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Ex-pitcher poker pro never does what's expected

12 Jun 2015

By David Schoen
Wade Townsend thrives on deception.

Throughout his pitching career, Townsend loved embarrassing a batter with a fastball in the first inning, then feeding him nothing but soft stuff the rest of the game.

“I threw really hard,” he said, “but my curveball was my best pitch.”

These days, Townsend is sporting a blond mohawk atop his sturdy, 6-foot-4-inch frame. And the bandana across his forehead adds an extra layer, giving unfamiliar foes the impression that Townsend might be pretty good with a bo staff, too.

The look is just subterfuge designed to portray Townsend as an ex-jock at the poker table, which he is, and not as the former academic All-American at Rice with a growing interest in the political relationship between Mexico and the U.S, which he is, also.

“I’m trying to give off an air of how you think I’m going to act and then just never do that again,” Townsend said. “Just because I know that you think I’m cocky and I’m going to try to blow you away, that means I’m not actually going to do it.”

Townsend, who was drafted twice in the first round, endured an injury-ravaged professional career and never advanced past Double A. But along the way, Townsend turned to professional poker and discovered he didn’t need baseball to reach the major leagues.

The 32-year-old now travels the world as a highly successful online player and has cashed in one event at this year’s World Series of Poker.

“If I could go and win zero tournaments the rest of my life but just make money the whole time playing poker, I’d be fine with it,” Townsend said. “It’s a means to an end for me. And once you realize it’s a means to an end, the end goal is the lifestyle we’re living.

“It’s being able to move around and enjoying what’s in the best of all these cities that you never really thought about going to. That’s the whole goal. If poker gets you there, if anything else gets you there, it doesn’t matter.”

Townsend, who grew up outside of Austin, Texas, was one-third of a legendary starting rotation at Rice and helped the Owls to the 2003 national championship. As a junior, he was the Western Athletic Conference pitcher of the year and was selected eighth overall by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2004 draft.

However, the Orioles offered Townsend a signing bonus below the recommended slot value by Major League Baseball and he didn’t sign, renouncing his final year of college eligibility in hopes of still being allowed to negotiate with Baltimore. His appeal was denied by MLB, and Townsend sat out the season before the Tampa Bay Devils Rays took him No. 8 overall in 2005.

Townsend underwent Tommy John surgery in October 2005, and with nothing to keep him busy other than rehabilitation on his pitching arm, he began playing online poker. Soon after, Townsend won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas to play in a tournament.

“I had an arm cast and I’m just sitting in a hotel room in Florida at this point just clicking buttons, winning trips,” Townsend said. “It became so exciting, because I’m stuck in a hotel room going to rehab.”

Townsend sat out the 2006 season and the right-hander went 6-10 with a 5.08 ERA for the Single-A Columbus (Ga.) Catfish in 2007. He struggled again in 2008 and underwent surgery for a torn labrum that fall, which caused him to miss most of the 2009 season.

Townsend retired in 2010 with a career record of 7-21 in five seasons.

“You could say disappointing, but it’s not my career that I’m disappointed about,” Townsend said. “I’m disappointed that I never got to see myself at my best versus the best players. I wish that would have happened.”

During his time in the minors, Townsend played mostly heads-up, sit-and-go poker tournaments online. In January 2008, he won a WSOP Circuit Event at the Grand Tunica Casino in Mississippi for more than $77,000, and when his career ended, Townsend transitioned full time into poker.

“There’s nothing in common between poker and pitching, but poker strategy and pitching strategy has a lot in common,” Townsend said. “You can see how setting up game plans and perfecting strategies against certain players, whether it be poker or baseball, it goes, really, hand in hand.”

Playing mostly under the screen name “Ricestud,” Townsend has won more than $2.4 million online, according to his player profile on He is fresh off a successful two-week run in the Spring Championship of Online Poker and was 73rd in the $1,000 Hyper No-limit tournament last month for his first WSOP cash this summer ($2,985).

Townsend is not playing in the $1,500 buy-inMonster Stack” tournament that begins today at the Rio Convention Center and is expected to attract another large field.

Townsend spent most of the past four years living in Mexico after “Black Friday” shut down online poker in the U.S. and is considering relocating to Las Vegas after the WSOP is finished. Once the action at the poker tables dries up, Townsend said he could pursue a career in politics in his native Texas.

Of course, that could just be Townsend keeping everyone off balance with another curveball.

“I think what’s really going to happen to me is I’m either going to start a company with my friends just randomly, or I’ll meet somebody that actually intrigues me enough to where I actually want to do something,” he said. “Worse comes to worst, I’ll be a bartender on the beach somewhere.”

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