By: Jenny Foughner
In the tumultuous world of amorous entanglements, workplace romance ranks only slightly below getting caught in the Central Park bushes on the list of potentially compromising situations that are usually more trouble than they’re worth. HowEVER, if your profession happens to involve (responsible) betting, (moderate) booze and (occasionally, when you leave the casino) breathtaking locales, falling in love with a much-coveted female colleague is more of a job perk than an occupational hazard. When I chatted with Pokerstars Pro Vanessa Rousso and her husband/fellow Pokerstars Pro Chad Brown at the Mohegan Sun Casino a few weeks ago, they were nice enough to drop some serious knowledge on me about what it’s like to work alongside – and sometimes compete against – your spouse. The good news? Making it work when you work with your partner is all about the r-e-s-p-e-c-t, just like Aretha said. The bad news? Vanessa’s already taken, but if you pack a mean straight flush, then there might be a few other prospects waiting in the wings.
MM: First things first. How did you get from poker to ‘till death do us part’?
Vanessa: On one of the breaks during the 2006 Championships – I was an unknown player at that point, it was my breakout event, so [Chad] didn’t know who I was – [Chad’s] like, ‘who’s this girl at the table with a lot of chips?’ So on one of the breaks, he comes up to me, and he’s like, ‘you know, I can tell that’ – and this is so Chad – ‘I can see that when you take a beat it really bothers you emotionally. I can help you with that.’ I’m sure you could, buddy! So me being the naïve little sponge that I was at the time, I’m thinking, he’s not asking me on a date, he’s really trying to help me! So I was like, “oh yeah, definitely! Let’s do that! Let’s go to dinner and talk about that.” So he’s like, “great, I don’t have my phone on me to take down your number, so I’ll grab you on another break, but if I don’t see you, if one of us gets knocked out” – and this is where he goes wrong – “I’m in room so-and-so, you can call my room and leave your number on my voicemail.” And in my head I’m like, ‘yeah buddy, you think I’m going to call your hotel room to track you down to give you my number? My momma raised me better. I will not be chasing anyone on this tournament.’ So, lo and behold, he goes and gets eliminated before the next break, and I don’t see him, and I sure enough don’t call his room, so he thinks I blew him off. He thinks I’m not interested. Now, it wasn’t so much that I blew him off, that I wasn’t interested; I was interested in that dinner to talk about strategy, but I didn’t even think past that. I was such a ‘one of the guys’ kind of girl. I guess it was naiveté, I just didn’t think about it that way. Then I saw him in an airport and he asked about [why] I never called his room, and I asked to take a rain check, so he knew I was interested. We went to dinner and started dating in summer of 2006, got engaged in 2008, married in 2009, and we’ve been married a year now.
You know, being a professional poker player, a lot of what my job is managing risk. I’d like to think I’m a good risk manager, and you’re taking on way too much risk if you’re allowing time to go by and expecting to bump into a person you’re interested in. Don’t take that risk! Go find someone with a pen and get her number now.
(Valuable advice, gentlemen! If you like someone, get her number right away. Don’t wait for her to track you down.)
MM: Do you find it’s necessary to keep poker separate from the rest of your life together?
Vanessa: We’re both really big believers in balance. The thing is, poker can suck you in because it’s such a fascinating game and there’s so much to it. Studying it requires such mental discipline, physical discipline… you have to put the hours in. Doing well consistently over time in this industry is not something that happens by accident. It happens because you work really really hard. And then, of course, the reward’s very big, so once you’ve had that taste of success, you want to keep it coming. That can lead to a lifestyle where a lot of people forget that it’s important to have balance and have a life outside of poker. I’m really lucky that [my partner] Chad is the best influence ever. He makes sure there’s structure and balance, [and] I bring the extracurriculars to the relationship. I like to do out-of-the-box things like learn to fly planes, learn to play the drums, go on weird expedition backpacking trips, bungee jumping, skydiving. Between the two of us, we have a healthy mix. We have a life outside of poker.
MM: Is it difficult to be married to someone in your profession?
Chad: You know, professional poker is very similar to other sports [in this regard]… in the media in the last couple of years, there have been a couple pro wrestlers who committed suicide, and I’ve watched interviews where [their] friends say it [was] tough on [their] relationships because the person [was] traveling a lot. It would be a strain on a relationship if someone’s always on the road and didn’t have someone traveling with them. In this sense, I enjoy [working with my partner] because I have Vanessa traveling with me. As far as the competition goes, both Vanessa and I are very competitive, [and] poker is very subjective. One thing we discovered early-on in the relationship [is that] we have different points of view. She respects my game, and I respect her game, and there are some times that we want to know the other one’s opinion, so the agreement we have is, ‘if [I] ask for your opinion, then you should give it. Otherwise, if you disagree with something that happened, then you shouldn’t say it.’
MM: So you think it’s important to set ground rules?
Vanessa: It is, because, you know what? There isn’t someone who’s the passive person. When you’re both competing at such a high level, both people have that drive, both people have that will to win. They have their own beliefs and you have to respect that. To keep the harmony, you just respect that they have their beliefs, you have your beliefs, and that person has been really successful in their own rite, so whatever works for them works for them. Just leave that alone.
MM: Do you ever get stressed out when you’re in direct competition?
Vanessa: We’ve only been at the same table twice, actually. We enter all the same events, but it’s only happened twice in four years, so it’s never like we’re actually competing for each other’s chips. We’ve been really lucky in that regard. It makes it easier to root for ourselves and then root for the other person as well.
MM: Do you guys watch each other and get into each other’s games?
Chad: I only really watch her if she’s at a final table. If she’s at a final table, I’ll go watch her, and, you know, again, even if I have an opinion on something, she doesn’t want to be given anything that’s going to distract her from the game plan that she’s made, because obviously I’ve given her some input on things I’ve noticed—
Vanessa: And I’ve given him some input on things I’ve noticed.
Chad: And, so, she’s requested, look, only if I ask.
Vanessa: Not just me! You too. That’s our rule. The reason we have that rule is because there’s no right way to play poker, there’re different styles, and we have very different styles. We do some things the same, but other than a couple similarities, our games are actually vastly different, and we have different strengths and different weaknesses, so it doesn’t really make sense for either one of us to give the other one advice because maybe it doesn’t fit into the overall style of the other player. We’ve decided that unless the other one asks for advice, not to give it, because it just usually leads to an argument.
MM: Did you guys have any bumps along the road trying to figure this all out?
Vanessa: It’s definitely no secret, our relationship isn’t easy. We’re both very strong personalities; we’re competitive, we’re opinionated, and respect’s very important to both of us… we’re probably both not the best at admitting when we’re wrong, so there can definitely be friction at times. At the end of the day, I think it comes down to the fact that we’ve spent so much time together that we’ve really gotten to know who the other person is at core, and at core, we really respect and love the other person. The little things, the little arguments, the little competitions and all that become less important in the long run. The deep connection underneath is the thing that carries us through, even though yes, of course, like every relationship, we have conflict.
MM: What is the hardest thing about your situation right now?
Vanessa: The amount of travel, I think. Living on the road and traveling can be hard on anyone, but think about when you’re in a relationship, you’re on top of someone else in a small space, in a hotel room – the ones in the US are pretty good, but in Europe they’re very small – so you’re spending all this time together, you’re working together, hanging out together, and then travel is stressful. That’s the hardest part, but this is actually one of the areas in which we shine. I think we’re actually the best team ever. We’re really good at dividing at conquering all travel-related things. For instance, when we’re traveling, if we have a rental car, Chad will drop me off, I’ll check in and wait at the check-in counter while he goes and returns the rental car, and it’s really efficient. We’re multi-tasking and we get it done really efficiently. We’ve gotten really good at traveling, which is why we think we should be on ‘The Amazing Race’.
MM: I was just thinking that!
Vanessa: We thought that would be a huge advantage that we’re so good at traveling together.
MM: No, seriously, you guys would totally make it. And Made Man readers would watch. Um, by the way, readers, it’s been promised that you’ll start watching ‘The Amazing Race’ if/when Vanessa and Chad are on it. So. Yeah. Set your DVR’s now.) So, have you learned any lessons at your day job that you’ve then applied to your relationship?
Chad: Well, one of the lessons is that – you can use a poker analogy – in poker, you’re always learning. There are going to be days when you make plays and you’ll be upset at yourself because you made a bad play. In relationships, you’re always learning, not just about the other person but about the relationship as a whole from both of you. As Vanessa said, when you have two people who are very strongly opinionated, there will sometimes be arguments about something. So, when you resolve that, you say, ‘wait a second, let’s fix this, because this same situation is going to come up again. How do we fix this so that we avoid this happening again because this is a mistake?’
Vanessa: We make rules, basically.
Chad: We make rules.
Vanessa: So, in poker you may say, ‘ok, I’m never going to risk my whole chip stack early on in a tournament unless I’m more than 80% sure I have the best hand’. We may make a rule like that in poker. So in our relationship, we may make a rule like, ‘ok, if we get into an argument, you’re absolutely not allowed to raise your voice and scream, and if the other person catches you doing that, then you can demand an immediate apology and they have to give it to you.’ So, we have, like, a million rules. In the ‘game of our relationship’, I guess, as long as you stick to the rules, everything’s ok.
Watch Vanessa and Chad in action on ESPN2 every Monday from 9-11pm EST, now through June 7.