For more than 15 years, poker has been a hobby, a job, a passion and a borderline obsession.
The opportunities that this game has provided have been nothing short of unbelievable.
Travelling the world and being a part of the biggest games on the planet; working and partying with the best in the business as we all chase fame, fortune and glory.
As the kids say these days, “If you know, you know.”
But there are still many who don’t. Or choose not to.
More often than not, I’ve had to pull myself up waxing lyrical on the subject to non-poker friends; even my mother still has no clue as to why I’m so invested in with what she calls “Yahtzee”.
I admit it – I’m a poker fanatic – but certainly not in the conventional sense.
Truthfully, I have never had the time nor the patience (or the bankroll, for that matter) to be a full-time player. I’ve always preferred being on the other side of the table.
My love for poker comes from a different place.
September 2004. Crown Melbourne. Back-of-house.
I’ve hit the midway point of the night shift and it’s been flat out. Having stuffed myself with plate of whatever it was on offer at the cafeteria, I rush downstairs to the staff smoking room, hoping to sneak in a cigarette before the end of my break.
The haze of smoke makes my eyes sting. My palms are itchy and sweaty. My legs are sore.
As I walk into the lounge and light up, I almost fall into a crowd of about 15-20 employees gathered around the TV, watching intently.
I pull out my phone, check the date and then look up at the crowd again.
Immediately, I thought the worst. Surely not, not again? After three years?
No. Instead, I was greeted with a melodic Southern accent emanating from a distinguished silver-haired gent.
“The name of the game is No Limit Texas Hold’em, the Cadillac of poker. It takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master …”
I turn from the screen to look at my colleagues – some who I knew dealt poker, which, along with Pai Gow and Craps, was only offered to the best dealers in the casino as a specialist game – and I could see the smiles on their faces as they pointed at the screen, chatting excitedly.
I turn back to the TV and watch as the image cuts to a close-up of a player’s hands, peeling up his cards. A pair of aces.
I was somewhat familiar with poker, having played Five Card Draw with my Dad and my siblings around the kitchen table for bottle caps as kids, but this … this was something else.
This game had everything. Expert commentary, statistics and in-depth analysis of the players and the action. It was a true sporting contest in the form of a game of cards.
We’re all now on the edges of our seats as the players push their chips towards the centre of the table.
Another dealer’s watch beeps and her brow furrows as she looks down at her wrist. “Shit, we better get back out on the floor!”
A pit boss shushes her loudly. “Just watch this hand play out and then we can run back after!”
It was official. Poker was now the biggest talking point around the office water cooler.
As I walk back to the gaming floor with my supervisor I tell him that hopefully one day, I get to deal poker too.
“Mark my words, kid,” he said, as he put a hand on my shoulder. “What you just saw … that is the start of something big.”
May 2011. US Embassy Office, Melbourne.
“Mr Blackhall? Mr Blackhall to the counter, please.”
Not the most pleasant of accents this time. A Bostonian drawl.
The fluorescent lights are hurting my eyes. My palms are itchy and sweaty. My back is sore.
I’ve been sitting here for six hours now, sitting in the office of the US Embassy and still waiting for approval of my I-Visa, purposed specifically for representatives of foreign media.
“You don’t need to go through all that!” I was told by one of my colleagues. “Save yourself the time and the cash. Just get an ESTA and tell them you’re coming to play.”
I was having none of it – and neither was my boss.
“Don’t listen to them, kid,” he said. “You can’t be too careful these days.”
It wasn’t hard to see why, especially after what had happened just weeks before.
The woman sitting next to me taps me on the shoulder.
“I think that’s you, hun.”
I stand up slowly and make my way over to the counter.
“Mr Blackhall, I just need you to answer a few questions for me, please.”
My gaze moves to the blue form I’ve filled out on top of all my paperwork in front of the clerk, including the letter of employment from PokerNews, a copy of my birth certificate and my passport.
I’ve answered all the questions truthfully and I’ve ticked all the right boxes, but the clerk still reads through them all and I am required to answer each one verbally.
Why are you coming to the United States? Where will you be staying? How long will you be staying for? Are you coming to the US to engage in prostitution? Do you belong to a clan or tribe? Do you have tuberculosis or infectious leprosy? Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offence or crime involving moral turpitude? Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States?
The whole process is ridiculously terrifying. Why did I waste my time? Those hundreds of dollars could have been saved for the tables. I should have just listened to my mate and semi-bluffed my way through Immigration at LAX.
No. That’s not how I roll. I have to play this game straight up. It’s not worth the risk. Not now, not ever.
Suddenly, the sound of a sticker being ripped off its backing and the thump of a stamp breaks me out of my trance.
The clerk slides my passport back into the silver tray under the gap in the glass. I open it up.
There it is.
“Enjoy your time in the United States, sir,” the clerk says, “and good luck.”
January 2019. Carnival Legend Main Stage. Back-of-house.
“Break a leg,” whispers the stage manager before she adjusts her headset. “Standby … lights up … playback … aaaaaaand now.”
She points to the stagehands and they open the doors. I move to my mark.
The spotlights are hurting my eyes. My skin is itchy and sweaty. My feet are sore.
I can hear my daughter call for me as I walk forward. My wife giggles and shushes her.
You know, every now and then … you might like to hear something from us, nice and easy …
Things haven’t been easy, and I’ve had to sacrifice so much, but I’ve found a new purpose in life. I have a full-time job. I’m married. I’m a father.
But there’s just one thing … we never, ever do nothin’ nice and easy.
It’s been a struggle. I admit it. I’ve had to constantly grind in order to ends meet and yet, we’ve managed to scrape together enough money to go on this cruise.
And we’re rollin’ … rollin’ … rollin’ on the river.
It’s been an incredible journey, this cruise. Worth every cent. So many happy memories, as well as new and lasting friendships. My joie de vivre rejuvenated.
The river …
Right on cue, I reach down, grab my pants, rip them off and throw them behind me before the dancers reach for my outstretched arms, tearing away my shirt and quickly putting a wig on my head.
If you come down to the river … I bet ya gonna find some people who live …
I am now resplendent in a very short, silver dress adorned with sequins and tassels. My friends in the front row gasp. Thank goodness for bike shorts.
But you don’t have to worry if you got no money, people on the river are happy to give …
I draw on all my years performing on stage and channel my inner diva.
Big wheel keep on turnin’ … Proud Mary keep on burnin’ …
I’ve always had a soft spot for Tina Turner. My mind flashes back to sixth grade, when I was precariously balanced on top of a long bench in front of hundreds of students teaching them how to dance to ‘Nutbush City Limits’.
And we’re rollin’ (ooh)! Rollin’ (yeah)! Rollin’ on the river …
I feel the lurch as the stabilisers take effect deep in the bowels of the ship, but I am flying across the stage with the music coursing through my veins. I am unstoppable.
The crescendo hits. I move back to the centre mark and into my finishing pose, both arms raised into the air, wig clenched in my hand as the dancers freeze around me.
The crowd is on their feet. A standing ovation.
Through the commotion, I see my wife struggling to hold the phone steady as tears of joy stream down her face. My daughter is clapping and cheering louder than anyone else.
I blink. I am presented with the ‘Lip Sync Battle’ championship belt.
I blink. I’m now posing for photos and chatting with dozens of people who have stuck around after the show to congratulate me. For a fleeting moment, I’m the biggest celebrity on the ship.
I blink. The theatre is practically empty. My friends and family are patiently waiting for me and I step towards them, but I’m distracted by a tap on the shoulder.
A young girl – no more than about eight or nine, with cochlear implants in both ears – starts signing in Auslan. Her mother interprets.
“I want to thank you for such a wonderful performance …”
I sign back.
“You’re welcome! Did you enjoy the show?”
The young girl and her mother’s jaws drop. At that moment, one of the dancers, also fluent in sign language, joins our conversation.
“Wasn’t he awesome?”
“Hang on,” the young girl exclaims as she points to him, “That’s American Sign Language!”
We stand in a circle for a good 10 minutes, laughing and joking in a mix of Auslan and ASL before we’re eventually ushered off stage. I join my family and friends in the gallery, who are all excitedly chatting about my performance.
“So, what’s the plan?” one of my friends asks. “Celebratory drinks at the cocktail bar?”
“To be honest, I think I’m going to call it a night,” I reply as I take my daughter’s hand, “but let’s make the most of our last day tomorrow.”
And that we did, sipping on fancy drinks and dancing to ‘Nutbush City Limits’.
Tom McEvoy once said, “There is more to poker than life.”
In years past, I took that as gospel. I then came to realise that was a mistake. Thankfully, I was able to take a step back and focus on what mattered most before it was too late.
I’ve since come to realise that in this day and age, more and more people are accepting of the fact that sometimes, you have to do what’s best for you and there is no shame in that.
Times change. Priorities change.
Poker’s not going anywhere. There’ll always be a seat open. If not, you won’t have to wait long to get back into the action, as long as you’ve got what it takes.
But let’s be honest – nobody ever truly ‘retires’ from poker. There is always that niggling feeling, with a little voice inside your head, begging and pleading: “You need to come back.”
When the opportunity presented itself this year, I couldn’t shy away from it any longer.
It was time.
So, here I am – back in the game.
I’ve bought in. I’m seated. I’m ready to play.
Deal me in.