Poker player and former pool shark Melissa Burr had an amazing 2014 at WSOP and beyond, but behind the scenes, the successful player has grappled with everything from losing loved ones to moving to another country.
CardsChat News Editor-in-Chief Hannah Elisabeth recently caught up with Burr to find out where her poker career is headed now, how she has handled both triumphs and challenges, and to see what advice she can offer other poker players on how to manage both with aplomb.
CC: We understand you’re living in Rosarito, Mexico, right over the US border, and have been playing online there since the start of the year.
How’s that going, and how are you adjusting to life south of the border? Is this going to be home now?
MB: I LOVE living in Rosarito. It’s beautiful, and the weather is perfect. It has been a huge adjustment transitioning to online, but I have learned a lot, both about myself and also about poker.
I travel between Mexico, San Diego and New Jersey. I miss my family and friends more than I could ever imagine, but thankfully, I have the ability to go home to New Jersey frequently.
CC: What made you decide to move there? Is the US poker scene dwindling? Have you played in any of the new legal US Internet games and what are your thoughts on that?
MB: It was a personal decision to move to Mexico. To be honest, my personal and professional life needed a change, and moving here was the perfect solution.
Before I moved, I played on some of the New Jersey sites. Despite their obvious shortcomings, I see a big future for online poker in the US.
If these companies would accept some of their faults and take the necessary actions to improve their product, they have an enormous opportunity to prosper. In fact, everyone involved stands to gain a great deal if they can succeed.
CC: Last summer at the WSOP, you had an amazing number of final table finishes, making that level at the $10K Limit Omaha Hi/Lo, the $1,500 Seven Card Stud Hi/Lo, the $1,500 Dealer’s Choice Six-Handed, and then capping it off with a final table finish at the $50K Poker Players Championship for a $165,435 win.
Then you went on to take 13th in the $3K Omaha Hi/Lo, making it a simply remarkable series for you.
Through all of that glory, your beloved grandmother passed away, and we know you struggled with completing events while flying back to New Jersey for her funeral.
What did you take away from all those highs and lows, and the struggle to balance your personal and professional life? What advice on that would you give other poker players?
MB: Well, let me start out and elaborate on the experience itself from the beginning.
I arrived in Las Vegas ready to conquer the world, just like every other player who goes to the WSOP. I was primed and ready to win.
My first event was the 10k Omaha8 event. I go on to make the final two tables, the morning of Day 3, I received a text from my brother that simply said, “call me.” My heart dropped, because I knew something terrible had happened.
I called immediately, and he told me that my grandmother had passed away. She was my biggest supporter. She was the one person in my life that always believed in my decisions and encouraged me to chase my dreams, regardless of how ridiculous the rest of the world thought they were. It was soul crushing.
I was so sad at first, and then that turned to anger fast. I couldn’t believe that the universe could do this to me, (at the time) on one of the biggest days of my life. I didn’t have much time to process everything that was happening, but luckily I am surrounded by great friends.
[Fellow poker pro] Jennifer Shahade caught me right before I went on to play. She said something that will resonate with me for the rest of my life.
She said “Don’t feel guilty about wanting to win, she would want that for you.” At that point, I decided I was going to do everything in my emotional power to try and win. I was short-stacked for the majority of that tournament, but somehow managed to final table.
I realized that my grandmother never got to see me play pool or poker, but now she could. I realized that she was with me the entire time. She never disappointed me my entire life, and would never abandon me, and she didn’t.
She was with me for that entire series, and I know I made her proud. Now, I know she was with me for every final table that summer, and she will get to see every final table I ever make in the future.
That dramatic event was the start of a series that for as long as I live, I could never forget.
My advice to other players would be: until you are truly challenged, you will never know what you are capable of. If you work hard, and learn from every experience positive and negative, you will succeed. Success should not be measured by money, if it is, you will always be unsatisfied.
CC: Let’s step back in time for a moment. You and your brother were adopted. Are you genetically brother and sister? Do you know anything about your birth parents, or want to? How old were you when you were adopted and where were you raised?
MB: I was adopted when I was 13 months old. Later, when I was 2, my parents adopted my brother.
We are not biologically related, but we are as close as any two people could be. I couldn’t imagine my life without him.
I do not know my birth parents, nor do I have any interest in finding out any information regarding a life I didn’t have.
I was raised in New Jersey by Ken and Cheryl Burr. They changed my life in ways that I could never repay them for . They are the most amazing people I have ever met. They afforded me every possible opportunity in life, and without them, I would not be the person I am today.
CC: How on earth did the daughter of a teacher (your mom), with no professional gambling in your nuclear family, move into pool and poker? We know your parents are now supportive, but were they in the beginning? What would you have done if you’d have taken a more “normal” route?
MB: I did attend Catholic school until 4th grade. My mother has worked in education for her entire adult life. My father is the hardest working man on the face of the planet. They couldn’t be MORE normal if they tried. I came from the ultimate nuclear family.
Early in my life, I discovered that I was allergic to alcohol. THIS is the sole reason I found pool and then poker. When all of my friends went out in college to go drinking and partying, I was playing pool. Throughout my life, I have always been competitive in everything I have done.
Once I found pool, I was hooked. I practiced eight to twelve hours a day, trying to be the best.
One day, I decided to play poker. They were playing $0.50/$1.00 limit holdem in the back of the pool hall. The buy-in was $20. That’s all it took, I then fell in love with poker.
After I graduated college, I worked in a “normal” job. By the time I was 24, I was the head of recruiting for a major franchise company.
I was, by every standard, successful and normal. When the economy tanked, so did my position. I was laid off and decided to simply play poker while I searched for another position.
I was 24-tabling Limit Holdem on Pokerstars, and traveling to the Taj Mahal [in Atlantic City] to play 20/40 Limit Holdem.
Right before Black Friday hit, I was in the middle of deciding whether I wanted to be a live or online pro. I chose the former, and what a good decision that was. I dodged a huge bullet, and went on to accomplish great things as a live professional.
CC: Do you think the skills required to not only beat pool, but also learning to handle your detractors, helped you to excel at poker as well?
MB: I believe that every experience in your life molds the person you are today.
Without my experience in pool, I would have never had the mental toughness or focus to excel in poker. Pool also gave me a sense of accountability that is necessary in any competitive arena.
It is quite easy to blame a river card for your failure, but in pool, if you miss a shot, you have no one but yourself to blame. I think that some people are lacking that personal accountability. I know personally for me, that without it, I would not have the level of introspection that is required to consistently learn and evolve.
If you think you play perfectly, how could you possibly get better? If you are never trying to get better, how could you be great? I think that the most successful people in poker are successful because they are constantly trying to learn and adjust to a game that is forever evolving.
CC: We know that you and fellow poker pro Jennifer Shahade are very close friends. Who else that we would know in the poker universe do you hang out with, and what’s it like with that crowd when you are away from the felt? Do you often talk strategy, or not so much?
MB: I love Jennifer Shahade. She is one of my favorite people in poker. I am also close with Mariealena D’agostino, Julie Cornelius, Jamie Kerstetter, Esther Brady, and Kim Shannon.
My friends and I hardly talk strategy, and if we do, it is an intelligent and respectful exchange of criticisms and opinions. I know that Jen and I talked at great lengths about Open Face Chinese Poker when it came out, and that game is what brought us together.
My boyfriend Steve Schult also plays poker. He primarily plays NL, and I know that I talk to him every chance I get about NL, since it’s my weakest game.
The benefit of having friends in poker is that you can lean on them for support, whether it be emotional or educational. I know that I am one of the luckiest people in the world, because I am surrounded by incredible people.
CC: Will you be returning to WSOP and what events do you plan to play? Will you be sitting down in any cash games, which have always been your forte? We know you said last year that the tournament cashes aren’t quite as lavish as they might appear, because you had a number of backers getting a piece of the pie. Will you be doing that again this year?
MB: It looks like I will be returning to the WSOP this year. I will most likely play mostly mixed events.
Last year, I barely had any time for cash games, since fortunately all my time was spent in tournaments. I can only hope that this is the case again this year.
I had many people buy a piece of me in the 50k, I do not see that happening again this year, as it has been changed to a 10-game structure, and I am simply too outmatched in three of those 10 games.
I don’t believe that my edge in the other seven is enough to justify playing a 50k event with the best players in the world.
I had an incredible summer, even despite selling pieces. The great thing about last summer was I had the opportunity to win my friends [some] money. It made the entire experience better.
The support that I was given and the love that I was shown, was in and of itself worth more than any amount of money. I will never forget how great my family and friends were during the most exciting time of my life.
CC: Let’s get personal. We know you are in a relationship; are personal relationships with significant others hard to sustain in the poker industry in general? Do you see marriage and kids in your future, or not so much?
MB: I am in a gloriously happy relationship with Steve Schult. He is actually the reason I moved to Mexico. He had plans to move when we had met, and as things progressed, I decided to move with him. It was scary, impromptu, and impulsive, and not at all like me, but it was one of the best decisions I have made in this life.
Personal relationships in this industry are difficult. It’s a small world, so your business becomes public knowledge very quickly, whether you like it or not. After my last relationship, I would have never thought I would date anyone else from this industry, but you can’t control fate.
Eesh, marriage and kids…that’s a tough one. Right now, I am enjoying my life and freedom to do whatever I want. From what I understand (from other testimonials) you can’t do all that once you have kids.
I don’t know that I am ready to give all this up yet, but I suppose for the right person, I could be convinced (wink wink). That’s all I can really say about that, hehe.
CC: If you do start a family, being that you were adopted, would you explore that as an option? What do you think your parents did the most right or wrong in raising you in that situation? What advice would you give others?
MB: I would explore that option. I would love to give a child the same opportunity that I was given. I think what my parents did was one of the most selfless acts you can do in this world.
They are outstanding people who sacrificed everything to give me the life I have and if I could do that for a child, I would certainly consider it. I cannot name a single fault of my parents. I believe with my whole heart that they did the very best for me.
CC: What’s next for you? Do you see poker as a lifetime career, or do you plan to move in another direction down the line?
MB: I will probably always be tied to poker in one way or another. For now, I am living the dream. I wake up when I want, work when I want, and go wherever I please. I am in no rush to change that.
Editor’s Note: Melissa Burr’s interview is part of our ongoing “Great Women in Poker” series. Our previously scheduled interview with Pam Brunson has been postponed while she deals with pressing family matters, but we hope to catch up with her again this summer.
Check back here regularly for more compelling interviews with fascinating poker players of both sexes.