Wade Townsend folds baseball dream but another World Series door opens

When his playing days were over, former Rice pitcher Wade Townsend traded in his glove for poker chips. (Courtesy Rice University)

The day the Toronto Blue Jays cut Wade Townsend may well have been the most cathartic day of his life.

“The moment you realize that what you thought you were going to do is not what you are going to do is a very liberating feeling,” he said. “There are two things I wish I would have done in baseball — had a chance to pitch my absolute best to see how I stacked up and I wish I would have made more money. Making the bigs was never a big thing for me, I just wanted to go out pitch my best and win things for people.”

Now Townsend, a former first-round draft pick who pitched for Rice University, has made the “bigs” in a different arena — playing professional poker.

What do poker and pitching have in common? Not a lot and plenty, all at the same time. While pitching plays on Townsend’s physical gifts – he is a fit 6-4 and had a curveball that he called “one of the best in the country” — it wasn’t the physical aspect of baseball that drew Townsend’s interest. It was the mental game.

“It’s the strategy that has lots in common,” Townsend, 32, said. “You can be a pitcher and have no strategy and be a very effective pitcher. You just throw what the catcher says. To be really good, you have to stay one step ahead. It’s the same in poker.

“It’s hard to play against me. People look at me and think that I am a meathead, but the eyes give you away. Once they figure out I’m better than I look, it’s too late.  … Just like in baseball, it’s a mind game.”

Townsend’s friend and protégé, Pesh de Silva, a 27-year-old University of Houston graduate, describes Townsend at the poker table: “He’s hilarious. He’s probably the biggest (physically) poker pro. He wears a bandana everywhere he goes and sometimes a cowboy hat. When you look at the guy, he looks like an amateur. You figure he probably played sports … and he’s got a pretty threatening table presence.”

That presence has allowed Townsend to parlay his $1.5 million signing bonus from Tampa Bay into a successful poker career. He’s been playing full-time almost since that fateful day in 2010, and he’s trotted the globe along the way.

Among Townsend’s life goals is seeing the world. Thus far, he’s played poker in 24 countries, including Austria, Australia, the Bahamas, Canada, Czech Republic,  Germany, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, Slovenia and Wales.

In fact, it was poker that took Townsend to Mexico in 2011, where he lived on and off for several years in Cabo San Lucas and Tijuana after online poker suffered its version of “Black Friday,” and was essentially banned in the U.S.

Townsend’s response?

“Let’s move to Mexico,’” he said.

So Townsend packed himself and a small group of friends, including de Silva, and decamped to Cabo, where they rented a house complete with a hot tub, housekeeper and access to the beach. They outfitted the house with internet and computer monitors and began to live the dream.

A funny thing happened, though. Townsend and his pals realized that one, they needed to be involved in their community; and two, Townsend wanted and needed to mentor up-and-coming poker players and create his own professional community of like-minded people.

“When we go someplace, we don’t hide away,” Townsend said. “We just jump right into the community and people around the world are really welcoming when you do that.

“We’re kind of this ‘global force for good’ around the world. If people are negative, they have to go. We don’t like takers who have negative energy. It’s not about the money, it’s all about having a positive experience.”

While living in Mexico, Townsend did change a couple of lives. In Cabo, he and his buddies adopted a street dog, Razz, whom Townsend described as “emaciated,” and nursed her back to health before bringing her back to Texas to live with Townsend’s friend, Ty. A couple of years later, during a nine-month stint in Tijuana, Townsend took in three dogs that he planned to take to a no-kill shelter, but one of them was growling at the shelter, so Townsend took her home. Margarita, a black “street mutt” with white paws, is now Townsend’s companion.

Townsend’s travels generally take him where the poker is, and earlier this year, in preparation for the World Series of Poker events currently being held in Las Vegas, he and his posse rented a house in Costa Rica for nearly three weeks to prep. Townsend arrived in Las Vegas in late May and will stay through the WSOP’s main event — the no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em Championship starting July 5.

De Silva says the group timed their visit to participate in the spring championships for online poker, during which the group played online for a minimum of eight hours a day for almost three weeks.

“It’s kind of a marathon,” de Silva said. “You pick a tournament and start playing around 10 a.m., but you might start 10 to 12 tournaments a day, playing two monitors at a time. You eat lunch at the computer. At around 4 p.m., you stop registering for tournaments and play out. When you’re done, if someone else is deep in a tournament, you go watch. It was a really good learning experience.”

It was a good experience in other ways, too. The Costa Rica house also came with a pool and chef, and the traveling group outfitted it with technology and a coconut subscription, so fresh coconuts would be delivered daily.

That coconuts are important to Townsend is not any sort of surprise to those who know him. The former pitcher and his gang are anything but stereotypical poker players — Townsend went vegan eight months ago, swears by yoga and has an infectiously sunny personality.

“The most important thing at tournaments is to eat healthy and stay with friends,” de Silva said.

For Townsend, a typical day starts with yoga as well as time working out. He gets fidgety at the table if he hasn’t worked off any excess energy. He spends a lot of time at Whole Foods market, and raves about the health benefits of quinoa and avocados.

When he’s not playing poker, he watches documentaries and reads, though not in the way you might think.

“I could read quotes all day long,” Townsend said. “When I find people I relate to, I’ll read how they think and how they describe something.”

Personal favorites are Einstein, Thomas Payne and Ayn Rand.

When his playing days were over, former Rice pitcher Wade Townsend traded in his glove for poker chips. (Courtesy Rice University)
When his playing days were over, former Rice pitcher Wade Townsend traded in his glove for poker chips. (Courtesy Rice University)

Which, paradoxically, brings Townsend back to how pitching and poker really are the same. At the heart of all of Townsend’s interests is this: He is a student of people.

On the pitcher’s mound, he would study his opponent and find a weakness. He would play head games by throwing heat, heat and more heat before getting a batter with a curve. At the poker table, you’d be wise to watch his eyes, because even though Townsend wants you to think he’s a bubba, he’s anything but.

“He has always been focused on what he wants,” his mother Grace said. “He was always the type that researches everything, so I’m not surprised by his success.”

There are things Townsend misses about baseball, particularly the crowds. He describes himself as an “energy person” and poker lacks the kind of fans that follow college and even minor-league baseball. The rush in poker is more “zen-like,” coming from within.

That said, Townsend isn’t so sure he would have been happy as a pro baseball player. And if he weren’t playing poker, well, he’s not really sure what he’d do.

“He likes to be his own boss,” said Grace.

But baseball is the route Townsend took to college and beyond – and the game was generally good to him. At Rice, Townsend was part of the Rice’s vaunted trio of “Three Aces,” an All-American, the Western Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year in 2004, pitched in two College World Series (and won in 2003) and never had an ERA higher than 2.28 (it was as low as 1.80 in 2004).

In 2004, Townsend made history, along with fellow aces Philip Humber and Jeff Niemann, when the trio became the first college players from the same team to be selected in the top eight picks in baseball’s amateur draft. Townsend and the Orioles, however, couldn’t come to terms. Townsend even renounced his college eligibility in the hopes of making a deal with Baltimore, but MLB ruled that by returning to school (to take classes) the Orioles lost the rights to negotiate with him.

He returned to Rice and earned his degree but couldn’t play in the 2005 season. He was nevertheless drafted in 2005 again as the No. 8 overall pick, this time by Tampa Bay.

Townsend’s pro baseball career was derailed by injuries – he had Tommy John surgery in 2005 and tore his labrum in 2008. The Devil Rays released him 2009 and he signed a minor league deal with Toronto in 2010, before leaving baseball for good.

That day may have closed a door on a lifetime of work, but for Townsend, it was the beginning of an adult life that he believes will involve poker, travel and new experiences.

“I think poker will always be a part of me,” he said. “I probably will keep playing at least a little, but something else will take my attention. I’m interested in local politics and helping people and animals, too.”

Jill R. Dorson

Jill R. Dorson is a freelance writer based in San Diego.