Bob, Charlie and a Life-Changing WSOP Main Event Journey

Lance Bradley

Monday at the 2016 WSOP Main Event, 27 players will play down to just nine – the November Nine. And while those players are living out the fantasy of nearly every poker player alive, one man is leaving Las Vegas and the WSOP with a lifelong dream fulfilled and a truly enriched life because of it.

Life-changing money. Life-changing fame. That’s why most of the 6,737 players made their way from their hometowns to Las Vegas this past week and put down $10,000 to play in the 2016 World Series of Poker Main Event.

Bob Brundige’s journey from rural Maryland to the WSOP began with five words that no person can ever fully understand the magnitude of when they hear them for the first time.

Get your affairs in order.

Bob, a 55-year-old father of three, is dying of cancer. He could be gone in eight weeks. He could live up to another year. Anything beyond that is unlikely.

So this year, after years of talking about doing it and finding ways for life to get in the way each year, he made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas to play the Main Event. It had nothing to do with money and nothing to do with fame.

“You come to a time where you just get real honest with yourself and you say, ‘You know there are a lot of things on my wish list, bucket list. I need to clean this list up because reality starts to set in. These things are probably not going to happen,’ ” Bob says. “So you kind of strike through a few things and this is one of those things.”

* * *

It was just over two years ago that Bob began his fight with cancer. He didn’t know it was cancer at first. He just knew he didn’t feel quite right and had a real lack of energy. He was struggling to get through each day without feeling worn down.

“February 14, 2014, Valentine’s Day, I came home from a business trip, was exhausted, and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I stayed in bed all weekend,” Bob recalls. “Monday morning, my wife called the doctor and said ‘something’s wrong’ and they said, ‘Get him over to the hospital’. We went to the ER. They ran some tests.”

Bob was told he had a respiratory issue and was put on antibiotics. A week later he didn’t feel any better and went back to his doctor for more tests. His doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They ran more tests and after two months of the ordeal, they finally had a diagnosis.

Multiple myeloma. It’s a form of cancer that forms in the bone marrow and makes the production of blood cells difficult. That wasn’t the worst of it though. The myeloma had advanced to a more stubborn, deadly form of cancer, Myelofibrosis.

“It literally turns your blood cells into strands so it can’t flow to your body,” Bob says. “I had a doctor in a little small town in Maryland. Based on the tests, at first, she said, ‘I don’t think this is anything to be too concerned about, but I think we’re heading in a bad place, but let’s do a bone marrow biopsy just to make sure.’”

“I came back a week later for the results and we all sat in the room and teared up together when she told me ‘this is bad, this is real bad’,” Bob says.

That was June 2014, and while the news was tough to hear, he was told there was a chance it was beatable. If the myelofibrosis was stand-alone cancer, that would have been worst-case scenario, but if it was the final phase of multiple myeloma, then there were definitely some options in terms of treatment. His doctor called a world-renowned multiple myeloma specialist in Baltimore, just 50 miles away, who agreed to see Bob, but there was a problem.

“They said it was going to be about six weeks before they could get me in,” Bob says. “This oncologist that I was meeting with said, ‘you understand in six weeks, this guy won’t be here?’”

Three days later Bob was standing in front of that specialist, listening to him explain what had to happen next for him to have any shot at beating this cancer. Sixteen rounds of aggressive chemotherapy just to stop the cancer from growing followed by two rounds of Super Chemo.

“The lead nurse told me, ‘we’re going to take you right to the brink of death, right to the edge of the cliff and then we’re going to pull you back’. And that’s what they did,” Bob says.

He responded well to all of that and next found himself receiving a stem cell transplant and in early 2015 was given great news. He was in partial remission. The cancer had finally stopped growing and was now dormant. The chemo treatments had to continue, but it was just a pill he had to take every day.

Bob was clearly happy with the progress and so was his doctor, but it came with a warning.

“The doctor said we can get two, three, maybe four years of this before we had to really start getting aggressive and fighting it again,” Bob says. “He said, ‘this kind of cancer comes back a hundred percent of the time so there’s no cure but we can fight it.’ ” And he promised Bob he’d be with him the whole way.

Four months ago Bob and his wife Diane made a trip into Baltimore for a routine clinic visit where they were told that the cancer was starting to show signs of life again. The oral chemotherapy treatment was also having a negative impact on other parts of his body and they’d need to discontinue that, but she also gave him a warning that things could escalate quickly.

“I said, ‘Where do we go from here?’ She said, ‘First thing you need to do is get your affairs in order, and I mean right now.’ “

* * *

Bob’s interest in poker and in particular with the Main Event has familiar roots.

“I’ll tell you. I was fascinated by this event for as far back as I can remember, Doyle Brunson and those guys, and who wouldn’t be?” Bob says. “What really got my attention, like thousands would say, was Chris Moneymaker.”

Moneymaker’s Main Event win in 2003 is one of the most historic moments in poker history, but it wasn’t Moneymaker’s play at the table, his Oakley sunglasses or gutsy bluff against Sammy Farha that turned Bob into a fan. It was Mike Moneymaker, Chris’ father, a staple of the ESPN coverage that year.

“I couldn’t relate to (Chris) so much. I could relate to his dad because I have kids, and so watching Chris and his dad talk, I could relate to what he was saying. Imagine that was my son sitting out there at the table,” Bob says. Bob has two sons, Josh and Bob Jr., and a daughter, Courtney, at home and like many who watched the coverage that year, he was hooked.

“I told my wife at that time. I said, ‘Someday. I’m going to add that to my bucket list,’ ” Bob says. “Month after month and year after year and things go by and things change. Every year, my wife would say something like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go play that poker thing.’ ”

Bob kept blowing it off. It’s not like he was a guy with a wealth of tournament poker experience. Once in a while he played in a small stakes home game with buddies. He’d only ever played two tournaments and didn’t cash in either of them. He watched the WSOP Main Event every year, making sure the DVR was set up to record every single episode of the ESPN broadcasts.

So when that doctor told him the end might be near, Bob got busy writing out his bucket list. He filled it with some of the obvious things any person in his situation would. He wanted to spend more time with his children and the newest additions to the family, two young grandchildren. He has eight siblings and he wanted to see them all again. He wanted to take his wife on vacation to Europe. He wanted to buy a muscle car.

And he wanted to play the Main Event.

Bob has spent more time with his family over the last few months, His doctor researched the challenges that a European trip might present for him and found oncologists at each leg of the trip that could help if he has health issues. So that’s a go for September. He found a great deal on a 1967 Pontiac GTO – his dream car – and bought that.

But the story of how Bob came to be in the Main Event is about more than a guy crossing another thing off his bucket list. It’s a story of friendship and deep, life-changing conversations at a dining room table in an off-strip Las Vegas hotel.

“I have a really great friend. His name is Charlie Weis. He’s been with me through this whole journey. He was at the hospital. He’s been to my house a thousand times for nothing more than to say, ‘is there anything you need? Is there anything I can do for you?’ “ Bob says.

Weis owns a scaffolding supply company in Lanham, Maryland and Bob is his General Manager. The two talked a lot about his list and Bob told him he was just going to take the Main Event off of it. He wasn’t sure it was a good idea anymore.

“(Charlie) said, ‘Why would you do that?’ I said, ’Charlie, this is not going to happen. First of all, health-wise, this is not going to happen. Second of all, I would never spend the money to do that because when I’m gone, my wife is going to need every dime’,” Bob says.

That’s when Charlie took control.

“He said, ‘Do me a favor. Talk to your doctor and see if you would be allowed to go,’ ” Bob says He’d been told by his doctors to avoid situations where his immune system could be compromised. A poker table, with eight other players, a dealer and tournament chips that have passed through the hands of hundreds, if not thousands of players, isn’t exactly the most hygienic place on the planet, so Bob asked his doctor about it, expecting to be told no.

“I talked to my doctor in Baltimore six weeks ago and I told him that I’d always had a desire to do this. He said, ‘You know there is a point in your life where you have to say ‘if not now, when?’ ” Bob says. “He said, ‘If you have the opportunity to do it this year, you better do it because it’s probably your last chance.’ “

Bob passed his doctor’s take on the situation on to Charlie, and Charlie was off and running. He booked airplane tickets. He called the Rio and made reservations for the best room available. He even handled the buy-in.

“He sent me a text, ‘July 10, Vegas Baby. We’ll go’. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ “ Bob says. “He paid my entry fee, paid my airfare. He has me in a penthouse in this hotel. Every meal, everything, he has not let me spend a dime. I keep saying, ‘Charlie, you can’t do that.’ People don’t do that.”

[figcaption=]Charlie and Bob at the 2016 WSOP Main Event[/figcaption]
Charlie, who has known Bob for nine years, doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m blessed. I’m really blessed. I’m blessed with my family and I’m blessed financially. How could I not do it?” asks Charlie. So on July 11, Day 1C, Bob and Charlie sat down to the play the Main Event. It didn’t go too well for Charlie.

“It lasted a whole three hours. $3,333 dollars an hour – if I round up two hours and 45 minutes to three hours,” laughs Charlie. Bob however, was a completely different story. He finished his starting flight with 190,300 – the 21st best stack out the 3,252 players who survived Day 1C.

“I was the chip leader on Day 1 with 204,000 for a while. I dropped back in to 190,000 but still finished the day very strong, which was mindboggling. Because I’m telling you, I’m not a poker player. I’m not like these guys,” Bob says.

[figcaption=]Bob found himself as chip leader on Day 1C[/figcaption]

There was a day off between Day 1C and 2C and Bob needed every minute of it to just recover. Sitting and concentrating for 10 hours of play was more than he was used to. At home Bob is usually in bed by 9 PM and suddenly he found himself needing to be awake, alert and active as late as 2 AM. He spent most of the off day in the hotel room, relaxing, watching TV, falling in and out of sleep because Charlie insisted.

“Charlie said, ‘Look, don’t do anything. Don’t go anywhere.’ He had room service brought to the room and was like, ‘You just stay here and chill out,’ ” Bob says. “He said, ‘Do you want me to stay here and we’ll just chat all day? That’s fine. If not, I’ll get out of here and you just relax all day, recuperate because tomorrow is going to be a grind.’ That was great advice so I did that.”

Bob woke up for Day 2C, ate the breakfast Charlie had ordered and headed down to the Amazon Room. He played another five levels and was one of just 2,156 players putting chips in bags at the end of the night and was headed to Day 3. But his body was showing signs of wear and tear.

“I get bad pretty bad bone pain. The bones really hurt. (Charlie) goes to the store and finds this seat and back cushion, lumbar support thing and brings it to the room and says, ‘Here, this is for you for tomorrow,’ ” Bob says. “I said, ‘Charlie, would you stop?’ He said, ‘Don’t steal my joy. Let a friend take care of you. You spend your whole life taking care of everybody else. For once, let me take care of you.’ “

Bob took the cushions down to the Amazon room and found his table. He was seated at tough table with Chad Power and Chris Hunichen. With just 1,045 players between Bob and his first career cash, he patiently played the cards dealt to him. Eventually, over the course of the day he began to share his story with the other players at the table.

“Bob was at first glance, just a regular recreational player, a friendly one though,” Chad says. “Then he started talking about his situation with bone cancer. It made me tear up. I had to fight back tears because he was a really nice guy.”

When one of your tablemates tells you he’s dying, it changes the table dynamic in a hurry. Chad felt the mood shift after Bob opened up.

“I was really sad, I definitely wasn’t the only one. A few of my friends were at the table,” says Chad. “You just realize how small poker is. What we’re doing is not a big deal. He mentioned that he had kids, and that makes it more sad.”

The mood at the table was actually lightened by a hand between Chad and Bob before the bubble burst that could have meant an end to Bob’s Main Event run.

“Chris raised and I three-bet him, and we had been going to war, this is a little bit before the money, and Bob just shoved all in and it folded back to me and I’m close to pot-committed,” Chad recalls.

“I pushed and (Chad) says, ‘Bob, I don’t want to put you out of this tournament. I really want you to cash. I’ve got a hand and I owe it to the game to play it like I should.’ I said, ‘You owe it to yourself, you owe it to me to play it like you should,’ ” Bob says. “Don’t back off because you feel sorry for me. Don’t push it. I’m not here for sympathy. I’m here to play this game. Let’s play. He called. He had pocket tens. I had pocket aces. They held up. I had 270,000 and that got me through to the money.”

Chad might have been emotionally affected by his story, but Bob’s demeanor at the table was hard to ignore, especially once his predicament became known.

“Bob was probably having the most fun out of anyone at the table. He was great,” Chad says.

Not only did Bob make it past the bubble, he made it through to Day 4. While the first three days ended with Bob bagging up chips, the fourth day ended abruptly with Bob shaking other players hands before making a trip to the cashier window. Bob thinks he might have made a mistake that an experienced player could have avoided.

“I was chipping up a little bit and then got into a hand and I played it wrong,” Bob says. “I should have either pushed at that moment or folded because I didn’t think through what happens if he catches whatever is in his hand, and even if he doesn’t, he’s going to try to push me off the hand. I’ve got to be prepared for that. What would I do? That’s where experience comes in.”

Bob finished 674th and earned $17,232 in his first WSOP Main Event and in the process crossed off one of the last things on his bucket list. Looking back on the experience of it all though, the money and the game didn’t mean as much to him as it would to some young hotshot 20-something. It was something far less tangible.

“The people. Getting to know – well, I can’t say getting to know because many of these people, I’ll never meet them again – but hearing their story, hearing where people are from, what got them here,” Bob says. “Some of these young guys that are half my age, young enough to be my kids, that are chasing their dreams now, that I put off for so many years, in a lot of ways, I think they get it.”

Still, the single serving relationships he had with poker players during the tournament aren’t what Bob cherishes most from this trip. It’s conversations with Charlie that enriched his experience.

“The very best parts of this trip is the few hours early in the morning and the 45 minutes or so at 2:30 in the morning sitting across that dining room table with my friend just being very transparent with each other and talking about life or marriage or kids, what’s next,” Bob says. “He’s asked a lot of questions: ‘Are you afraid? Are you at peace? How can you be so calm? What do you believe? What do you think is going to happen when you go?’ We had that kind of a conversation.”

The two rarely talked about poker.

“He might go over a hand or two, but it’s not … it’s about life, family, how you treat people. We sit across from each other at the table and talk,” Charlie says. “The time off the table, although made better because he was winning, it’s exciting, in a room with a dining room table. We just sat across the table, we’ve probably spoken three or four hours a day on everything from discussing the cancer, to discussing the ever-after, to discussing some things that I can’t even talk about.”

Bob is rarely pain-free, and sitting at the poker table for ten or more hours every day took a toll on his body. But every night when he returned to the room, Charlie was there waiting.

“I get back in the room about 2:00. Every night, as the tournament ends, Charlie calls room service, orders shrimp and crab and lobster medallions and cheese tray and bread and coffee,” Bob says. “I’m like, ‘God bless you, but I am so tired.’ He’s like, ‘No. You haven’t eaten.’ He knows this is part of the doctor and my wife and saying ‘He’s got to eat. He’s got to keep his energy level up. Even if he doesn’t want to, you got to make him.’ ”

The routine repeated itself each morning as Charlie had room service bring breakfast up and the two talked.

[figcaption=]Bob was all smiles on Day 1C of the WSOP Main Event[/figcaption]
“Charlie and I sat across the table from each other and just talked, which has been priceless. To be able to sit there with that kind of friend and just talk. He has a wife and three kids too, so he and I have had a lot of dialogue about my circumstances and questions like, ‘Are you afraid? What do you want to see happen with your wife and your kids? What can I do to help when you’re gone?’ He asked those kinds of questions. Because there’s nobody around, we could just get really honest with each other.”

That type of candor, coupled with Bob’s deep run, left Charlie emotionally drained and in many ways, a changed man.

“I know I’m really tired today. It will probably hit me a day, a week (from now). I know that I will be changed by this,” Charlie says. “My kids, my wife, how I look at different things, how I stay in the moment. I think subtly my family will see a difference in me, if I can keep it going.”

“I have to say that’s been the very pinnacle of the trip is that time with my friend just talking,” Bob says.

[figcaption=]Charlie, Bob and Mike hanging out in the penthouse suite[/figcaption]
Bob’s elimination from the Main Event didn’t mean the trip was over though. Charlie made reservations for Bob at a Las Vegas steakhouse Saturday night to have a celebratory dinner and a friend from D.C. was joining them. After that, Charlie insisted that Bob stay another day in Las Vegas to rest before they get back on a flight home. Bob is anxious to get home to Diane.

“We met when we were teenagers. We worked at Long John Silvers together as kids. We were still in high school,” Bob says, choking back tears. “Three unbelievable kids, couple of grandkids. I mean I literally am living my American Dream. It took something like terminal cancer to wake me up and make me say, you know, ‘Why are you constantly chasing after other things? Why not enjoy the ride? Enjoy what’s going on around you.’ ”

Bob and Diane run a farm they bought a few years ago. It had always been something they wanted to do when they retired. A year or so before he was diagnosed with cancer, in a moment that foreshadowed Bob’s post-diagnosis bucket list approach, he convinced his wife to move the timeline up a little.

“Three or four years ago, I said, ‘You know the kids are grown. What are we waiting for?’ Why do people wait till they retire before they want to do something then they die and they never get to do it?” Bob asks. “She said, ‘What are you saying?’ I said, ‘Let’s find us a farm.’ So we did. We found a little farm up in Carroll County (Maryland) and we closed escrow on it in September of 2013. In December or January of 2014, we made a deal to buy some sheep just to start a herd.“

They’ve had to put further farm plans on hold because of the cancer, but they still tend their sheep and chickens and Diane keeps busy running the farm. It’s another life experience that Bob has come to enjoy.

“With all that’s going on, I realized that had we not done that, my wife probably would never have experienced it,” Bob says. “Not only does she get to experience it, but she and I get to experience it together.”

When Bob gets home and gets some rest, he’s be heading straight back in the cancer clinic for more tests. He’s also scheduled for another bone-strengthening infusion that he hopes will buy him more time and allow him to cherish the what the last week has given him.

“I’ve learned so much about the game, and I’ve learned so much about myself, and I’ve learned so much about people in the last four days,” Bob says. “Now, I hope I get to live long enough to share it because there’s just too much great knowledge here to not share it with somebody. This has been an unbelievable experience.”