There was a time when Vanessa Rousso would flash some of the worst reactions in the game as a result of a bad beat or a knockout. Rousso wore on her sleeve her desire for victory and disdain for those moments in poker that inevitably deprive us of it -- even those she shouldn't control. It's who she was.
Tuesday night on ESPN's broadcast of Day 4 of the World Series of Poker main event, you're going to see a different Rousso. Gone is the girl who would shriek and sob about relatively little things like the turn of a card. In her place is a woman who understands there are more important things than poker; one who has found an even keel as a result. You wouldn't want to have to learn the lessons she has, but they're a silver lining.
While Rousso had already been slowly learning those lessons before this year, there was little in her idyllic life to force her to change her stripes. She was a successful tournament pro, sponsored by PokerStars and GoDaddy, and was married to the man she calls her soul mate, Chad Brown. Together, the two pros travelled the world, played poker, won more than they lost and enjoyed a remarkably glamorous lifestyle. In February, that all changed when doctors discovered a 10-pound liposarcoma in Brown's abdomen.
"I got [the diagnosis] confirmed by going to a specialist and there was downtime on the weekend," Brown said. "I opted not to say anything to her and I spent Valentine's Day with her, one of the best we've ever had. I called her on Tuesday from L.A. and she was supposed to leave on that Thursday for Vancouver for a boot camp [poker training]. I wasn't going to tell her because I knew the boot camp [she was hosting] was a big deal and they'd sold a lot of tickets, but we had the surgery scheduled for that Friday. I asked if we could postpone [for two weeks] and the doctor said it may not be a big deal to postpone."
"One thing I forgot to ask the doctor is whether there was a problem with me working out," Brown continued. "He mailed me back right away saying, 'I don't think that's a good idea.' I knew that if working out could do something harmful, waiting two weeks could be detrimental. I knew that if it could spread, even 1 percent, I should do it on the Friday. I wrote the doctor back and asked if the Friday was open [for surgery] and it was."
With surgery ahead, Brown knew that it was time to tell his wife the devastating news.
"I called Vanessa, I told her and she thought I was joking," he said. "She was obviously in shock. She was like, 'I want to talk to your doctor!' and the doctor said she could email him. She did. She canceled the boot camp. The people up there were very understanding. In front of me, she kept her chin up and kept a positive attitude. My friends told me, though, that away from me, she was falling to pieces."
"I was devastated," she said. "He called me and I was like, 'You have what?' I had so many questions. How did he get results without telling me? He was actually going to delay surgery for my boot camp. I was like, 'Are you crazy? Hell no!' Even if there was a 1 percent chance it could help, he was going to go into surgery now."
Rousso's approach to understanding the impact was similar to the one she took when getting into poker.
"I went and Googled every term used in every report and kind of became an expert," Rousso said. "My uncle is an expert and when I read some of the terms to him, he wasn't really familiar. He thought it was hysterical that I got a medical dictionary and learned about everything being written. All of that came in handy when we were making our decisions. I knew as much about it as the doctors. I was debating with the doctors. With cancer, it's not cut and dry. The specialists were saying things that were contradictory. It's kind of like debating optimal poker strategy."
There was method to Rousso's madness.
"Just like in poker, [battling cancer] is a game of incomplete information," she explained. "There's information you just can't know. What you do in a game of incomplete information is get as much information as you can. Rather than just play poker and leave it to chance, I got all of the information that was out there read everything so I could make an informed decision. I was better equipped to ask the questions when we met with the specialists. Otherwise you had to take their word and how do you do that when their words are contradictory? Chad's cancer is extremely rare, so their wasn't that much information out there. Four studies of 15 pages, so I read those, read up on cancer in general, things like that."
"She did all the research," Brown chuckled. "Me? I took the approach of finding the best doctor. There were only three top guys, and I got a doc who was one of them and let's hope for the best. She wanted to know everything. All the percentages. She was asking a lot of questions that came up in her research."
"It's hard when your soul mate is sitting there battling cancer and can do nothing," Rousso admitted. "He's so strong. He took everything in stride. It was just my way of doing something. It was more important than any game I've ever played. It was literally life on the line. You've got to understand this stuff."
The educated Rousso used her knowledge and theories to help make the final decisions on surgery, determining what the potential risks and benefits to assorted treatments were and finally settling on a surgery that, thus far, has proven successful.
"I finished the radiation therapy on May 6 and they did the first big scan afterward on June 28 to see if there were any cancer cells in my body," Brown said Friday. "At that point, it was clear. Every three months I go for a new one. Oct. 1 will be the next one, but I feel good, I'm working out. The cancer is technically in remission."
"The odds for cancer are scary, but I'm feeling guarded relief," Rousso said. "If he gets to five years, there's a 95 percent chance it won't come back and they'll consider it a cure. Even at three years we'll feel a lot better. Right now, I'm over the moon it hasn't come back. Every time we wait for results it's nerve-wracking, but at three years we'll get some relief and five years we can exhale."
With the immediate threat of cancer behind them, Chad and Vanessa made their way to WSOP, but this time it was different. Where victory was once the end-all-be-all, it was suddenly far less significant.
"The WSOP felt different, 100 percent." Rousso agreed. "Yes, poker is nothing compared with cancer, so where before, if I took a beat or got knocked out I always reacted badly, it was always such a negative thing. Now? The whole WSOP, I didn't get tilted. I still don't like bowing out of a tournament, but now I don't bat an eyelash. It's awesome. It's better. I have a better outlook. It's more balanced. It's better. I was still playing my best, but I was freer. Now, it's just a game. There are bigger things. It gave me perspective. It's just a game. It's just money. Just a job. Life is about love and people and relationships, and that's what's important."
Rousso and Brown are back to traveling and playing on the tournament circuit. This coming weekend, she'll be in Vancouver teaching the replacement boot camp for the one she had to cancel all those months ago. It's as much a sign of a return to old times as any Rousso could hope for. Her students there will be getting a different Rousso, though, one who can offer a more balanced, mature perspective. It's a result of hard lessons, but she's a more complete person and player for it.
You can see the new Vanessa Rousso on Tuesday's broadcast of the World Series of Poker. 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.