Poker Vagabond and Ex-Ballerina: Meet Julie Anna Cornelius

Julie_artikel“I have a serious case of wanderlust! I absolutely love traveling. I think it comes from a childhood of constantly moving around; although my parents were not wealthy, we went on a lot of cross country family vacations and road trips. I get incredibly restless spending too much time in one place. I went to nine different schools from kindergarten to university and I’ve moved 10 times in the last 15 years alone.

I worked as a chef/flight attendant on private planes for over seven years and that job really suited my personality. The job took me to Macau on a regular basis and I even lived there for a few months off and on. The majority of my downtime I spent playing poker.

I just got home from a month on the road, living out of my suitcase and grinding the live circuit. I’m often asked on the road how I handle spending so much time away from home – but poker actually allows me to be home so much more than during those years when I worked on private planes.

I was a bit of a tomboy growing up. I played any and every sport – tennis, basketball, softball – but nothing really truly grabbed hold of me until I saw the “Nutcracker” at Christmas with my family, when I was about 10 years old. I immediately decided to devote my whole life to dance and spent six days a week at the studio. I endured ice baths, bloodied feet, constant criticism, bone crushing soreness and regularly consumed the daily max allowance of ibuprofen. Waking up at 5 am to do my homework because I would collapse from exhaustion when I got home from ballet at 9:30 pm after a full day of school. Ballet was my whole world, by choice – and it made me who I am today.

I looked up into Mikhail Baryshnikov’s face*. I was sitting in the hallway stretching and putting my pointe shoes on before class when he brushed by me and quickly apologized. He asked me what class was starting and I told him –  and then he asked me if it was ok if he joined us?! I will never forget that day. It was the equivalent of sitting down at your local casino grinding 2/5 and having Phil Ivey walk in and ask permission to sit down and play with you.

Julie danser balletBefore my final year of high school, I was accepted into the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center – the feeder school into the New York City Ballet. But being a successful, world-class, famous ballet dancer and principal artist for a top ballet company is the equivalent to getting signed to the Yankees! It’s a one in a million opportunity. Just before the course ended, I took a very hard look at reality and did some major soul searching. I flew home to California and I never stepped foot into a ballet studio again.

When I quit ballet, I was left feeling very empty and I spent a few years with a huge void in my life where that competitive hunger was left un-fed. I threw myself into college and internships and law school applications, but still felt unfulfilled.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of me sitting on my mother’s lap at a square folding table watching my parents play pinochle with their friends. Cards and games were a huge part of my life growing up. We never really played poker, but hearts, gin, rummy, spades, school, spoons, mahalo – you name it, we played it.

My dad is the most competitive person I know, and I’m still waiting to meet someone who hates losing more. Every game we played was an epic battle and he would never ever let me win – I always had to earn it. My father taught me chess at a pretty young age, and the day I beat him, I believe I was about 12 or 13, was a very proud day for me indeed.

I feel like poker chose me. The very first time I walked into a poker room, it felt like the day I walked into the ballet studio for my very first class. I felt like I was home. I bought into a 1/1 game and although I had played home games with friends, knew the hand rankings, and had watched countless hours of poker on television, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

My friend Derek and I would play 10-12 hours at Oceans 11 in Oceanside, CA, and then get in the car and drive straight to Commerce or the Bike at 4 am to beat traffic and take naps in the car. I had finally discovered something that challenged me in the same way that ballet always had. And just like ballet, I found poker to be an endless and futile, yet totally glorious quest for perfection.

My husband Darin and I got married on the 4th of July. We joke about it being our “Independence Day” because we really try to live life “independent” of what other people think we should do and try to make our life our own. In many ways, we value the same things: independence, travel, and adventure. In other ways, we are very different: I love to take risks and he tends to be more risk-averse, but I definitely think we balance each other out.

The longer I play, the smaller the poker world feels, and after having grinded the circuit this past year, it’s a very rare occurrence to sit down at a table and not recognize a single opponent. I lost a WSOPC ring heads-up last December in Atlantic City.  In that tournament, I was moved a total of nine times on Day 1. I was fortunate enough though, that I had history with many of my opponents, and the previous experience with them really helped counteract the disadvantage of constantly changing tables. Poker is an enormous puzzle with a million different pieces that are constantly shifting, and I absolutely love the challenge of trying to fit those pieces together.

Julie WSOP5

I’m a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. I am so fascinated by the concept of that magical 10,000 hours of practice or dedicated time spent in any given field, as a general rule for when you start to see a level of mastery or success in people. I remember my ballet teacher telling me it takes 10 solid years to make a professional ballerina. I was 14 at the time and counting ahead six more long and grueling years seemed incredibly daunting.

There’s so much discussion about balance in poker these days; about working out and eating healthily and having a rich and full life outside the game. I really struggle with that because it goes against what I know to be true about striving to be the best. And being the best in my opinion takes incredible sacrifice and pushing yourself and working harder than your competition.

My sister is a classical pianist and if she practices 10 hours a day, she can’t really lose. She may not have achieved wild improvement in those 10 hours, but she did put the time in and accomplished something – she memorized a piece or worked through a difficult section of music. In poker it’s really difficult to play 10 hours and then bust out of a tourney without cashing, or having grinded cash all day only to get stacked or to lose multiple buyins. You feel like you’ve gone backwards! You don’t feel like you’ve gained or accomplished anything. When you get unlucky, “one-outed” or similar, it’s so hard to remember that you played well or learned something or gained valuable experience. This was an emotion in ballet that I don’t recall ever experiencing. If I pushed myself so hard I couldn’t walk the next day, there was a sense of pride and accomplishment in that pain. It always “hurt so good”, and I approach most things in my life this same way.

Most interviews in the poker world take place after someone just captured a huge title or took down a major score. You rarely read stories about players who are just starting out, grinding the circuit and/or learning the game. I, like so many other players, can only hope to find success worthy of a magazine cover or television interview; but for now I still have so much passion and love for this game despite not yet having won a bracelet or major title. But who knows? Maybe this summer all my hard work and deep runs will finally pay off, and I’ll have my chance!”

Julie Anna Cornelius, also known as Jules, is a professional poker player. At the moment she lives in Chicago with her husband Darin Dobler. She worked as a corporate flight attendant from 2006-2013, at the American Embassy in London from 2003-2006, and at the White House in 2000.

* One of the greatest ballet dancers of all time, also known as Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend, Aleksandre Petrovsky, in the television series, Sex and the City.

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