Barry Greenstein

Poker Source: What was your motivation behind writing your book, Ace on the River: An Advanced Poker Guide?

Barry Greenstein: As you probably know, Doyle [Brunson] actually had asked me to write a chapter in Super System and I resisted for a couple years and then took notes. Since I did put a lot of work into writing the chapter (which became much bigger than a chapter) once I got going, I just figured I’d finish it off. So I really had never planned to do anything. Without Doyle bugging me for a couple years, I would have never written the book. But I’m the kind of person that once I get started on a project, I try to do it as well as I can, so I put a lot of energy into it. Ultimately, the motivation was to do something well; any task I approach I try to do well.

The second is I’m often asked questions about how I managed my life as a professional poker player, so I was able to get those answers on paper. So, instead of answering the same questions all the time, people could use my book as reference for that, where I’d have long answers to the questions, instead of short, incomplete answers that I’d normally give people when speaking to them. And the third thing is, as I tell people, we all have a story to tell and so, in my book, I tell my story, basically, of what my life’s been the last forty years in poker. It’s kind of the book I had to give.

PS: The book is different from a lot poker books that are out there right now, in that it’s a lot less strategy than it is, like you said, your story, advice, and things like that. It’s more the “softer” side of poker, as opposed to the hard, “nitty-gritty.”

Barry Greenstein: It’s the life of poker, what you go through as a poker professional. First, let me address the negatives. There are some people saying, well, it’s not an advanced poker guide. They thought [it would discuss] some type of mathematically advanced, sophisticated play. Maybe a better subtitle would’ve been, “The Professional Poker Guide,” because that’s what it is. But, people who already know how to play poker, a lot of them feel my book is the one readable book on the subject of what it is to be a professional poker player. I know I’ve made an effort to read some of the other books that have come out the last couple of years, but they’re very tough for me to read because they’re really dry and they don’t give me anything new. I know how to play as well as the authors or better, and in many cases, I’m seeing things that they’re saying that aren’t right. And the reason that they’re not right is poker is too complicated a game to just say, “This is what you’re going to do with Ace-Queen in this situation,” because it is situational depending on who you’re playing against and what’s gone before. You can say what the plays are, but that’s really a beginner text. So, as far as I’m concerned, all the other books out there, to me, are very rudimentary and they aren’t at a very high level for anyone who is a decent player.

Unlike what most people think, if you talk to skilled players, they almost, to a man, have not read the books that are out there or, if they did, they really didn’t get anything out of them.

PS: I get the sense that that might be where things are headed. People might be more interested in writing and reading books that aren’t always about strategy and more about the people.

Barry Greenstein: Most people don’t need to read about hands, experienced players anyway. Beginning players maybe do, but the experienced players no longer want to read about hands, so yeah, they are interested in the stories.

PS: There has been some controversy lately surrounding the World Poker Tour and its player release form, which essentially gives the WPT permission to do whatever it wants with anything it records. [WPT CEO] Steve Lipscomb even wrote a letter to the poker community to address this recently. Is this issue really as big or as important as some players are making it appear, or is it just a handful of players stirring the pot?

Barry Greenstein: It’s a non-issue. People have picked on the World Poker Tour, which is basically the thing that has made these people famous. It’s kind of funny – there was a point last year where the World Poker Tour and ESPN World Series were doing the same thing. As a matter of fact, people were saying, “We’ll boycott the World Series. They’re taking too much out, they’re not giving enough back.” But because ESPN is bigger than the Travel Channel, nobody went through with it…

But the World Poker Tour, they’ve never made money...there’s money in the stock, but it’s actually not a profitable company.

So, it turned out that everybody signed releases that actually didn’t have an obvious end date. But, the bottom line is that they’ve never abused the power. It’s actually ironic – all these poker players who were, like myself, poker degenerates for all these years and now we got made into celebrities, are now almost biting the hand that made them, saying, “Ok, you made us famous and now you can’t use our likeness anymore.” But, the fact is, if anyone ever complained that they were being used incorrectly, they wouldn’t get used. But none of them do complain because they want to get used. All these people are saying, “Oh, I don’t want to give them these rights,” but they’re begging for themselves to get used in that way.

It’s hysterical. Basically what’s happened is it’s a bunch of kids who got some power trying to use it…It’s a total non-issue. Some people were afraid, and Chris Ferguson among them because now he’s got some [video] game and some other things. He thought that by signing this, technically the World Poker Tour could use him in their game, and he had signed an exclusive contract with Activision, or something like that. And so, he didn’t want to sign something that could potentially give the World Poker Tour power that he didn’t want them to have. But they wouldn’t use him.

The way gambling has always been is by handshakes or by “your word is good” type of thing and, frankly, their word is good. Certainly, Lyle Berman, who I’ve known for years, his word is good. If someone says, “Don’t use me,” he’s not going to use them.

The fact is that nobody has gotten injured by this thing and it’s a non-issue.

PS: One rumor I have heard is that some poker rooms have paid for some players’ entry fees into tournaments without disclosing it to the rest of the field and that there have been talks of a class-action suit to combat this. Have you heard anything?

Barry Greenstein: Well, I know that I’ve had offers for people to pay my entry if I showed up to a tournament. I haven’t ever used it. I think, really, only a few people have had offers like that, but I don’t see what the lawsuit would be. As long as it doesn’t come out of the prize pool, what’s the difference?

PS: I know there were those complaints about the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions, with Brunson, Johnny Chan, and Phil Hellmuth getting added as invites.

Barry Greenstein: That was just wrong. Phil Hellmuth was the only guy that I’ve heard think that something wasn’t done wrong. I mean, they were spending other people’s money. They [the tournament organizers] should be sued. And again, that’s because poker players never would’ve done anything that dishonest. If you go around telling people you have to qualify for a tournament and then let people get in another way, that’s just dishonest.

…that’s because you’re dealing with business people who are just doing what’s the most marketable for them, instead of making it an honest competition. That’s what happens when business people take control of these things.

The funny thing is, people were saying to Phil Hellmuth how terrible it was and he was saying [conversation paraphrased], “Well, I think it’s reasonable that the top three bracelet winners get invited.” And I said, “What if they would’ve invited only the guys who had won the most, and you’re not one of them? It’s Johnny and Doyle.” They could’ve just said that [it’s] Johnny and Doyle, they’ve won more bracelets than anyone else.

And he said, “Well, no, that wouldn’t have been a good thing.”

The shame of it all, and this is the distortion of poker, is, let’s face it, Phil got in for his entertainment value, and the next two guys down are Erik Seidel and Billy Baxter. But, of course, why didn’t they do the top five bracelet winners?

PS: Those guys don’t say a peep.

Barry Greenstein: Yeah, those guys are professionals.

PS: Now for our traditional “Heads-Up” questions, even though there is no possible segue from what we were just discussing. What is your favorite childhood memory?

Barry Greenstein: I can’t really say – I had a pretty good childhood. I don’t have any single memory that stands out.

PS: How has playing poker changed your life?

Barry Greenstein: Well, it’s my job. It’s a job that’s allowed me to make money and to have a lot of freedom. Whereas most people go to work nine to five and struggle, although I’ve played a lot of poker, probably more than I wish I had needed to, if I want to take time off, I’m able to take time off.

PS: What has been your biggest extravagance since turning pro?

Barry Greenstein: I sink a lot of money into my house. So, my biggest extravagance is I bought a real nice house and put a lot of money into making it nicer.

PS: If you weren’t a poker player, how would you be earning a living?

Barry Greenstein: I would’ve either been a math professor, which is what I went through school to be, or a computer programmer, which is nice because you make more money than you do as a math professor. Or, what I really hoped to do was to go to medical school and get an M.D. and do research on curing diseases.

PS: Do you think you might, at any point, pursue anything down the road?

Barry Greenstein: No. I once thought I would, but poker is too big and I’m now able to do enough positive things through poker that this is the obvious path for me to continue on.

PS: What is the worst part of being recognized?

Barry Greenstein: I don’t think there has been a bad part. Poker celebrity is about the best kind of celebrity I can see – where people recognize you and are nice to you, but we don’t get hassled like real “A-Line” celebrities. For a poker player, it’s great because we’re now given a sense of respectability that we didn’t have before. So, I haven’t seen a negative side of it. It’s all good.

Right now, it’s comfortable. I don’t consider it a negative – I get a lot of e-mail that I answer, so it’s time consuming. I get media requests…so I can’t keep up with everything everyone wants me to do. I get invited to a charity tournament every week. There’s one somewhere and people hope I can show up, and I can’t. One thing that people don’t understand is I’m not as wealthy as some people think I am. I still work and play poker; I’ve given a lot of money away and that’s stretched me a little thin. I have to keep playing to make money. So, people think I’ve only got free time. They think of me like the tournament players, where I just play in tournaments, but the fact is, I have a triple schedule. I play tournaments, and as you know, I’ve been giving away the money to charity. Then I have to work for a living when the tournaments aren’t going on and even while they’re going. When I play in tournaments, often at night I’ll go play in the side games. So I have that, and then I have my media responsibilities. I don’t market myself as well as some of the other well known players, but I have a lot of media commitments, also. So, between those three, and I still am a father, too, it more than takes up my time.

I wouldn’t call it a negative, it’s just part of my responsibilities.

PS: Where is your favorite place to hang out when you’re not playing poker?

Barry Greenstein: I just don’t have that much free time. If I have free time, then I like to spend it with either my girlfriend or with my kids. I don’t give them enough time, so that’s where my free time goes. It’s funny, when I was first going with my girlfriend, she said she’d like to travel and see the world, and now, we just hope to be able to stay home.

PS: Spend time in the house that you sink money into, actually get to enjoy it.

Barry Greenstein: Yeah, enjoy it and go out to a movie and dinner, or something like that. That’s what we enjoy doing.

PS: What is your most significant or proudest non-poker accomplishment?

Barry Greenstein: Probably my best accomplishment outside of poker was I was involved in a software project called “Q&A,” which in 1986 was product of the year for every computer magazine. It was a very successful product and it helped build the company, Symantec, into one of the top software companies in the world. And so it was nice to be a part of building a successful company that started, when I was there, with five people, and when I left there were a thousand people.

I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked. It was good for me psychologically, that I proved…I was always considered to be intelligent, but there are lots of people who are considered to be intelligent who never accomplish anything. They’re lazy, and it’s easy to feel lazy when you’re a poker player. So, I still was able to prove that I could work hard and get something done.

That’s why I tell my kids and other people who come to me for advice…as a matter of fact, I have up on my screen here on my computer, I get so many kids who write to me, wanting to be professional poker players, and I’m telling this kid to go to school, get his degree. I think it is important to get the education to have other, non-poker accomplishments under your belt, and I think they do help train you to have more discipline and help with the maturity you’ll need when you play poker. I was able to work on a long-term project and see it to the end. And when you think about it, poker is a very long-term project, if you’re a professional player, where you can’t let the defeat of one day take you down for a long time, which is what most people do. They can’t handle the one day loss and they go for everything that one day. But, if you think about it as if it’s a long-term project, which it should be, then you can handle day-to-day setbacks a little better. There are definitely some analogies that can be made to working on a project and playing poker for a living.

PS: Who would play YOU in The Barry Greenstein Story?

Barry Greenstein: It’s funny, I’ve had several offers [from] people who want to make a movie about me and I think it would be pretty boring. It’s not that I haven’t done interesting things, but I don’t really think that many people would want to watch it. I’ve just been a poker player and I’ve done some things and that’s about it. I watched the movie about Howard Hughes, The Aviator, and he certainly did some fascinating things, but that movie didn’t do that well. Then Stuey Ungar had a really amazing, up and down life, and I think that people recognize that it’s certainly an interesting story, from the heights to the depths, but it still hasn’t done all that well. So, the first thing is, I don’t think people are going to go watch a movie about poker players yet. [laughing] I think some of these people have gotten this aura of self-importance that’s greater than they are, and I don’t have that.

There are projects that…I just got one in the mail where they want to write about “the Robin Hood of poker,” and I usually just tell them don’t expect me to be giving it a lot of time. I try not to get involved with these movie ideas because I think they’re wasting their money – I don’t think that it’s a project that’s going to make money. And I’m not interested in patting myself on the back and make myself think I’m anything special. You know, I still think I’m just a poker player.

So, I don’t have anyone in mind to play myself.

A lot of the interesting things are probably some of the personal things that have happened, from being married and being a poker player, to raising kids and things like that, and I’m not really interested in giving out all the details.

PS: What is your least favorite interview question?

Barry Greenstein: I think the media surrounding poker…are trying to be nice, so most of the people I come in contact with are pretty nice. Again, it’s different than you see with the paparazzi on TV. What we have, as far as poker media, are them being overly nice because some of the people in poker are unreasonably arrogant jerks and the people in the media kind of have to suck up to everyone so they can get in there and have their contacts, so that people will talk to them and give them good quotes. I guess that’s like it is in sports, too, where for the most part, the people who aren’t that well recognized in the sports media have to suck up to the athletes so they’ll be nice to them.

So, anyway, in poker, which is obviously a fledgling entertainment activity, not only are the poker players making their names, but we have the poker media people, we don’t know how that’s all going to end up. Some of these people…are looking at this…well maybe this is going to be a career where, I’m in this booming industry…I might come to the front of it and be one of the important people in it. And I think a lot of the people we have in media, they do like the life, traveling around, kind of a free lifestyle, and we’re going to see some of the better writers make a real career out of this.

Barry Greenstein's recent book, Ace on the River: An Advanced Poker Guide, is available at most book retailers, such as