“I’m a third-generation gamer and a fourth-generation lunatic.”
— Simkha Blank, Volatile: A Memoir of Poker and Bipolar Disorder
In 2012, on a Friday night in Philadelphia, Simkha Blank drove north without a plan or a phone. Her only goal was to disappear for a while. Four hours later and she was inside Foxwoods Casino at a pot-limit Omaha table. It felt wonderfully liberating to be someplace where no one could find you, where you could sit among strangers in a strange space. Thoughts about time, food, and her annoying boyfriend slipped away. There were only the cards flickering across the felt, the adrenaline surge that accompanied a big pot, the endless procession of dealers who came and went every thirty minutes. When Simkha finally left Foxwoods, her car’s windshield glimmered with the morning sun. Exhausted and low on gas, she pulled into a station and glanced at a news ticker above one of the pumps.
It was Tuesday. She’d been gone for four days.
Simkha forced herself to think. This recent manic episode might be followed by crippling depression. Should she check back into a hospital? Lithium treatments hadn’t worked in the past, but maybe she could try something else. “By then,” Simkha wrote later, “I was fine with going back to the hospital. A chance to feel something again, even if it was pain, would have been like touching the divine.”
I first met Simkha on the live reporting team at the 2016 World Series of Poker. At the time, I didn’t know that she was writing a memoir about poker and mental illness. In our recent conversation over Skype, we discussed travel, live reporting, PLO, health, and Simkha’s memoir Volatile.
Ben Saxton: Where are you?
Simkha Blank: I’m on a rooftop terrace in Mexico City, in my pajamas at one in the afternoon! I spent the morning working on a blog post about my three-day trip to Seoul.
You mentioned that the last few weeks have been busy.
After Seoul I packed up my Vegas apartment, where I’d been for most of this year, and threw my stuff in storage. My plan is to be on the road until the next WSOP.
Wow. How far have you mapped out your plan?
I intend to end up trekking through Patagonia in austral summer — maybe by Christmas because I think it’ll be less crowded. I don’t know if I’ll do Guatemala — I’m not sure how safe it is — but I’m definitely doing Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. I want to go to Cuba, too, before they make it illegal.
How was your WSOP? You were there wire to wire, right?
I was there the whole time. I worked almost all Omaha variants. I had only five or six hold ’em tournaments before the Main [Event].
Was that by design?
Yes. I love Omaha. PLO’s my favorite game, and I love O8 as well. I think I covered part of every PLO tournament, from the $565 to the $25K high-roller. It was a lot of fun.
What were the highlights of the summer?
There was a kid from Russia, Igor Sharaskin, who no one had ever seen before. He made final table after final table in PLO events that only I was covering. There was one final table that he made when I was off. He ran terribly and told one of his friends, “it’s because that girl was not there. Whenever she is next to my table, I run hot!”
So you were his good luck charm.
It was also nice seeing Esther Taylor at the final table of the 25K [Event #67: $25,000 Pot-Limit Omaha 8-Handed High Roller]. It’s not often that a woman goes deep in a high-roller. Plus, everyone loves E-TAY.
Is there anything that players can do to make your life easier as a live reporter?
Keep your stacks readable. Chip counts really tell the story of a tournament. Daniel Negreanu, God love him, sees me coming from three tables away and starts cutting out his stacks. He and a few others make an effort to make things easy for us. I wish that practice were more widespread, but I understand why it’s not: they’re thinking about playing, which they should be.
Do you think that live reporting has helped your own game as a player?
I don’t think it’s changed my game at all. I’m completely strategically disengaged from hands that I’m observing as a reporter. Live reporting and playing are dissimilar skill sets. I should also say that I hardly play anymore. I really wanted to get my book done before the WSOP.
For people who aren’t familiar with your story, how would you describe Volatile?
It’s about how my love of poker evolved and intertwined with progressively worsening mental illness until, after years of failed attempts, I was finally able to get a treatment that worked for me. In the beginning of 2014, when I was very, very sick, I started thinking about documenting my experience. As I made progress, I began drafting pages around 2015.
As I remember, the book’s narrative ends when you finish the 2016 WSOP and start traveling in Asia.
It’s been exactly a year since the epilogue.
That’s a funny thing about memoirs — life goes on. How are you feeling about the book and your experience now?
I’m very glad I wrote the book, and I’m even happier that I never have to write it again. A few people have told me that it helped them, and that was the whole point: to get my experience out there in a form that might help. Documenting a few of the more gut-wrenching moments took a toll, but I was able to cope with it. My condition is effectively managed now. I have an amazing treatment team and support system. I have a therapist who Skypes with me from the road, like we’re doing right now. I also feel like publishing this book has forced me to set myself up for success because, even though nobody gives a rat’s ass who I am or what I’m doing, I feel like people are watching. I feel like I have to take good care of myself, so that people can see that you really can get better.
You feel more accountability?
Definitely. That’s the perfect word.
You start the book by writing, “I’m a first-generation gamer and a fourth-generation lunatic,” which leads us into your family and your family history. There are some moments when your mom scolds you for playing poker, calling it a “gambling problem.” How has your family responded to the book?
I still have no contact with my father. I don’t know if he’s read the book, or likes the book — I don’t give a shit. But my sister loved it. She’s in med school and has already had her psychiatry rotation. I was really worried about what my mom would think. As you pointed out, I said some things about her that were not very nice. But they were true. She surprised me by owning up to the fact that they were true. She even told all of her friends to read the book. We’ve continued to have our problems, as any family does, but I’m really pleased with the way that my mom reacted to the book.
I find the connection between your illness and PLO to be fascinating. It’s hardly a coincidence that you’re drawn to a game in which you have these intense swings — PLO is this stereotypically high-variance, crazy game — and I’m wondering if you could talk about your experience being bipolar and playing PLO.
PLO reached in and grabbed me in a way that no other game has. Because I was so taken with it, I had the drive to study PLO from the get-go. As I got sicker, I placed more and more of my self-worth and emotional well-being on my results in poker. That was indescribably detrimental. Because PLO is a high-variance game, there were times when downswings triggered crippling depressive episodes that would last for months. It cost me a lot of money in addition to my sanity. Writing this book has helped me to understand that, and it’s part of the reason why I play so much less. I still love PLO, but I know what it can do to me, so I have a healthy respect for it.
Do you think poker has helped or hurt you overall?
That’s a really tough question. I’m not entirely sure. I’ve been playing for almost twelve years, so it’s hard to draw a reasonable trajectory for an alternate timeline. I have no idea what my life would be like if I’d never started playing poker. I might be a billionaire, I might be dead. When I was at my sickest, poker was definitely hurting me. Since I turned a big corner, it’s been a net positive in my life. Without poker, there would be no poker reporting. When I playing poker now, I focus on the fact that I’m playing a game: I don’t have as much emotional investment. I play for fun.
It’s hard to understate the difference between playing poker professionally and playing for fun or for secondary income.
The truth is I didn’t voluntarily retire from poker. I fell out of practice — especially when I was traveling in southeast Asia last year, where I didn’t play at all outside of Manila — and my poker brain had atrophied. I realized that I could subscribe to a training site, I could rigorously analyze the hands that I played, I could rebuild my poker brain — but should I? I decided that I shouldn’t. Today, I’m better off as a happy recreational player than somebody who’s grinding out serious volume. That doesn’t mean I think professional poker is a terrible thing and that no one should do it. But for me, it’s not worth it.
It seems like you’ve been structuring your life around a lot of traveling and writing, and a little bit of poker. Is your love of travel a conscious choice to benefit your health?
Absolutely. I recently started Single Suitcased, a poker and travel blog. I’ve found that apart from medical treatment, being outdoors and moving around is the best thing that I can do for my mental health. It keeps me healthier and happier. I’m lucky enough to have a job where I can largely work from the road. All of the catchphrases that we use to describe this lifestyle are kind of douchey: digital nomad, location-independent, whatever. I’m a girl with a laptop who decided to go for it. Nothing more, nothing less.
*originally published in the September 2017 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine