Ronnie Bardah gained a lot of notoriety with his deep run in the 2010 World Series of Poker Main Event. A longtime professional poker player and favorite amongst the community, Bardah finished 24th that year for a career-best $317,161 in prize money. Two years later, Bardah won his first WSOP gold bracelet and the $182,088 that came with it. Starting September 25, when Season 39 of the famed reality TV competition Survivor kicks off, Bardah will be welcoming in a whole new world of notoriety as he goes for the $1 million first prize in Survivor: Island Of The Idols.
Bardah was recently announced as one of the show’s 20 castaways, and he’s now the latest poker player to get the chance to compete in one of TV’s most popular competitions. Although he was not allowed to reveal any results of what’s to come on this season of Survivor, Bardah had plenty to say about what life has been like for him through the auditioning process and in lead up to the premiere.
Getting the Call
“When I got that phone call, I was in L.A. and I was just walking having ice cream and it was just like a dream,” Bardah said of the moment he found out he had been cast. “I fell on my knees. There was so much joy. I was so happy. Here we go, is this real life? It was that type thing, you know what I mean? I’m about to play the greatest game ever created, in my opinion, in terms of reality TV. It’s as real as it gets. It’s no joke and I was really happy to go. It was a dream come true.”
After the excitement wears off a little bit, because it likely never fully wore off, reality started to sink in. Even though this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there are some concerns that come with it. After all, Survivor contestants have to go away for a lengthy period of time without the ability to contact friends and family back home.
One of the reasons that Bardah is so popular in the poker community is because of his caring, loving personality. Naturally, Bardah had a little worry about being away from his family for so long. Specifically his dad, who he moved out to Las Vegas in recent years so he could take care of him and spend more time with him.
“I just worried about my dad,” Bardah said. “You know what I mean? I had to tell people that was going away for a yoga retreat, a silent retreat, and that I wasn’t going to be on my phone. I had a couple of friends in Vegas, my friends Mike Ziemba and Garry Gates, check on my dad. That was only my concern.”
It may not have been his only concern, though. Bardah talked about how his constant willingness to help others can sometimes take a big toll on his own wellbeing. With Survivor and having been selected to compete on the show, it was time to put himself first.
“I do things for everyone else and I’m a very, very selfless person. It actually takes a toll on me, because I look for everybody’s happiness before mine. It’s really left me in a place where I’m unhappy and I don’t know what I’m doing with life, and I’m just worried about my dad and all this. I said to myself, ‘I’m doing this for myself, first of all.’ This is the one thing I finally did for me, playing the game of Survivor.”
Bardah has been a Survivor fan for as long as he can remember, although he’ll be the first to tell you that his interest fell off for some time when he was younger.
“Like a lot of people, I’ve seen the first season with Richard Hatch, back in the day when I was 18 or 19 years old,” Bardah said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this is really, really, really cool.’ And then I have the same story a lot of people have, where that they kind of watched the second season a little and fell off.”
He’s been hooked to the show in more recent seasons and especially became aware of the performances of some of the other poker players to have been contestants. In the past, Jean-Robert Bellande, Garrett Adelstein, and Anna Khait were on Survivor, although not in the same season. Bellande was on Season 15, Survivor: China, Adelstein was on Season 28, Survivor: Cagayan, and Khait was on Season 32, Survivor: Kaôh Rōng. It was Khait’s appearance that was what Bardah says pushed him to want to be more than just a fan of the show.
“When Anna Khait got on the show, that’s what basically put the fire under my ass,” Bardah said. “When she came out as a poker player, and nothing against Anna, but in the poker world, she was in there for a small stint. I said, ‘Look, I really want to be the representation of a true poker player.’ I really, really wanted to be that true representation, and I feel like I am. I know I am – someone who’s been grinding his whole life, who’s been travelling the tours, the circuits, who really, really plays poker, I mean, in the live realm.”
Wanting to be “the representation of a true poker player” can come with a lot of added pressure. It’s pressure that Bardah put on himself, but nonetheless it’s pressure that he felt given how he wanted to approach the journey.
“I want to prove to the world, that’s a poker player.,” Bardah emphasized. “I want to go out there and prove to the world that a poker player can do great. Of course, it is an added pressure. So, first for me, then my family, and then for the poker world. Most of my friends are in the poker world, so I’m going to go out there and kick ass for them and represent a certain world.”
Keeping His Mouth Shut
Now that the cat is out of the bag, Bardah has been able to exhale a bit. Prior to the announcement that he was one of 20 castaways on the new season of Survivor, it was mum’s the word for Bardah. Plenty of rumors had circulated and the heat had turned up during the summer’s WSOP, but Bardah wasn’t able to say anything. Even to his close friends, Bardah had kept the secret to himself.
“Everywhere I go, every corner, and all I can do is look at them and go, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and just keep walking or just smile,” Bardah said of having to walk through Vegas during the height of poker season in the summer. “I can’t deny it, I can’t say anything. It was really, really hard and it sucked. But now, being able to talk about it, it’s amazing. I have a million phone calls and text messages I haven’t answered yet, to be honest, and Facebook posts and Twitter and Instagram and social media platforms, people are going crazy. It was really hard to keep a secret. It really was.”
Preparation and Poker’s Similarities
Having recently turned 37 years old, although he was 36 when he went off to film, Bardah is impressed with how the game has evolved. This evolution added fuel to Bardah’s fire to compete, and ultimately the combination of love for the game’s evolution and desire to be a true representation of a professional poker player are what motivated him to audition.
In regards to the game’s evolution, Bardah discussed how he felt Survivor used to be much more of a social game than it is in its current state.
“In today’s game, it’s a little different,” Bardah said. “There’s a lot of luck involved, but I would say it’s still mostly skill. But, the game spoke to me. Basically, everything that I’ve done so far in my life to get me to where I am today is the reason why I wanted to play Survivor. Everything that I’ve done as a human, in terms of the neighborhood I grew up in, the different people from different walks of life that I’ve hung out with, going from the kid who is working at SpaceX, to the kid who dances in a step-dance hip-hop club, from the nerd all the way to the kid that grew into who I am today.
“I’m sorry if I’m all over the place here, but I’m just really excited about talking about this. When I watch the show, I get goosebumps. I’ve cried watching the show sometimes, as sad as that may sound, because it really, really hits home for me, and it hits hard, deep, when I see what people go throughout there and I see the mistakes they make. I love it.”
Being a professional poker player, mistakes are something Bardah deals with every day on the felt, and it’s these mistakes that can have a direct financial effect of his life. He’s built up a wealth of experience that allows him to capitalize on the mistakes of others while leaning on that same experience to hopefully minimize the mistakes he makes.
Bardah is very much a live poker player, and many would even describe him as a feel player. Although he has dabbled a bit with online poker, it’s in the live arena where has cut his teeth, mostly in the world of limit hold’em. The background of being a live poker player and someone who relies on a lot on the feel of the game are things Bardah believes will only help him through a competition such as Survivor.
“There’s a lot of comparison that goes side by side when it comes to poker and Survivor,” Bardah said. “It’s basically that you’ve got to figure out what people think of you, right? If somebody’s looking at me a certain way, I try to distinguish what that look means. What do they feel about me? How do they think about me? I felt like I had to play the players, obviously. I had to develop relationships with certain people, and you’ve got to trust somebody. You have to trust somebody for a certain amount of time. Can I trust you for this long, and when am I going to be able to flip on you at this time? You just have to think so far ahead. In poker, you can do certain things to advertise how you’re playing, you show a few bluffs and then set your opponent up really well. There are so many similarities. It’s just all game flow.”
Another aspect in which poker and Survivor are similar, according to Bardah, comes with the prize money. Like many poker tournaments around the world, the payouts are top-heavy. In Survivor, it’s $1 million to first place and then an extreme drop-off to the other prizes. Having experience in events where all of the money is up top, or up top in the top three places, is another advantage Bardah hopes to draw on from poker.
“Realistically, which a lot of Survivor players don’t know, is when you get down to five or six, you just have to go guns blazing,” Bardah said. “So, it’s not a bad idea to play that under-the-radar game and don’t ruffle any feathers. Try to get into a tight-knit alliance, and then when you get five-, six-handed, go for the gusto. You go back to an old season, you see these people get six-handed, six players left, and they let their emotions and their relationships get in the way. That’s what effs them. That’s what messes them up at the end of the day, because it’s real out there.”
Understanding the similarities to poker and having those to lean on, Bardah made an effort to prepare in areas he felt would help him once he got to the Mamanuca Islands in Fiji. He spent a lot of time working with flint and practising how to make a fire and also worked on his skills with a machete. He took a survival camp in Florida where he learned how to make shelter, different types of ways to start a fire, and best practices for sleeping outside. He went fishing and made spears and fishing poles from scare supplies. He even participating in an eight-day water-only fast to better prepare himself for life without food for extended periods of time.
Bardah also did a bit of studying, watching almost every season of Survivor that he could in the five or six weeks of lead-up time he had. He took notes, made observations of different strategies, and even toyed with the idea of taking an acting class in California before he ultimately decided that it would be better to do the eight-day water fast instead.
“You only have so much time,” Bardah said.
Looking ahead to the premiere on September 25, Bardah said he plans on a small gathering with friends and then he’ll likely do some bigger parties for future episodes. Although we’re not sure how many episodes Bardah will last, we can be sure that the poker world will be pulling for Bardah to win his first seven-figure career score.