Brandon Schaefer: Good Guys Wear Gold

Brandon Schaefer and I crossed paths many times on our journeys through poker. The first time I met him was in 2005. I was in Barcelona, Spain, for the start of the second season of the European Poker Tour. I was the first independent American correspondent to cover the EPT and the head honcho, John Duthie, was more than pleased to give me press credentials.

Brandon became the darling of the EPT during its inaugural season when he and his best buddy from Seattle, Carl Olson, advanced to the final table of the EPT Deauville. Brandon went on to win his first event, and then just missed his second title when he was the runner-up at the EPT Grand Finale in Monte Carlo. Brandon was taken out by Dutch pro Rob Hollink.

I bumped into Brandon while trying to get a sandwich at the bar inside the casino in Barcelona. He mentioned that he was an avid reader of Tao of Poker, my poker blog that first gained notoriety during the 2005 WSOP. I was the lone American amongst the media in Spain, and the experience was amazing, yet overwhelming. My Spanish was horrible (a mixture of Bronx ghetto Spanglish), so I naturally gravitated toward any Americans.

Brandon and I shared a few things in common. He grew up in Seattle and I lived in Seattle a few blocks from where Brandon grew up. We were both mixed-race kids. Our mothers were Asian-American (Japan for Brandon’s mother’s family; China for my mother’s family), and our fathers were European Caucasians (Brandon’s dad was of German ancestry and my great-grandparents escaped Ireland during the potato famine).

I remember one night in Barcelona after work, I had grabbed a beer at the bar. Brandon had busted out earlier that day and got hammered with friends after spending the evening soaking up the local nightlife.

“I’m going to move to Barcelona,” Brandon said matter-of-factly pointing at one of the many sultry Spanish beauties at the bar. “I love this place.”

You have no idea how many times I heard Brandon utter the phrase, “I love this place. I want to move here.”

I had numerous other adventures with Brandon along the international poker circuit. Plus he did plenty of wandering on his own to some of the most remote outposts in the world. How many people do you know that have been to Antarctica? Brandon has. One of my favorite Brandon Schaefer stories involved Brandon and another well-versed traveler arguing in a bar in Melbourne, Australia. They were comparing passport stamps. Both of their passports were filled with stamps from the farthest corners of the globe. Although Brandon was edged out in number of countries visited by five, he was able to brag about visiting all seven continents. He flashed the stamp from Antarctica … and the squabble was over.

Brandon is an intrepid traveler and the type of person who soaks up culture wherever he goes. His brother was in the Air Force and stationed in Germany. Brandon visited him often and would hit up EPT events, where we crossed paths the most. Believe me, I’ve covered enough international poker events to tell you that most online poker pros act like boorish American tourists when they are abroad. Not Brandon. He understood the fundamental philosophical differences between being a traveler and being a tourist.

Brandon also preferred to stay in hostels instead of swanky hotels, which was the exact opposite of his online brethren who personified the “baller” lifestyle. After a sick score on the EPT, Brandon didn’t blow his winnings. He put it in the bank and only spent money on travel. Even then, he adhered to a budget traveler’s philosophy. He never drove a fancy car, nor did he surround himself with material items.

I tried to count all the places I hung out with Brandon. Atlantic City. Foxwoods. Los Angeles. Seattle. Spain. Monte Carlo. Australia. Hungary. London. I’m sure I’m missing a few places. The Australia adventures stood out the most. After he had a tepid run at the 2008 Aussie Millions, Brandon wanted to backpack around Oz. I joined him on that adventure and for a month we soaked up as much as we could, hitting up the Gold Coast, Surfer’s Paradise, Byron Bay, and Sydney.

We even attended the Big Day Out music festival courtesy of my editor, John Caldwell. Big Day Out is sort of like Bonnaroo meets Coachella for Australia, except they host the festival in every major city in New Zealand and Australia. Caldwell happened to know Tool’s road manager, who scored us tickets to the festival’s stop on the Gold Coast. Caldwell hooked us up with backstage passes courtesy of Tool, which gave us unfettered access. In between sets of random local bands we didn’t want to see, we hung out backstage and played several rounds of Chinese Poker. [Side note: On that trip, Brandon whooped my ass in our running game, but he helped tutor me to become a stronger Chinese Poker player.]

We were only steps away on the side of the stage when bands performed their sets. It was pretty cool to see bands like Jet and Muse perform up close. At the time, actress Kate Hudson was dating one of the members of Muse, so she was hanging out backstage for most of the festival. During Muse’s set, Kate Hudson bent down in front of me so she could snap a photo of Muse’s frontman. Brandon elbowed me in the ribs.

“That’s the closest Kate Hudson will ever be to your cock.”

I instantly blurted out laughing. I think Kate heard Brandon, but she just turned around and flashed us a million dollar smile. We both melted.

If Kate Hudson was the highlight of our adventures in Oz, then the night train from Byron Bay to Sydney was the lowlight. Brandon is the kind of guy who wants to take an alternative route to wherever he’s going, hence the idea of taking a train to Sydney instead of flying. I was up for it until I realized that it was going to be so dark outside we wouldn’t be able to soak up Australia’s amazing beauty during the 8-hour journey. Instead, we were stuck on a train ride from hell, with “meat pies” the only food available. I was dubious of the origin of the “meat” and ended up not eating the entire ride.

A couple of summers ago, I was in Seattle with my girlfriend on a vacation. I called Brandon and mentioned that I wanted to see a baseball game because I had not been to Safeco Field since the old Kingdome was imploded. Brandon was not only up for the game, but he said he could get us tickets.

“I know Ichiro’s translator,” said Brandon.

Of course he did. He’s Brandon Schaefer, world traveler who knows everyone from bartenders in Budapest to cabbies in Barcelona to translators for one of the greatest hitters in all of baseball.

One of my last conversations with Brandon occurred at the start of the 2012 WSOP. I told him I was not covering the WSOP from the trenches this summer because I was burned out and desperately needed a break. He told me he understood what I was going through and that I’d most likely be miserable with the vibe of this year’s WSOP. Brandon had already gone through his own existential poker crisis, but he had come out of it on the other end. Although I got the sense that Black Friday forced his hand, Brandon had quit poker because he got bored with it and was seeking a new challenge. Even though he was already a veteran (he served as a medic in the Army shortly after high school), Brandon re-enlisted because he wanted to learn how to fly helicopters for the U.S. military. Talk about an about face.

“Vegas is not the same without you,” Brandon mentioned. He went on to say that the WSOP was a much different beast than what we were introduced to back in 2005 at the height of the poker boom. Brandon mentioned he had a break before flight school commenced, so he went to Vegas to visit friends and check out the Electric Daisy Carnival. One of the traits I admire about Brandon is that he is naturally curious and wants to experience things for himself. He knew that I was skipping the WSOP in favor of following around my favorite band, Phish. My next non-fiction book is going to be about the Phish phenomena, the band, and its rabid fans. Brandon asked me when Phish was going to be playing in the South because he wanted to see me in my element. He wanted to see what all the hype was. He told me he was stationed in Alabama and I told him that we were going to cross paths because Phish had a stop in Alabama later this summer.

Brandon decided to play Event No. 14 $1,500 NL Shootout on a whim. I got a message a day or two later that Brandon had made the final table of the shootout. That was the first time since the WSOP began that I was pissed I was not in Las Vegas covering the final table. Luckily thanks to advances in technology, I streamed the final table via WSOP.com. I didn’t want to send Brandon any messages for fear of being a jinx. I sweated his run and when Brandon eventually won, I ran around doing the Kirk Gibson fist pump. One of the good guys won a bracelet.
Brandon wasn’t even supposed to be at the WSOP. He retired as a professional player and was on a path to becoming a helicopter pilot. I guess that’s what makes his story so amazing.
I really wanted to see him hoist the bling above his head while a menagerie of photographers snapped his winner’s photo. I also had made a prop bet with a fellow member of the media back in 2006. I said that Brandon would win a bracelet before his buddy Carl Olson. I was getting odds, too.

Moments after his victory, I shot Brandon a text. I apologized for not being there. He quickly responded and humbly said he luckboxed his way to the win. He also wasn’t upset that I wasn’t there. Out of anyone in the poker world, Brandon understood my internal struggles the most. He wasn’t upset at all, in fact, he was excited that I was doing something that I loved.

“Congrats on shipping the bracelet,” I said.

“Congrats on shipping the prop bet,” joked Brandon. “See you in Alabama for Phish!”

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August 2012