Chad Brown, Star of Gold

Playboy Mansion. 2006. I leaned over to Chad Brown and said, “Can you believe this? Two Bronx guys hanging out in Hugh Hefner’s backyard? When you were a kid, you ever think that would ever happen?”

“It’s like a dream,” smirked Chad Brown.

Chad BrownAlthough separated in age by a decade, Chad Brown and I grew up in in different Bronx neighborhoods only a couple miles apart. Our life paths eventually crossed in the poker world and on that particular night, we were invited to a charity tournament hosted at the Playboy Mansion. This was still very early in my career as a poker reporter and I was overwhelmed amidst a “Holy cow, how the hell did I get here?” moment. You know, those dream-come-true milestones that could only happen through poker. I was supposed to be covering the charity event, yet I was getting sloshed at Hef’s monkey cages and gawking at Bunnies and random celebrities.

At one point a shellacked Tara Reid wobbled by and made ga-ga eyes at Chad Brown. Reid was a fading starlet burning up the last minute of her 15 minutes of “American Pie” fame. I joked, “Hey Chad, looks like Tara Reid is so gacked you should loan her your crutches.”

It’s at this point of the story that I apologize for omitting the fact that Chad Brown was using crutches at the time. The charity tournament was actually hosted in a giant white tent in Hugh Hefner’s backyard. I spotted Chad Brown, on crutches, near one of the side walls of the tent.

“I’m sure it’s a very good story,” I commented while pointing at his knee in a brace.

“I busted something while playing baseball …”

I’m not impressed easily, yet I was in awe of Chad Brown. One minute, he’s playing semi-pro ball, and the next he’s at the Playboy Mansion, getting sympathy from Bunnies and sultry glances by stoned starlets. Not bad for a guy from the Bronx, eh?

My first encounter with Chad Brown occurred one year earlier at the 2005 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.  I was a rookie reporter covering my first WSOP and had no clue what I was getting myself into. At that point, I was working for 15 consecutive days when I experienced one of the most memorable days at the 2005 WSOP. I covered three simultaneous events including Barry Greenstein’s bracelet win in the $1,500 PLO event. Several hours after Greenstein’s victory, Chad Brown was ensconced in a grueling heads-up battle in the $2,000 Stud Hi/Lo against Denis Ethier. When Jen Harman busted in third place, Brown was pitted against Ethier for a bracelet in a three-hour-long fracas. The lead changed hands several times. The bout reminded me of a classic heavyweight fight with two brawlers unloading sledgehammer-like blows for 15 rounds.

Denis Ethier, one of the quietest pros on the circuit, was a consummate professional who reminded me of Joey Knish. Ethier always carried himself with a cool demeanor and dressed like poker pro who spent a lot of time in card rooms: dark windbreaker, dark hat, comfortable clothes, perpetual circles under his eyes, and always sipping a cup of coffee. On the opposite side of the table sat Chad Brown, who could never deliver the fatal knockout blow. Ethier alligator-blooded his way back into contention. After Ethier seized the lead, Brown attempted a late counterattack, but Ethier held him off, and went on to win the Stud Hi/Lo bracelet. Brown narrowly whiffed a shot at winning his first bracelet, but even after an exhausting defeat, he was ebullient. It’s not a word I use often, but it immediately comes to mind. He was really glowing compared to the rest of the Amazon Room, which you can chalk up to his movie-star looks. He didn’t look like a guy who just suffered a devastating loss after 12 hours of poker. Honestly, if you snapped a photo of the two after the tournament ended and looked at the expressions of the final two, you could have sworn Chad Brown had won and Ethier had lost. Chad Brown was a gracious loser. He could have stormed off after the final hand, and no one would have faulted him for that. Yet, as a true testament to the classy Chad Brown, he stuck around to answer questions for the media.

A week or so later at the 2005 WSOP, Brown made another deep run, but he bubbled the final table of the $5,000 Omaha Hi/Lo and finished in 10th place. In a short span, he demonstrated to me what his peers already knew — Chad Brown was an exquisite mixed-games player.

In the late ’60s, Chad Brown grew up in a neighborhood around Fordham University in the Bronx. The Botanical Gardens and Bronx Zoo were a stone’s throw away, and Yankee Stadium was only eight subway stops from Fordham Road station. I grew up on the other side of the borough near the Stella D’Oro bakery, most known for their breadsticks and gourmet cookies. You couldn’t miss their delivery trucks, painted gold with fancy lettering on the side and a logo made up of the same colors of the Italian flag. Chad Brown had a fondness for Stella D’Oro because he used “Stelladoro” as his online poker screen name before he was tapped to become a member of Team PokerStars (and switched his moniker to “ChadBrownPRO”).

In Italian, “Stella D’oro” means star of gold, an appropriate name for a famous cookie company and a professional poker player paying homage to his roots. Like most working-class neighborhoods in NYC in the ’60s and ’70s, cards and gambling were welcome distractions. Atlantic City casinos were not birthed yet, so gamblers had to rely on neighborhood card rooms, tavern bookies, and backroom casinos. Chad Brown’s father ran one of the neighborhood card games near Arthur Avenue, which was the Bronx’s version of Little Italy. Chad Brown learned the ins and outs of gambling and poker in popular Italian social clubs and cafes. He had no idea at the time that decades later, as a struggling actor in Hollywood, he’d use those poker skills he grokked as a child.

As a teenager, Chad Brown excelled at baseball and garnered attention from pro scouts. Eventually, he reached a fork on the road: a baseball career or an acting career. He had a passion for both but had to pick one. He opted to become an actor, hung up his cleats and headed to Hollywood.

Hitting it big in show business is a nearly impossible aspiration to fill, yet the insurmountable odds did not deter Chad Brown. Although he never became a blockbuster star, he was a working actor for many years. Instead of humping arduous service jobs like waiting tables or bartending, Brown supplemented his scant acting income with poker winnings. You know how that rags-to-riches story goes. Chad Brown frequented local L.A. card rooms for enjoyment, quickly realized he could make a few bucks out of his hobby, used that money to help fund his art and cover his rent until his big break. By the time the ’90s ended, Brown’s acting career had become secondary to a lucrative career in poker. Chad Brown did a little poker commentary on the side, but he was grinding it out full time. He never won that Oscar that every actor dreams of winning, but $3.3 million in career tournament earnings was a welcome consolation.

That suave, bearded guy in the Dos Equis commercials is a clever marketing ploy and completely made up, but Chad Brown should have been cast in the role because he genuinely lived life as the most interesting man in the world. International traveler. Professional poker. Semi-pro ball. Horror film and soap opera actor. Chad Brown lived a life we can only dream about. Chad Brown, the star of gold.

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August 2014