Interview With Barry GreensteinBy Steve Marzolf
When telling the legend of Barry Greenstein - because he's truly a player who's been in the game long enough to earn that title - the first detail to spring to mind is his long-held tradition of donating tournament winnings to charity. Now repping for PokerStars and author of Ace on the River, Greenstein took some time out to explain how his game has changed lately, and why the donations he's become so well-known for are getting harder to come by.
- How old were you when you started playing poker?
- I started playing when I was about 12 years old. My dad was in the army, and he taught me when I was about 4 or 5 years old. When I was about 12 years old, some kids I went to school with said they were playing poker and asked me to join.
- Were you immediately good?
- Yeah, I've always been good at games. I played games with my family a lot, and I won from the beginning.
- You left a job at Symantec - the software company that makes Norton Anti-Virus, among other things - to play poker. What was the story behind that?
- I took the job at Symantec because I couldn't get custody of my step-kids as a professional gambler. I've been a professional gambler since I was 12 years old, and my attorney said, 'You're never going to get it as a poker player. You've got to get a normal job.' I had gotten a Bachelor's degree in computer science, so I went to San Jose, got a job and we won the court case. And it ended up that I was with a start up, and the start up became known as Symantec. And then this six-month project took a year and a half. I had never had a normal job before, and I didn't realize that normal jobs don't pay what poker jobs pay. When I was at Symantec, I had basically gone through all my savings. I had always lived high off the hog. I had three kids, and by the time this project was over I had run all out of money.
- So you retired?
- Because there were some interesting things I did at Symantec, I stayed for seven years. But eventually, when poker became legalized in California, I couldn't afford to work at Symantec anymore. 'Retired' is kind of a funny word; the actuality of it is that I went back to making money because I could now make money playing poker much more than I could ever make at Symantec.
- You've earned a reputation for giving tournament winnings away to charity - how did that start?
- I don't give all my winnings to charity anymore. I did in 2003, 2004, 2005 because I used to make a lot of money in the cash games, but then what happened is I didn't know how much the tournament circuit would pick up. I used to only play 4 or 5 tournaments a year. So giving the tournament winnings away to charity wasn't that big of a deal then. But once I started giving 100% of it away, it ended up costing me for two years, like $750,000 per year, and I couldn't afford it anymore. And the worst part is the money I used to make in cash games kind of dried up because everyone was playing tournaments. After a couple years of this, I couldn't afford to do that anymore.
- Are there any side games that you still play in?
- Well the problem is there are, but they're not as juicy as they used to be. They're tough. The problem is that the poker dollar, being spent by the losing player, is being spent differently. Some of the money is going out on the Internet. A lot of the money is going to tournaments. And a lot of money is dried up. It's not as easy to make a lot of money playing high-stakes poker as it was many years ago when I did it. It would force me to play much lower stakes and put in hours that I would have put in when I was younger.
- You've spent some time playing with Larry Flynt - that must have been an interesting side game.
- I think the funniest or the most interesting thing is the conversation. There was a point where Larry was offering up to $1 million on people in Congress when they were trying to impeach Bill Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky thing. So Larry got a lot of women to come forward with stories about the people in Congress. And Larry said to me that he could bring down the whole Congress if he wanted to. But many of the stories were taped phone conversations that legally weren't admissible. Eventually he decided that he was only going to mail people who were hypocrites and came out saying what a terrible thing Bill Clinton had done when Larry had much worse on them. He pretty much could have outed anyone he wanted, but what happened was that after he mailed one guy, everyone stopped talking. It was just a bunch of hypocrites.
- But you got all the dirt over the poker table?
- Yeah, I had all the dirt.
- On your web site you assign music to various players according to their style and personality? What songs would be included in your game?
- I do have a song for myself. I have my personal song list on my iPod on my web site so you can get an idea of what I'm listening to when I'm playing poker online. I've got a really eclectic taste in music, and part of it is because I always appreciated music when I was young. I've got 6 kids, and we've always shared music. That's why people are surprised to look at my song list and comment, 'You have songs on there that make you look like a 16-year-old girl.' That's because my daughter was 16 years old and I shared songs with her also.
- You've said in past interviews that the field of young, new players doesn't impress you too much. Has anyone changed your mind?
- No. It takes a while to get good at poker, and a lot of getting good is building up an encyclopedia of handling situations. And there are definitely some young players I wouldn't want any piece of on the Internet because the Internet is a different game than a live game. And still there are some young players who play fundamentally one game, maybe Omaha. I don't play that much Omaha except in tournaments and when someone specializes, it gives them an edge over someone who plays a lot of games. So even live I'm sure there are players I wouldn't really want to play at their specialty. But they don't...I haven't seen any young players who, when you take in all the components of playing live poker, that scare me in any way or I say, 'Oh, that guy is really a top player.' There just aren't any. The only young player who's not that young anymore - he's over 30 - is Phil Ivey. I think he's a decent player if you consider him young. There are players with talent, but they don't have the experience at all the games. And some of the young talented players that I've gotten to play with...Nam Le is a young talented player. Patrik Antonius is a young talented player. Gus Hanson is still kind of young. And David Benyamine. They all have talent. I'm not sure once they get more seasoning and get better at all the games what will happen, how good they'll all become.
- You've been at this a long time now, has your career chilled at all out lately?
- No, I'd like to say that I don't need to make money anymore, but really with all the money I spent in the past few years and going around to tournaments, I still need to play poker to support my family.
- Will you stop when you don't need money anymore?
- There was a point where I was going to stop, but then poker got so big that there was no reason to stop. I was going to go to other things. And then with all the televised poker and all that, I was right in the middle of that. And then I said, 'I can't stop now. I have to see where this goes.' Even still, poker has now become like a big sport, and the nice thing about poker compared to the other sports is that you can still play it as you get older. So Doyle Brunson kind of set the standard for tournaments poker, and he's continued to set the standard for the different ages he goes though. So he's put the bar down for me, and now I have to compete with him. People don't realize how amazingly well he plays for 72 years old. There is no way I expect to play as well at that age, but hopefully I'll still be in it just to see.
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