Three WSOP bracelets, a WPT title, over eight million dollars in tournament winnings and at least as much in cash games – Barry Greenstein is a true poker legend. But the PokerStars ambassador is above all an eminently friendly character to whom we take pleasure in listening. Gaelle Jaudon is bringing us this exclusive interview.
Somuchpoker: First, How was your WSOP ?
Barry Greenstein: I won a little bit of money, but not as much as I hoped. The WSOP is always a chance to win a lot of money. I only had two deep runs where I was a chip leader late. When I was a chip leader with 24 left, I ended up 18th, and when I was chipleader with 8 left, I ended up 6th, so it wasn’t big cash. Now that they pay 15%, it’s pretty easy for me to cash. I cash almost half of the time now because they pay 15% when before, I used to cash maybe 30% of the time. It’s a little misleading because they have some events when you get to re-enter and try multiple flights on small events, but I usually end up playing almost 50% cash. Last year, I was chip leader in four events, but I didn’t win either. I also had two kids who got married during the WSOP, so I missed several events.
SMP: You’ve been playing in the WSOP for 28 years now, and you started when it was still running at Binion’s. It’s obviously completely different today in many ways. What did you like most at that time which no longer exists today?
B.G: The deli! The deli at Binion’s was definitely better than the deli at Rio today! They had really good beef brisket and corn beef at the deli here. I mean, I like it at the Rio, because it’s so big and impressive. If you’re at the WSOP, you have to do it one time; it’s even impressive for me to see so many players at these tournaments.
SMP: On the other hand, what changes do you enjoy the most?
B.G: I don’t think it changed that much; it’s just that the poker is getting bigger. That’s the main changes; it’s bigger and more popular. Over the years at the Rio, we had to open more and more rooms to accommodate the players. If you go back to the earlier days when I started playing, you often could not tell that people were playing poker, as it was hidden. It wasn’t so popular, and it went from that to something huge and even a sport with spectators. That’s the big change over the last 30 years.
SMP: Did you ever think it would become something so popular?
B.G: Of course not, nobody could have imagined it. Lyle Berman was talking about how he wanted to start the World Poker Tour with Steve Lipscomb and how people would want to watch it on TV. We all had the opportunity to invest in that at the start, and we just didn’t think they would make it. Many top players said, “I’m not going to let them see my whole cards on TV.” Probably, they didn’t want people to see how they were playing and be embarrassed. Even occasional poker players didn’t think it would take off as it did.
SMP: What is the funniest or weirdest thing you ever witnessed during WSOP?
B.G: I never used to play tournaments. I went to the WSOP mostly for ash games. That might surprise a lot of people, but in the 90s, the fields were really small, and you were winning more money in the cash games. Obviously, if you won a tournament, it would be good money, but it was kind of hard to think about that when you could do pretty well in the cash games. I started playing events when I decided to win a bracelet and before that, I used to only play two events during the series: the Main Event and the Deuce to Seven event. When I played the Deuce to Seven, I told people that I would give money to charity if I won. Now I don’t do that anymore for two reasons: First, I can’t afford that anymore and second, I play many more events, so it’s a big investment now. Before I was playing maybe 4/5 tournaments a year, so it wasn’t a big deal to give my winnings to charity, and in 2004, I cross-booked the Deuce to Seven with Doyle Brunson. We bet, and I won the tournament, so I gave the tournament’s winnings to charity, and I kept Doyle’s money; that was a lot of fun.
SMP: You witnessed the evolution of poker and the internet revolution. What was your feeling when people started playing online?
B.G: Well, it wasn’t a big deal as it was really small at the beginning because there were no high stakes. It was different because for me, poker is watching people, and there is a big psychological component. I always try to read my opponents and guess what they’re thinking based on how they act and their hesitations. For me, poker online was like… poker in plastic wrap. You had no clue what was going on, so it was very different. It was more like playing a video game than a poker game. I didn’t take it very seriously, but there was a generation of 17 to 25 years old who took it very seriously. The approach was more analytical than people like me, even though I was a mathematician. I still see poker as more of a psychological game than a logical game. But obviously, the online players didn’t have the psychological part and had to look at the numbers and track how people played. It’s a very different approach to the game, and initially, those players were behind. But eventually, they passed us because they made a science out of poker. When they came to live poker, they had to adjust because obviously, they had a lot of new information and new types of players. But the good players always adjust to a new environment, whether it’s live or online. We saw those young online players become very good 30-year-old live players.
SMP: You’re a poker ambassador for PokerStars. How do you think the game should still be improved? What should the poker industry and the players focus on?
B.G: In fact, I don’t really think about that question too much. My perspective through the years is that people still have to work on how they act. We still have players who criticize the players and the staff. For example, we have a lot of new dealers at the WSOP, and it’s rough, especially the first two weeks at the mix games when we can see a dealer dealing games they’ve never seen before. It’s no surprise to me that they make mistakes, even more with the long hours they’re doing, and the payout which is not that great. You have to be powered but a lot of players like to put the blame on the dealers. That’s something that really annoys me.
SMP: What advice would you have liked someone to give you when you started your career?
B.G: The game evolved, and when I started playing, I was one of the best young players because the game wasn’t that advanced, or at least with the people I was playing with. So, I didn’t really need advice, but I remember one of the players whose name was Mc Gill. I was 17 years old and was playing in a game in college.
I lost a pot, and McGill said to me, “What are you crying about? You’re doing the best second thing in life, playing poker and losing!” I remember it struck me because I was doing a lot of sports in college and never complained. If someone hurt me in football, I would get up and not let them know. You don’t let people know you’re weak in any way, physically or psychologically. When he said that, it lasted for a lifetime because that’s not who I am; I am not a person who complains. You don’t see me dejected very often, complaining about how unlucky I’ve been or how bad someone played, etc. If I get beaten, I don’t want to be sexist, but I take it like a man! That’s just what I was like when I was young and how I am now when I’m older. At a poker table, if someone cries and whines, everybody at the table is probably happy about it; they enjoy your misery! So that piece of advice he gave me lasted because I don’t want to give them that satisfaction.
In your game, are there some habits that you’ve had through the years, and on the other side, what did you stop doing? How has your game evolved over the years?
I think my game has held up quite well. You always need to make changes, and often, you don’t even notice the changes because so many things that you do are based on what other people are doing, so you adapt all the time. It’s very hard for me to say what the changes are because it’s a constant evolution. It’s like growing up. We may not notice that we have, but we are different. You get experience; you learn all the time from what other people are doing, and if you don’t adapt, then you die. That’s just the way life and competition is. If you can’t adapt, then you don’t make it.
SMP: I read in an interview that you always like to play in a tournament from the beginning when many pros like to register late. Why this choice?
B.G: There was a study on that and late regging probably gives you the highest chance of cashing because a lot of people get knocked out close to the money. However, it also decreases your chances of winning because you don’t get the chance to build up a big stack. If you think about it logically, all the bad players are there at the beginning, and the worst players get eliminated in the first hours. So, I want to be there to take their chips. Of course, I get unlucky and bust, but it’s the way poker tournaments are. Some people like to late register for different reasons. The main reason is that poker is exhausting psychologically, so it’s easier if people can play six hours instead of nine. But for me, even at my age, poker doesn’t put me down because so much is based on experience. I can play ten to twelve hours of poker, which I’ve done for 50 years, and maybe at 70 years, I’ll start feeling tired and late register, but it isn’t the case yet. I do some things to relax my mind while I’m playing. When I was younger, I would study everything that went on at the table very carefully to learn what people were doing, but I wasn’t playing many tournaments during the year. Now at the beginning of the tournament, I don’t study the table very carefully. I look at interesting hands and big pots, but these days, I believe that if I watch my first table very carefully, it won’t be worth that much. Half the people will get knocked out in the first hours, and even if I learn some things that may help me in one hand, it probably won’t work later in the tournament. So, it’s one of the things I do today to rest my mind and get more intense when we approach the money. Obviously, when we are in the money, I try to pay 100% attention, but for the first few hours I try to be more relaxed.
SMP: Through all the different people you’ve met in poker, who are the players who made the biggest impression on you?
B.G: Like I said, when I started playing, poker was smaller, and I was playing with people around my age all the time. Around 13 years old, I was playing with 13/14-year-old kids; I was playing with my friends in college and university, and I was always one of the best players at that time, so I couldn’t really learn from the other players. It would have been different now if I was a young player today at the WSOP. But from my evolution, I couldn’t learn from the internet, and we had no poker books. It was very different for me than it is for a young player now who has a lot of material to learn. That opportunity wasn’t there for me. People think I’m bragging about being so good, but it’s just that there was no one to look up; we had nothing. One of the first players that I looked at and impressed me was a guy named Brian “Sailor” Roberts who won the WSOP in 1975. Poker became legal in California, and I’d already played a lot in Illinois where I grew up. I went to California and the bet sizing was a lot better than mine. I just learned that I was over betting a lot of time. If I thought someone had a flush draw, I would put a big bet and Sailor would make a more thoughtful bet. He wouldn’t put them all in and knock them out; he would put a bet that would make their call wrong because they wouldn’t mathematically be getting the right price. His bet sizing was different than mine, and he definitely made me think which made me a better player watching what he did.
SMP: Throughout your career, what was your most difficult challenge?
B.G: I don’t know about the biggest challenge because poker is more a day at a time thing. Each day, you try to win and try to do the best that you can. The challenge is more one of lifetime, grinding out a living, taking care of your family. Probably the biggest challenge is building a life around poker. Now I’m looking back, I didn’t know that, and I wish that I did. I would try to make sure to be always there for my children growing up. I didn’t try that much until my youngest kid was about 13 years old. I try to be a good father, but it’s difficult when you’re a poker player because sometimes you play late hours, and you don’t get up in the morning to see them. I did that for the most time during my 30s and 40s. I played poker through the night and at 7 in the morning, I’d drive my kids to school. My time with my kids when I tried to talk to them and teach them was often on our way to school. Now that they’re all grown up, I have six kids, I’m really thinking that I didn’t give them enough quality time because some of them are doing okay and others are faltered. When I was playing, I had nannies with my kids, so the biggest challenge is being a good parent while being a poker player. That for sure is the toughest thing to balance.
SMP: What are you most proud of?
B.G: I don’t really know when I look back at it. Poker got so big and popular that it made us able to make an impact on other people, a positive impact. Players today can’t understand that, but when poker came on television and had a real boom, we would have people with cancer or other terrible diseases who wanted to talk to you and spend some time. I did that in Las Vegas and other cities, and we had an impact on someone’s life in a positive way, either monetarily or by spending time with people. As a player, a lot of time you question your existence. You tell yourself what are you doing to better the world. You have to question that. I could have been a mathematician, and I went in a different direction. But during the poker boom, I didn’t have to question that because I could see I was having a good impact. The things I was doing was not only entertaining people and bringing some fun into their lives, but it was improving their lives in some way and that’s what I felt. It’s one of the things my dad was proud of when he was helping me to edit my book. It’s more a book where I’m warning you that there are other things besides poker. The poker profession isn’t for everyone, and I talk more about the negative aspects than the positives. You need to try to put poker in its place and make sure that people have a life, the quality of life is the one thing that people should be looking for. I see a lot of people get too much into poker when they could have had a more well-rounded life. So, I tried to contribute to poker literature in that way. I tried to show people that they should balance their life around poker.
SMP: Your book, Ace on the River became a real reference in poker, and in an interview, you said that it became kind of a family book. What is the story around the writing of that book?
B.G: Every day I came home from a poker game and had some thoughts, I wrote them down on paper, and then I started to write them on my computer under the title “Stream of Consciousness book.” Each day, I wrote something which I thought was a valuable lesson or an interesting story. I did that during at least a year and ended up turning it into a book. But the way I turned it into a book was also with my family. I came from an educated family. My dad was the principal at school, my older sisters became professors, etc. I wrote it and told them that a lot of this stuff is more psychology than poker and that you might be interested. All my family read it and liked it a lot, even if they didn’t understand poker. They learned about my life, and I remember my oldest sister said to me that it was almost like science-fiction to her. It’s very different about something they knew nothing of, and they liked the way I explained it. It let my family know what I was doing. We are a very close family, and they helped me to edit it. They all gave suggestions and helped me be a better writer. My dad had written books, and they were all probably better writers than I was. I was the mathematician of the family! I got stuck in one chapter and my niece, who is a correspondent for the Time Magazine, helped me too. Everyone who could help in the family was all hands-on-deck and had something to say. It made a difference. When you write a book it never really stops; you keep editing it, trying to make it better, and my family was there to do that with me. My dad was 90 years old at the time, and he could work all night long on a paragraph or a chapter to improve the flow, etc. He did this around one year, and I told him that he was going to kill himself for that book, but that’s how much my family was involved in my project.
SMP: We know how difficult it is to stay pro at poker for so long; it can be a real rollercoaster financially and emotionally. How did you manage to adapt to the evolution of the game and stay competitive?
B.G: Like I told you earlier, it’s an evolution. I don’t do it now, but when they started to do videos, I made some for some sites. I still look at people, maybe not as much as I should today, but when Patrick Antonius was doing PLO videos for Phil Ivey’s site, I definitely watched it and the same for Phil Galfond. He’s a very respected poker thinker, and I looked at his work. Nowadays, it’s easy to get knowledge for someone who’s not experienced at poker. Obviously, you still need to play, only reading and watching is not going to make you a tough player, but it’s certainly different from when I was coming up. We couldn’t see experienced players play and watch the whole cards to see how they were thinking.
SMP: What would you say is the biggest asset in your game?
B.G: I think I’m kind of made to be a poker player. I’m very strong psychologically, I can handle the ups and downs, and I’m good mathematically; more like the concept of mathematics rather than numbers mathematic, to understand what is going on in the game. Certainly, numbers are important, and you have to learn over time for the bet sizings and calling people’s bets. So, to answer the question, the assets I have are understanding the mathematics and how they apply to the game, my understanding of other people and my understanding of myself, which is the psychological side.
SMP: What do you think about GTO solver like PIO with your mathematics background?
B.G: I think they may think they’re solving poker, but they’re not considering it at its highest level because it’s a psychological game. Someone looks at their cards and reacts and doesn’t play the way you think they will. Whenever you reduce it to just the numbers, you’re missing a very important part of the game; numbers are only one of the components. Most of those people don’t really understand how game theory applies to poker. Many people know there is an Alberta group that found a solution to HU Limit hold’em, for example, and people know about bots. But those bots solving the game are not playing at the highest level. You can create a bot who beats the game, but you can’t create a bot that plays at the highest level and exploits people with their weaknesses. The Alberta group understood that, and they created better bots that didn’t play GTO but adjusted to what other people were doing. There were different bots, aggressive, passive, etc., and they were tested against their opposition. So, I’m not saying that bots can’t make great poker players; they are, but the GTO players usually don’t understand what GTO really means and gets you. It doesn’t bring you solutions that win at higher expected values. Most of those people are missing something. GTO is a great weapon in their arsenal, but there is a lot more. For Blackjack, you can create a program that is better than humans, but it’s not a psychological game; you don’t need to adjust to your opponent. So, I don’t think GTO is a much bigger deal as some people think it might be.
SMP: Because some people are afraid that GTO means the end of the game.
B.G: Yeah, they’re wrong. If they were right, we would be seeing all these people win all the money, and they’re not. They may be winning more online than live because you miss the psychological information online, but they will have issues live. They’re not going to be able to exploit the weak players as well as a good live player.
SMP: What would you think are the qualities and weaknesses of the pros today versus the old-school players?
B.G: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was talking about. The weaknesses are psychological. A lot of the younger players might not be as strong mentally to be able to take wins and losses, to be able to know what other people are doing, to be able to run their lives right. Especially because some of the young players can maybe go into bad areas and are surrounded by drugs, alcohol, parties and strip clubs in Las Vegas. Poker became a younger game, and people don’t have enough maturity, even if they are already decent poker players, but they’re not mature people. The difference you see in poker now from when I was young is that people who survived when I was younger were tougher than the modern players.
SMP: You’re also known for your high stakes cash games and crazy hands you played against the biggest names. In 2003, I saw you even won 5 million dollars during the WSOP against players like Doyle Brunson and Cheep Reese. What would be the craziest cash game you have ever played?
B.G: That one wasn’t the craziest. I remember the craziest was when Omaha Eight or Better was a new game. I wasn’t good at it and neither were the other people; we were all learning the game. I was playing at the commerce 400/800, and we had two players who were playing every hand. One of them was a very well-known player, Hamid Dastmalchi, who won the WSOP Main Event in 1992, and he hadn’t played that game before. The other player was Tommy Le who almost never played Omaha Eight either. We were a bunch of people playing this game at pretty high stakes without really knowing what we were doing. That was a super juicy game. There was a hand where they raised each other, and somebody knocked the other out, and they started screaming at each other about how bad they played. But the truth is that everybody was playing bad; they could barely read the board! What happened is that they went into a big argument, and I was saying please don’t start a fight because I don’t want that table to break up; it’s too juicy! I was up for a lot of money. But they started throwing stuff at each other, first food and then one of them dumped a boiled soup on the other one; it was craziness! I was saying, please don’t break this game, but it was getting so out of control. One even threw a knife at the other; it cut him, knocking people over on the floor. It got so crazy that they broke up the game! So, that’s definitely the wildest I remember, a food fight in the middle of the poker game which broke up the best game I ever played. They banned Hamid and Tommy Le, supposedly for life, but Tommy is still playing here in LA, so I guess in LA they ban people for life, but life doesn’t mean more than a month so…No matter what you do, they always let people back in, but when they told Hamid he was banned for life, he never showed up again and people haven’t seen him since. He was a guy who was playing poker every day, got banned after this food fight, and I don’t know if anyone has ever seen him playing poker since!
SMP: What are your next challenges and projects?
B.G: I don’t really have challenges or projects. Actually, I have one challenge but it’s not about poker. I haven’t golfed for a long time, and I just started playing again last year. I used to be a good golfer when I was young, so my challenge, because I’m 63 years old, is to see how good I can get. I know I’m going to get watched from this point. The fun thing as you get older is to do things better when you’re a true competitor. I want to play poker better than anyone my age has done. I want to see how good I could be at golf because I know I’m going to be worse from this point on. Today, I’m working on my golf more than my poker game. I practice a lot of my putting because last time I was horrible. So that’s my challenge. And I’m still a father with 6 kids, and I’ve seen my kids grew up and become good people and for that be …So it’s not that I’m close to dying or anything like that, but just that at this point in my life, I enjoy having a good quality of life. If I want to see improvement, I look forward at my children more than myself now.
SMP: What’s your favorite activity besides poker? Golfing?
B.G: Yeah, lately I’ve been golfing almost every day, and poker maybe 2/3 times a week. I don’t play very long. I still use poker to try to pay the bills, but my life is pretty relaxed. I’m not working on writing projects anymore; I’m enjoying life, spending time with my kids and my partner; that’s about it, enjoying life! I don’t really travel anymore that much; the WSOP is my one big event I go to once a year.
SMP: And where do you play poker the most?
B.G: In LA, we have two of the biggest poker rooms in the world. One at the Commerce Casino and the other at the Gardens Casino, and I spend my time between those two spots. They both have around 100 poker tables.
SMP: For people who want to know you better, what’s your everyday life look like?
B.G: Oh, I’m a really lazy person, and I try to act like a good guy! I’m not a party person, I’m not someone who hangs out with people that much. If I know a place will have a lot of people, I will probably not go there! Again, I’ve had a lot of experiences. I’ve traveled the world, and I had a very good life. I look at it now like I’m done with all that stuff. I don’t want to do things that are very formal; I don’t want to dress up and wear suits; I just want to relax, have a good time with my partner and go to dinner with her. I just want to enjoy life, but I’m not the kind of person who likes to enjoy it with a group of people. Most people don’t have an opportunity to get close to me, they can see me through a poker table and see how I am there. That’s kind of the stage I am in my life now.
Interview by Gaelle Jaudon