Chad Brown rubbed elbows with James Bond, faced down a maniacal killer, won a baseball championship, and earned more than $3.6 million playing a card game. A model, actor, baseball player, and poker legend, Brown lived his entire life earning a living in ways that most people believed impossible. He died today in New York City after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 52 years old.
Brown’s life was one Hollywood couldn’t create. Born the son of a gambler, Brown grew up around his dad’s underground poker room. Along the way, he picked up Gin Rummy from players waiting for a seat in the game.
“It filled the same role for people that Chinese Poker does today,” Brown once said. “People would play Gin Rummy when they would wait for the poker game to start.”
Brown’s brain had a special place for games. They were how he thought, how he earned, and how he bonded with his dad. The two played competitive games until the day Brown died.
By the time Brown made it to high school, he realized he had more than a brain for games; he had the body for it, too. A high school baseball player, Brown moved to Yonkers with his father so he could be part of the best baseball program in his area. It almost became his entire life, and but for the lure of the silver screen, Brown may have spent his entire career on the diamond. The camera liked Brown’s face as much as pitchers hated his swing.
“I had to make a choice,” he said. “I ended up forgoing a minor league contract in favor of pursuing an acting career.”
In his mid-20s, Brown got his first big break in the slasher film “Blood Rage” starring Woody Allen’s first wife, Louise Lasser. Brown had the dubious honor of getting killed with a machete right before a poolside moment with his on-film lover.
It was around the same time he was rubbing elbows with movie stars of the day. Among his favorite stories was the night Roger Moore of James Bond fame picked him up from his Swiss hotel for a party.
“When I got back from the party, everyone who worked in the hotel wanted my autograph!” he remembered in 2013. “After all, James Bond had come to ask for me…so I must be famous! I’ll admit I got a kick out that.”
Hollywood is a fickle place, and before long, Brown found himself going back to his roots. His career may have drifted far from the rummy games of his youth, but his brain carried everything he ever picked up in his dad’s card room. By the early 90s, Brown was making money playing poker. He would go on to become one of poker’s best mixed game players and–thanks to his made-for-TV face–a sought-after televised poker commentator. His childhood avocation became his job, one he loved more than almost anyone who spent two decades at the felt. Far and wide, players knew and respected the man known as Downtown Chad Brown. Respect was a commodity Brown valued as much as anything he ever won.
“That’s what a real champion is,” he once said of another baseball player, Mariano Rivera. “A class act who understands how good he is but also how his own abilities didn’t mean he shouldn’t respect those against which he competed, too.”
Brown’s poker career was one any poker player would envy. He traveled the world making final tables on the European Poker Tour and World Poker Tour. In 2006, he earned the Bluff magazine Player of the Year award, an honor he equated with winning an Oscar. He became a treasured member of Team PokerStars Pro and represented his favorite online site in countless countries.
“He was always fiercely competitive whatever he chose to do in life — whether it was playing baseball, acting, or poker,” said friend Nolan Dalla. “Yet, Chad always behaved fairly and cared deeply for others. In twenty years at the tables or away, I never once saw him raise his voice or get out of line. Ever.”
During his two decades in poker, Brown was a constant presence at the World Series of Poker where he cashed 38 times. Though he had three runner-up finishes, he never won a WSOP bracelet. It was a subject he talked about toward the end of his life.
“While some fans of poker might want to give the bracelet the same kind of weight as, say, sports fans might give to a player winning a championship, it isn’t really a good way to define a poker player’s career. After all, really good poker players know that just because someone wins a bracelet, that doesn’t make that person a really good poker player. For me personally, if I don’t win one, I know it won’t define my career.”
Brown was right about that, but he might not have known just how much. As the 2014 WSOP played out in Las Vegas, Brown was living his last hours in a New York hospital. He lived long enough to see the WSOP award him an honorary bracelet.
“Throughout his journey, (Chad) has been helping many of us get perspective on life,” said an emotional Jack Effel during the ceremony. The WSOP Tournament Director held the bracelet high as hundreds of players stood in Downtown Chad Brown’s honor. Brown was all the way across the country, but friends at his bedside said he worked up the strength to get a high-five for his accomplishment. He received the bracelet just before his death. Friends slipped it on his arm while he rested in his hospital bed.
“If you want to feel like a victim, that’s your choice,” Brown said in his final months. “I don’t feel like a victim. We all have a choice when it comes to how we want to feel about what’s going on in our lives”
“I never heard Chad tell a bad-beat story,” said PokerStars’ Lee Jones. “Even when he had suffered the most awful beat of all, he kept his smile and wanted to hear your story, rather than tell you his.”
Brown’s friend and former manager on Team Pro, John Caldwell said, “If I ever have to go through anything like Chad went through, I can only hope I handle it one-fourth as well as he did. I learned a lot from Chad Brown, and I thank him for that.”
Though he never played in the major leagues, Brown played baseball until the final years of his life and won a championship doing so. Though he never won an Oscar, his face spent more time on television than most people you’ll meet. Though riddled with cancer, he continued to play poker and win big money until he could no longer sit at the table. He may never have been the most celebrated man in the careers he chose, but he was one who never gave up. It earned him the respect of everyone he met.
Though the honorary WSOP bracelet came just before his death, those who knew Chad Brown understood it was not an honor given on the occasion of his death. It was one offered as a celebration of his life. Put another way: a bracelet didn’t define his life. His life defined the bracelet, and Chad Brown defined what it means to live.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging. Martin Harris contributed to this story.