Halfway through my university program, I applied to spend the semester abroad in Melbourne. The process took several months and required heavy paperwork, writing essays, and interviewing. And when my application was rejected, I felt so heavily invested in replacing the punishing cold of Eastern Canada with the sunshine of Australia, that I simply couldn’t handle the alternative.
Fortunately, I had some modest savings after spending the previous few years becoming a competent part-time online poker player at sites like Americas Cardroom. I figured those savings would last me just long enough to make it through my own semester abroad at the University of Life.
The experiences of the three months that followed could fill a book, but it was two experiences in particular—meeting Ian The Brit and learning about one of the world’s original cannabis meccas—that taught me three very important life lessons.
I first met Ian The Brit at a Melbourne hostel and we quickly became close friends. He was a fellow poker player who was funding his travels by playing online. After a couple weeks of enjoying the Melbourne nightlife, we decided to take our show on the road and journey up the coast, beginning with the one place we were most excited about seeing: Nimbin, a.k.a Australia’s Amsterdam.
Having already vetted each other’s poker game, we decided to share a bankroll, a relatively common occurrence in the poker world where two or more players pool their funds together and share their winnings equally. This worked out particularly great for me as Ian wasted no time in final-tabling a daily guaranteed prize pool tourney on his way to a $4,000 payday. It was a massive score for a couple kids trying to live the dream for the first time. We left for Nimbin the next day.
In those days, Nimbin was a hippie town and popular backpacker destination thanks to its close proximity to the legendary party town of Byron Bay and seemingly non-existent marijuana laws. Unfortunately, authorities finally brought the hammer down in 2016 and established a stricter police presence that remains in place today. But in happier times, Nimbin was widely considered to be revolutionary in the fight for cannabis legalization and most famous for having the strongest THC cookies the world had ever seen.
Which brings me to the first life-lesson I received on the trip.
Having spent more than 24 hours eating fast food and drinking bagged wine on a backpacker shuttle from Melbourne to Byron Bay, I was fortunate enough to be experiencing some serious stomach discomfort by the time we made it into Nimbin. I say fortunate because as it turned out, the stories of the potency of Nimbin’s baked goods were, if anything, understated.
With Ian electing to eat half a cookie and our new shuttle friend, a behemoth of a man appropriately nicknamed Big Al, who decided to down an entire cookie in one bite, we took the short ride back into Byron Bay. We then checked into our hostel and began getting our things together for a day at the beach.
This turned out to be the last time we would hear from Big Al that day because the minute he lay down, the power of the cookie took over and left this mountain of a man completely incapacitated. He was quietly mumbling to himself in a way that let us know he most likely just needed some time to explore whatever planet he was currently on.
For his part, Ian managed to keep it together all the way to the beach. However, shortly thereafter, I heard him calling me over in distress while standing motionlessly in knee-high water, claiming he couldn’t get out due to a ‘tide’ that very clearly didn’t exist. When I informed him that the real reason he wasn’t making progress was that he wasn’t moving his legs, Ian looked down at his feet as if they were the first ones he’d ever seen and proceeded to laugh hysterically for long enough that nearby swimmers made sure to keep their distance.
It was there, with one hulk of a man already down and another thinking he was in motion while standing perfectly still that I learned the life-lesson that is as applicable in today’s edible-happy culture as it was then: no matter what, never, and I mean ever, eat the first cookie.
After the cookie incident, we spent the following week surfing, skydiving, and consuming much more responsible amounts of cannabis. The three of us decided to continue moving up the coast towards our ultimate destination of Cairns. However, despite being in somewhat rough shape thanks to more Byron Bay partying, Ian decided he wanted to take a shot at some high-stakes online poker action so that we could “travel like rich people.” I tried talking him out of it, preferring to grind out consistent profits at lower stakes instead, but his mind was set and seeing as he was the big breadwinner so far, I eventually relented.
The experience went about as well as you’d expect, with Ian managing to lose two $1,000 buy-ins in quick succession before I managed to pull him away from the game. As Big Al made sure to let him know how terrible of a poker player he was, I tried convincing Ian that the loss didn’t matter much in the big picture and was just par for the course for a poker player. For whatever reason though, something about that loss really stuck with him, and he announced he was leaving Australia early and heading back home to the UK.
Spending the next 15+ years playing poker professionally, the memory of Ian’s early Australian exit always stayed at the forefront of my mind, constantly reminding me of the most valuable risk-management lesson anyone could ever learn:
The cost of losing often heavily outweighs the rewards of winning, so never risk more than you can afford to lose, be it financially or otherwise.
Although our Australian stoner adventure went out with a whimper rather than a bang, my time with Ian The Brit, Big Al, and countless other characters taught me a valuable lesson that seemed to be in direct contrast to the previous one: on a long enough timeline, the right experience, the right memory, the right adventure, will outweigh nearly any cost, regardless of results.
Having traveled all over the world playing poker, the thorn in my side professionally has always been that I have yet to crack that big live score to hang my hat on and justify the time and effort. And yet, ask me about my fondest memories from the past two decades and you’ll inevitably hear stories from the times surrounding these so-called “losses.”
Because if there’s one final lesson that I hold dearer than all the others, it is most definitely that in life, just as in poker, you are not defined by the cards you are dealt, but by how you choose to play your hand.
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