David Adam

Sunday Conversation with Gary Lambert

Chiropractor Gary Lambert shows some of the jerseys he collected during his playing days as a member of the United States national rugby team. | H-W Photo/Phil Carlson
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Apr. 15, 2018 12:01 am Updated: Apr. 15, 2018 1:37 am

If you've never met Gary Lambert, his profile would seem to be simple -- a husband, a father of eight ranging in age from 1 to 30, and a local businessman. The 60-year-old native of Mahopec, N.Y., been a chiropractor in Quincy since 2003.

However, "another life ago" as Lambert says, he was one of the best rugby players in the world. He captained the United States national team, nicknamed the Eagles, in the early 1980s. His career as an Eagle took him on tours around the world, and he was a member of the U.S. men's first World Cup Team in 1987. He also was picked among the top 21 players in the world to be on a team that toured Australia during its Bicentennial in 1988.

Lambert recently learned he is one of seven inductees into the United States Rugby Hall of Fame. He will be inducted in Houston on June 15 on the night before the U.S. Eagles play host to Scotland.

Not long after he stopped playing rugby, Lambert started playing professional poker. The Global Poker Index shows that Lambert made $189,350 in 2012 and nearly $400,000 in his career, though these days he typically only travels to tournaments near Quincy.

Lambert recently talked about his life while sitting with his wife, Kelly, in his office at 2080 Broadway while Irelynnd, their 1-year-old daughter, was playing.

How did you end up in Quincy?

We bought property in 1998. We were living in Montana, and I relocated here full time in 2003. My family was in the whitetail industry, and I'm into the archery end of things. Adams County, Pike County, whitetail deer ... it's how it was introduced to me. It was an easy change. Quincy is a great place to raise a family.

How were you introduced to rugby?

I grew up in Westchester County, 30 miles north of New York City, I played for the White Plains Rugby Club. The average Quincyan doesn't know what rugby is. It's like what they know about curling. In other areas of the country, it's very mainstream. It's an Olympic sport, and it's the fastest growing men's and women's sport in America right now. Me and my best friend, we were mischievous. We got into trouble, but not trouble trouble. My best friend's older brother, 11 years my senior, said, "You guys are coming to rugby practice." That began going twice a week, and it turned into more practice. I played my first game with men at age 13. I played high school football and rugby at the same time.

You played rugby at Life University in Georgia. For someone who doesn't know much about rugby, would it be OK to say that rugby at Life is like basketball at Duke?

Not when I went there, it wasn't. When I first went to school there, it was called Life College, and they had just a second or third division club. I graduated 30 years ago. Now, if you're a rugby player and you want to get a full a scholarship, it's the premier academy or university. Life is the place to go.

How would you compare rugby to football?

That's easy for me. In football, you don't have to be in shape. You can play for five, six, seven seconds, and you're off for 30. The coach is telling you what to do. They don't play both ways. You can be a 400-pound guy and just own two yards of the line of scrimmage. In rugby, you never leave the field. You play offense and defense. You passed. You kicked. It was a good test of allowing me to express myself. As far as fitness, you look at guys with big physiques, and if they run 100 yards, they're on oxygen on the sidelines. Fitness is sport specific. Rugby fitness is so demanding. Injuries are few because the fitness level is high. You see very few concussions. People don't tackle with their head. A lot of the professional football teams have been bringing in professional rugby players as their tackling coaches and fitness coaches.

What was it like to play in the first Rugby World Cup in 1987?

We beat Japan. We lost to Australia in an exciting game, and we lost to England. If you were a bookmaker, it should have been a 50-point spread against England, and it was a close game. I was 29. It's humbling. Any time I watch a sport and they play the national anthem, it brings back memories. For me, it was a whirlwind from the day I made the national team.

You were named to the U.S. team for the 1991 World Cup, but you didn't play. Why not?

It was just prior to leaving (for Europe). I was having some difficulties with the coach, and it was toward the tail end of my career. The coach was a guy I played with earlier in my career. I had enjoyed every step of my trip, and I just said, I'm not going. It's time for me to retire. I was at the top of my game, but it was time for me to take a back seat.

How popular is the sport in the United States?

It would surprise people. It is 100 percent the fastest growing men's and women's sport, mostly because of the Olympic status. Many high schools have rugby teams. I'd say there are 20 schools in the St. Louis area, and almost every university in the country, they've got it. You give me a major university, there's a rugby team there. In the 1980s, there were 1,500 rugby clubs in America and 250,000 players in the pool for the national team. Now those numbers are even greater. It's huge in St. Louis. Chicago, huge. Iowa, big. Minnesota, big. It's just not big around here.

How good is the level of play in this country?

When I was playing, there were very few A grade athletes playing rugby. If I played first division football or first division basketball or played professional football and moved into rugby, that was pretty rare. Now it's commonplace, because there's money involved. The average age of the first national team I played on was 30, and I was 21. Now, the average age is like 22, which is standard with the rest of the world. The U.S. team is one of the top Olympic teams in the world. We're the danger team. The All Blacks don't like playing us, and the Springboks don't like playing us.

How did you become a chiropractor?

I can tell you a story. My wife says I should write a book, and the name of the book is "You Can't Make This (Stuff) Up." It's 1982, and Fred Schofield, my roommate (on the U.S. Rugby team), had just graduated from chiropractic school. I had an injury from when I played in Hong Kong two or three weeks earlier, and I'm laying on the bed. Fred says, "Gary, what's wrong with your neck? Looks like you need an adjustment." I said, "What's an adjustment?" He said, "That's what I do. I'm a chiropractor." I said, "What's a chiropractor?" On that spot, it changed my life. After he gave me an adjustment, I was like, "You've got to be kidding me."

So you decided on the spot to become a chiropractor?

I thought, "I've got to do this." Fast forward a year later. I was living in New York, and I decide I'm going to Life College. I said, "Mom, I'm going to school in Georgia." I took my Dalmation, my gun, my bow, my hunting equipment and about $500 to my name, jumped in my car, drove down to Georgia. I get in the registration line, maybe 500 people are in line, for classes. Two hundred people are in front of me. I've got a T-shirt on from the Hong Kong sevens, and I'm captain of the national team. The guy behind me says, "Do you play rugby?" I said I did. He says, "Hi, I'm Bill Raymond." I said, "Hi, I'm Gary Lambert." He says, "Gary Lambert? On the U.S. Eagles Gary Lambert? Does our coach know you're here?" I said, "You've got a rugby team?"

You went to Life but didn't know they had a rugby team?

At that time, they didn't even have a rugby field. They practiced at the parade grounds, and the elephants would crap all over the area. Anyway, Raymond says, "I'll be right back." He finds the coach, and they take me from the middle of that line to the front of the line. I swear on my eight kids, 15 minutes later, I had a full scholarship for four years, and I never paid a penny. I was just going to take loans out like all students do. I don't think it could happen today. That's what rugby did for me.

When you left the U.S. team, how did you get involved in professional poker?

I always played some type of poker, but I'm not a gambler. I'm a mathematician. If I go to the casino, I go to the poker room. If there's not a tournament, I don't play. I always enjoy the math of card games. I started playing to where I could make some money between 2000 and 2006. I played online mostly. From 2010 to current, I'm a professional poker player as far as the IRS was concerned. I enjoy the challenge of it. It's a test for me. It's all about the math and reading people. I have a psychology background. I enjoy getting into people's backgrounds. An attorney might make a million dollars at a time, throw it around and make crazy bets, while an accountant might be like, "Hmmm, that's 3.6 cents less than the last one." That plays a lot into my game. I make money at it. I don't travel around as much. I don't leave the country, and I play tournaments that fit my style of play. I don't play above my talent.

Have you played against poker's top players?

I've played with all of those guys, but I wouldn't put myself in a position to play against them all the time in their arena. At the Chicago Poker Classic two weeks ago, their main event was a $2,000 buy-in. I think there were 800 people in there. Out of that 800, I'm going to say there might be 40 pros, guys who make a million dollars a year in earnings or up. There might be 150 people who dabble, make some money at poker but don't work anywhere else. After that, there's a group of 100 where I would put myself in. I have a day job, and I understand my boundaries. I took 42nd in that tournament, made almost $5,000. The remainder of the field is weekend players, you know, "I want to do this once." Even at the main event of the World Series of Poker, there are 8,000 people, and every single top pro in the world is in there, but you have people who have played just five times, and a $10,000 buy-in to them is a $1.50 to another person.

Have you ever thought about playing more regularly against the top pros?

I understand my spot. I consider myself a recreational pro. If I wanted to close my practice and I had the bankroll to play, I can go play any where I want. If you play tournament poker and you want to live that life, you have to play a lot of tournaments. You've got to hit a couple of real big ones, and you have to donate a couple of times. To play a lot means you're away from the family a lot. Kelly and I have been married for eight years, and before we had our two kids, we traveled and played poker a lot. Now when I travel, I'm away from the wife and away from the kids. My mind's not there, because my wife is taking care of the kids. I'm playing a bit more this year, but I'm just picking my spots.

Can you compare poker to rugby?

They're similar to me. When I've coached kids or spoke at banquets for rugby clubs, I've always asked the kids to think about playing rugby from a helicopter view. You're in your body on the field, but you have to see the field from up here. You have to know where people are going to be before they're there. In poker, I'll be sitting at table 260, and table 273 might be three tables over, but I'll hear a conversation going on. Later in that tournament, I'll already know stuff about that person. Even at the end of the table, a guy will be whispering something to someone after a hand, and I'll pick that up and use it somewhere down the road.

What does it mean for you to be inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame?

It's humbling. Without me being introduced to rugby and vice versa, I wouldn't have any of my kids. I wouldn't have my office, my bride, my Irelynnd. I wouldn't have the goods, the bads and the differences in my life, and I like my life. It's an accumulation of a rugby life. Going into the hall of fame is big in any sport. This is a big thing, knowing that my peers have voted me into the club. I've been getting a couple hundred e-mails a day. I got an e-mail from a coach from 25 years ago. It's mind boggling. I've got people flying in from all over the country to go to the banquet. 

Anybody who can't be there who you wish could be there?

That's an easy one. That would be Mickey Fanning, rest in peace. He's the one who took me with his brother to rugby practice. He was a mentor to me. He died about 10 years ago, way before his time. (Pause to wipe away tears.) You can invite someone to introduce you, and ceremonially, I picked him. He was a good guy. I still talk to his wife. Oh, and I want to see my kids there. The guys I played with and my friends, they know what we did. Garrett watched me play once. I got to play one game with my son. He would have been 16 or 17, and I was probably 45. Most of my kids see the plaques and hear the stories. They are my best fans. 

Do you miss traveling all over the world?

There's goods and bads. When I was younger, I got to do a lot of stuff. I can't do it any more. It's not for everybody. It's just how my life wound up. I've had a nice trip along the way. I consider Quincy home now. My wife was born and raised here. All of her family is here. Now when I talk to my friends and say, "I can't wait to get home," that's Mahopec. That's home, my little country town. My mom's meatballs are still number one.