Off the Felt is interviewing your favorite people in the poker industry to find out more about their lives — you've got it — off the felt. We caught up with Ronnie Bardah in Aruba to discuss his recent break from poker. During that break, Bardah traveled to Thailand to dive into some Muay Thai training for a couple of months.
You recently took four months off from poker. Tell us a little bit about what you did during that time?
I didn't necessarily take four months off from poker. I was overseas for four months. I went to Israel to visit family again, and then I met up with Taylor von Kriegenbergh in Italy to play WPT Venice, but in Italy we spent two-and-a-half to three weeks just touring all the cities. We only spent about four or five days playing poker.
That sounds awesome. The both of you even produced some nice results. You finished in 13th for €6,905 and von Kriegenbergh took 20th for €5,705. Not a bad way to pad your pockets with some extra vacation money.
Yeah, for sure, and when we left Italy it was my longest break from poker, which was about two-and-a-half months. That was all in Thailand. And after Thailand, I went to Macau. But it was a four-month experience, basically going around the whole globe, literally. The longest break was Israel and then after the little poker in Italy, I went and trained Muay Thai in Thailand for two and a half months, which was my longest break away from poker.
Let's focus on the training you did in Thailand during the latter part of your travels. First off, what sparked your curiosity to go do such a thing?
Well, I've always wanted to see Asia and the idea of Thailand was because of Sorel Mizzi. He was planning to do [the training] and wanted me to go with him to practice Muay Thai, but I've always wanted to do some type of self defense or learn some type of art of fighting. With all the MMA stuff going on, you know one of the biggest strengths of MMA is that they train Muay Thai for their striking and hitting. I just really wanted to learn it and going to Thailand to do Muay Thai is obviously the best place to learn it.
So Mizzi gave you the idea and you guys went together?
Sorel wanted me to go with him, but we never really linked up and had a good time to go together. He was actually there at the end of my trip. He flew in for the last two or three days, but he was in a different station somewhere else. He wanted me to meet up with him, but I had my girlfriend at the time with me, so we couldn't meet really meet up, but he was the one who sparked my interest to go to Thailand and do Muay Thai.
That's unfortunate you guys couldn't meet up, but it still sounds like you had a good time going by yourself. Was there anyone there that you knew?
Actually, Taylor joined me to go there. He just went last minute from Italy. [Laughs] I was like, “You wanna go?” and he was like, “F*** it, yeah,” and jumped on a plane and went with me.
Where in Thailand did you go exactly?
I went to an island called Phuket. It's right off the mainland of Thailand. It's a pretty big island and there's a lot of different little areas in Phuket itself.
What was the name of the Muay Thai camp you were with for your training?
There are tons of camps that do Muay Thai, but the one I went to was called Rawai Muay Thai Camp. It's in the area called Rawai, which is really close Patong. People familiar with Thailand know all about Patong. It's a pretty crazy area with lots of parties right in Phuket at the bottom of the island. Rawai's the area in Phuket, Thailand, that I did the training in and it's just an amazing place — a crazy environment, just a sick place to be. Words can't explain what the feeling was to be in Thailand.
Was there any specific reason why you picked this particular camp?
Yeah, Sorel said we should do this in Phuket, so I just started looking up places in Phuket, and he said Rawai is a nice area near Patong. I just started Googling Rawai camps, Patong camps, and stuff like that. I found there are some camps that look really, really intense for the real serious MMA fighters and then there were camps that leaned more towards beginners and also various higher levels. The Rawai Muay Thai website was set up really nice with pictures of all of their students.
What about the website and those pictures was it that really seemed to draw you in or stand out from the rest?
I was looking through the pictures of the students that attended the camp and seeing a lot of their faces, I just thought, “Well, if this guy could do it, I probably can do it, you know.” You know, it looked like it's not necessarily a camp where you have to go there and start fighting to compete. It's a place to learn Muay Thai and use it to get in shape and learn the art. Those were my first priorities.
The first thing I was telling myself was that I was going to go to Thailand, I'm going to learn Muay Thai and try and get into the best shape of my life. Then you go there with those first things on your mind, but after a while of training it, you want to fight and compete because you just get addicted.
Were you actually in any fights competitively, or was it mainly sparring that you were doing?
Mainly sparring; every morning we would spar. If you train for a while and they feel like you're ready, then sure, you could fight. When I was there, they felt like I was ready, but I was only there for a couple of months. After training for a long time — and I learned it fairly fast — you just tell the guy who runs the camp, “Hey, I wanna fight,” and then they set you up with a fight.
How would you go about setting up a fight from there?
They do pretty good organizing it, meaning it's your first fight so they get you with somebody who basically did what you did — you came to this island to learn Muay Thai and they did the same thing from another camp. All the camps know each other and they would say, “Hey, I got this kid Ronnie. He's 29 years old and he's here for the first time in his life. He's learning it and this will be his first fight, so do you have somebody who we can match him up with?” They're not going to put you in the ring with somebody who's 18 times better than you or has much more experience.
I didn't fight-train, but I'm going again in January so maybe during that time I would like to get in the ring. If not, maybe fight an amateur fight in the States because in the States you have to wear head gear and shin pads in your first few fights. You can't throw elbows and knees to the face. In Thailand, everything goes. It's like blood sport, you can do what you want. You go in there and try to kill. It's pretty intense.
That definitely sounds intense, so the extra training you plan to do would be worth it. Take us through a typical day from start to finish while you were there training.
You'd wake up around six-thirty in the morning. Most people would make a protein shake before they go in or eat something, but I can't because the class starts at seven-thirty and that's seven-thirty prompt. So you have to be in the gym at seven o'clock because you have to warm up. You can't just roll out of bed and start kickboxing. You'd kill yourself or you'd pull something.
So you wake up at 6:30, wash up, you get ready and get awake, then you go to the gym, warm up and put your wraps on. Right before seven-thirty, you skip rope, you stretch and then you go into stretching with all of the other students. Come 7:30, you're in a little huddle with all the other students stretching. Then you're stationed in certain areas. You either hit the bag, you spar with another student in a few of the rings — there were four rings at the camp I was at — and then there's pads with the trainers. So you go from hitting bags, to sparring, to hitting pads with the trainers.
Which of those stations did you prefer the most and why?
The pads with the trainers was basically the best part for all of the students. Personally, I enjoyed the sparring, the actual dodging and fighting where we would go about 30 to 40 percent on each other in terms of how hardly we'd hit. Sometimes you'd get caught with a real hard one, but it was all about respect. Before everything, you'd bow to each student before and after you're done sparring. You bow to each bag. You bow to each trainer. Everything was about respect there.
How long would this morning training session typically last?
It was about two hours in the morning from 7:30 to 9:30.
What happened after the session was over?
When you get out, obviously you come back. You have a protein shake when you're done, then go get breakfast. In the afternoon, you could either take a nap or you could go to the beach.
Let me guess, you chose the beach. Am I right?
In the beginning, sometimes I wouldn't go to the beach because you get drawn out and all your energy would be gone.
Fair enough. So after the nap to get some energy back, what was next?
So you get something to eat, you take a nap and then you have a choice to either pick a 3 o'clock class or a 5 o'clock class.
Is there a difference between the two besides the time they take place?
Everybody would be in the morning class, but yeah, there was a difference between these two later classes. The 3 o'clock one was for more of the beginners and the 5 o'clock one was more for the advanced students. In the beginning, I would go to the first, but after a month I wanted to start going to the second one to spar with better students and to be around kids who were doing it for a living. Those kids would be fighting for a living, they would have a fight lined up every two weeks. You just train with them all day and it's like poker. In Thailand poker is called "โป๊กเกอร์".
You're saying the training is like poker. How so?
If you want to become a better poker player, you have to put yourself around good poker players. You're not going to learn anything hanging out with scrubs or bust-outs. The same thing with fighting. If you want to become a good fighter, you need to be around guys who are going to kick your ass continuously every day and put you in a spot where you want to become a better fighter in order to compete with them.
So, I started going to the five o'clock class my last three or four weeks in Thailand and I learned a lot. It made me a stronger person both physically and also mentally. It made me realize a lot about life and I was able to get into the best shape of my life. It was just a great experience.
Would each of those afternoon classes last another two hours each?
Yeah, just about.
And then what did you do after your afternoon session was complete?
If you did the three o'clock class, you'd be out early enough to maybe go to the beach, but for the later class I'd get out around 7 o'clock. Around 8 o'clock I'd get dinner and then you have to be up the next day at 6:30. You only would get one day off a week on Sunday so once in awhile on a Saturday night because we had Sundays off, we'd go out and have one or two drinks to just hang out and party a little bit.
Sounds like it was a pretty rigorous training regimen they had you on. Were you able to do anything else while you were there or was it solely training?
For the most part it was just training all day, eating well, sleeping well and going to the beach. I had a little motorbike I'd drive around on to do my errands, laundry and stuff like that. I just enjoyed Thailand, also saw a lot of the sights — the palaces, the big Buddha, all the nice beaches, little excursions, jet-skiing, whatever. There were $9-an-hour massages, food was $3 for a meal and you could live like a king out there if you brought out a wrapper for a couple months. You don't need anything else, it was just a sick place.
Obviously the training is very physical, but what about the mental side of things made you stronger in that respect?
Getting beat up every day by those students, you know, it's mind over matter. I never thought I could train Muay Thai and just beat my shins until they were purple. Then I got there and did it. Going to Thailand and doing Muay Thai with a whole bunch of beasts is basically telling me that I can accomplish anything in life that I put my mind to. It also made me appreciate life.
That sounds interesting. What are the things in life it made you appreciate, or maybe appreciate more?
It taught me how to appreciate the things that matter in life. You know, you could be in a worse spot and sometimes you don't realize what you have until you go to a place like this. You go to a place like Thailand and you see the kids there who need to fight to live. Some of the kids at the camp were orphans that the camp took in and they have to fight to live. They have no other choice. Since they were six or seven years old, this is the lifestyle that they were thrown into. When you see that and then you come back to the States and you're playing poker at some of these lavish hotels, eating good food or whatever, you just realize.
These kids are happy just fighting. They get paid about $150 each fight and they don't even see all that money, really. The camps take it for them and provide them with food and shelter. Of course you see that and it's going to make you mentally stronger and you start to become more appreciative of what you have in your life.
There are a lot of poker players nowadays who seem to be leading a healthier lifestyle. Many are exercising more, having healthier-prepared meals delivered to them while they play, hiring trainers, etc. Is this training something you'd recommend for others to try?
I recommend it for anybody. At any age, too. You know, the poker lifestyle can be horrendous. The way we sit down all day, the s*** we eat, the lack of sleep, etc. It's literally a path of destruction if you don't live life right. I recommend it for anybody who's trying to lead a healthier lifestyle. Do Muay Thai, come out there and give it a shot. It's such a sick detox, too. You're just getting rid of all the poisons in your body. You can't drink when you're out there because you're training and they just don't mix.
Some of the students out there didn't stick with it and there's lots of failures out there in Thailand, at the camp. Tons of students just went out there and were failing left and right. They were missing classes because they got too drunk or whatever. Everybody knows about Thailand and how going there is one of the biggest party areas. You've got full moon parties, girls running everywhere going crazy and it's easy to get distracted. I kept it kosher and just stuck with it. For me, it was to get away from all of that.
So yeah, for those guys who are trying to do it all healthy, this is a good kick start for them to go to Thailand and to do this training.
In your opinion, what was the biggest reason you made the decision to do this?
For me, the biggest reason why I did it was because being at home, playing poker all the time, having family and friends all around me saying, “Let's do this. Let's go here. Let's go there,” I could never get in a routine. You want to go to the gym and you want to join a class, or do CrossFit, or yoga, or whatever to get in shape, but you do it for three days and you have to go here to play poker or there's a tournament down here, or this girl wants you to go out with her here, or there's another thing here and there. It was just a good two months of just a routine of waking up every day, doing the same thing and sleeping at the same time every night.
You wouldn't believe what sleeping at the same time every night would do for you. You go to bed at 10 o'clock every night and wake up at 6:30 for two months straight. You know what, you feel like you're back in school. You know how you felt when you woke up in the morning every day in high school and you just woke up and felt great? It just felt great. My father was always a big advocate of going to bed when the sun goes down and wake up when the sun comes up.
It was just great. It taught me a lot about routine. That's why I went out there, so I could just focus on training, because when you're back home it's tough. It really is.
For those interested a bit more in the training itself, how much does something like this cost?
The camp itself was about $300 for a month. If you stay on the camp, you could stay as cheap as $180 for living for a whole month. Eating would be about $15 a day and that's breakfast, lunch and dinner. Massages are $9. You could go there and bunk with two other kids from different countries for $180 a month, you could get just a shared room with somebody else for $250 a month or you could get your own bungalow for about $400 to $500 a month at the camp. There are also hotels across the street that are really, really nice. If you want to live in a hotel, it's going to cost you $400 to $500 a month for a nice hotel. If you share it with a friend, it will cost about $400 each for a nice hotel. A motorbike is $100 a month. You get your own motorbike you can navigate the whole island with.
The only expensive thing is the plane ticket, depending on how you book it or when you book it. It's probably going to cost you anywhere from $1,000 to $1,300 for a round-trip from California or wherever you fly from in the States. If you do it for a month, I'd say you need about $3,500. I figure $1,000 for eating and training and then another $1,000 for miscellaneous stuff like massages and other stuff.
By the standards of most poker players, that seems fairly cheap.
Yeah, I mean, how many times do you blow $3,000 to $4,000 in a tournament?
Good point. You mentioned you planned on going back in January. Is this to train more or just to visit Thailand for another period of time?
I plan on going back in January for at least six weeks for some more training.
I'm going right after PCA until the middle of February, which is when there isn't much going on. I might not even go to PCA, but if I do, after PCA, there's nothing until the Commerce and the LAPC. Even then, if you come back on the 17th or 18th of February and fly into California, you'll be refreshed and just in time to play a couple tournaments before the Main Event. It's just perfect timing. That's what I'm doing. I'm going to stay out there in Thailand for a month or six weeks and then come back a week before the Main Event at the Commerce. And like I said before, I welcome anybody to come with me and I'll help steer them in the right direction. You'll have somebody to go with that's been through it already, which helps.
Matt Waxman is supposed to be coming out with me in January. He said he's definitely coming. Waxman's been talking about it for awhile now, so he really wants to go. Taylor said he might come again. Another poker player, Katie Stone, said she wants to come. I'm inviting any poker player who I know that wants to come out and do something different with their life, to try and get into the best shape of their life and learn an art to come.
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