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Ben Wilinofsky: Winning Millions in Poker Didn't Solve Depression
At the end of 2015 poker pro Ben Wilinofsky announced his retirement from poker, despite a long and successful career playing cards.
In this candid interview with PokerListings.com, Wilinofsky opens up about the reasons behind that decision and the inner struggles he faced over the course of his poker career.
In the poker world Wilinofsky is known as NeverScaredB, the screen-name he chose for himself when he began playing.
Years of battling online and live earned him that reputation, but for Wilinofsky it didn't match up with how he felt.
Wilinofsky explains that no matter how much external success he was able to achieve, it was never enough.
Now Wilinofsky has given up a career that offered him money and freedom to pursue happiness.
Watch the full video interview below or continue reading for the interview transcript.
PokerListings.com: Did your choice of online poker screenname have anything to do with how you were feeling back then? On the outside you definitely earned a reputation for fearless play.
Ben Wilinofsky: I wanted to put that image of myself forward, of fearlessness, and I wanted to feel fearless.
You know, that's something I'd like to feel nowadays in my everyday life, not anxious and not have those doubts and fears in my head.
Maybe there was something Freudian going on. I don't really know.
PL: You accomplished a lot in poker and lived a lot of people's dreams, so to speak. How did those experiences make you feel?
BW: When I was getting outside stimulus from poker that said, “Yes, you're good. Look at the numbers getting bigger and look at how people respond to you and think of you.
You have fans and people who think that you're good and you have objective measures.
It's a salve. It's something you rub on the wounds to make them not hurt so much but it doesn't heal them in any sense.
PL: Right. So as things started to get better and better in your career, did you start to see this disparity developing between the external state of your life, and the way you felt inside which maybe wasn't tracking the same trajectory?
BW: Yeah. When I got that first win I felt elated and really just sort of on cloud nine, for lack of a better term, for a couple of days but it faded really quickly.
I quickly returned to, like, normal and my normal was not very good. My normal was not happy.
So I think I chased it for a little bit. I think the next year I final-tabled WPT Vienna. I came third and I just felt nothingness. Just empty, devoid of any kind of emotional response.
I realized that I was looking for external ways to fix an internal problem.
PL: Did your family and the people closest to you know what was going on or did you try to play it off like everything was fine and try to deal with it on your own?
BW: I don't think I tried to deal with it at all. I don't think I really acknowledged it to myself.
I was aware of it at times. The word depression, you know, came in and out of my vocabulary and I would sometimes think to myself, “Huh, I'm depressed.”
But it was always in the context of it being a temporary state and that I needed to make things better so I'm not so depressed anymore.
PL: Like win more money.
BW: Like win more money or have sex with more girls or whatever thing.
Like, if I achieve some thing, when that thing is achieved my depression and sense of self worth will sort themselves out based on that thing.
No matter how big either number gets, you never get there.
To put it out there and to be honest and open with someone else about what's really going on in your life, it's liberating because you don't have to put up walls anymore.
You don't have to put on this mask, this brave face that everything's okay and you're in control of your life.
But now that I have accepted and identified the problem, what next?
PL: It's not just all magically fixed.
BW: No. So you try one thing. Therapy or pills or exercise or yoga or meditation or whatever you try. And you try and you try and you try again. I've tried a lot of things.
Poker's not the problem but it's not part of the solution either.
My energy is really limited. On my bad days I get six hours out of bed. And those six hours are precious and I can't be spending it on something that's not part of the solution.
Poker is the easy solution to the wrong problem and I don't want to do that anymore. So I just have to not do it anymore, is the simple answer.
I have to go start on the bottom of something else and I have to dig in and keep going with it until I either hit a wall and realize this isn't the thing, or I get through the wall and see what's on the other side.