Though my gig as a poker "pro" has given me substantial access to most of the world's top players, for the most part, I've avoided taking advantage of the opportunity. Why? Three reasons:
Because of what they do for a living, most players are extremely hooded, especially emotionally. If you can get anything out of them, it's usually the edited version of their lives, an unenlightening combination of myth-making and rationalization.
The mere fact that someone plays a card game for huge amounts of money doesn't necessarily make them interesting. In fact, you can make a pretty good case that sitting at an oblong-shaped table in a windowless casino, day and night, in a miasma of body odor and macho weenie-waggling, manipulating a slightly varied universe of two-card hands is pretty close to the opposite of interesting.
In my limited experience, it's hard to convince top pros, and even players who only imagine they are at the top of their profession, that you are looking to do anything but rip them off for something of value - their time, their fame, their money, their wisdom. (Before I even started off on my odyssey, I tried to recruit Phil Hellmuth to be my Carlos Castaneda. No matter how many ways I tried to convince him otherwise, I could never get him to believe that I wasn't just looking for free poker lessons. "My poker knowledge is worth millions of dollars, you know," he once e-mailed me, which should give you the flavor of this short-lived "relationship.")
And so, early on, I decided to confine my professional relationships to players who seemed open and, for whatever reason, interested in talking to me about what they really think and feel - a motley crew that includes Matt Matros, Greg Raymer, Russell Rosenblum, Ashley Adams, Adam Schoenfield, Joe Beevers and Barny Boatman of the Hendon Mob.
The two top players I really wanted to meet were Daniel Negreanu, who is my favorite pro to watch, and Barry Greenstein, who seemed like that rarest of human beings in any profession - a person of highly evolved values and generosity, particularly in relationship to the disadvantaged children of the world, a cause very close to my own heart. (Because he gives all his tournament winnings - so far, several million dollars worth - to a pair of charities that help care for kids in the poorest regions of the world, he is known as the Robin Hood of Poker.) But Greenstein is not just a good guy - he's also one of the three or four best players alive, and soon to be one of the most successful poker authors of this Golden Age of the game.
A couple of days ago - by coincidence, one of the busiest days of Greenstein's life - I finally got to meet him. He was playing in the $5,000 buy-in pot-limit hold 'em tournament, which started at noon, when he had to excuse himself from his table for a few hours to move to the final table of the $1,500 buy-in pot-limit hold 'em tournament. In what passes in poker for a blink of the eye, he won that event - more money for the kids, plus a bracelet for Greenstein - and rushed back to the hold 'em tournament, where, miraculously, he found a $11,000 stack waiting for him. To further complicate matters, a couple of his kids were visiting.
When the hold 'em event went into a short break, I introduced myself, and asked Greenstein if he had any spare reviewer copies of his eagerly anticipated soon-to-be-published book, "Ace on the River: an Advanced Poker Guide."
"I only have one copy left," he said. "But since you're from ESPN . . ."
He explained that, because this was a reviewer's copy, some aspects of the book - mostly involving color reproduction of photos - were not up to the high standards he set for himself when he decided to self-publish. "I wanted to publish it myself, so I could do it the way I wanted to," he explained. "Not that I had to go that way. I had publishers stalking me, offering me six-figure deals."
He was particularly proud of the picture of a $25 chip on the back cover, representing the cost - in the U.S. - of the book. "I thought it was a good idea to have a $25 chip on the cover, because a $25 chip is nothing to a poker player. It's just something they'll throw in a pot without thinking about it."
Before I left, he said something to the effect that he didn't expect me to review the book if it turned out I didn't like it. As I was soon to discover, that kind of mature hyper-rational approach characterizes the book as much as anything.
Sometime in the next few days, I'll do a formal review of "Ace on the River." Suffice it to say, it's destined to be a classic of its genre, which, so far in the history of publishing, is a genre of one. In several interesting ways, it's also extremely revealing of its author - not always intentionally - another thing that makes it unusual in the annals of poker publishing.
But more on that soon.