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Legends of Poker: Barry Greenstein

Legends of Poker: Barry Greenstein 0001

"I knew I was going to have to quit Symantec and go back to playing poker to support my family. I finally stopped working at Symantec in 1990 (after hold'em had been legal in California for a few years and the games had at first been exceptional), but the no-limit games eventually dried up, and I had to do something I never thought I'd do - play limit hold'em." Barry Greenstein, 2005.

The rest, as they say, is history. Barry's words sum up what he went through to get where he is today: one of the ten best high-limit poker players in the world. Is this statement arguable? Not from my vantage point. The statement is noteworthy however, because poker players usually have to get a job to support their poker habit, but not in Barry's case. In fact, with Mr. Greenstein, most things simply aren't what they appear.

Barry was born on December 30th, 1954, in Chicago, Illinois. His father taught him the rudiments of five-card draw when he was four-years old, and while the family played the usual board games like Monopoly, he preferred playing canasta and gin rummy with his mother (who boosted his confidence by letting him win).

He recalls playing his first organized poker game in 1966 when he was twelve, and he won $24. I wonder what would have happened if Barry had lost?

By the time he was 20 and graduating from college (which he finished in three years with honors) Barry was playing in games where he could win $1000 on a good night. When he was in graduate school, that win amount had tripled.

Although his college degree was in computer science, he spent another 10 years in graduate school studying mathematics - supporting himself by playing poker. Although he has never received his Ph.D., Barry had a dream of getting an M.D. and doing research on curing diseases. Instead, what he has done as a tournament player may help more people than his dream ever could have.

In the early 1980's, Barry and his wife (at the time), Donna, moved to California and took a job with a software company which later became known as Symantec. The programming job didn't pay much, but he enjoyed writing the product questions and answers, and being on the ground floor of a new company was exciting. It was also a lot of work, but when the window of opportunity was open, Barry headed to the Cameo Club cardroom in Palo Alto.

He worked his way from the $200 buy-in game to the $3,000 buy-in game over several years, and eventually quit Symantec to play full time poker again. It was shortly after this that Barry had to start playing limit hold'em, which he says "was like watching paint dry - I had to play twelve hours a day, seven days a week, just to make ends meet."

Those $30-$60 games led to the $80-$160, but not until Barry grounded himself firmly in the game of limit hold'em. By this time Barry was single again, but today he and his partner, Alexandra, have six children, and Barry provides income to thousands of other children through his charity work.

In 1992, Barry played in the $10,000 WSOP championship, where he finished 22nd. Soon thereafter he met Mimi Tran at the Cameo Club, and they struck a deal that involved him helping her with her poker game, and her teaching him the Vietnamese language. Barry recalls that she handled her money very well, and Mimi has since become one of the top women players in poker. In fact, that may be a little condescending to imply that Mimi is just a "women's player" since she regularly beats upper limit cash games dominated by men.

Overall, Barry has played some very fine poker at the WSOP, taking 4th place in the $5,000 No Limit Deuce to Seven Draw tournament in 1997, and cashing in two events the following year. 2003 was his "breakout" year, and Barry started by winning $1 million dollars at Larry Flynt's Poker Challenge Cup.

Soon, Barry could also be seen on national TV playing on the World Poker Tour. He had a fifth place finish in the Party Poker Million, and Barry also won the Jack Binion World Poker Open event in Tunica, Mississippi for $1.2 million. In 2004, Barry won his first WSOP gold bracelet in the $5,000 No-Limit Deuce to Seven Draw tournament and this past year (2005) he won his second gold bracelet in an Omaha event.

Believe it or not, Barry contributes 100% of his tournament earnings to charity. His main charity is Children Incorporated, which sponsors some 15,000 children in over 20 countries. Because the IRS sees his wins as income, Barry has to pay the taxes on each win - so every time he wins, it costs him money! Although he may not be able to continue to donate 100% indefinitely, his giving nature has convinced other well-known players to help support their favorite charities also.

Barry's table demeanor is viewed with great respect by poker's best players. Says Doyle Brunson, "His sense of fairness is unequaled to the point that he is almost always asked to arbitrate when there are disputes." Greenstein and Brunson have been friends since Barry began playing in the big game in Las Vegas in 2001. The game is now legendary in its own right, with players like Chau Giang, Chip Reese, Bobby Baldwin and Lyle Berman playing $4,000/$8,000 limit on a regular basis.

Since that time he has captured the attention and respect of the game's other regular players, as well as players from around the world who he meets at tournaments. Because of this respect, his new book, "Ace on the River", which is an advanced poker guide with a foreword by Doyle Brunson, will probably sell briskly.

For those of you who want to play poker for a living, keep in mind that Barry says his average win in poker games has always been much larger than his average loss. The vast majority of middle and lower limit players that I know have trouble taking a loss because they just hate to quit losers. Barry, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of keeping yourself in the right psychological shape to win. He states that he has little trouble quitting when the conditions say he should, and his decision is not usually based on his current win or loss in a particular game.

Barry refuses to state exactly who he believes to be the best player in the world (although the chapter in his book about this question has a photo of Doyle on the first page), he does list many of the top players at his website. When he first published this list, I stated publicly that I was shocked and dismayed that I was left off, in spite of the fact that I've never played in the plush "Bobby's Room" (named for Bobby Baldwin) where the big game is held at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. I also stated that I would either throw a stink-bomb into Bobby's Room, or boycott all fruits and vegetables that started with the letter "p" until Barry considered adding my name to the list.

I figured my chances of getting on the list were about as good as hell freezing over, but Barry has agreed to my demands. He has stated, for the record, that although he does not believe in hell, he will consider adding my name to the list as soon as the pool in my backyard (in Phoenix, Arizona) has turned into a giant popsicle. So I got that goin' for me.

Barry simply does not play in that many tournaments, so he won't ever win 10 WSOP bracelets like Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan have won. However, it is a simple fact that he is one of the rare breed of poker players who have learned to excel in both tournaments and live games. And in Barry's case, the live game is often the biggest in the world.

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