Craig Varnell Finds His Zen Spot in Poker While Recovering from Injury

Jan 17, 2020

Craig Varnell

By Kevin Taylor

Known as one of the most aggressive players on the poker tour, Craig Varnell knows plenty about experiencing the highs and lows at the poker table. However, in 2019 Varnell found out just how much of a roller coaster life can be, all in the span of a couple of months.

Let’s start with the highs. In May of last year, Varnell notched the biggest tournament win of his career, taking home just under $380,000 after winning the WPT Choctaw Main Event. Varnell bested a field of 577 players, and finally added his name to the WPT Champions Cup after coming close a few times before.

“It was a really big accomplishment because it’s one of the top-tier tournaments of the year to win. Coming from where I came from four-five years ago to now it’s pretty wild. That was a big accomplishment because I had made three final tables and finally closed one out. It puts your name in a category that not many people are in,” said Varnell.

He continued, “Winning a WPT, it’s one of the highest achievements you can have in poker. It builds your confidence, so going into the summer I was really confident, but then I had a bump in the road.”

Calling it a bump in the road is a severe understatement. In June of last year, Varnell tweeted that he passed out while playing basketball, landing on his head, which led to a fractured skull, and some brain damage. Thankfully, Varnell made a speedy recovery, and was even back at the poker table just two weeks later. But as you would expect, the experience changed Varnell’s perspective on life.

“It was one of the roughest things I’ve ever been through in my life. I had to learn how to pick up a spoon again. The emotional part, I still have residuals of that. It’s a long term thing, brain injuries, but don’t take anything for granted,” Varnell said before pausing to hold back some tears.

“Poker players complain a lot, but I tell you what, when you can’t take care of yourself, it changes your personality. It really affected me. But I’ve been powering through it, I’ve been doing what I have to, seeing doctors, and doing what I need to do to get back,” said Varnell.

Varnell wasn’t able to play as much in the second half of the year because of the injury, but he is gearing up for a big 2020. For Varnell, going “back to work” is his form of recovery.

“Poker is my zen spot though, where I can go and nothing else in my life matters but my play in the moment, but people take things for granted. Everyone has been through tough times, but this changed my outlook on things. I’m still playing, not as much since, but I’m going to play a lot. People don’t understand how hard it is to overcome something you have no control over it. All you can do is cope and try to move on,” said Varnell.

Varnell was here bright and early for the 11 am start of the day, and he was rewarded by having the WPT Player of the Decade Darren Elias on his direct left. While some would see that as an unfortunate occurrence, Varnell seemed rather happy about the unlucky draw, saying that it will bring out the best in him.

“Playing with someone that good always makes me play better, and it helps that he’s nice and talkative. Some players are just robots who don’t talk so it’s always nice to have a personable table, makes it fun while I work,” said Varnell appreciatively.

He continued, “Darren is a nice guy. I don’t know him very well personally, but we’ve played a couple of times. He’s one of the best and obviously he’s been picking on me because he knows I’m aggressive. I just gotta pick my spots and I don’t care much about who I’m up against.”

We would like to wish Varnell continued success on his recovery, and are happy to see him back at the poker table where he belongs!

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