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Successful poker pro Ben “NeverScaredB” Wilinofsky surprised the poker world at the end of 2015 by announcing his retirement from poker. To get more on the story we spoke with Ben about the decision at his home in Vancouver, Canada. It turns out that there was a lot more going on for Wilinofsky than what his friends and fans saw from the outside. In this candid interview Wilinofsky opens up about his long struggle with finding happiness and how he came to the realization that his career as a professional poker player was not leading him in the right direction. The man known as “NeverScaredB” online had a reputation for fearlessness in his poker game but, as he explains, that wasn't the case in his inner life. Wilinofsky talks about how he originally believed outward success would help him overcome his inner challenges and how he's working on achieving those goals now that he's no longer playing poker full time. If you've every struggled with depression or want an inside look at what it's like to, check out this honest and candid interview with one of the brightest minds in the poker world.
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.
Matt Showell: So welcome to my old hood. This is the west side of Vancouver. This is where I group up and actually another person who grew up a couple blocks away from me is poker pro Ben Wilinofsky.
I've been in the poker world for like ten years and Ben's been around for a while and he's always been crushing it. And you know, the whole time, all I really saw was a pretty confident, successful guy, but the more I get to know Ben, the more I learn that there was a lot more going on for him than what we saw on the outside. We're on our way to his house now to find out a bit more about what he was going through and why he decided to quit poker at the end of last year.
Ben Wilinofsky: 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.
Matt Showell: Right. So as things started to get better and better in your career, you'd had tons of success online and you started playing live and had a huge tournament win at EPT Berlin in 2011, did you start to see this disparity developing between the external state of your life, which by all accounts was pretty successful, and the way you felt inside which maybe wasn't tracking the same trajectory?
Ben Wilinofsky: 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. And 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.
Matt Showell: Were you kind of going through this stuff on your own? Was it something that you were willing to talk about with people? 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?
Ben Wilinofsky: 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 I need to make things better so I'm not so depressed anymore.
Matt Showell: Like win more money.
Ben Wilinofsky: Like win more money or have sex with more girls or whatever things. 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.
Now that I have accepted and identified the problem, what next?
Matt Showell: It's not just all magically fixed.
Ben Wilinofsky: 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.