Ronnie Bardah's story does not so much begin at the 2012 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, but it most certainly ends here –- at least this chapter -- as the 29-year-old won his first WSOP
bracelet and $182,088 in the $2,500 Six-Handed Limit Hold'em
Bardah’s story actually began long before that, in a tough and grimy working-class city outside of Boston, called Brockton. There was nothing in his personal background to suggest that he would ever become a professional poker player, let alone a world traveler with deep personal convictions and a deep compassion for his fellow human beings. A drug dealer
, maybe; a gang member, perhaps; a high school dropout – check. The odds were stacked against Bardah from the start.
But if anything is certain, it’s that Bardah is accustomed to beating the odds and defying expectations. He’s done it over and over again, from day one.
Most people had never heard of Bardah until two years ago, when he went on the rollicking roll of a lifetime, outlasting more than 6,000 other poker players in the 2010 WSOP Main Event Championship. He lasted seven long days in the tournament marathon, and seemed on the verge of possibly making that year’s November Nine class.
No doubt, that would have been something to remember.
But just as Bardah was about to make one final determined run for the world championship, disaster struck. It wasn’t the kind of disaster normally thought of in a poker tournament. It was worse than that. Much worse.
Without any warning or provocation, Bardah inexplicably found himself the victim of a series of seizures and muscle contortions that made the prospect of playing for millions of dollars in prize money and poker immortality completely inconsequential, by comparison.
His facial muscles began twitching. He couldn’t control parts of his body. He felt pain and stinging all over. It was under these peculiar and utterly frightening personal circumstances in which Bardah found himself competing, as the number of finalists was gradually reduced by one – as the survivor numbers were slowly reduced to 100, then 90, to 80, then 70, to 60, then 50, to 40, then 30, and ultimately to the final three tables. Most poker players would think such a scenario to be a dream – free-rolling for six-figures or more under the lights of ESPN television cameras. But Bardah would see the experience as a nightmare.
At the end of the seventh day, while 26 other players were tucked away in the comfort of their homes and hotel rooms, focused and ready to play the best poker of their lives on the game's biggest stage, Bardah was camped out in a Las Vegas emergency room. Perhaps most terrifying was that no one at a local hospital could determine what caused his problem and intense discomfort. Worse, no one could diagnose the symptoms, nor tell if they were life threatening.
"I was infected by the evils," said Bardah. "I had a flu at first. When the flu went away I had numbness on my face on one side. And I thought it was something bad but it kept going for months and months. But it kept triggering everywhere. My face was going numb, my lips, my hands. I would have heart palpitations. They thought I had anxiety, all this other stuff, and they could never diagnose me."
Bardah finished 24th that year. It was a remarkable run. But the behind-the scenes story of Bardah and his astonishing ordeal was the recollection that most affected the then 27-year-old poker pro. Utterly dismissive of the achievement of making a deep run in poker’s world championship, Bardah knew that he was suddenly beset with new challenges and different priorities.
“Rebirth” is overused, both as a physical and emotional depiction. But if Bardah was not reborn in the two years that transpired between his deep run in the 2010 Main Event and his return to this year’s WSOP, he was most certainly reinvented. In fact, he did the re-inventing all by himself. Not the easy way. Not by reading a couple of self-help books. Not by watching a few TV shows. He took the total plunge. Bardah made the life commitment.
Bardah continued to play poker for a living. But he spent an equal amount of time getting healthier. He took up kick boxing, which he now describes almost in spiritual terms. Bardah was so taken with Thai kick boxing and the enchantment of the Far East that he took a large share of his poker winnings and decided to move to Thailand.
That’s right – Thailand.
While his medical condition remained largely undiagnosed, Bardah sought to shift the focus away from things in his life he couldn’t necessarily control –- be it his health issues or poker results -– and instead focus energies on those things over which he did have control.
For Bardah, kick boxing and the spiritualism of Thailand became a new creed. The same sense of commitment and devotion that once served him so well in his career as a poker player now became his burning embers in the transformation of a man once plagued by fears and uncertainty into a far more-balanced being in comfortable coexistence with the universe.
"I never got diagnosed," said Bardah. "It just went away. Thank God. Me sitting here telling you what I went through I would never wish on anybody. My greatest enemy I don’t wish it. I went through a lot of stuff. People think ‘it’s all in your head, it’s anxiety, it’s depression.’ It wasn’t. I’m one of the happiest kids ever. It just all went away."
This is the man who took his seat in the $2,500 buy-in
Six-Handed Limit Hold’em tournament, which began on Thursday. He wasn’t necessarily cured from the dangers of his previous experiences. But he most certainly had conquered those inner fears and had come to grips with focusing on the elements of his environment that he could manage, at least in part.
Poker may seem the last place in the universe to seek out balance and control. It’s a game where there is great imbalance and perpetual uncertainty. But Bardah would not let it be so. Two days after the tournament began with 302 of the world's best Limit Hold'em players Bardah took his seat at the final table with the other finalists as the short stack
at the table. No one sitting there on this day could possibly have known the very long journey -- measured both in miles and experiences -- that Bardah endured to get to this defining moment.
It was a journey that began in Brockton then landed in Las Vegas. In between was a detour in Bangkok. At the end of that long journey was a victory. But by this time -– gold bracelet or no gold bracelet -– Bardah had already won a far more important battle.
The runner up was Marco Johnson, a 26-year-old poker pro from Walnut Creek, Calif., who claimed $112,525 in prize money. Other finale table finishers included Vincent Gironda (third), Brent Wheeler (fourth), Sorel Mizzi (fifth) and Hans Minocha (sixth).
The top-36 players finished in the money
. Notable players who cashed but did not make the final table included: Terrence Chan (seventh), Rep Porter (eighth), Chad Brown (ninth), Mario Ho (11th), Dan Shak (21st), Jon Turner (23rd), Jeffrey Lisandro (30th), and Scott Seiver (35th).Modified from tournament notes provided by WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla.