Editor's note: The $50,000 Players' Championship, featuring Brian Rast and Phil Hellmuth, will air on Tuesday, Aug. 9, at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
For Brian Rast, being a good poker player with good results came easily. Rast had been valedictorian at his California high school, had gone to Stanford and had succeeded at just about everything to which he applied himself. He was a self-starter, a guy for whom living in the moment was a test that would push him to flourish. When he discovered poker, the ultimate "in the moment" vocation, there wasn't much doubt about the direction his life would take. He left school, started playing full-time and never looked back.
Rast, 29, didn't take the conventional route to his success. He started with the live grind before immersing himself online as "tsarrast". Instead of pooling resources, he stayed pretty much to himself as poker went, preferring to rely on the mind that had brought him so much success elsewhere. Using this approach, he worked his way into higher games and enjoyed the lifestyle. He also suffered with the swings of this career as he'd chosen to take his shots at games above his head. Sometimes, the results weren't ideal.
As much as Rast took his poker seriously, he didn't live it. This was a man who didn't have balance in his life, whose physical well-being wasn't keeping up with his mental well-being. He drank, he partied and he played with indifference. That's not the Brian Rast you're going to be seeing making a run for the $50,000 Poker Players' Championship on Tuesday's ESPN broadcast of the World Series of Poker. The man you'll see there is the result of a remarkable 18 months of transformation that, as poker goes, has made him a machine.
The root of the changes in Rast's life can be traced to his relationships with Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Laak. Laak took to Rast instantly, having to leave a cash game they were both playing in and offering to back Rast even though he only knew his first name and had no means to contact him. Laak introduced his new partner in crime to his old, and Rast became immersed in Esfandiari's (then) party-focused lifestyle.
Rast got lost in it.
"Brian's awesome," reflected Esfandiari, who has undergone major life changes of his own. "He's brilliant, chill, not afraid to speak his mind. If someone's being an idiot, he'll say it. I have a lot of respect for that. We started hanging out and it was the end of my party phase. I figured, 'I'm only in my 20s once and I'm going out with a bang' and I dragged Brian through it with me. I was a terrible influence. We had an amazing time, but that may not have been the smartest decision."
Meanwhile, Rast was playing unfocused, sporadic poker, most of it while hung over. That all changed when Laak suggested the two go on a boys trip to Brazil.
"I went down to Brazil with Phil in January, 2010," said Rast from Brazil over Skype. "I met Julie [his fiancée] here. Meeting her started changing my mindset. Once I had a girlfriend, what was the point of going out? I started to get tired of it. I started realizing I wasn't doing well and needed to get my life together. [Antonio and I] started getting phased out of this. We started making no drinking bets and my relationship started getting serious really fast. I went back down a second time. I was there for four days and we were exchanging 'I love yous' by the end of it. I'd never experienced anything like it.
"I kept going back and maintaining it. I started eating healthy. We'd get together on Skype every day. It brought balance to my life. I had something serious in my life. She has an eight-year-old son. If I played poker, there were stronger ramifications to losing. Now I have a girl, she has a kid and I'm working to support a family."
Rast is splitting time between Brazil, where he is embracing the role of family man, and Las Vegas, where he's playing live poker professionally and providing for his fiancée and step-son-to-be.
"When I come back to Vegas now, I need to play to make money," Rast said of the changes to his game. "It refreshed my outlook. I don't play scared. I'm still making [positive expected value] plays, but it gave me a new motivation. The motivation to play for my family changed my outlook. Knowing there's something you love and is important to you, it keeps you calm when you take your beats. I can't go home to her, but I can go home to Skype and she'll be there, so it's changed my outlook. That whole process got me out of a dark place."
With Rast's reasons for exploring the nightlife waning, he once again followed Esfandiari, this time in search of better health and balance. He enlisted the help of fitness guru David Swanson, who has seen remarkable results in his work with Rast.
"I did the food delivery business for him," said Swanson, who prepares meals for a number of professional players. "The idea I tried to instill was to consistently fuel his body with food, the fuel it needed from the right food. I prepared the food for him as an extension of how I eat every day. Six meals a day, all clean food. We ended up becoming roommates because I was training him and he had the room. I needed a place, so I moved in and provided the food and training services for room and board. He trains five days a week. He's essentially my training partner. We're always adapting, changing up the workout, though the biggest focus is diet. That's 80 percent of it, keeping a nice, steady baseline.
"Him being a poker player, it's easy to sit at the table and forget to eat for six-to-eight hours. I wanted to make sure that never happened. It's made a dramatic change to his physique. Before, he couldn't do one pull-up. now he'll do 15 with weighted hips. He's put on a lot of muscle. It's pretty cool to see."
The effect on Rast's game has been obvious in his results. Gone are the swings and the lethargy, replaced by a renewed focus. Although Rast had made six-figure scores in the past, he'd never celebrated a win like the one he did when he won the $1,500 pot-limit hold 'em bracelet early in the 2011 WSOP. He's playing with renewed determination. Having something to play for will do that.
With a new woman, a new focus and a new lease on life, Rast has become a new poker player. You didn't see much of the old Rast on ESPN. That you'll see the new one on Tuesday should tell you all you'll need to know about the success of his transformation.
You can read more of Gary Wise's musings at jgarywise.com.