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Seattle man collects WSOP gold bracelet, $311K less than a year after enlisting in the Army

12 June 2012

This is a remarkable story. It’s a story about personal sacrifice. It is a story about making a commitment, and then keeping it. It is a story about the escalating maturity of a remarkable young man who initially aspired to do one thing in life, and then suddenly did an extraordinary “about-face,” ultimately choosing to march to a completely different drummer, headed in an entirely different direction.

Meet Brandon Schaefer. Schaefer is a 31-year-old man originally from Evanston, Ill., who once aspired to play poker for a living. Like so many of his peers, he got caught up in the so-called “poker craze” during the post-Moneymaker era and soon found himself playing poker more than anything else. Before he knew it, poker was more than just a hobby. It was paying the bills.

Gradually, Schaefer transformed from full-time student into the kind of person seen by the thousands littering the tournament rooms and hallways of places like the World Series of Poker – a 20-something, oft-hooded android incessantly hooked up to an iPod, mouse-clicking his way to financial independence. No question, the "job" had it perks.

But something in Schaefer’s life was seriously missing. Poker was not an end. It was a means. It was a means to an end. Indeed, poker was a means to do something else. To do something bigger. To do something greater. To see more of the world’s many magical places. To experience more things. To enjoy life more. Much more.

"For three years I was absolutely obsessed with poker," said Schaeefer. "I played as much as I could online. But it was not fulfilling. I wanted something more."

Stoked with a bankroll enhanced by a combination of online success and some six-figure tournament cashes in Europe, Schaefer took some time off to travel and see the world. He visited new places. The more he immersed himself in his new experiences, the more he began to realize just how confining his previous ambition and occupation had become.

Spending 70 hours a week gazing at a computer screen or sitting inside poker rooms avoiding the pratfall of looming bad beats simply wasn’t fulfilling. Make that fulfilling enough.

Fulfilling for some? Perhaps. Fulfilling for many? Perhaps. Just look around. But not fulfilling enough for Schaefer. During his many travels, Schaefer increasingly found himself drawn to the prospect of flying and the idea of becoming an aviator. He also felt a deep sense of patriotism and a duty to give something back to his community and to country.

Encouraged by his older brother, who is currently an active-duty career military officer, Schaefer made a decision that was as daring as it is extraordinary.

Schaefer decided to walk away from poker. Quit the game. Give it up. Schaefer was about to make the ultimate gamble, and his decision had nothing to do with cards and chips. He was giving up what for him had become a sure thing, in exchange for much greater uncertainly, laced with the prospect of danger.

And so, last September, Schaefer – now residing in Seattle, WA – walked into his local Army recruiting office and explained that he wanted to enlist in the United States Army. He further explained that his ambition was to fly.

Schaefer was accepted on the spot and soon went through basic training. He served for eight months in the military. Then, he was accepted into a special program for aspiring helicopter pilots. Schaefer is scheduled to begin his flight training in a few weeks.

But just prior to making what many would consider to be a giant leap of faith -- and possibly be shipped oversees for a far more dangerous role -- Schaefer decided to give poker one last try. He made what will be a final trip (for a long time) to Las Vegas and to the 2012 World Series of Poker. Schaefer later confided that he had totally forgotten about the WSOP this year, but once he heard the tournaments were now taking place, he boarded a plane at the last moment with the intent to enter just one event –- the $1,500 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em Shootout.

When Schaefer arrived at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino and walked the halls with people who had previously been his poker playing peers, most of his compatriots probably had no idea of the commitment, the risks, and potentially the dangers that lie ahead for the player who initially took a place at Table 422, Seat 6 on Day One. To bystanders, he looked like a typical poker player. His hair may have been a little shorter. He was in better physical shape than most. But no one would have guessed that beneath the ball cap and the jersey, he’s one of our nation's very finest, the embodiment of selfless patriotism, and the personification of what General Douglas MacArthur alluded to when he famously uttered the words, "Duty, Honor, Country."

On Day One, Schaefer won his first match, which meant he was in-the-money. Schaefer returned for Day Two, and won again, which meant he had locked up a seat in the final 12. Then, on a magical day where all the stars aligned in a perfect poker universe, Schaefer came to dominate final table action and won his WSOP gold bracelet on a Friday night that turned into one of the most talked-about and Twittered finales of this year's series.

"I walked into the Rio a few days ago and the first thing I saw was a hundred people on their cell phones telling a bad beat story," said Schaefer. "My God, was I really a part of this for seven years? This is miserable. I put my headphones on and sat down at the table. My head was clear. I slowed down a bit and noticed that my heart rate was low and I was calm and thinking through hands clearly. It’s weird how calm I was."

He collected $311,174 in prize money for the feat. But the money and the golden amulet of accomplishment didn't seem to be on Schaefer's mind much as he stood before the flashing cameras and the poker world for one last shining moment, before entering an alternative universe where the currency of survival has absolutely nothing to do with money or gold bracelets.

Ironically, Schaefer won poker’s “Holy Grail” -- as he so aptly called it afterwards -- at the conclusion of one phase of his life and the very beginning of another. All those seven years of table decisions, all those mouse-clicks, all those days, weeks, months, and ultimately years trying to be the very best be could be at this game, finally authenticated by victory.

And yet, for all the intrinsic accolades that go along with winning a gold bracelet, for Brandon Schaefer, it's not over. It's just starting. A much bigger game is about to begin.

On June 15th, Schaefer is scheduled to report to a U.S. Army base in Alabama, where he will immediately begin trainingas a helicopter pilot. Schaefer now has a six-year commitment to the U.S. Army and yearns to serve his country proudly as well as see the world as an aviator.

The runner up was Jon Cohen, a 24-year-old poke pro from Denver, Colo., who also enjoyed his best run ever in a WSOP tournament. He collected second place prize money amounting to $192,559.

A shootout tournament means players advance based on winning a series of table matches. The shootout format is single elimination. The number of matches depends on the number of tournament entries. In this event, the winner was required to win each in a series of consecutive matches. The first match was played on Wednesday. The second match, made up of all the first round winners, was played on Thursday. The last day included two tables of 12 players, who then played down to 10 players, and then ultimately down to the winner.

Adam Kagin finished third to win $120,329, while Layne Flack was fourth for $87,446. David Chase was fifth, Michael Corson was sixth, Jeff Madsen was seventh, Brandon Steven was eighth, and Justin Schwartz finished ninth.

Modified from tournament notes provided by WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla.

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