March 1, 2007
A chai roller rakes in the chips in Gardena and Vegas
Except for the Victorian-style chandeliers, Hustler Casino in Gardena looks like an oversized neighborhood card room, with its round indoor arena filled with dozens of poker and blackjack tables. Several hundred people fill the room at any hour of the day, all of them playing cards, or waiting to get a seat. There are no looky-loos.
Those who come to Hustler are there to gamble, at whatever level they choose, from Easy Poker in a glass-encased room in the middle of the floor to games that run into the many thousands of dollars.
In spite of its name, Hustler Casino does not feature busty, scantily clad women. Employees dress conservatively, and those who come here to gamble don't even notice them. The gamblers here are a varied lot, all ages and races, many of them risking paychecks or pensions. But there are also some high rollers. Some very high rollers.
At the farthest reaches of the casino is the main table. And, one day last fall, sitting there, facing the room, was one of the highest rollers of them all: publisher Larry Flynt, best known for his Hustler magazine and stores, whose early struggles were portrayed in the movie "The People vs. Larry Flynt." Flynt owns the casino, so he's king of this table, and he likes to compete with some of the world's best poker players. To Flynt's right is Phil Ivey, known to television viewers as the "Tiger Woods of poker," a brilliant, relentless player who pounces on weakness as if he were indeed a tiger going after wounded prey.
Across from Flynt, sitting with his back to the room, is Barry Greenstein, a man in his early 50s, whose beard, receding hairline, deep-set eyes, and slim frame give him a serious aura. Greenstein is also a poker superstar. And yet ... he seems out of place at this casino, as if he were a middle-aged yeshiva bocher who has suddenly found himself in an alien, sinful environment. Perhaps to distance himself from his surroundings, he maintains the unemotional, detached air of a researcher studying the native habits of big-time poker players.
Greenstein is a passionate student of the game, a man who's made a lifelong study of poker and has written a book about it, "Ace on the River" (Last Knight Publishing Co., 2005), aimed at professionals, or would-be ones.
He's well-educated and articulate, and he's also generous, having given millions to charities: $1.5 million to Children, Inc., which provides food, medicine and clothing to needy children in 21 countries, including the United States; plus another $1.5 million to a dozen other worthy beneficiaries, including the high school he attended in Chicago.
Because of all this, he represents the transition that poker has been making from smoky, disreputable card rooms to glittery tournaments showcased on ESPN and other national TV networks.
And like more than a few of the big names of the poker world, Greenstein is Jewish. Actually, he says that he's "of Jewish heritage" and is aware of the traditions, but that he doesn't "practice the religion." Still, he acknowledges that "the morals and ethics of Judaism are a part of me." Is his giving so much to the needy an example of that?
"It's a mitzvah," he said. "It makes me happy to have the opportunity to do the right thing."
Greenstein is not the only Jew at poker's highest levels. There's Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, who wears a chai necklace and is known for his nonstop chatter and emotional outbursts. And Eli Elezra, an Israeli.
"When Eli plays poker," Greenstein notes on his Web site, "his beautiful wife Hila usually sits behind him. After most hands, especially ones that he loses, Eli and Hila review the play in Hebrew."
There are top-notch players with names like Berman, Fischman, Heimowitz, Oppenheim, Seidel, Gold, Levi, Sklansky and so on, which begs the question: What other regularly telecast sporting competition has such a strong Jewish presence?
Asked why he thinks there are so many high-ranking Jewish poker players, Greenstein comments that Jews often have an affinity for math.
"Although mathematics isn't a big part of poker," Greenstein said, "the type of analytical thinking that's necessary is similar to mathematical analysis."
Born and bred in Chicago, Greenstein earned a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Illinois in the mid-1970s ... and then embarked on a doctoral program. He left before getting his doctorate, in order to work in Silicon Valley, where he was a programmer for the company that became Symantec, a big name in antivirus software. In 1990 he broke free of the workaday world and launched into a full-time poker career.
Is there any other reason why there are so many Jews in big-time poker?
"Jews are more pragmatic than some other cultures about making money," Greenstein said.
The implication in his understated comment is that Jews, having been subjected to economic restrictions and limited opportunities in the past, may have been left with a particular survival trait: fewer qualms about pursuing less than savory ways of making a living.
Apparently -- in spite of poker's newfound glamour under TV klieg lights --Greenstein still sees the game in a shady light. He's written that one of the reasons he gives so much to worthy causes is that he feels he's pursued a "nonproductive profession." In "Ace on the River" he writes, "I have felt the need to justify my role in society. I like to think of myself as a modern-day Robin Hood. By using my wits, I take money from rich people for the benefit of others.... Giving to charity is my way of doing something constructive."
Greenstein is also painfully aware that his gambling has affected his family, especially his two children and four stepchildren, all of them young adults. Gamblers' children, he writes, have "rarely [been] promised anything, because the promise might have been too hard to keep. They may have wanted to play a game with their parent rather than watch a sporting event on which their parent had placed a bet.
They were told [the gambling] was done so they could have toys and clothes and a nice place to live, but all they wanted was a little more of their parent's time." Poignantly, in his book's dedication, he apologizes to his children for his failures "as a parent."
In a world often characterized by feast-or-famine incertitude, Greenstein has generally, but not always, been able to provide for his children's material needs: There was a time, after he left Silicon Valley and moved to Los Angeles, when he racked up more than $1 million in gambling debts. Although he climbed out of that hole and is now in "very good financial shape," he acknowledges that his gambling did not provide his children with what he feels they should have had: more attention.