The other part of the reflection

The brush at the old Palms poker room led me to my seat one late night several years ago. The seven-seat at the table was the only open chair in the room, and it was right next to Chad.

Chad didn’t know me, or at the very least, didn’t know my face. But I knew him. I knew all about him. Long before he’d bought in that night, his reputation had taken a limo to the Palms, walked in the room, and said terrible things to everyone.

That’s to say, in the early days of online poker, Chad was one of its biggest villains. Harsh. Abrasive. Often downright caustic. There were few people who hadn’t needed some sort of psychic salve to sooth their wounds after a session with him.

I almost balked. Poker is an escape for me, a place where I can go for some easy conversation and a few laughs. Sometimes it’s something I do just so I can sit and have an excuse to not talk at all. I didn’t want to sit next to Chad that night, because not only was he clearly much better than me at poker, but based on nearly every account, Chad was mean. I don’t do very well with mean people.

People who don’t play the game sometimes have a hard time understanding the dynamic of a poker table, a place where relationships—such as they are—come and go in between shuffles. Like a barstool or a therapy couch, people often reveal themselves in ways they wouldn’t in their normal life. In just a few hours of sitting with people, it’s possible to know your poker opponents better than you know the folks who live on your street. One night I spent several hours talking to a guy most of you have seen in a popular TV drama, and he talked about getting sober and what it’s meant to him. I still haven’t seen a public interview he did about it, and I still don’t know exactly why he ended up talking about it that night.

It’s, too, because when I play cards, the hour is often very late, long after normal people have gone to bed, and those post-midnight hours are intimate ones, soft-lit times when people let their vulnerabilities show more than they would when the sun is up or the neon is all still lit.

I probably spent two or three hours sitting next to Chad that night. I kept waiting for him to unleash the vitriol that made up half his reputation. I waited for him to say something terrible that would prove everything I’d heard about him. I waited and waited, but it never came. Over the time we sat there, he was friendly, calm, and open. In fact, he was one of the nicer guys I’ve played. He took me in his confidence. He was open, intimate, and, as near as I could tell, real. It was the only time I ever spoke to him.

Life happens faster in the community of people who play poker. It’s as if the laws of physics sometimes don’t apply. People who sleep under bridges turn into millionaires overnight. People who were filthy rich turn to begging for money to get in a game. Some of the greatest heroes become some of the vilest villains. It sometimes seems as if it’s all scripted by a bad pro wrestling writer.

It’s not. It’s all too real. It’s as real as the troubled young woman who killed herself, the drug-addled genius who died in a hotel room, and the countless other people who’ve gone broke or ended up broken. At its roots, the game is beautiful, but the life around it is a broken country road, miles of pockmarked rocky tar, and all very fast. Too fast sometimes.

Chad died at age 34 yesterday. Officially, the cause is murky, but those who knew him well tell awful stories, stories that will break your heart, stories that almost always involve the word “demons.”

I can’t speak to any of that. The only Chad I knew face-to-face was the Chad I met that night for a few hours at the Palms. He was quiet, nice, and humble—exactly the opposite of everything his reputation said about him.

I spent most of Thursday trying to reconcile the stories I was hearing and the only story I knew from firsthand experience. Chad and I weren’t friends at all. We knew each other for only a few hours. Nevertheless, that good Chad was the one I remembered when I finally got official word of his death.

There are people out there—more than you would think—who see a different reflection of themselves every time they look in the mirror. Some days they like what they see. Some days they hate it. For some folks, they see that bad side too many times. Often, they have a hard time walking away from the mirror without taking that part they hate with them. That way, they can show everyone else just how terrible the reflection is.

Sometimes, though, those people will have a day where they reveal that other little sliver of their reflection, that part of the mirror that few other people get to see, the part that belies the reputation they have earned over and over again.

Whether that sliver is good or bad, I’ve learned to pay close attention to those moments when people reveal that little-known part of themselves. Because, despite the reputation someone may wear for everyone to see, that little-seen reflection is often who they actually are.

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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