Playing the odds: Valley surgeon lives double life as successful poker player

Bryan Pimlott is an accomplished orthopedic surgeon in the Valley. He is also successful as a professional poker player. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Pimlott)

A local surgeon likes to play the odds, just not in the emergency room.

Bryan Pimlott wants to be clear: He’s not a gambler. He’s a poker player. His parents never gambled, his kids don’t gamble.

Yet he has managed to be accomplished at both his career — a Phoenix orthopedic surgeon specializing in the treatment of traumatic injuries — and his hobby. The latter has not only translated to a downpayment for a house but also to help his church and families in need.

“What am I going to do with this extra loot?” he said. “I’ve got to do something good with it and something fun with it.”

Eight years ago, Pimlott’s friend decided to go to Talking Stick Resort and Casino, which was holding a car raffle. Not wanting to go alone, he invited Pimlott.

Pimlott walked into the doors of Talking Stick never having played a hand of poker in his life. He didn’t know the rules.

“I was just bored out of my mind walking around,” Pimlott said. “So I sat down at the cheapest poker table and I watched. I watched the button go around because I was too afraid to actually put money in.”

Not everyone remembers their first hand. Pimlott does. “It was Ace King unsuited.” He split the first pot of his career.

Twenty books and a year later, he entered himself into the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event, the biggest poker tournament in the world.

He quickly won approximately $35,000.

“From then on, I played for fun and I did charity stuff,” Pimlott said.

His accomplishments include a $57,000 prize for a fourth-place finish at a WSOP event in Las Vegas in 2015.

Ten percent of Pimlott’s winnings go to Illuminate Community Church in Scottsdale.

“I also sent quite a bit of it to help one of my friend’s families in Sierra Leone, Africa,” Pimlott said.

In church he met James Charm, who had been raised Muslim. When Charm became a Christian, he was ousted from his family and came to Arizona. The nine-member family remains in Sierra Leone, is struggling financially and recently lost a child to sickle cell anemia.

“They had to get the family out of the poor area,” Pimlott said. “I think it was $875 to get them rent for a year and a few hundred to take a bus from where they were to another area of the country which was less poor.

“James and I were laughing about how it was the other poker people who were helping.”

“Bryan just has a huge heart,” said Jason Fritz, the lead Pastor at Illuminate Church. “He gives to what is important to him. As he gives funds to the church, those are funds that go to help those who are in need. Whether it’s someone who’s lost a job or someone who is struggling in any way, really, just to make ends meet.

“There’s also work that we do locally and then outside of the state that Bryan contributes to. We just sent a team of folks out to the Caribbean to help with the Hurricane. We’ve got another team of folks ready to go to Houston. He’s great about it. He’s a generous guy, and very well-liked as well.

“People spend their money on what’s important to them and what they value. So that’s just another example of what’s important to him. His life is not all about himself. He’s living for something bigger than himself. A lot of people are talking about that, but he’s a guy who actually does it. That makes him pretty special.”

For Pimlott, he views his poker winnings as “free” money.

“If you know you’re going to the Casino for entertainment, and you’re going to spend $50 on entertainment and you know it’s going to be gone, go ahead, have fun,” Pimlott said. “But don’t do it to make a living because the house will always win. The only chance you have is in poker, and in the lower limits the rake is so high you don’t have a chance.”

The rake is the casino’s cut of the winnings.

“The reason why I love poker is it’s a strategy game,” Pimlott said. “For me, like in medicine, you take a lot of different facts, and you put them all together to try to make a good choice. Life is like that, and so is poker. No one gets to know everything. I like to make files in my head on everybody, and begin to fill the blanks. How they play, whether they’re changing up what they’re doing and how the day has gone.”

Pimlott loves the competition and the emotional response that he doesn’t get from medicine, which he says is all about cooperation. For a former baseball catcher who started at Green River Community College in Auburn, Washington, his thirst for competition is understandable.

But medicine also gives him something poker does not.

“Being a surgeon, you get to care about people and help them in certain ways that most people can’t,” Pimlott said. “It’s not just a job, I get that feeling of happiness. So not only do I get to grow as a surgeon but I get to contribute.

“You don’t get that in poker. In poker you’re basically trying to take other people’s money. What I do get out of poker is that cool competition and I don’t have to worry about anybody dying.

“Poker may give me money, fame and competition, but medicine gives me the privilege of helping people and contributing to society.”

“I’ve known Bryan for a little bit,” said Kyle Miaso, a professional poker player from the Scottsdale area who has played with Pimlott on a few occasions. “Bryan is probably one of the friendliest guys in the poker room. I don’t think anyone has ever really said anything bad, ever, about him. He can put a bad beat on you, but, like, what are you going to say to the guy? Bryan is definitely one of those guys that you’re just happy for him every single time that he wins a hand.”

Craving a physical part that poker nor medicine can offer, Pimlott took up boxing and American Ninja Warrior.

“Part of my identity is being an athlete,” Pimlott said.

Yet, poker still remains supreme. For two weeks of the year.

“Without a doubt, being a surgeon helped me become a better poker player,” Pimlott said. “All those years of trying to think about multiple variables. All those years of, ‘OK, well, the patient has broken bones but they’re also bleeding out, and their respiratory system is comprised, and it’s necessary to balance the bleeding with risk of blood clots.’ How do you take care of all these different systems at once to help and not hurt the patient? Poker uses similar thinking considerations.

“It is so nice to play poker when you’re not stressed about anyone dying. So, to me, it’s a great mind meld, and a great way of being free.”

Pimlott’s favorite poker memory is celebrating his victories with his three kids. “I usually come home, my pockets are fat with a bunch of cash,” he said.

Pimlott has bought two cars for his kids with his poker winnings. His oldest is a college student at the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University, a second-year aerospace engineer. Pimlott’s middle son is a high school senior. He wants to be a pastor and is also a gold medal festival wrestling champion and was a state champion in gymnastics in high bar and vault. Pimlott’s youngest son, David, is 14. “He’s a great kid,” Pimlott said about his young son who likes to do bike tricks and has a big heart for his family and friends.

A thing to remember about poker, Pimlott said, is that you play the people, not the cards.

Advice to kids who want to play professional poker? One pro, Tom Schneider, said “don’t.”

Pimlott said, “Don’t ever have poker as the only thing you do. If you do that, you’ll get burnt out. The other thing is play within your means.”

Which career does he earn more money in? He’s not sure. It evens out, he said, as the prize money for winning poker tournaments can be hefty.

At the end of the day, Pimlott appears to have his priorities straight.

“Medicine is, in every aspect, better than poker,” Pimlott said.