Poker, Faith, Religion and Life
July 19, 2021

I was reminded yesterday that there once was a time when my soul was truly happy. It wasn't so much of a reminder in a bad way though, it was a reminder through action as my soul was truly happy last night. There has been a conflict within my heart in the past several years between who I was then and who I am now over who I am going to be. I have always felt like some really wacky shaped peg that can't ever really find a hole that fits. I have always been different, and while it has been much of the source of the conflicts, yesterday it was okay. It was okay to be somebody who loves Jesus and hates religion, somebody who loves poker but hates money, and somebody who has always felt a little bit lost.

When I came to Forest Home for the first time as an adult, one day after my 18th birthday, I was at a critical breaking point in my life. The only thing that was keeping me from going off the deep end was morning surf sessions with Sean and David, guys who knew all the shit going on with my father, knew that I was hurting and helpless, yet gave me some semblance of normalcy and brotherhood. I was pretty beat up but didn't really know it as I had secluded myself to a lifestyle of solidarity and isolation because it just plain hurt too much to try to deal with they way that life had shit on me in the past two years. I came to the Home broken, lost, and confused, and over the course of the second half of the summer of 1999, I realized that this was okay, and I learned to forgive my father. For the first time in my life I felt like what I was doing mattered, and for the first time I felt happy doing what I was doing. They named me Maverick, and it had nothing to do with cards. A maverick is a "non-conformist". Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of your mind. I have always done well at the first part but not so well at the second part.

The problem over the years was that I was too much of a Maverick for a church stuck in a modern mindset. I got started in ministry, well, the day after I turned 18 I suppose with the chillens, but I was officially hired by Bel Air Pres when I was barely 19. They treated me well overall, but halfway through my two year stint with them I was fired for basically being too young. Within a week or so I was unfired though, as when the parents of the kids I was working with got word of my lynching they threw a fit and I stayed with the program to see my class move on to high school. It really stung at the time, being fired by a man that I greatly respect. It was the first time that I was shown the cruelty of the church and its legalism at times.

Yesterday while I was walking through main camp I heard, "Bryan!!!" I turned to see Caitlyn Collier running towards me. We shared a big ol' hug and my heart smiled. She is the younger sister of Clay, one of the first students I worked with at Bel Air. I never worked directly with her in any sort of youth ministry format, but I have known her since she was in 5th grade now, and in a setting that is very hard at times, connections with kids like this are all that can keep you going. It was a very happy moment for me, but as I sit here in Van Nuys and think about yesterday, it kinda makes me a little sad, because I don't have anything going on in my life where I am building those connections, speaking into lives, and making a difference. I miss it a lot.

But I don't miss the judgement. About six months after turning pro I was sent a letter by a church just down the street from my house in Colorado Springs. This church had found me, already checked my references at Bel Air and the Home, and were basically offering me a position as their director of student ministries. However, there was no position, no student ministries, and a very small budget to do anything with. I accepted the position because it was what I wanted to do. Poker was never meant to be a career, never meant to be what I did. I happened to be pro because I didn't have another job and was making enough money to keep the bills paid. I accepted this job at "20" hours / week, $900/month. For the record, youth ministry jobs often involve significantly more time than their job descriptions state, and since this was basically a start-from-scratch operation, I knew that I was going to be putting in some hours. I could not get another job and maintain the freedom to dedicate time to the church, so I continued to play online poker on the side, and made enough money to keep me in the black financially. This enabled me to really dedicate myself to what I loved doing, working with kids, and I did good.

The problem for them was that I wasn't doing good enough. Now that I had a bunch of kids coming regularly and had a roster with even more kids that came sometimes, they wanted kids to start coming to Sunday morning service. What I said that evening lead to me eventually quitting. I told them that I would not make the kids come Sunday mornings and that they would come if they wanted to, and the way the service is now, they don't want to. What high school kid wants to be at church at 9am when the average attendance and median age were both between 60-70 every week? I wasn't a high school kid and I was only there because I had to be, because I was getting paid to be there. This isn't a bad thing either - the service was designed and geared for that age range, and that's okay. But, you can't expect high school kids to just show up there when they don't want to be there unless you give them something that they like or are interested in there.

Anyways, I could have used a little more tact while explaining this, but I suppose a few years of bitterness at a legalistic, numbers based church had jaded me into reacting as strongly as I did. I was sick of the mindset, sick of the judgment, sick of the church being like a hospital that didn't let bleeding people into the door. I quit a few months after that as there was a constant tension and I couldn't take it anymore.

I was hurt, I was bitter, but life went on. I spent that summer on the river, moved to Minnesota, and continued playing poker full time. With that move I was playing 15-30 full time and making some decent money, but poker was still just a means to an end. My wife (ex) and I were planning on moving to Colorado, she was going to continue pursuing the church, and I was going to pursue the outdoors more. She had a job in the pocket basically until they found out what I did. Now, she wasn't applying for a pastoral or a director position, she was applying for an assistant jr. high director position (when she had already been a student ministry director for 7 years) and was way overqualified. They rejected her for the sole reason of what I did for a living. Shortly thereafter I went to Vegas for the 2006 WSOP, took 2nd in the first event that I played, and the story from there is pretty well documented through this blog.

So, here I am having a career year, but I am still not as happy as I was in those summers at Forest Home (don't get me wrong... I'm still very happy). I don't feel like the ministry has passed me by and that my role has deteriorated to benefactor.

I feel like the church has done their best to turn themselves into a religion, standing as the gateway to a faith based on Jesus Christ. You can find your favorite church in the yellow pages. If you donate enough money, you can influence the decisions and programming of the church. Also, if you donate a lot, you can be assured that the church will never do anything to piss you off, but this is all a necessary evil really since the church will not run without money, because we need to pay salaries, bills, etc. You will feel happy and safe in the church that you have a part of, and you will feel religious.

I have news though - the church is not a building. The church is not a staff. The church is not this denomination or that denomination, the church is a body of believers. Period. The act of "going to church" does not exist. Our concepts of "church" in today's society are so far off base that we as a Christian culture have perpetuated a fantasy utopian bubble society, where everything "non-christian" is bad, hanging out with non-christians is bad, etc, etc.

There was a group of people like this when Jesus wandered around Israel wearing sandals and traveling with twelve dudes. He called them the Pharisees, and he spoke out against them more than any other facet of society. The Pharisees were the church leaders of the Jewish culture and community, and they had turned getting to God into a business.

So today I find myself puking on this page feeling still like a funny shaped peg. I have been hurt much and disagree greatly with the church in many areas, but I still love Jesus. I have been rejected by a Christian community because of my "sinful nature", but last time I checked we all had that personality trait. I find it sad that a community of degenerate gamblers have accepted me and loved me much more than a community of "Christ-like" people ever did. Poker News

Until yesterday. Thanks Tam. After spending time at Indian Village, I wandered over to the Jr. High camp to visit my former youth pastor, Nate Rice. I was in Nate's first class and he was instrumental in my journey through the hell that was my junior and senior years of high school. His wife, Tamara, has always been there, but I had never really connected with her, until yesterday. I'm not really sure how it happened, but before I knew it the dining room, which was packed with 200+ jr. highers, counselors, and staff, was desolate except for her and I. We talked, we shared, we laughed, and for the first time in longer than I can remember, I felt like it was okay to be me. I felt like it was okay to be a professional gambler who also loves Jesus. I've learned that it's really hard to be both because they are both faux pas to each other. The poker community doesn't really appreciate "religious" talk too much (although they have never judged me on it, they just don't like it) and the Christian community often cannot tolerate gambling, drinking, smoking, etc.

But yesterday it was okay. Yesterday I found out that her and Nate were proud of me. Leaders of a major Christian ministry, proud of me, a fallen youth pastor, a broken kid, a professional degenerate gambler living in sin, a broken individual who wonders deep down where his life is going. They are proud of me.

There need to be more Nate and Tamara's in the world. There needs to be more people, especially in the Christian community, who love unconditionally as Jesus did. That unconditional love yesterday changed my life. I'm not sure how yet, but it has made me happier today and given me so much more of a hope and positive outlook on tomorrow.

Peace and good luck,


Post a comment


3 months ago
No comments.