Finding himself in the game
There are some who still have trouble coming to grips with poker's coming of age. Despite our massive television success, despite one feel-good story after another, despite massive good done in the name of charity, there are those who, from lack of personal experience, see only the poker depicted in "The Cincinnati Kid" and "Rounders." The poker world presented on the silver screen is darker and shadier than the glossy tournament circuit of today. We hope those people are reading this column.
David "Chino" Rheem has showed within the course of his life that poker can offer us a path to something better. Rheem, a 28-year-old presently residing in Los Angeles, will be featured Tuesday night on ESPN's broadcast of the World Series of Poker as he continues to climb that path in an attempt to reach the top of the poker mountain with a win in the main event.
"When I was young, I made some mistakes," Rheem said in an extensive interview after the completion of the WSOP in July. "They were no one's fault but mine. I made those mistakes. I paid for them and I'm smart enough to have learned from those experiences. Society made me learn from those mistakes. Thanks to poker, I've been able to move away from the people and situations that put me in that kind of trouble."
Rheem grew up watching his father play poker in home games despite a peripatetic home life. Together, the Rheem men were constantly on the move, most often on the East Coast. Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston and parts of Florida are among the places Rheem called home in his teenage years. It was in Florida where he made the largest of the aforementioned mistakes.
In late July, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that there was a warrant out for Rheem's arrest in Hollywood, Fla. The report also stated that he had convictions for stolen property, larceny, burglary and possession of marijuana in Broward County, for which he was sentenced to four months in jail and 30 months of probation. They were mistakes of youth, committed eight years ago by a Rheem who's grown in the time since, just as the game he plays has.
"I'm not ashamed of anything I've done," said Rheem when asked about the reports. "I have no regrets. I made mistakes and learned from them, grew from them and know not to do that stuff any more."
Instead he plays poker. It was in Florida that Rheem met the Mizrachi brothers -- poker professionals Robert, Michael and Eric.
"The Mizrachis have been like my family," said Rheem. "They took me in and taught me everything I needed to know to be a poker player. They've supported me financially, mentally and socially."
Those friendships and others, with JC Tran, Nam Le, Tim Phan, Tuan Le, Stu Patterson and others, created the foundation. Heading into the 2008 main event, Rheem had accumulated tournament winnings in excess of $600,000 despite his cash game leanings.
That success in tow, Rheem recognized it was poker that helped him turn his life around.
"As long as you put other things in your life before poker, it will always be a great game," he said, embracing the ambassador role that comes with repeated television appearances. "If you're in school, finish school. If you're married, take care of that relationship. Even if you play as a full-time job, you should find time to balance it with everything else in your life. For a long time, I didn't understand that. I didn't live my life that way."
It was his girlfriend, Susan Shim, introduced to Rheem during a visit to the home of Tuan Le, who brought that balance to Chino's life.
"Susan makes me aspire to be better," Rheem said of his girlfriend of over two years. "She humbles me. She stuck by me in the rough times and even though I'm feeling good now, that has to humble you. She reminds me of where I came from and keeps me stable."
Shim's faith has been repaid by Rheem's success. That success is only the tip of what potentially could be a very tall iceberg. "I'm going to play poker until the day I die," Rheem continued. "If it wasn't for this game, I wouldn't be where I am right now. I love poker so much. I've done a lot of losing. You can lose, lose and lose some more, but like Tuan says, you're only one win away from changing your life."
As Rheem's star continues to climb, he's protected from the new worlds he finds by the wisdom of his friends.
"I've been learning a lot," Rheem said of recent days. "Not just from Nam and JC, from everybody."
Nam Le, one of the most respected tournament players in the world, sees those lessons manifesting.
"He's definitely more determined to make it, not with just poker but with life," said Le. "I believe he sees the light. Our job is just to make sure he keeps seeing it, to make sure he sees he has a shot at greatness." Le paused and then added with a smile, "And to make sure he doesn't screw it up."
Rheem subscribes to the Mizrachi credo of "Money over bracelets," but admits with the main event it's different. "To be known as a hall of famer or a world champion, that's important to me," he admitted. "Stats don't matter, I just want the money, but making history is different."
That he can even conceive of something so grandiose is a remarkable testament to how far Rheem has come. "I think I've grown up. Matured and found some discipline. You have to be broke to appreciate what it is to be broke. I've been there and I've seen the strains that can have. I don't want to be that guy again. Poker's the reason I'm not."
Rheem hopes the questions raised by the Sun-Sentinel report have been put to rest. The outstanding Hollywood warrant has been taken care of -- a fine was paid last month -- and Rheem says his legal problems are a thing of the past. Rheem knows there are those who might not let them stay there, but they aren't the people who matter most.
"The people around me know who I am," Rheem said.
They know he's left the darker days of movie-like destitution behind him, that he's found real success in the real poker world and that the future is very, very bright. How bright? Be sure to tune in Tuesday night to see if he can take another step toward history.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.