Lee Davy sits down with Brandon Shack-Harris, to talk about his early life, his passion for music, and a why he sometimes feels the urge to watch whales fly.
Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, and Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Ikea, both suffered from dyslexia. Cristiano Ronaldo was born with a racing heart, lost his father due to alcoholism when he was 20 and grew up in abject poverty. Oprah Winfrey also grew up in poverty, was molested in her teens, and suffered the heartbreak of the death of her child.
All of these people went on to become real success stories in their chosen field. Being raised under difficult circumstances is challenging. We all know that. But we also know that it’s through adversity that we see human beings truly excel.
And as I watched a Polar Bear tearing people a new asshole in yet another World Series of Poker (WSOP) final table, that’s exactly what I saw.
When not appearing at WSOP final tables dressed as a Polar Bear, Brandon Shack-Harris is proving to be one of the best card-for-card poker players in the world.
Since 2014, Brandon has made the final table of nine WSOP events, recorded six top-three finishes, and won two gold bracelets. And yet, all of that seemed so far away when as a young kid his parents divorced, he was separated from his friends, and would later have to deal with his mother’s death at the age of 15.
As a divorcee myself, who has a 15-year old son, I wanted to learn how the divorce affected him and shaped him into the man he is today?
“I couldn’t guess. Every child’s experience with the people they are surrounded by is entirely different, so my take on the situation will only be relatable to those with similar relationship dynamics. The same can be said in the way each person processes their unique situation.
“My mom moved me from Wisconsin to California, and I spent time flying back and forth until the age of eight. My personal relationships aside, I hated the lack of consistency that came with travelling back and forth; I would imagine that would universally suck for all kids participating in a divorce.
“We moved from Southern California to Farmington, New Mexico in the middle of my first year of high school. It was terrible timing and terrible location. I felt lost, and my childhood friends were busy being kids in California and had a hard time keeping in touch. I went from being very social and active to being largely introverted. It taught me not to rely on other people for my happiness, a trait I find highly attractive in others.”
I moved on and remarried. My son didn’t have a say in the matter. He had to get on with life. I wanted to know how Brandon managed after his mother remarried?
“Life is rough, and it’s far too short to dwell on old shit. I mess up all the time – not knowing when to bite my tongue, alienating friends and family, that good ole’ fashioned A+ self-sabotage. I can’t fathom being a parent in my early 20s, and were I one; I expect I would be making mistakes all over the place. It wouldn’t be fair to talk about how things were back then when those people have no platform to defend themselves, especially when all parties have acknowledged the aches of growing and living and are trying to learn from them. There were always good moments.”
Good moments or tough moments. How did these shape Brandon into becoming the great poker player that he is?
“They didn’t. My mom’s death helped inspire a greater purpose regarding my would-be musical career, slash, young and gonna try and save the world career, but I wasn’t able to survive a bump in the road with another band in my early twenties. I’ve been stuck in wasted potential limbo for some time now.”
That bump in the road happened when he was 22. Brandon had found a band that he loved, and the singer had taught him how to play poker. Somewhere along the way, it didn’t work out, and Brandon was left incredibly hurt through the experience. He decided to turn his back on music, and that’s when he decided to continue his poker experience. I asked Brandon who his musical influences were, what was the first album he bought and what was the first album that he played to death?
“The music that resonates with me most tends to be some melodic or minor key form of pretty/aggressive/fucked up/ambient. Artists that I always find my way to of late include Blonde Redhead, Boards of Canada, Elliott Smith, Teen Suicide, Cloakroom, Eluvium, Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine, Soundgarden, Autolux, Xiu Xiu, Aesop Rock.
“The first album I bought was for a girl I had a crush on when I was 12. Blind Melon was her favourite band, so I bought her that with all of my birthday money. Swing and a miss. I would go over to our next door neighbours place, and borrow from his CD collection. One year he gave me Mc Hammer for my birthday; fuck if I know why. I was always borrowing Depeche Mode ‘Violator”, Nine Inch Nails “Downward Spiral”, and The Cure. That Hammer record got NOT played to death; I can tell you that much.”
What was it about music that touched his heart?
“I’m a huge fan of trying to understand an emotion as deeply as possible, and music is the ultimate compliment. When I feel great, I want to listen to something that makes me feel dialled in and cool, and when depressed, I want to listen to whatever gets me closest to throwing myself out of the nearest window.”
Back to poker, and away from open windows, why is his Hendon Mob resume littered with non-Hold’em event titles?
“Poor prioritisation. I was a regular 5/10 NL grinder until my money got stuck in Neteller. They were being investigated in the States and Americans had their funds tied up for a minute. I busted the mini-roll I kept online, and the majority was in Neteller so I was fucked. It seemed too daunting to pay my rent grinding NL from 5 dollar transfers so tried doing it learning a new game each month. Fun Fact: I created a Full Tilt account named ‘5dollartransfer’ that got banned after a week because you’re not supposed to do that.”
How many times has he gone broke?
“A few times. Twice I felt like I needed my account to be empty to trigger a psychological reset for me assuming I didn’t catapult back to even. It’s silly. After Black Friday I thought it wise to find backing if I were going to continue playing, since money was tied up on Full Tilt, and I wanted to preserve what little life-roll I had left. I have done notoriously well while selling action, and equally terrible when I have all of me. It’s been a while since I’ve been totally busto, but had I bricked WSOP and all of my side stuff bricked too I might be back waiting tables.”
When is he at his weakest?
“Loving someone helplessly will always be the weakest anyone will be I think. Wanting desperately to connect with somebody while fumbling over every word and idea until it turns into a huge pile of disaster is the ultimate lesson in vulnerability, and probably the best opportunity to grow as a person, but it’s fucking brutal.”
What is ‘perfectionism’?
“The scene often changes, but usually, deals with love for me and for most I would imagine. Maybe when you’re 20 years married, it’s taking a nice piss or telling somebody to fuck off. I want to sail to the middle of nowhere with icebergs and tons of stars. It would be pretty great if whales could fly because I’d like to see that happen there too, and so would Steph.”