In a new series looking back at the best players in High Stakes Poker history, Barry Greenstein talks about the conception of the show, playing $900,000 pots with Tom Dwan and what makes Phil Ivey so special
High Stakes Poker is the best TV poker show of all time. It revolutionised the way that poker is shown on TV and created superstars out of some of the world’s greatest players. To date, eight years after its first season, nobody has been able to replicate the magic.
One man that was always at the centre of the action is Barry Greenstein. The American is one of only four players – alongside Daniel Negreanu, Antonio Esfandiari and Doyle Brunson – to compete in all seven seasons of the show. Greenstein has been involved in many of High Stakes Poker’s most memorable moments too, from having his Aces cracked by Sam Farha to playing what was then the biggest pot in TV poker history against Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan. We spoke with ‘The Bear’ to get his side of the story on those legendary battles…
PokerPlayer: When the first season of High Stakes Poker was filmed in 2005 were you onboard with the concept from the start?
Barry Greenstein: In those days I was a cash game player and really didn’t play many tournaments. For me it was a great thing because I’d get to play in cash games with people who had made their names in tournaments – that’s juicy. The truth is that I didn’t really play in it for the TV exposure, it just sounded like a good high-stakes cash game to me.
How closely did the show resemble the high-stakes scene in Las Vegas at that time?
It didn’t resemble the high-stakes cash games at all because at that time those were all mixed games. We’d sometimes throw in PLO but never no-limit hold’em. Even though I wasn’t playing much NLHE at the time I knew I’d be in good shape against tournament players as it’s a pretty different game. It proved to be true and I did well most times. I don’t think I ever had a show where I lost more than one buy-in, and if you look at all-in EV I ran the worst of anyone. I ran $1 million below EV. Even with that I ended up breaking even. In the final season I lost a $600k pot to Antonio where I had a set and he had a gutshot and flush draw. It was the biggest pot of his life and probably helped catapult him to his success after that. Those are big money pots and they do make a difference going forward to how each of us did.
In season one the game started out with $300/$600 blinds and a $100 ante. Was that a big game for you at the time?
It wasn’t that big initially for me. In those days I would have had a couple of million in my safe deposit box so even losing $500,000 wouldn’t have been that big a deal. However, as the years went on the Vegas cash games actually went down
in stakes while the stakes on the show went up, so it got pretty big. Then Black Friday took money out of the poker economy and things like endorsements also stopped. [It meant that] when I lost that $600k pot to Antonio, and then the $900k pot to Tom [Dwan] it was a big hit financially.
Unlike most players, you became famous on the show for only ever running it once. Why did you do this?
I thought it gave me an edge. A lot of people would say that running it once, twice or whatever is actually the same mathematical thing. But what I know, and especially as I could afford it, is that there are a few reasons to run it once. In Vegas we were playing cap PLO with players like Gus [Hansen] and Sammy [Farha] and they would just shoot the money in. When I first played with them I felt like I could afford the game more than them. Running it twice was really what they looked for – it meant they could play free and easy. If they got it all-in they’d have a good shot to win their money back at least. It also meant they could try to knock players out of pots by playing aggressively [because they knew they’d get two runouts].
The second reason why it was important for me to run it once is that after a player suffers a big loss in a hand they often can’t handle it and then go off for a big number. I have very high confidence, and I think anyone that has watched me play will agree with me that I handle my losses better than anyone. So what happens is that when I win a big pot I normally bust the guy that I win it from later. By running it once I get a lot more equity than just that pot, whereas my opponent doesn’t get that much out of me steaming. If you don’t steam and you can afford it you should always run it once.
Phil Ivey used to run it twice like all of those people but once I explained it he looked at me and said, ‘I’m never going to run it twice again!’ I don’t think he ever has for the rest of his life.
Phil’s one of your best friends – how do you rate him as a poker player?
A lot of people think Phil is an idiot savant but he’s not, he’s a deep thinker. He really worked on his game and would do a lot of thinking about situations. He seemed to be the best at figuring out what his opponents were doing and coming up with a counter to it. I have watched Phil play online against players ten times where he would be losing $500k to them before turning
to me and saying, ‘This guy is dead. It is just a question of how long it takes until he quits me.’ Phil was right almost every time. He gets to the point where he really knows what the guy’s responses are going to be with different hands in different situations – he’s like a chess player. The guys usually didn’t last a week before they have to quit him! It’s scary.
I remember the day I said to Phil that he was now a top player. I saw that he was a step ahead of his opponents. He used to run over people but then he matured his game and stopped bluffing. He was always a step ahead. I have played with the greatest players of all time and I cannot see anyone I have ever played with who is as good at knowing what the other players are doing as Phil Ivey.
High Stakes Hands
Barry Greenstein vs. Sammy Farha (HSP Season 1)
Pot size: $361,800
In a famous hand from season one of High Stakes Poker Barry Greenstein raises to $2,500 with Aces on the final hand of the day’s filming. Farha wakes up with Kings and three-bets to $12,500. Greenstein pumps it up to $52,500 and, after a long think Farha moves all-in. The pot is $361,800 and Greenstein gets unlucky on the 6♣-K♥-8♥-7♠-3♦ board to lose the biggest pot of the season.
Do you think Sammy should have folded in that situation?
I don’t think so. I remember thinking that he actually had Queens. I thought with Kings he’d just have to get his money in. Sammy and I had played a fair amount together in cash games and he knew enough about me that even on the last hand I was capable of trying to play him off a hand. With the way the bet sizing was and the depth we were I would not have gotten away with Kings against him.
Was that one of the biggest pots you had ever lost?
I lost $180k in the pot and it was a pretty big loss even for myself and I was playing as big as anyone else at that time. Obviously I would go on to lose bigger pots after that though!
Given that it was the last hand of the session how did you take it mentally?
I could afford that loss at the time so it wasn’t that crippling financially but I had to leave the next day to give a talk at the University of Illinois. [Losing that pot] definitely got in the way of my preparation for the talk and I apologised to the crowd for not being totally coherent. I had to explain to them that I had just lost a huge pot with A-A versus K-K! They definitely didn’t get my best performance that day.
Battling with durrrr
Barry Greenstein vs. Tom Dwan (HSP Season 5)
Pot size: $919,600
Tom Dwan and Greenstein have already battled in a few big pots when Peter Eastgate raises to $3,500 with A-K. Greenstein three-bets on the button to $15k with Aces and Dwan calls from the small blind holding K♠-Q♠. Eastgate also calls.
The flop is 4♠-2♠-Q♥ and Dwan leads out for $28,700. Eastgate folds, Greenstein raises to $100k and Dwan comes back over the top to $244,600. The two get it all-in and decide to run it once. Dwan declines to take any of the money back. A Queen comes on the turn to ship Dwan the $900k+ pot.
Had you played with Tom Dwan much before season five of High Stakes Poker?
Unfortunately I had only played with him once for a short time. I remember thinking he was pretty wild. When I sat down I said to myself that he would probably try to pull something on me so don’t get bluffed by him. People might know him now as a well-known player but to me he wasn’t – he was an online kid.
Were you happy with your play in this hand?
I pretty much assumed he had that but I thought he might have A♠-Q♠ where he wouldn’t have an Ace to hit. I thought I would be a favourite and it turned out we were dead even. It was actually Peter [Eastgate]’s fault that I didn’t win this pot! He had been playing scared because he’d never played that big before. With A-K he should have just moved all-in preflop and knocked durrrr out. It was a huge mistake on his part.
How did you put Dwan on such a specific hand?
Durrrr didn’t even think about his call preflop so it was very clear to me that he didn’t have 4-4 or 2-2. That meant on the Q-4-2 flop he couldn’t have a set so I knew it would have to be a flush draw/pair combination.
[I decided to raise] because I didn’t want to guess on the turn if the Queen paired or a King came down. There are a lot of cards on the turn that I wouldn’t be able to figure out. My read was that I was either a decent favourite or at least even. It was clear the money was going in and also, I was ahead of the game $750k going into that pot. It was a sweet set-up. If I won that pot I would have been winning $1.2 million, the biggest ever win on High Stakes Poker.
What is the true story behind the conversation you and Dwan had about running it twice or taking some of the money back?
At that time I was a bigger player than Tom and I didn’t know what his bankroll was. People totally misunderstand what happened there [when I asked if he wanted to take money back]. In the maths it was a pretty even hand. When he asked me to run it twice I felt he was saying, ‘This is a really big pot, the biggest I have ever played.’ I felt it was probably like that for both of us but it didn’t scare me because I was going to be ahead even if I lost the pot.
I was actually trying to be nice. I didn’t want to be a jerk about it. I was thinking I was going to be the first $1m winner on the show if I won the pot. When I offered to take a couple of hundred thousand back I was trying to be nice! To me he’s a kid. People don’t understand his rejection. They thought Tom was being a baller by saying no. What actually happened was he thought he was a slight favourite and he didn’t want to look stupid on TV. He didn’t want to look like a chump to me, like I took advantage of him. People totally misinterpreted what went on.
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