Love is a wonderful thing. If you have coal in your heart, as I have at times in my life, you might not think so. To see it on display, though, with taste and warmth and affection it has to make you smile when viewed in all its authentic glory. If we've made it there, it reminds us. If we haven't, it shows us what is possible.
Erika Moutinho's odyssey through the 2011 World Series of Poker main event has been a triumph of love, and yes, you're reading this on ESPN.com. You came here looking for blood, sweat and tears, and you're getting this mushiness instead. The thing is, love is responsible for every step of Moutinho's poker evolution leading to Sunday night's ESPN2 telecast. It saved her boyfriend's poker career, too. Bear with me, tough guys.
On Sunday night, in the final level of the day's play, Moutinho was on the feature table of ESPN2's broadcast when a table was breaking outside the featured area. There, her longtime boyfriend, David "Doc" Sands, was asked with his now-former tablemates to draw cards for seating assignments. Sands drew the open seat at the feature table, walked through its LED gates and stood before the woman he has called girlfriend for a half-decade. Then he sat down across from her.
"I knew the table was about to break, and I was hoping for it," Sands recalled in a joint interview afterward. "The word that comes to mind is 'legendary.' It's really awesome because [both of us making it to Day 7] is both an individual and a collective accomplishment coming together in such an extraordinary way. It was on TV, she was the last woman standing it was just incredible."
Said Moutinho, "When he walked through there, I was so surprised."
Although Sands is talkative, Moutinho is reserved. She'd almost seem delicate if not for the fortitude she's shown in this tournament, piloting a stack that has been consistently below-average and never faltering, never losing her focus. All this in her first tournament of this size.
Moutinho, a 25-year-old Connecticut native, and Sands, a 26-year-old Montana native, met six years ago while traveling through Australia. That's when she was introduced to poker. "We spent every day together in Australia, and he was playing online," she recalled, showing remarkable poise and calm throughout the conversation considering the day's events. "I had no idea what hands beat what, but I started watching, learning subconsciously as we hung out. I eventually started playing. He put some money online for me, and I started playing some tournaments. I won a tournament when he was at Bay 101, an online $24 buy-in with 1,500 players for like $12,000, and I started playing more online. This summer I started playing the prelims and now this."
Yep, that's right, coal hearts. If not for the relationship, she might not have discovered the game.
Along the way, Moutinho understood that being the significant other of a talent like Sands (a well-established online pro who finished fourth in the 25,000-euro high-roller event at this year's EPT Grand Final) came with benefits as far as the circles he traveled in. After quitting her Los Angeles casting job (working on a number of shows including "The Biggest Loser" and "American Gladiators"), she moved in with Sands at Panorama Towers in Las Vegas, more or less the center of the world for professional poker's younger set. Moutinho was hobnobbing with some of the keenest poker minds in the world.
"I think at first I was just trying to be involved in the conversation," she said. "Once I started playing more and really enjoying it, I was eager to learn, so having all these players over it was a wealth of knowledge I could use to my advantage. I didn't know if I'd play at first, but as time went on, I realized what a unique opportunity it was to speak with these fantastic players. I eventually developed my own style but used a lot of what they taught me."
Sands added, "I think if you put together a list of the top 50 players in the world, Erika has participated in a poker discussion with about half of them."
Moutinho is not the only one whose poker has benefited throughout the relationship. "Before I became known and won tournaments, I was struggling with whether I should play poker or have a 9-to-5 job," Sands said. "My parents thought I should get a job, but Erika was really supportive. She knew I loved it and told me I'd make it. I don't know that without her support I'd even be here today."
Sands' game also has improved. Professional poker players, although generally intelligent, are known for their lack of attention to detail in nonpoker areas of their lives. "When he asked me to move her with him right before the series, we decided together that I'd help him with stuff," Moutinho said. "He needs a lot of help sometimes. So I've been playing poker, and a lot of our friends need organizational-life help, too, so I've been doing that, too, as a business. We created DGS Management and Consulting, specializing in optimal living. We help poker players live optimally."
The proof is in the results. DGS still has multiple clients in the field.
With 57 players left in the main event, Moutinho and Sands are still alive. Moutinho is in 40th place with 2.075 million in chips entering Day 7. Sands has 2.765 million, good for 29th entering the day. They confer with each other when proximity allows it and seem to offer some measure of inner peace with the knowledge that the other is still going strong. Moutinho is receiving the attention that so many dream of despite being the kind of person who asked Sands to fast-forward through her interviews when watching ESPN's Day 5 coverage on DVR.
Of course, there's one last question where love is concerned. When I put the pressure on and asked where the ring was, they beamed. "We were going to get engaged soon one way or another," said Sands. "It was going to happen in the next two months regardless of how we did in the main event. We've talked a lot and have been on the verge for a while. We didn't need any propulsion. I'm madly in love with her, and I think she feels the same about me."
She echoed the madly in love part. It's a beautiful story unfolding right before our eyes, the likes of which we've never seen at the main event. I'm smiling just writing about it, and I'm usually a cynic. I guess even the coldest hearts can be cracked. Isn't love grand?
You can read more of Gary Wise's musings at jgarywise.com.