Get to Know the Poker Media: An Interview with Brad Willis

Brad WillisHow lucky poker is to have Brad Willis.

A soft-spoken man of immense talent, Willis is to poker what Grantland Rice was to sports, the preeminent scribe whose powers of storytelling seemingly know no bounds.

Though he makes his home in small-town America, Willis has traveled the globe documenting tale after tale of success and heartbreak at the poker tables. Much like a gifted sculptor can mold a mound of clay into a superb creation, Brad is able to spin masterpieces out of seemingly any trivial series of events. Undeniably, Willis’ finest poker work shines forth when he captures the magic of the human spirit as it transcends the felt. On numerous occasions, his words have moved me to tears.

An award-winning broadcast journalist prior to his entering the poker world, Willis was given the nod by the poker industry as well in 2015 as the first recipient of the American Poker Award for Content of the Year. A true man of the media, Willis’ work hasn’t been limited to poker writing; indeed, he has also served as a commentator and guest on numerous TV, internet, and radio shows.

Best known as the Head of Blogging at PokerStars, any fan of Brad’s work could dig up the aforementioned information about him with nominal effort. But what of the man behind the byline? What does he do when he’s not crafting poker stories and regaling us with testaments of the tournament triumphs he witnesses?

Beyond a limitless appreciation for the joy and entertainment he’s brought me over the years through his work, I must profess that Brad’s is the gold standard I strive for in my own poker writing. On the couple occasions I’ve felt bold enough to ask for his opinion on articles I’ve written, my heart jumped when he gave me the figurative thumbs up.

Robbie and Brad

Me and Brad at the 2016 PCA

Having wanted to meet him for years, I finally got my chance at the 2016 PCA. That week, I toiled in the presence of greatness; I shook the hand of the rock star. Brad was kind enough to let me buy him a beer one night. That precious evening we spent bonding in one of the Atlantis lobbies will live on in my mind and heart forever.

Similarly, I’m grateful for the opportunity to interview a man in the poker world who I hold in the highest regard. What an honor it is to have Brad Willis’ words grace the pages of my Cardplayer Lifestyle poker blog as part of our Get to Know the Poker Media series.

How did you first get into the business of poker writing and for how long have you been doing it?

Before poker writing became a business for me, it was something I did for fun. I played a lot of cards, and because I spent a lot of my free time writing about my life, I ended up writing a lot about poker. In 2004, PokerStars had decided it wanted someone to blog about the 2005 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. At the time, PokerStars was friendly with actor and writer Wil Wheaton. The brass asked him to take the writing gig, but his schedule didn’t allow it. Though we didn’t know each other at the time, it turned out that he had read some of my writing. He recommended me for the job. At the time, I was a TV news reporter working the crime beat.

After Lee Jones asked me to go to the PCA, I took a week of vacation from my real job and went to the Bahamas. At the end of that week, PokerStars was apparently impressed and asked me if I’d consider working with them full-time. A few days later, I was on the phone with Isai Scheinberg. Two weeks later, I was at EPT Copenhagen. Now, 12 years later, here we are.

Prior to researching this piece, I mistakenly believed that you’d only done poker writing for PokerStars as their Head of Blogging. I noticed, however, that you used to do freelance work for outlets like Up for Poker, All In Magazine, and others. Which of those freelance gigs you used to do back in the day was your favorite?

Up For Poker was by far the most fun, simply because it was little more than two of my good friends and I writing about our low-rolling poker exploits. My friend CJ created the site, and we wrote for years about our silly Vegas trips. We made some money doing it, but we would’ve done it even without getting paid. Beyond that, however, our involvement with that introduced us to a motley group of low-rollers who also wrote about poker.

We all ended up playing online in private tournaments, taking trips together, and organizing an annual convention, of sorts. It was all very organic, and many of those people have become close friends of mine. We jokingly referred to it as the World Poker Blogger Tour (WPBT), a name that has stuck for more than a decade and boasts more than a hundred “members.” The group still does an annual trip every December.

Brad Willis WPBT

Brad at the 2005 WSOP, with other members of the WPBT

In addition to setting the stage for me getting the PokerStars gig, Up For Poker ended up getting me a few articles with All In. Over time, I also did some work for Card Player and Bluff which paid a couple of bills, but I think All In still owes me some money.

What is it that you love about poker that attracted you to the game in the first place and that still keeps you so interested to this day?

My dad taught me to play when I was still in my early teens. We played with my friends around the kitchen table. As family legend goes, my dad paid for my first crib with money he won playing poker in the early 70s. After that, I never stopped playing. Prior to the hold’em craze, I played all the other games with plastic chips. When online poker hit the scene, I learned everything I could about it.

Over time I realized that a poker table was a great way to learn about people. Since then, it’s always been the people and their personal stories. The game is fun, and I still get excited about it. Still, if it weren’t for the human element in the game, I would lose a lot of interest. I have seen aces get cracked in just about every way. If I never see another queens versus ace-king race in my life, I won’t be disappointed. For me, it all comes down to the people I meet. Whether I’m playing or writing about poker, the microcosm of a game teaches me a lot about life away from the table.

What’s the biggest misconception that people have about poker writers/writing?

Most current players think poker writers are wannabe poker pros, or worse, failed poker pros. In some cases, that’s true. In most cases, it’s not. In fact, I know some of the best poker writers have scant interest in playing anything more than recreational games.

The contrast of your globetrotting job, where you spend vast amounts of times in casinos and poker rooms, versus the “Main Street, USA” life you lead at home in Greenville, South Carolina fascinates me. Please tell us a bit about your personal life and what the day-to-day is like when you’re home?

When I’m not on the road, my days are like most work-from-home people. I get up in the morning, work in my home office until dinnertime, and then try to be a good husband and father at night.

In most ways, I live a stereotypical suburban life. I’ve been married for 16 years. I have two sons. The older one is 12. The younger one is seven. I live in the ‘burbs of a medium-sized city. I’ve got two Labs, a receding hairline, gray hair, and a spare tire around my waist. I am 2016 Middle-Aged Dad.

Brad Willis family

When I was younger, I spent several nights a week playing cards in underground rooms. I made a few trips to casino cities a year. I threw massive parties that should’ve gotten me banned by my Home Owners Association.

After my kids got older, I had to put some work into being a better adult. That ended up translating into less time for playing cards and partying. These days, I spend lot more of my free time at the baseball fields with my kids. The drama there is better than most poker tables.

Brad Willis kids

I know that music makes you quite happy. You enjoy attending live concerts and even play the guitar yourself. Tell us some more about that and your lifelong love of music.

That’s a question that we could spend an entire day discussing. I’ll try to keep it short.

When I was a kid, my parents threw weekend parties where everyone sat around playing guitars and singing John Prine and Willie Nelson songs. By the time I was 12, I was begging my dad to teach me to play. He sketched out three chords and handed me his cheap guitar. I never stopped playing. From jazz bands, to garage bands, to college parties, to campfires, to sitting on my back porch, playing music is what I’ve done for fun over the last 30 years.

Brad Willis band

Today, there is nothing outside of my family that affects me as viscerally as music does. People who don’t know me well are sometimes taken aback by seeing me break into tears in the middle of a concert. I don’t have a great explanation for why that happens, but music is the art that touches me the deepest.

As much as I enjoy all my other hobbies and pastimes, I’d be perfectly happy spending the rest of my life going to concerts and playing music with people. You will never see more relaxed than I am at a three-day music festival with my good friends. You will never see me smile more than when I’m sitting on a porch with like-minded people, some musical instruments, and a cold beer.

Brad Willis guitar

There have been times in my life—some ancient and some more recent—when I’ve been embarrassed by my love of playing as it relates to my relative talent or lack thereof. One of the most important things I’ve done for myself recently was working to accept music is a vital part of who I am, and I have to get over being embarrassed or afraid of showing people that side of me, for better or worse.

What other hobbies do you have? Tell us about them.

I love entertaining people. I can happily spend all day cooking a meal for a small dinner party or three-dozen people. My mom taught me to cook, and a good day for me is making a big pot of gumbo while listening to music. I spent most of my free time during the summer smoking ribs and pork butts. Now, autumn is kicking in here at home, and once my life slows down a little, I’m looking forward to cool Sunday afternoons in the kitchen making big pots of soup and whatever else sounds good.

I also can’t spend enough time outside. I live in a beautiful part of the world, and I love packing the family and dogs in the car for long hikes among the waterfalls, streams, and mountains around here.

Brad Willis music festival

Brad, with his wife, at a music festival

You haven’t limited yourself to only writing about poker. You maintain your own blog, Rapid Eye Reality, where your posts often delve deeply into the personal. How did you decide upon that name for your blog?

Back in 2001, just a few weeks before 9/11, I went to a wedding on Tybee Island, Georgia. Over a meal of Low Country Boil, a friend of mine asked if I’d ever heard of blogging. She knew I was a writer and liked new technologies. She suggested I give it a try.

At the time, I didn’t have much idea of what I was doing, and I didn’t think I’d still be posting to the site 15 years later. At the time, I was a young television news guy, and I spent most of my time at crime scenes looking at dead people or in court listening to people cry. It was a stark contrast to the fanciful life my young brain dreamed up every night.

Initially, I thought it would be fun to wake every morning, record my rapid eye movement dreams from the night before, and then contrast that with the reality of what I experienced during the day. I’d barely settled on the concept and name before I came to realize what I think of as the Rule of Three Ds.

Nobody wants to read about my Dreams, Diets, or Dogs.

So, almost immediately, RER became simply a diary of my life in TV, and then an outlet to record and publish what I experienced in my everyday life. I still write there occasionally, but not nearly as often because the things about which I used to write 500-1,000 words on are now often reduced to 140 characters on Twitter. And, yeah, that sort of sucks.

When it comes to your own blog, what drives you to the keyboard? How do you arrive at the conclusion that you want to write about a particular topic?

It’s usually a deep need for expensive therapy I can’t afford.

Put another way, it’s when I want to scream for a really long time, but I’m afraid I’ll scare my family.

Put another way, there is something a little broken about my brain that doesn’t let me process things the way many other people might process them. That is, a lot of people are really good at talking through issues that are bothering them, and when they finish the conversation, they feel better. That’s rarely true for me.

I often don’t really know how I feel about something until I write it down. So, if something happens to me or around me that I’m having a hard time dealing with, I’ll start writing about it. Most of the time, those pages end up in a hidden file on my computer and nobody ever sees them. Sometimes, I feel like sharing them with people, and that’s what people see on RER.

Many writers are challenged by writer’s block as well as the numerous “life distractions” that compete for our attention and prevent us from achieving a state of deep focus. What strategies do you employ to overcome these challenges?

Brad Willis on the job

Brad, on the job

I’m as bad about it as anybody else. I’m easily distracted. A noise from my kids in another room, a perfectly written lyric in a song, or seeing my guitar in my peripheral vision. Any of those things can steal an hour of my day before I even realize it’s happening.

I love Twitter. I really do, but if it had never been invented, I’d be a much more productive person. If I start scrolling, I can get lost in the silliness and completely forget about whatever important thing I was thinking about.

The only thing I’ve found that really works for me is putting my phone in another room, removing the TweetBot icon from my Macbook dock, and putting in my earphones with instrumental music on: Django Reinhardt is one of my go-to artists for concentration.

Even then, I’m among the world’s worst at concentrating until I get stuck deeply into something. The things I actually finish usually get finished because I’ve created some weird artificial deadline for myself or pretended someone would be deeply disappointed in me if I didn’t finish. I hate disappointing people, even if they are imaginary.

Your Twitter bio depicts you as “self-loathing with bursts of relentless optimism”. Those are some incredibly choice and, frankly, difficult-to-process words. What do you wish you could improve about yourself and what do you cling to that inspires that relentless optimism?

That’s a tough one. It’s rare anyone challenges me on that. But here’s the truth: it’s rare that a month goes by that I don’t disappoint myself to a degree that’s probably unhealthy. I have led a very privileged life, and I feel so lucky to have been free from a lot of the worries most people in the world have to face. It’s made me believe I need to be better than I am, because if not, the privileges I’ve been afforded will have been wasted.

I have lived most of my life desperately afraid of failing, being inadequate, or people believing I wasn’t good enough. Most of this is happens despite having a really good support system of family and friends who take care of me when I’m sideways. They don’t necessarily understand why I sometimes really don’t like myself, but they love me enough to prop me up when I get that way. Publicly announcing my occasional self-hate is probably a defense mechanism for me. If I say it aloud, maybe it will take some of the power away from the reality of my feelings that I’m constantly failing at being the guy I know I should be.

The ridiculous thing about that is this: As much as I often disappoint myself, I can’t help but be inspired by the rest of the world. My family and friends are beautiful. Music and art fill me up with such joy that I sometimes can’t stand it. I’m inspired by my friends who are strong enough to use their talents to improve every day. I’m inspired by the less fortunate who work against their very real struggles to succeed. I’m inspired by the oppressed who have the courage to stand up for what’s right. They make me believe that despite how dark the world can seem, there is hope, and I just have to remember that the power for me to be better is only going to come from within. I’m working on that.

You recently had the good fortune of taking a trip to Ghana with the Right to Play organization. How did that materialize? What was it like for you and what do you feel you gained most from the experience?

PokerStars is a big supporter of Right to Play, and when I heard there was a research trip to Ghana in the offing, I was in the middle of the World Series of Poker. Sometimes my working life can feel like a fantasy land where all the problems are imagined and fit between a flop and a river. I already had a pretty busy travel schedule planned for the rest of the year, but I desperately wanted to do something that felt real and that might make a difference in someone’s life. I begged to go on the trip.

I have a good friend who grew up in Africa, and she suggested that this trip might send me back as a changed person. I feel like she was right. I’ve not been home for very long, and I’m still processing everything I saw and heard while I was there. Saying that my perspective on life changed doesn’t begin to describe the experience.

The interesting thing is that I’ve found it very, very hard to talk about it with my friends and family. I don’t feel like I can easily express what I felt while I was there. I’m afraid I won’t say it right. I feel like I’ll come off as preachy or that in an effort to not seem preachy, minimize how important it felt.

I’m actually in the process of coming to terms with everything I saw. A big part of that effort will be finishing what I’ve written about it so far. In short, no matter how much navel-gazing I do about myself, and no matter how stupid I get about my own life, I’ll never be able to justify moaning about my personal issues. The people I met in Ghana, despite the unbelievable problems they face, were more optimistic than most people I’ve met. That inspires me to be better.

Let’s turn back to poker. How often do you play? Home games mostly or in poker rooms? Cash or tourneys? Hold’em or mixed games?

I play significantly less than I used to. Prior to UIGEA, I played nearly every day online. Afterward, I played a lot of underground games for several years. After Black Friday, I stopped playing online at all and largely quit the underground games because they got too dangerous. I live a couple of hours away from a Harrahs, so I’ll go there occasionally to play some cash or the occasional WSOP Circuit event. I also have some good friends who get together for irregular home games. I play a lot of hold’em, but I also enjoy playing PLO, PLO8, Razz, and when I’m feeling froggy, a nice big game of Big O. I’m a better tournament player than I am cash game player, but I don’t get a lot opportunities to practice anymore.

I’ve read that you’ve played for stakes as high as $100/$200. That’s significantly higher than any other non-professional poker player I know. Could you elaborate on how you ended up playing for such high stakes and what that felt like?

Brad Willis pokerThat was $100/$200 limit hold’em and back when online poker was still really easy to beat. I wouldn’t dare try to get in a game like that today. The highest I ever played no-limit was $10/$20, and again, that was back in the good ol’ days when I could sit across from Justin Bonomo and know he was the only person there to be afraid of. Now everybody is terrifying.

Ten or 12 years ago, it wasn’t hard to build a roll. I wasn’t that talented, but at the time I was good enough. I built up enough money playing no-limit cash games and nightly tournaments that I played some of the bigger limit games. I was moderately successful in the $50/$100 games and dabbled in the bigger games for a bit. I remember a couple of consecutive nights where I won $10,000 each night. I emailed a good friend of mine who was good at limit. He immediately wrote back, “Stop playing now!” I didn’t listen, and I got my clock cleaned for a couple nights before going back to playing where I belonged.

These days, I wouldn’t dream of trying to beat the young online pros. I can still write about poker, but the talent of the bigger games has passed me by and lapped me a few times.

Are there any tales of your own poker escapades you haven’t yet told publicly, or that you’re perhaps saving for the grandkids someday?

As most people know, I rarely hold back a good story, and the ones I do hold back I do to respect the privacy of other people involved. Those who travel with me know they can be themselves around me because of what I call the 80/20 Rule. That is, 80% of the good stories are sometimes too good to tell publicly, and they can say, “Brad, this in the 80%,” and it will stay there.

One story I’ve never really mentioned, though, was this: just a few weeks before getting hired by PokerStars, I won a seat on the 2005 Party Poker Million cruise. It was back when WPT had limit hold’em events. My first son was just a few months old, and I was rocking him in a car seat with my foot while I played the satellite. When I won it, it felt monumental. I’d been watching WPT events and playing online since the 2003 WPT Aruba tourney, and I dreamed of playing one. I woke my wife up in the middle of the night. While it seems silly now, I was literally crying because I was so happy to have a chance to play on that stage.

A month later, I got hired by PokerStars, and the big bosses thought it was a bad idea for a PokerStars guy to play a Party Poker event. So, I didn’t go, and because of that rule and the fact I can’t play on PokerStars, I’ve never played a big Main Event. PokerStars changed my life, so I have zero regrets about missing out on that chance to play. Nevertheless, when Mike Gracz ended up winning, I did feel a little pang and wondered what might have been.

In a departure from the standard written pieces we see on the PokerStars Blog, you recently produced a great longform audio segment, The New GuyDo you foresee yourself and your team producing more multimedia content like this? Are any other innovations coming our way over the next while?

The New Guy was an experiment. I consume a ton of longform audio stories. I love Radio Lab, This American Life, and a lot of other podcasts. I love the form, because there are emotions that simply can’t be expressed in writing. There’s a moment in The New Guy after the main guy gets all his chips in on the bubble. He’s making a ton of noises that don’t even have onomatopoeia spellings. It was perfect for audio and my favorite moment of the entire segment.

Prior to my poker life, I was in broadcasting. I was in radio for a few years before spending a decade in television. I still love it, and I’ve long wanted to do broadcast-style work for the PokerStars Blog.

While I am not an audio engineer, I think the piece turned out okay, and I’d love to do more of it. It will just be a matter of whether our readers like the form as much as I do.

What’s something you still haven’t yet done/accomplished in poker that’s on your bucket list? How about away from poker?

What was it they sang in Hamilton? “There’s a million things I haven’t done…”

In terms of poker writing, I’d really like to publish a really good longform poker piece in a major magazine. I did Bust for The Bitter Southerner in 2015, and I was happy with how it turned out and the great response it got. Still, I’d like for a national or international audience to get a really good sense for what the inside of our world is like.

Also, while I have no desire to play professionally, I really need to sit down a play a main event somewhere sometime. A lot of the best writing comes from people who have been in the middle of the experience they are writing about. I’ve watched more Main Event hands than I can even count, but I’ve never played one. I need to get around to doing that someday.

Away from poker, I have aspirations of getting a big book published on subjects other than the game I’ve focused on for the past 12 years. I have one novel written, another nearly finished, and a nonfiction work-in-progress that I hope finds a home someday.

You can learn a lot about a person by the way they speak of their friends and colleagues. Last year, on the occasion of the PokerStars Blog’s 10th anniversary, you penned one hell of a thank-you letter. Truthfully, I couldn’t think of any good questions to ask you about that; I was just looking for an excuse to link to it so that people could read and appreciate it.

I can take credit for envisioning and creating the PokerStars Blog, and I have done more writing there than anywhere else in my career. Nevertheless, the PokerStars Blog is what it is because of the other people who have written there. I have been fortunate to surround myself with people who are exceptionally talented writers and even better people. I’m proud to be associated with them. They make everything shine, and I’m beyond lucky to have them as my friends and co-writers.

In closing, if you had the power to singlehandedly make some positive improvements to benefit the game of poker and/or the community, what would the changes be and why? The stage is yours, sir.

The first obvious answer would be to impress upon lawmakers how important it is to abandon the hypocrisy and cronyism that has destroyed the poker industry in America. It’s disheartening and embarrassing that the land of the free doesn’t have the freedom to play a game.

Beyond that, though, I’d want us all to look at ourselves and be a little more introspective about how inclusive we are. I would love for the tables to be friendlier for women. I would love for new players to feel more comfortable in the game. We have a beautiful thing, and it behooves us all to bring as many people into the tent as we can.

Further Reading

Please take the time to read some of Brad’s incredible work.

4 Comments

  1. Rick G
    Rick G October 20, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    Wow! Robbie, you really hit a grand slam on this one!! Probably my all-time favorite interview I’ve read regarding poker.

    Not so much because of the great questions you asked, but because of Brad’s personally revealing, deeply introspective answers. Definitely

    I’d heard of Brad and now, after reading this, I’ve become a big fan!

    If this is the way he answers questions, I can’t wait to read his writings! He might be on the sidelines but he’s truly one of the more interesting personalities in the world of poker.

  2. Nathan Williams
    Nathan Williams October 21, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    Nice interview! As a poker writer myself this was especially intriguing to read.

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