Jessica Dawley: From War Zone Veteran to World Series of Poker Champion
It was a nice evening for volleyball 15 years ago today. Jessica Dawley bumped and set with her fellow airmen that day in 2003. There were plenty of smiles and big hits flying over the net. A couple generators rumbled nearby, lighting up a small patch of desert that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Because they were in a war zone, the festivities had to be kept low key.
Dawley served as an intelligence analyst in the Air Force and had been sent to the United Arab Emirates after 9/11. The day would have only been better if she were back in Indiana.
That July 4 volleyball game allowed for a small semblance of normalcy, a chance to get her mind off terrorism, or warfare, or loved ones back home – and friends who might not return from service. It was just a time to spend with friends and be a regular American for a while, celebrating Independence Day.
"There are way worse things going on in the world than poker and bad beats. It could be so much worse."
With a top secret clearance, some things she still can’t talk about, but her time in the military put things into perspective. For this 35-year-old poker pro, who took down this year’s $1,000 Ladies Championship last week for $130,230, a bad beat or an early bust-out don’t really affect her overall attitude considering some things she’s been through.
“A lot of times, I think back to that day of the volleyball game in the Middle East and how I felt,” she says. “I was only 20 years old and I was scared. It was terrifying for me. So for us, it was great to get to play volleyball or to do anything besides what we were doing.”
While she may not have been on the front lines, Dawley had friends return without limbs and others who were deeply affected by what they saw. She knew servicemen who didn’t return alive. Looking back, a rough outing at the poker table just doesn’t seem so bad.
“It just put everything in perspective,” she says. “That’s why when people complain about menial BS, I can’t handle it. Because there are so many people who have obviously never lived or sacrificed anything. There are way worse things going on in the world than poker and bad beats. It could be so much worse.”
From Palmyra to Poker
Originally from Palmyra, Ind., Dawley describes herself as “a huge tomboy growing up.”
Her Uncle Steve was an important part of her life and taught her how to play poker at age 7. He also took her fishing a couple times a week, which she loved. Those early days playing poker would be an important part of her life.
Sports were also a big part of life, and she could regularly be found on the volleyball court or softball field. She thrived on competition and athletics. However, injuries in high school shorted her athletic career.
“That’s why I started picking up poker more because it allowed me to have that competitive outlet, but not physically because sports were something I couldn’t really do anymore,” she says.
“it allowed me to have that competitive outlet, but not physically because sports were something I couldn’t really do anymore.”
Even so, looking back, she never thought poker could be a profession, and that she would be winning a bracelet on the game’s biggest stage. In high school, she was the only girl in a regular Thursday night poker game with her boyfriend and a bunch of other guys. Those games featured quarter and 50-cent blinds with real quarters instead of chips – and Dawley regularly walked out with a mountain of change.
“There were several times that I remember when we left, my bag was so heavy that my boyfriend had to carry it for me,” she says.
When she turned 21, Dawley began playing even more and slowly considered that it might be something she could continue as a profession. She seemed to have a grasp for the game that others around her lacked.
“As the years went on I thought, ‘I’m actually pretty decent at this,’” she says. “It wasn’t even that I was so good, it was just that the other players were so bad.”
Ready to Serve
After graduating high school early, Dawley decided the military made for a nice option to help her attend college as well as serve her country. Her brother, Lt. Colonel Shawn Dawley, served as some inspiration to enlist. She joined in April 2001, and only a few months later the world would change.
“My brother is 10 years older than I am, and he'd been in the military for 10 years already,” she says. “I saw how his life was much better than where we grew up.”
She joined the Air National Guard in 2001, but was called up for active duty after 9/11 and was sent overseas.
“It felt amazing to finally win it outright, to not have to worry about chopping or coming in fifth or sixth.”
“My brother and I were actually stationed there together for a while,” she says. “So it was nice having a family member there [in the United Arab Emirates], but my mom was devastated when we both got called up.”
Life in the Air Force brought plenty of downtime, and poker was a regular part of killing a few hours. And just like those Thursday night games in high school, Dawley often found herself as one of the night’s winners.
In the Air Force from 2001 to 2007, Dawley looks back on her service fondly and believes it helped mold her into the person she is today. While she grew up in the Midwest and was taught to help her fellow man and be kind, Dawley believes the Air Force added to that significantly – helping her become more structured and disciplined and putting others before herself.
“I’m definitely a better person because of it,” she says. “The camaraderie is what I miss the most, just how everyone just kind of stood together to fight through the terrible circumstances that we were in. It also taught me to appreciate life and to appreciate people and what they have to offer.”
Dawley later earned business degrees in marketing and management from the University of Louisville in Kentucky. In 2008, she took the plunge to play poker full-time and those degrees helped with the new gig.
"It also taught me to appreciate life and to appreciate people and what they have to offer.”
“I treat poker like a business being self-employed,” she says. “It’s one of the toughest businesses out there.”
Dawley lived in Las Vegas from 2008 to 2010 and now calls Hollywood, Fla., home. Away from the tables, she loves to travel and plans to do some of that after the series. Australia is a favorite getaway, and just anyplace with a beach. Whitehaven Beach on Hamilton Island, just off the coast of Australia and in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef, is a real favorite. She also likes to spend time with her nieces and nephews when she can.
The win in the Ladies Event added a huge bullet point to her career; “It felt amazing to finally win it outright, to not have to worry about chopping or coming in fifth or sixth,” she says. “I haven't had a win in so many years, so it felt awesome.”
Dawley has played professionally since 2008 after she left the military, and now has more than $700,000 in live tournament winnings. Through her ups and downs in poker, her family has always been there for her – especially her mother and father.
“My parents have always been really supportive,” she says. “My dad gets such a kick out of me playing poker and brags about me playing poker all the time. If I didn’t have their support, I think it would have been much more difficult.”
The Dawleys are extremely proud of their poker-playing Air Force veteran – and so is Uncle Steve.
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas. His work appears in numerous websites and publications. Follow him on Twitter @PokerTraditions. He is also the host of the True Gambling Stories podcast, available on iTunes, Google Play, TuneIn Radio, Spotify, Stitcher, PokerNews.com, HoldemRadio.com, and TrueGamblingStories.com.