A Fight for Fatherhood: The Biggest Win of Jason Young’s Life
Jason Young has a decent collection of stuff he can put up on the mantle. The World Series of Poker bracelet he won in 2008 could be the centerpiece of it all. The trophy he got for taking down a WPTDeepStacks event in January should be there as well. But neither of those hold any weight compared to what he likely woke up to Sunday morning.
A handmade Father’s Day card from his six-year-old daughter, Kaeley.
It’s a moment only possible because four years earlier Jason completely upended his life, went broke, and never stopped fighting.
Looking back at the winner photo from Jason’s bracelet win in 2008 you see everything you’d expect to see from a 26-year-old who’d just won $335,565 in a pre-Black Friday poker world. His fitted cap is on backwards, the top two buttons on his Alex Rodriguez New York Yankees jersey are unbuttoned, and he’s got a shit-eating grin on his face.
“I was literally on borrowed money,” Jason says. “I left the job that I had. Thought I was gonna have a career in my hometown. I had a pension job. I thought that I was pretty much just gonna go through the motions, the 9-5 motions, and maybe do some stuff on the side or whatever.”
The win afforded Jason the opportunity to travel around the United States and play poker professionally. The 40-hour work week wasn’t for him anymore and that was just fine. That is, until 2012, when he broke his leg and had to spend a few months hanging out on his couch recovering.
Given the chance to reflect on the time he spent going from tournament to tournament, Jason realized that as much as he enjoyed it, he was ready to do something else. He wasn’t seeking out a return to that pension job, though. He needed a challenge and wanted something with some risk involved. He decided to get into the restaurant business.
“The idea of doing something different was appealing,” Jason says. “When I was laid up, I just got this idea, and I said, ‘That’s it. I’m gonna go for it full force.'”
By April 1, he had his signature on contracts to take over a restaurant in Suffern, NY, on May 1, and he opened ‘The Turn’ on June 1. Things moved quickly.
“I’m 30 years old, and I have this place,” Jason says. “It was the coolest place around. It was packed when we opened. It was a madhouse. I owned a house. I’m single. I was experiencing something that I had never really had anything like before.”
Not long after the restaurant opened, a girl came into the picture. Everything was going great for the new couple and almost seven months later, she told Jason she was pregnant. Again, things moved quickly.
“I’ve always wanted to have a child,” he remembers. “It’s literally been my dream my whole life to have a child, and I’m financially stable at that moment. I have a business. I have a house. Things are good on my end.”
On May 29, 2013, Kaeley was born and as much joy as it brought Jason to become a father, it was also when he noticed that things were changing at home, and not for the better. Jason was more than prepared for the sleepless nights and extra work of having to take care of a newborn, but he mistakenly assumed his girlfriend was too.
“(My girlfriend) was a little bit younger,” Jason says. “The idea of having a child maybe sounder better to her than the actual act of having a child, because once my daughter arrived … man, I was up every morning at six for four hours with Kaeley before I’d go into work.”
He’d work the lunch hour at The Turn and then race home to take care of Kaeley for a couple of hours before heading back to work to get through happy hour and the dinner rush. He handled all of that while also doing the payroll, scheduling, and everything else that the business needed.
“I lived five minutes away,” Jason says. “I was always there at bedtime, and then I’d go back to the restaurant, work for another three hours, four hours. On weekends, sometimes I was working until one, two in the morning. Then everything would start again the next morning at six o’clock. I tried to give her a break.”
That schedule was starting to take its toll on Jason. His girlfriend’s family was in Florida and when she asked to take Kaeley to see her parents, Jason was more than happy to oblige. He thought it was a win-win situation. He’d be able to catch up on some much-needed rest while Kaeley would get some time with grandma and grandpa. If only it was that easy.
“I couldn’t figure it out until later what was going on,” Jason says. “She’d take these long trips to Florida … 15, 16, 17 nights or whatever. I’d say, ‘It’s just too long. It’s weird for me. I don’t know. I’m missing a lot of stuff.’ Kaeley is not even two years old.”
In April 2015, they discussed the idea of selling the business and the house they lived in and moving to Florida permanently. If that’s what his family needed, Jason was ready to make it happen.
That’s when his girlfriend rocked Jason’s world with a decision he had no say in.
“I remember her telling me that she wasn’t coming back to New York, that she was gonna stay down in Florida,” Jason says. “I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ She was staying at her parents’ house.”
He spent the next month commuting between Florida and New York, staying in hotels in Florida.
“I didn’t really know what was going on,” he says. “It was one of those situations where everyone else knows what’s going on, and I didn’t know what was going on.”
Jason went back to New York and talked with a lawyer friend who gave him straight-up honest counsel that was not easy to hear.
“He told me point blank, ‘If you fight for this in New York, you’re not gonna see her for two months. Judges don’t take children from their mothers. So if her only place to be was in Florida, they just don’t care what the other circumstances are,'” Jason says.
He was told the best-case scenario should he stay in New York would be one where he would get his daughter for parts of each summer. Jason showed no hesitation.
“I just did what I thought was right,” he says. “It didn’t take long. A couple of days. Packed up my truck and left New York. I didn’t even know where I was going. I rented a place online, sight unseen. I came to Florida. That was when I started trying to first see if there was reconciliation for my family.”
There was no reconciliation to be had, though. The move back to Florida for his now ex-girlfriend was more about getting back the social life she gave up when she first got pregnant than anything else.
“She was running around with her friends partying, hanging out, going on boats, leaving our daughter with her parents because she just didn’t wanna do that,” Jason says.
So here was Jason, 31 years old, living in a city where he knew nobody. All of his family and friends were some 1,250 miles away. There was one massive upside, though.
“In the beginning, I had Kaeley all the time, because what did [her mother] care?” he says. “That was great. I mean I had her all the time, but at some point, I was gonna have to figure out some sort of a life for myself, and figure out something a little more concrete than winging it.”
That’s when everybody got a lawyer. Jason wanted to lock up an amicable custody split and ensure that he’d get the time with Kaeley that he felt was his right. His ex was looking to establish Jason’s financial responsibilities. There was just one major problem.
“It was Easter Sunday,” Jason says. “The manager from the restaurant called me and told me, ‘The chef is drunk. What do we do?'” Jason says. “I said, ‘Just close it down.’ He goes, ‘You mean for the day?’ ‘I mean no, just close it. I can’t keep going back and forth, and trying to sell it, and trying to keep it going and all that.’ It was just too much.
“I ended up just losing it. Took a loss on it. I had about a million dollars invested into the restaurant. I got zero dollars out of it.”
Both parties changed lawyers. There were three court-ordered mediation attempts. Months passed and the legal bills were piling up. and it was starting to become a financial hardship on Jason. So much so that some friends started a GoFundMe campaign to help.
“I would fight forever,” Jason says. “Maybe she didn’t know that about me. I would never give up. I would’ve never stopped, ever. If it cost me $10 million, I would’ve never stopped. Never. I was never, ever, ever, ever, ever stopping.”
Amidst all of this, there was a nine-week stretch where Jason never saw his daughter. That hurt far more than the financial strain.
“She kept her from me for 63 days,” Jason says. “Sixty-three days. I’ll never forget that. Sixty-three days. I’m in Florida, here for my child, and she wouldn’t even let me see her. This is after we had been seeing each other all the time,” Jason says. “She had friends in my neighborhood, birthday parties, things like that. Sixty-three days with no reasoning other than the judge saying, ‘You’re not adjudicated the father, so I don’t have to let you see her.'”
It took nearly three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, but Jason’s persistence won and he ended up with the 50/50 custody he wanted so badly. Losing his restaurant and his house was a humbling experience that forced Jason to start from scratch. There was no career, just jobs. He sold alarm systems for a security company. He managed a restaurant, which was just like running The Turn at about 1/10 of the pay and none of the upside.
“I had no money for three years, four years,” Jason says. “It was just massive debt. I was buried to the point of I really don’t know how to keep going. I just tried to keep going, and going, and going. The lawyers buried me. Losing the house buried me. Losing the restaurant buried me. I was buried.”
With all the debt building up, Jason was fortunate enough to have some people in his life that were willing to help him out.
“There were really two or three people that pretty much helped me when I was in super binds throughout the years, like power being turned off, the car being repossessed, that kind of good stuff,” he says. “It was ugly. It was really hard.”
He also returned to the poker tables. Nothing fancy and no high stakes. Most days, Young didn’t even have enough cash to put gas in his car or a proper meal in his stomach, let alone afford a buy-in. One night in June 2017 illustrates just how difficult things were.
“I had 40 [comp] dollars’ from the Isle Casino,” he recalls. “So on a Monday night, they had a $40 tournament. I don’t even think I had gas money. I’m going there needing to make a dollar just to be able to get home. I use the card. I get into the $40 tournament. There are 300 people in it. First place was $2,500 too, in a $40 tournament. That $2,500 may as well have been a million dollars at the time.”
Jason busted in 20th place, losing with ace-king against ace-jack. He got $98.
At that moment, his fight-or-flight instincts were waging war with each other. Fight was telling him to walk back into the poker room and spin the $98 into something bigger. Flight was reminding him how hungry he was for something other crackers or instant noodles, that the power bill was due, and that his car didn’t have enough gas in it to get him home.
The war didn’t last long. As is usually the case with Jason, Fight defeated flight.
“As soon as I busted, I went to $1/$2 and I turned it into $270,” Jason remembers. “Then I went to $2/$5 and I turned it into $750 and I left for the night. I kept that $750. I was able to run that $40 into enough to pay the bills for three months.”
Paying the bills meant making sure the rent, his car, the utilities were all caught up and that Kaeley didn’t want for anything. Jason put his personal needs and wants aside – sometimes to an extreme.
“It was really hard,” Jason says. “Throughout everything, I still managed to make sure that my daughter always had whatever she needed. By that, I literally mean if I was gonna go four or five days without seeing her, I didn’t really even eat sometimes. I was eating croutons, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and stuff like that. Just doing what I had to do to make sure that I had money when I was getting her to be able to make sure she was taken care of.”
Fortune smiled down on Young again last summer when one of his friends offered to put him into the WSOP Main Event, another offered to use their points to pay for a flight to Las Vegas, and yet another friend agreed to pay for a hotel room. Jason headed to Vegas with no cash and quite literally hit the jackpot before a single card was even dealt.
“When I was at the hotel, I got this $10 free casino play,” he says. “I had no money when I went out there, so I take the $10 and I put it in play in one of these slots. I think I hit $600. I busted out of the Main but ended up playing cash with that $600. I came home with two or three grand from the $10 free play.”
Seeking some stability, in early 2018, Jason got into the real estate game. He realized being a broker had the potential to provide him and Kaeley with a better life without taking away from their time together.
“I didn’t really see the point in spending $180,000 fighting to get my custody of her and then taking some job that was, if anything, barely paying the bills, and I was gonna lose out on all this time with her because I was working,” Jason says. “Some people are built like that. Me, I prioritize things a little bit differently. It doesn’t have to make sense to everybody, but it makes sense to me.”
He sold a few houses in 2018, but as the end of the year approached, finances got tight again. He had money coming on a deal that was set to close any day. Unable to wait for that commission check, Jason sold the commission at a discount to have enough cash on hand to pay the bills.
A friend of his had talked to him about playing some Lucky Hearts Open events at the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood. The first on the calendar was a $360 buy-in ultimate re-entry event with $500,000 guaranteed. Players that bag chips more than once get $2,500 cash. Jason, who had never had a backer for tournaments, found one to give him three bullets for this event.
Jason was all set to play when his backer backed out at the last minute. He talked to a few other people who he thought might be interested but they all passed. The friend who had originally suggested he play the event was across town playing in a $120 nightly tournament at another card room.
“He’s like, ‘Listen, I’m gonna make money in this, and we’re going to that tournament tomorrow,'” Jason remembers his friend telling him. “This was on a Wednesday night. I had nine dollars in my pocket. He sends me a message, I asked him how it’s going. It’s nine o’clock. He’s got 12,000 chips at 1,500/3,000. He has four blinds. I go, ‘Oh, all right.’ He comes back from that, and ends up getting to the final table and chopping for $1,500.”
Jason was in the next day’s first flight. He ran his stack up to almost 260,000 before finishing. His friend showed up to play the next flight that same night and agreed to put Jason into that flight as well. Jason’s run good from the first flight continued.
“I’ve done this before,” he says. “I thought I had it planned out pretty good. I got to enough chips where I could just coast. I’m sitting there, and the chips are going down, down, down. People weren’t getting knocked out as fast as I had thought, so I had to start playing again. I had a huge stack from the first fight. I was just trying to grab that $2,500, because that, again, at the time was like a million dollars for us.”
He managed to finish with chips and earned that bonus payday. When he returned to his original stack for Day 2, he worked his way to the final table.
“I grinded that final table for a while and it didn’t work out,” Jason says. “I got knocked out ninth. I never get ninth. It just never happens, and it happened. It was a little deflating, because I mean, it was $13,000. We had to split it. I didn’t look at it negatively, though. I didn’t freak out. I didn’t say, ‘Oh, I could’ve just changed my life today, but didn’t work out.’ I was happy to have a couple months of rent paid and be able to breathe. That was a lot of money to me there.”
The WPTDeepStacks $1,100 Main Event at the Lucky Hearts Poker Open was a week later and Jason knew he had to play it. Things started terribly though and he was down to just 8,000 from a 30,000 starting stack by level six. He finished the first night with 109,000. The next day he ran that up to almost 750,000 before the dinner break.
“I felt like it was 10 years ago,” Jason says. “That was the first time I had that feeling really come back. I mean I was like a madman on dinner break. I was pacing, power-pacing around the casino. I couldn’t eat anything, so when I can’t eat I know I’m in the zone. I’m screaming, ‘Let’s go!’ at garbage cans and stuff. I’m a maniac. I couldn’t calm down. I was really fired up.”
Jason got to the final table with 30% of the chips in play and 2.5 times the next biggest stack. The fear of blowing a big lead like that with $260,000 on the line is understandable, but the events of the last five years had put stuff like this into perspective for Jason.
“I get asked a lot if I get nervous or whatever,” Jason says. “Nervous? I’m nervous having to stand in front of a judge who I’ve never met, who’s gonna decide whether or not I get to spend time with my own child.
“It was very reminiscent of winning the bracelet 11 years ago where the money starts to get to a point where it’s like of course, you wanna win. You really wanna win, but it’s like whatever happens is gonna be okay, and once you get to that level, it’s just very freeing.”
Jason coasted to the win, beating Leif Force heads-up to win the second biggest score of his career at a time when he needed it more than ever. The heater continued two weeks later when he made the final table of a WSOP Circuit $1,700 Main Event at Coconut Creek. He busted in third for $110,859.
“It really hasn’t sunk in totally still that things are okay,” Jason says. “It’s hard to accept that things are okay. That’s a little weird, but it’s also keeping me grounded. It’s a reminder of what I went through and everything.”
Almost $400,000 in earnings in a one-month span – even after paying backers – still left Young in a position he hasn’t been in years. He paid some bills, took care of some of the debt and then celebrated by buying himself a new pair of sandals from his local Walmart. He took Kaeley to New York to see his family and then to Orlando to hang with Mickey Mouse for a day. After that, they went grocery shopping and that was a new, almost unsettling experience.
“Being able to put anything we wanted into the cart felt wrong,” Jason says. “It was like, ‘Wow, we don’t have to see if we have enough money for this?’ It was quite the thing.”
Those days where he wasn’t allowed to see Kaeley was an extremely difficult time for Jason. Sleepless nights were common and it was by far the roughest patch of his life.
“There was a lot of time over that time that it was really dark,” Jason says. “Really dark, like don’t know if you can go on dark. It’s still a taboo thing to talk about or whatever, but I don’t know. I was in a dark place. It was really rough. Everything I did, and everything I thought, and every bad thought, and every negative thought I just kept thinking about her to get me through everything. Just praying that everything was gonna be okay one day.”
Jason says he relied on friends and family for emotional support and spent countless hours talking through things on the phone. He admits that during the darkest hours he contemplated suicide.
“It seems like there’s no way out,” Jason says. “A lot of people think about it. It doesn’t mean you’re ever getting close to it. It doesn’t mean you’re ever gonna actually do something. As I said, it’s odd that it’s not talked about more, because I feel like it really is something that needs to be talked about. There are too many people there killing themselves. They’re OD’ing and stuff like that. It’s because there’s a lot of people that are hurting really badly. I don’t know. It’s just not easy.”
That darkness is behind him now. Jason understands that everything he’s been through from the moment he found out he was going to be a father has shaped him into the dad that he is today. That’s the silver lining that he takes from all of this.
“I can see daylight again,” Jason says. “Life is all right. I have my daughter. I have my family. I have my health. I have a few bucks. Things are good. It’s great. I’m trying to raise a child. That’s what I’m trying to do, and I’m happy.”