Why this pro poker player moved to California to die
Powering through physical pain and mental delirium, Kevin “Racks” Roster spent his final weeks on a farewell tour with meaning.
Checking off personal bucket-list items while simultaneously raising money for charity and awareness of the rare disease that destroyed his lungs, the 36-year-old turned a summer trip to the biggest poker festival of the year, the World Series of Poker, into an opportunity to give his waning days lasting impact.
On Thursday night, the former business owner, semiprofessional poker player and father announced that his journey would end Friday.
Suffering from a rare, aggressive form of cancer known as sarcoma, Roster, 36, made the decision earlier this year to end his life with medical assistance, as his prognosis worsened.
Doctors told him this spring that he had weeks to live. At the end of May, the longtime New Jersey resident and native of Queens, New York, made the cross-country move to California – a place he’d always wanted to live, and one of few states where physician-aided death is legal.
“It is with considerable regret that I am writing this letter to inform you that I have chosen to peacefully end my fight with sarcoma from a position of strength via the use of medical aid in dying tomorrow, July 26, 2019,” Roster wrote in an open letter. “At this point, it is my belief, and the belief of my doctors, that the disease which is overrunning my body will be shortly be taking me either way.
“I take this decision not at all lightly and would like to have been able to do more. I missed out on many items from my bucket list, but had to take them where I could get them, as my health went downhill more quickly than I could have anticipated.”
Having previously indicated that his death was scheduled sometime in July, Roster announced Thursday night on social media that he would be going out on his terms the following day. His caretaker tweeted via his account Friday afternoon that he had “passed peacefully.”
In an open letter posted to his website and in a YouTube video, Roster described his experiences, successes, failures and immense physical pain in his final stage of life.
“I currently suffer from an almost constant need to be on oxygen, fatigue which keeps me in bed 13-14 hours a day, coughing fits, delirium, tumor pain in my back lungs and groin requiring morphine liquid, and about 40 pills daily, shortness of breath and difficulty eating amongst many, many others,” he wrote. “ ... While my intentions were to win the cards just didn’t cooperate, but something far, far greater occurred as I received considerable attention for my cause.”
As he notes later, Roster actually has two main causes: raising awareness about sarcoma, and advocating for physician-assisted death.
In late May, days before the World Series of Poker began, Roster settled in Rancho Cordova in a small apartment, a place he liked because it was wheelchair-accessible. Roster’s leg had been amputated just weeks prior to remove a malignant tumor. He’d said in an interview at the time that phantom pains in his nonexistent leg were the worst he’d experienced at that point. But his health had steeply and rapidly declined, as noted in Thursday’s letter.
Less than a week after moving to California, Roster and a caretaker embarked on the long drive to the Rio casino in Las Vegas, where he worked toward one bucket-list item: winning a World Series of Poker bracelet, one of the game’s most coveted accolades.
While generally about the top 15 percent of finishers in a poker tournament earn some sort of payday, gold bracelets are awarded to the outright winner of each tournament at the World Series of Poker, accompanying what’s usually a six- or seven-figure cash prize.
Winning one isn’t easy: The more-than-monthlong series includes dozens of events, but most of them draw thousands of entrants. And the biggest event of the summer, the $10,000 buy-in Main Event, this year drew 8,569 players, the second-most ever.
Roster played several events during multiple trips to Vegas over the summer, and came relatively close to a bracelet twice: in Event 50, the $1,500 buy-in “Monster Stack” event, he managed 38th place out of more than 6,000 players, good for a $22,561 payout. He then finished 24th out of 541 participants in Event 66, earning nearly triple his $1,500 buy-in.
The Main Event, though, ended on a serious note.
On July 6, Day 3 of the 10-day tournament, Roster had a respiratory attack in his hotel room during one of the event’s dinner breaks, as he recounted in tweets that day. He subsequently busted out of the tournament short of a money finish, noting that he didn’t withdraw but lost “fair & square” after attempting to power through his pain.
“Trying to play poker with a collapsing lung was stupid,” he wrote.
In an interview with The Bee, Roster had said one of his hopes was that his story would gain enough traction for him to appear on ESPN, giving him a national audience to raise sarcoma awareness. That happened more than once over the summer, as he appeared in interviews both before and during the Main Event, wearing a T-shirt he made that includes facts and statistics about sarcoma.
News stories about Roster started to go viral online almost instantly, especially on Twitter, an active haven for poker players. In weeks, Roster’s Twitter following of less than 50 people grew to nearly 2,000. Roster’s story and the publicity it gained had turned the one-time entrepreneur into a literal overnight celebrity in the poker community.
To even get into the Main Event in the first place, Roster had to secure a sponsorship or staking deal, as $10,000 for a poker tournament was not within his allotted bankroll. Less than 48 hours after those stories started to go viral, the sponsorship happened. As announced by both of them on Twitter, poker pro Greg Merson – who won the Main Event in 2012 for over $8.5 million – staked Roster into this year’s main event, which paid out $10 million to the eventual winner, Hossein Ensan, on July 16.
“I do believe that anyone and everyone else should have the right to consider all options when facing a terminal diagnosis,” Roster wrote in the letter posted Thursday. “Unfortunately, this is not the case for 80% of the states in this country.”
When Roster moved to California, medical aid-in-dying was legal in only six other states – Oregon, Colorado, Montana, Hawaii, Vermont and Washington – as well as the District of Columbia. The practice was legalized in Maine last month, and will become legal in his home state of New Jersey on Thursday, Aug. 1, following legislation signed into law by the governor in April.
California’s End of Life Option Act passed in 2016 despite opposition and lobbying against it from the Catholic Church and from the disability rights community. Additionally, some oncologists opposed the law, noting that terminally ill patients can often outlive their diagnoses.
After the World Series of Poker ended, Roster played some poker locally. As recently as the week before his scheduled death, he participated in several games at Stones Gambling Hall in Citrus Heights, some of which were live-streamed on the internet. He also hopped the state line into Reno after the Main Event for one final chance at a bracelet, an online poker tournament on WSOP.com, which can’t legally be played in California. But, as he often phrases it, the “cards didn’t cooperate.”
In the YouTube video he posted Thursday night, Roster said that though some people who watched him play in those games or who followed his journey on Twitter may think he seems healthy enough to keep living, that was not the case.
“You guys see my tough guy face, and I put it on, and I come and I play at the table for three or four hours. And yeah, I laugh and I have a good time. But at the same time, I have to disappear several times a game to dose myself with morphine. And at times, it’s hard to even keep playing.”
He described the delirium he experienced in his farewell video, shot from his apartment.
“I literally this morning thought Kanye West had poisoned me ... when the brain is deprived of oxygen, well, then at that point the brain no longer functions normally.”
Roster pledged 10 percent of his poker profits in June and July to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, choosing it because St. Jude does not bill patients directly. Earlier this week, he also endorsed the Sarcoma Foundation of America.
Roster leaves behind a wife and a 10-year-old son.
Talking with The Bee in early June, he said he’s lived a relatively full life for a 36-year-old. He told anecdotes of better times. Playing in New York’s “underground” poker scene. A brief stint dealing cards in what would eventually become “Molly’s Game,” the infamous high-stakes game made famous by a book and movie of the same name, before host Molly Bloom was involved. Running a successful collectibles business with his wife.
Roster now adds to that list his success in inspiring others. In his farewell video this week, he called his sarcoma awareness campaign a “victory,” and in his letter, he told cancer and sarcoma sufferers: “Your victories, defeats and battles proved to me that putting myself out there was the correct decision and I want you all to keep living laughing and fighting.”
He ended his letter: “Thank you ALL for being a part of my journey,
Kevin ‘Racks’ Roster
Sarcoma Awareness/Medical Aid-in-Dying advocate
Semi-Professional Poker Player