across the country. When we arrived, it was nighttime, and as we crested a hill which overlooked the valley, the sight of the twinkling Strip and famous Vegas skyline had us gasp in awe, look at one another, and then scream in excitement.

As thrilling as it was to move out of the safety of our hometown, it was also extremely difficult. Andrew’s transition from a hometown poker hero to a Las Vegas grinder was anything but smooth. He went broke so many times. I landed a job in the poker industry as a writer and interviewer and played poker on the side.

For Andrew, a man who values strong relationships more than anything, playing poker for a living became a life-questioning, lonely pursuit, and he often wrestled with depression. What I had always considered my drive to succeed was actually a deep, immovable fear that who I was, was never enough. Instead of confiding in him, I competed more and pushed harder. I dedicated most hours of the day to creating an image of a life and self that I thought, one day, I could be proud of. I too had my own inner monsters that had led me astray in an attempt to feel desired. His need to feel connected clashed with my need to win. Everything that had drawn us together also tore us apart. And when our intimate life faded, we both chalked it up to being a phase that we would improve later. Important pieces of ourselves, left unsaid and unacknowledged, carved a deep, canyon-sized divide between us.

Knowing that Andrew would arrive soon, I walked to the desk and opened my laptop. There was a list of songs I put together earlier that day that I hoped would help Andrew remember the good times. I doubled clicked the shuffle button and sat back down on the bed. A slow drum and deep, soulful whines of an electric guitar filled the room.

It became clear to me that we’d been playing our marriage like scared money.

I thought of all the times we should have spoken up, and said “This isn’t working” or “maybe we could work on marriage,” or, “I’m not happy,”  but the truth got caught in our throats for fear of what might happen or what the other would say. We were too scared to face up, and we fooled ourselves by saying we’d find a better spot.

I thought of all the times we refused to see each other’s viewpoints because our pride and ego didn’t want to admit fault. When he struggled, I told him what to do and how to fix it. All he wanted was for me to really listen, but I wouldn’t, because deep down I was afraid his melancholy was my fault. If I acknowledge his truth, I would also be acknowledging my shortcomings (so I thought).

Instead of working to improve our relationship, we blamed the other for being overly sensitive or wrong. We thought that if the other person or circumstances outside of our control would change, then we would be happy. We sounded just like a poker player telling bad beat stories, blaming luck and other players for their misfortune.

My legs felt wobbly, but I stood to walk towards the bathroom. I caught my reflection in the full length mirror mounted on the wall by the bathroom door and turned towards it. My nose and cheeks were red and raw, and my body was unfamiliarly frail.

What if I stand in front of him with my heart in my hands and he says no? Will anyone else love me like he did? I watched tears fill my eyes like water filling a pool. And like a drowning person gasps for air, I began to heave desperate, scared sobs.

After a few moments, I told myself to slow down and breathe. I sniffed hard and wiped my tears with the back of my hand. But what was the alternative? If I don’t risk getting hurt again with my husband, would I ever risk with anyone else? Would I spend the rest of my life trying to protect myself from getting hurt? What kind of life would that be?

Just then, the song changed to “Sun and Moon” by Above and Beyond. The familiar melody sent my mind flashing forward into a possible future. What would happen if I chose not to go through with this tonight? I could hang onto my anger, not forgive him, and no one would blame me.

I saw myself dancing at a concert, listening to this song. I’d be swaying to the music, alone in a sea of people. I’d wonder if Andrew was happy, wherever he was in the world. Then, inevitably, regret would takeover. In this imagined future, I’d ask myself over and over, “Could we have made it?” Fear would continue to be the deciding factor in all parts of my life. All the other desires I’d buried out of fear came bubbling up too. I’d spent the last eight years interviewing thousands of poker players. For too long, I’d quieted the voice that said, “I should be playing this event, not on the sidelines.” I wanted to know if I could make it, but I’d been afraid of what people would think if I tried and of actually knowing the answer.

I realized I was standing at a fork in the road. Down, one way was a small, “safe” future. Scared money players let the game happen to them and make every choice based from their fear of losing. That’s no way to play if you want to win, and it’s certainly no way to live. It’d be a recipe for regret, squandered potential and wondering what could have been. Playing it safe isn’t actually playing it safe at all, in the long run. It’s game lost before it’s even begun.

But down the other path was one of risk which makes the future unknown. If I forgave Andrew and opened my heart back up, I might get hurt again. But it is the only way our marriage could possibly survive. For so long we’d hid our full truths for fear of losing each other, but down this path, we’d need to be honest, no matter the cost. True love is showing up, flaws and all, and letting the other decide whether or not to stay. I didn’t know if we’d make it and had no idea what my life would look like if we didn’t, but at least I could walk away knowing I’d given it my all.

Once again, I looked into the mirror. This time I saw something different. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was. Was it pride? Strength? Insanity?

Then, I tuned in to a voice inside me I’d never heard before.

Look at you… you love someone so much you’re willing to be this brave! Isn’t this exciting?

I nodded and then laughed, which surprised me. Then I cried again. Then I laugh-cried. Like a crazy person. Yes. Yes, it was exciting. Suddenly, I felt more alive than I ever had. The possibility of the unknown future thrilled me.

I had always thought of him as the brave one. He was the one who taught me how to play poker courageously, after all. But maybe here in this moment, I could be brave enough for the both of us.

A soft knock tapped the door. With every step I took towards it, I felt fear and excitement build in my body. I yanked the handle down, and the clicks of the deadbolt releasing sent chills up my spine. My heart unlocked from its cage with it. The door swung open and I saw Andrew with his head down.  I reached my hand out and led him into the room. Without words, we embraced and kissed like it might be our last moments on earth.

I’d leaped into the canyon between us, and it was only as I began to free fall, that I knew that I’d be ok, even if I broke into a million pieces. The truth is that in life, as in poker, we are making decisions based on imperfect information. Understand that you can’t know the future, so lean on what you do know— if you don’t risk, you can’t win. It was in the experience of taking a risk for who and what I loved versus what I was afraid of that allowed me to experience my own strength and bravery.

That night set in motion what would ultimately turn out to be a better marriage than I could have ever imagined. Since then, Andrew and I have continued to risk for our individual and collective dreams. Andrew is now a high-stakes crusher and dedicated poker mentor. That year, I quit my job as a reporter to play poker professionally and, now, I also teach people to transform their relationship with risk through my writing, podcasts and coaching.

My dreams are to write a NYT Bestseller, make a tiny human with Andrew, and win a major live poker tournament. Along the way, there will be uncertainty, setbacks, and moments where I’ll question whether or not I can do it. I’ll remind myself of what poker has taught me: All you can do is put the odds in your favor, embrace the variance, and learn and grow with every hand you’re dealt.

Fortune favors the bold, remember that.

Love, PokerKristy ArnettComment