A 2005 interview with poker champion Barry Greenstein
Originally published in the ACBL Bridge Bulletin
Barry Greenstein is not your ordinary bridge player. A Life Master, he was an avid tournament goer while in graduate school in the 1980s, when he supported himself with poker winnings. He continued playing both games after moving to California to work as a software developer, but poker soon became a more consuming interest. At age 36, he made the decision to quit his job and play poker full-time.
Barry did well in private games, but he was virtually unknown until he began entering poker tournaments, which brought him fame as the most successful cash player of the last decade. He's also the most benevolent. Known as the "Robin Hood of Poker", Barry donates 100 percent of his tournament winnings to charity. In just the last few years, he's given more than $3 million to 14 organizations. The major beneficiaries include Children Incorporated and his alma maters - Bogan High School in Chicago IL and the University of Illinois in Champaign.
Barry, who now lives in Rancho Palos Verdes CA, has six children, ages 16 through 31. He plays in a few poker tournaments a month, plus frequent private games, and has been working on a poker book titled Ace on the River.
Barry still pursues his interest in bridge. Here, he shares his thoughts on what makes poker and bridge so much alike -- and so different.
When do you find time to play bridge?
I play on online, mostly late at night. I do it to relax or procrastinate, and I'm not as competitive as I once was. When I was playing in lots of bridge tournaments, I used to play better as the week went on. Now, playing so sporadically, I find it hard to stay sharp and in tune with the game.
How do your bridge skills translate to poker?
Bridge definitely helped me become a better poker player because I use many of the same strategies. At both poker and bridge, I try to deduce what my opponents hold and then play double-dummy. Bridge also taught me how to think through possibilities and improve my game. I learned a lot from all those years of playing at the club and then sitting up half the night analyzing the hands with friends.
Many of the top poker players seem to have their own philosophies about the game. What's yours?
It's pretty close to my philosophy about bridge. I've always said that the game of bridge is better than all the players. As a mathematician, I see bridge as pure and logical, but everyone who plays it makes mistakes. I took that philosophy to poker. Instead of trying to prove I'm better than other players, I've worked at mastering the subtleties of the game itself and trying to make fewer mistakes than my opponents.
How do you handle the different ethical considerations of each game?
Poker players have to be aware of their opponents as people, and that involves watching their facial expressions, their hesitations, how they're holding their cards. Using this information would be considered cheating at bridge, but it's an integral part of poker.
I'd been developing those "people-reading" skills since I started playing poker at age 13. When I took up bridge, I had to learn to ignore these signals and play analytically. I also had to choose my partners carefully. I had to quit playing with partners who had problems with bidding tempo and voice inflections. I began sensing whether they were at the top or bottom of their bids, and to compensate, I'd feel compelled to use the information against us. I tried to err on the conservative side to avoid being unethical, but they sometimes thought I was punishing our partnership.
You have a reputation as one of the most easy-going players in the poker world. How do you control your emotions?
Bridge and poker are both very emotional games. Poker players make their biggest mistakes when they're "steaming" after a bad beat. That happens at the bridge table, too, and because you also have to deal with a partner, the emotions are even more complex.
My ex-wife and I once had a pretty good bridge partnership, but like many married couples, we argued a lot. I was 35 before I could discuss things at the table with her, or drop the issue and go on. As the more experienced player, I take the blame for that. The partnership did, however, teach me how to stay cool and overcome my emotions during the game, and that's an invaluable skill for a poker player.
How do you explain the recent poker craze?
Televised poker tournaments are like reality TV, but more real because the people are playing with their own money. More than 50 million Americans play poker, so they can relate to the tournament play and even believe it could be them at the final table. They may be right. An unknown who has money and some luck can win a poker tournament, and that extra element of luck adds interest.
Do you enjoy poker as much as bridge?
I find bridge more challenging and stimulating than poker. Poker players claim they have fun playing. For me, it's a job, and enjoyment isn't my primary concern. At poker, I view everyone as an opponent. I'm trying to take their money, so I don't socialize with them away from the table.
You used to read a lot of bridge books. Do you read poker books?
Poker is more psychological, so you can't learn as much about the game from reading as you can with bridge, which is more analytical. Also, most bridge authors are expert players, but many poker authors aren't really skilled enough to teach the game. They write books because they aren't able to make enough money by playing poker for a living.
So here you are …
So you're going to ask why I'm writing a book. The difference between me and other poker authors is that I'm writing this at a time in my career when I don't need to play anymore. The book itself will be unique, too, with higher production values and more advanced content than other poker books. I'm hoping that readers think I write better than other poker players and their ghostwriters -- and that it will be clear to them why I play for a living and why others write books.
How did the book project begin?
I resisted the idea for many years. Then Doyle Brunson asked me to write a chapter for the sequel to his 1974 Super System, the biggest seller of all time. By the time I finished my research, I had more than 100 pages of notes. Doyle said cut it down for his book, or use it to write my own book, so that's what I did.
Anything in the book for bridge players?
I think bridge players will enjoy my book. There's some poker instruction, but the main focus is on psychology and philosophies that can be applied to other competitive activities. I'm working to make this the first instructional poker book that will be readable by mainstream audiences.
The biggest egos: bridge players or poker players?
Bridge players. It's not even close. Bridge is a much more ego-involved game than poker. You can see it in how the players view each other's games. Poker players don't think they can be good at bridge, but bridge players think they can be good at poker. They assume that because they've learned the ultimate card game, they'll be able to play any other card game at an expert level. During the NABCs, I used to play after-hours poker with some big-name bridge champions, and I have to tell you, they were pretty awful.
Barry's book, Ace on the River: An Advanced Poker Guide, was published in June 2005 and is available from Amazon.com
His website is www.barrygreenstein.com