Millionaire poker aristocracy Barry Greenstein tells us how it is: “The reality is this: it’s not that poker isn’t good, it’s just that I don’t have a lucrative game like I once did”

Barry Greenstein has won millions in his career, but it’s rumoured he’s been on a huge downswing this year. We tracked him down to find out the truth – and discovered some amazing revelations about the Big Game

Barry Greenstein ranks among poker’s most venerable cash-game players. He’s anted up for some of the biggest games in history, including the Big Game, the Andy Beal Game and the Larry Flynt Game. Though it’s well known that the mathematically astute Greenstein worked in Silicon Valley’s technology sector, what’s less known is that his job with the software company Symantec didn’t pay nearly enough to suit him. He isn’t a guy who struck it rich in tech – he struck it rich in poker and earned more money playing cards than he did at his day job. These days Greenstein can usually be found wherever the action is biggest and the opportunities are most rife, but, as he reveals in this candid interview, live cash-game poker is not exactly bursting with the big-money opportunities that once made it so alluring…

What is the state of the Big Game at the Bellagio these days?

BARRY GREENSTEIN: Things are real fractured. People theorise that we have only so many players for that game and that Chip Reese’s passing meant there is now one less. But that’s not really the issue. Even when Chip was alive we were scrambling to get games. People can play pretty big online, and some of the better-known ‘businessmen’ poker players have cut back.

A few of the ‘businessmen’ have also become more competitive. Eli Elezra has talked to me about how much he’s improved by playing with you guys.

BG: Eli was a Big Game organiser. People showed up when he was there. But he’s gotten to be good at playing limit poker. It’s not free money playing Eli. He went from being a businessman/poker player to being more of a poker player.

Then there’s the Internet…

BG: People realised that it’s better to play against the world online, and they get bored [with the pace of] playing live. Patrik Antonius is an underdog in the mixed games, but he’s ferocious short-handed. Now the only time he plays live is when it’s short-handed. Phil Ivey prefers the sensory stimulation of being at home. Losing the businessman types combined with people playing big online has knocked us down. The Big Game occasionally forms during the World Series and in December. But it’s just not healthy.

Do you miss the regular Big Game sessions?

BG: I miss the money I was able to make from it. This might not sound so nice, but I wasn’t there for the camaraderie. Even now, sometimes I’ll be asked why I’m sitting there, playing with some very good players. People think we’re all sitting there for fun, which is the furthest thing from the truth. I’m playing in situations where I think I am a very good favourite. Maybe there are name players in the game, but maybe they aren’t as good as they think they are. Or else there is a business type who’s getting ready to come in.

Why don’t you just drop down and play slightly lower when the Big Game isn’t happening?

BG: I do play lower stakes sometimes. But if I walk into the Commerce and they are playing $400/$800 mixed games, the other players are afraid of me and they take out my best games. In those instances, nobody will play anything except badugi and triple draw – the more crapshoot games. I am ahead overall, but those games are very volatile.

What about online?

BG: If I want to make money, I’ll often play $200/$400 H.O.R.S.E. on PokerStars. I do okay, which means that I can win $10,000 in a session. But it’s averaging only a couple of thousand a day. I used to average tens of thousands a day. It’s not what it used to be.

But has poker itself changed? For a lot of people it’s become a game of personas rather than talent.

BG: The line has blurred. I have nothing to complain about, but I will say that a lot of people who got famous for playing poker have skewed views of average luck. They won lotteries, and now they can’t win again, so they always talk about running bad. It’s not that they’re running bad; it’s that they’re not good players. Their perception of average luck is way skewed. For example, it would be easy for me to whine about being unlucky at the H.O.R.S.E. final table. But overall I ran really good in that tournament. That’s why I made the final table. My luck just didn’t last through the fifth day. I try to be more realistic than these people who think that they’re really unlucky when they don’t hit their flushes.

Let’s go back a little bit. When you first entered the Big Game – back in the days when Chip Reese would say, ‘Buddy, we’ve got the perfect game for you’ – did you jump in at your first opportunity?

BG: I didn’t. I had a couple of early shots to play Chip and Doyle and I passed. I thought they played too big for me. But when I finally did play with them I was cautious – even though I was skilled at all the games. That was the real reason I did well at the beginning – I knew to proceed cautiously.

Tell me your idea of caution.

BG: I was careful not to steam, to play only when I was well rested, to beat them at the metagame. One other thing which I know now is that I also ran pretty well in the beginning.

When did you realise that you’d be able to hold your own in the Big Game over the longer term?

BG: Early on. Very often when you play in a poker game, you see hands turning over and can see how everyone plays. That tells you where you stand. What you shouldn’t do is focus on whether you are better than everyone in the game. Instead you need to focus on there being enough bad players who you can beat. It became clear to me that there were enough people in the game who couldn’t compete with me. Once I recognised those people, I knew I could play in that game. It took one day for me to realise that as long as certain guys are in the Big Game, I should play.

It’s a kind of selectivity that seems to get lost on some of the newer high-stakes players…

BG: The younger crowd seems to think that if you’re what they call a real ‘baller’ you should take on all comers. Sometimes they fail to realise that it’s about making money. You learn to make better decisions as you get older.

Do you see your poker skills improving with age?

BG: Chip and Doyle got better at 54 and 55. I am slowing down. The fact is, though, I am a more complete player than they could have been at my age. The games hadn’t been going on for that long when they were this age.

I remember you telling me once about having incredible stamina when it comes to marathon poker sessions. Do you still have it?

BG: I rarely play more than 24 hours. It’s a better idea to take a nap after 20 hours. It’s not that I can’t keep going, but unless a guy is throwing money away I quit after 20 hours. IP: Do you recall a recent situation in which you played longer and totally cleaned up?

BG: I recall a situation where I played for 36 hours and lost a lot of money. I was never allowed into the big no-limit game at the Commerce. Then Kenny Tran told me that they had a live one coming in and this was my shot because they had an empty seat. So I got into the game after playing 24 hours and winning $70,000 in a $1,000/$2,000 game. I played another 15 hours in the no-limit game and probably lost $170k. I got really unlucky and didn’t play that well. But I wanted to get in the game and maybe have a shot at playing again. But I ended up losing my money and never got invited back.

Game selection must get tough when there are few easy games to select.

BG: Making money at poker is more than playing cards. It’s about getting into situations. And I don’t get into great situations these days. A lot of it is a function of my age. If I was 30 and had no family, I would spend time hanging out and schmooze my way into good situations. But now, at this point, I’m not big into mucking it up.

The thinking among top pros used to be that it was great when an internet player wanted to buy in. Does that still hold true?

BG: Durrrr took a couple of shots, but most of them don’t play with us in the mixed games. We don’t get those kinds of drop-ins. They know they’re big dogs. Durrrr will play the high pot-limit Omaha and no-limit hold’em games. And there are enough internet players interested in those games that they have come to dominate. If they keep getting live players, it can have a life for a long time. But if they don’t keep getting live players, it won’t go on.

Then what?

BG: They’ll probably start introducing new games. That’s one more way of getting an advantage. New games throw a wrinkle into things. It becomes a race to see who gets good faster, and that’s an interesting race to be in. Good players like it because they will figure out the games faster than other people do. Most notably, Durrrr and Phil Galfond got better quicker than others at pot-limit Omaha. It’s a more compelling, more complicated game than hold’em. From an intellectual standpoint it’s more interesting.

Do you see high-stakes pot-limit Omaha replacing the Big Game?

BG: It’s got some of the same legs as the Big Game used to have and sometimes you see it going overnight. It forces [the more veteran players] to make a decision: do we want to play in that game? Pot-limit Omaha is something that the internet guys play all the time and there really is nothing there in terms of an edge for us.

How have you been doing money-wise overall?

BG: I always do well at poker. But if you look at the last year of poker, I probably made a million dollars, not counting tournaments. I play smaller, but my requirements are high. I have three mortgages, I support Making a million a year doesn’t pay my bills. Some people think it’s decent money, but it’s not enough. When you go from three or four million a year to one million, you are in trouble. That’s why I need to have endorsements and sponsorships.

Someone told me that, according to Layne Flack, you’ve been losing a lot of money…

BG: Layne doesn’t even play with me. What Layne heard me say is that I have less money than I had. Mike Matusow heard that I’m running short of money and that was all he had to hear. He said, ‘Barry’s ego got the best of him.’ Then Layne echoed it. They don’t know any way to have less money other than to lose it at poker. People probably think that Layne and Mike and I play poker together. But we don’t. Mike is a junior- level player. The reality is this: it’s not that poker isn’t good, it’s just that I don’t have a lucrative game like I once did.

And after you get used to a certain lifestyle, it’s tough to cut back?

BG: When you make a lot of money, you find a lot of ways to spend it. I got used to buying whatever I wanted to buy. If I didn’t have the money, I knew I could go out and make it.

Considering all that, what advice do you have for younger players who are working their way up?

BG: Make money while you’re young and put it away. Your situation can change and so can your finances. When things are going well it’s hard to anticipate that they might dry up.

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