Somebody died

At 5am, I was sitting in a place called the Blue Gin Bar drinking a 1664 beer and wishing I’d never even heard of a place called Monte Carlo. It was a place that a hundred people would’ve paid to be sitting and I wanted little more than to put the entire Mediterranean coast behind me. It’s one in a long list of things about the poker world that don’t make sense.

I was sitting between two fellow writers, both of whom I respect a great deal. After a drink, one of them said, “Did you hear about Brandi Hawbaker?”

I hadn’t heard a word. I’d been living in my own little bubble for the past nine days. I barely knew my own name, let alone that Hawbaker was dead.

Suicide. It’s one of those things that makes too much sense to consider. How likely is it that someone so fragile, so needy, so imperfect, so completely fucking used by a community of people would kill herself?

Right. Surprise, surprise.


Now that the SEO-palooza surrounding Hawbaker’s death has reached the point that it’s no longer as valuable to trade on the name, Brandi Rose news has hit the wane. I personally had just one experience with Hawbaker. I didn’t know her. I can’t claim to have treated her any better than anybody else in the poker world. I didn’t know anything about her except to know she was the poker community’s train wreck–the one who gets rolled by the old fucks, tries to fuck the young fucks, then gets what’s she’s been giving and gives what she’s been getting. She wasn’t the first person it happened to, and she won’t be the last. But, as the world turns and the light guides us through the soap operas of the internet poker rags, she was a star. She was the young and the restless. She was the person who made every other person out there feel better about themselves.

I am no exception.

Church is an odd place to learn about poker, which is why I don’t go except for weddings and funerals. At the last wedding that saw me sitting in a pew, the priest commented on our throwaway society. Like our constantly obsolete computers, our petrol-sucking bottles of water, and our tired old cliches, many of the people in our lives are disposable. Our celebrities–especially the ones we manufacture for the sole purpose of destroying–are merely there for our short-term entertainment, money-shot porn without all the messy clean-up.

Last year’s World Series of Poker took a hole out of my soul that I’m not sure will ever get patched. It wasn’t just watching Hawbaker whore herself out for buy-ins. It was watching Vinny Vinh get pushed into tournaments and disappear from tournaments–a real fear and loathing that looked more like Russian Roulette than poker. It was watching Paul “Eskimo” Clark nearly die at the table three or four times, then piss himself at the final table while his “backers” waited for their few thousand bucks. Poker has never called itself a nobleman’s game, but sometimes it’s nice to know we live and work in a world that isn’t so overrun by disgusting people.

In a consumer society, poker players and their hangers-on are never more at home. They find something they can consume and they use every possible ounce of it, before briefly mourning its passing and moving on to the next consumable. There must be some karmic reckoning for me, for you, for everybody who is wallowing in public disingenuousness. We all suck.

Poker doesn’t pick people. It’s the other way around. There is nothing tying any of us to the game or the community. It belongs to no one and that’s probably why it and its people wander so far from normalcy and decency. It’s anarchy with just an ounce of control. It attracts people–me included–who like that edgy feeling of being right on the precipice of disaster.

Hawbaker, sick as she was, picked poker. With apologies to D.H. Lawrence, it’s a jungle where wild things really do feel sorry for themselves. Redemption only comes in the destruction of others. Many people survive spiritually because they can see the dividing line between reality and the game. The people who don’t are the people who die and the people who kill.

It’s not the grace of God that saves us. There but for dumb luck go you and me.

If Hawbaker’s death is even a glimmer of truth…if there is a God, he doesn’t believe in poker.

(Originally published April 21, 2008.)

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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