By Sean Chaffin
The meeting with law enforcement a decade ago hadn’t been planned. Craig Varnell (pictured) has been busted selling drugs and didn’t know how things would turn out. Some time in jail seemed like a real possibility.
He was in trouble, he was frustrated, and things seemed hopeless.
“My life was in a downward spiral,” says Varnell, who is second in chips in the WPT Choctaw final table today at HyperX Esports Arena. “Luckily, I got a good lawyer and he helped me out. It was crazy. I was on probation for six years, and wasn’t living a good life.”
A second chance seemed like an opportunity – and Varnell took it.
Back in the Game
The arrest served as a wakeup call. His father let him move in with him for a while to get his life back together. Originally from the Denver area, Varnell found odd jobs to pay the bills and stay out of trouble.
“I was very grateful that he gave me a bedroom and let me stay there even though he was very disappointed in me,” says Varnell. “Life has been interesting for me. It has its ups and downs, and I’ve had ups and downs my whole life – having money and having no money.”
Leaving that life behind wasn’t easy. He worked and worked and worked – security jobs and scrubbing vehicles at a car wash. The hard work paid off and he eventually put his former life in the rear-view mirror.
“Life doesn’t stop, and as you get older you have to just realize your decisions can have big consequences,” Varnell says. “Whether it’s making legal decisions or gambling and losing money or doing dumb things, you just have to be smarter.”
One thing he’d always been good at was poker. Without any major live poker results to speak of, a friend took a chance and staked him in some events about five years ago.
“I just knew people in poker,” he says. “People knew my style and knew if I accumulate chips, I close a lot. So within the first month and a half, I final tabled two events.”
That summer, he also sold action for some events at the WSOP and other tournaments around Las Vegas. He immediately paid off for his backers by winning the Aria 500 in 2015 for $185,800. That was followed up with seven cashes at the WSOP.
“I haven’t been broke since,” he says.
When Varnell decided to pursue poker full time, his father wasn’t on board. Maybe he was concerned his son would stray from the new life he’d developed, or go broke at the tables. That changed when Varnell began winning.
“My dad definitely keeps up with my poker career,” he says. “He didn’t agree with it at first and wanted me to have a normal job and get my shit together. But I told him poker was my niche and I’m good at it.”
That has proven to be a nice decision and he’s proving that in Las Vegas this week.
Success on the Felt
Varnell now has almost $2 million in live tournament winnings. In 2015, he topped a massive field of 5,113 entries to win the WPT500 Aria event for $330,000. Three years later, he won a WSOP bracelet last summer in $565 Pot Limit Omaha for $181,790.
Living in Las Vegas for the last four years, Varnell travels the tournament scene and plays about half the year. He enjoys the Choctaw and plays any tournament series at the property, but also likes playing in Florida, Atlantic City, and Los Angeles. His travel life isn’t just for poker.
“I take time off to hang out with my family, go on trips, and hang out with my girlfriend,” he says. “Traveling is a motivation for me. I like Europe and I’ve been to a lot of the countries there. Amsterdam’s nice, Switzerland’s nice, and Barcelona’s nice when it’s not a million degrees.”
In those days after his arrest, poker wasn’t always an option. He was working all the time at multiple jobs. To keep his mind in the game, he didn’t necessarily play himself but might watch a friend play a tournament online or talk about the game a bit. Watching other players online kept the game top of mind and he knew eventually he’d be back at the tables.
Varnell turns 36 today, and hoping this final table offers him an added reason to celebrate.
“It would be pretty sweet,” he says. “I don’t really party that much anymore, but we’ll probably just go back to the house and chill with everyone who came in town and some other people here just for the WSOP. It’s pretty exciting, I’m pretty stoked.”
Looking back on how far he’s come over the last decade, Varnell knows things could have been worse and is grateful for those who helped him along the way. He could have been in jail or out on the street.
The hard work and focus paid off. A WPT title here at HyperX Esports Arena would add a nice bullet point to the journey in turning his life around, and he’s here to win.
“Poker probably saved my life,” he says. “My third WSOP final table, I won a bracelet. This is my third WPT final table, so hopefully, it’s the same effect.”
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas, and his work appears in numerous websites and publications. Follow him on Twitter @PokerTraditions.
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