By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

LAS VEGAS -- Have there ever been two guys, from the top of the same creative profession, who were as different as Stuey Ungar and Barry Greenstein?

Ungar is poker's ultimate cautionary fable, the game's mythic answer to legendary pop culture flameouts like Jimi Hendrix and James Dean. He was a predator in a waif's body, an instinctive and hyper-aggressive card-playing genius, all id and cunning, who absolutely refused to go gentle into that good night. Like Hendrix and Dean, he was implacably faithful to his religious beliefs right up until his premature death: "Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse."

The other end of the spectrum is where Greenstein lives. One of the greatest players alive (no less an authority than Doyle Brunson rates him in his all-time Top 10), he is poker's answer to Albert Einstein, a restless truth seeker who has as much of a passion to know and understand everything as Ungar had a passion not to know. Greenstein, aka the Robin Hood of Poker, donates all his millions in tournament winnings to charities that help the poor children of the world. Though he is also faithful to his religion, his is a faith that preaches personal responsibility, social decency, respect for your work (even if your "work" is poker), and the primacy of rational thought in all things, from sex to lending money (Greenstein generally sides with Shakespeare, who wrote, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be") to how to raise your kids to how to play A-5 suited against Gus Hansen when there are only four players left in a tournament.

Want to know more? Then you'll want to pick up a couple of recently published books, both of which belong on the top shelf of every poker player's library:

1) "One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey 'The Kid' Ungar, the World's Greatest Poker Player," by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson, is the biography of poker's ultimate self-destructive genius, the only real three-time winner of the game's ultimate prize -- the World Series of Poker main event. (Technically, Johnny Moss also won the WSOP three times, but his first victory -- over less than a full table of opponents -- was by vote of the competitors, and the other two were against tiny fields of fellow pros, almost all of them road warriors from Texas. That was back in poker's Paleolithic Era, when there were no Orient Expresses, no New York wise guys, no dot-com millionaires, no Internet kids with delusions of bulletproofness, let alone game theorists with Ph. D's and cowboy hats.)

2) Greenstein's "Ace on the River: An Advanced Poker Guide," the eagerly anticipated 21st century equivalent of Brunson's "Super/System," is a book that will change the way the game is played, especially at its highest levels, and, if Greenstein's fondest wish comes true, the way many of us live our lives.

The making -- and unmaking -- of "The Kid"
Raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan -- just like Jackpot Jay -- Ungar was the classic American outsider, tiny and fragile-looking, Jewish, son of a frequently absent, generally inattentive bookmaker father and a mentally unstable mother. He talked too fast and too much and too aggressively, and as my mother might have put it, he was "too clever by half." I knew a lot of guys like Ungar (of course, not as good card players, though some were world-class bridge and hearts players) in my neighborhood and also at Harpur College in Binghamton, N.Y., where a lot of the same Lower East Side wise guys wound up, at least for a while. In fact, I was a lot more like Ungar -- or at least, had a lot more in common with him -- than I'm comfortable admitting, even to myself.

None of us ever felt we would be allowed to share in the American Dream … unless we figured out some way (or several ways) to get over on the establishment. And getting over was the ultimate, as opposed to actually achieving anything. But of course, even the most cunning get-over artists among us, like Ungar, were just trying to mask a sense of insecurity, plus the feelings that come from having parents who really don't pay enough loving attention to you when you crave and need it.

What happened after that was inevitable, and in Ungar's case, well known to most people in the poker community. Ungar was "adopted" by Italian mobsters in New York (think the Ray Liotta character -- Henry Hill -- in "Goodfellas") and became the greatest gin rummy player the world has ever seen. He eventually made his way to Las Vegas, discovered poker, discovered cocaine, refused to be responsible for anyone (including himself), won millions, lost millions, annoyed the crap out of most people, broke the hearts of those who came to love him despite himself, died a miserable and premature death all alone in a cheap Vegas hotel room with $800 in his pocket (not even enough to buy into a decent stakes game), and became an American legend, a hero to those too young to understand they are not really bulletproof, any more than Ungar ultimately proved to be.

But God is in the details, and what "One of a Kind" does better than all the magazine pieces, TV documentaries and bad movies about Ungar put together is fill in the details in a few thousand well-crafted words, to gently suggest clues as to what made Stuey Stuey without once resorting to psychobabble, and to offer up a cautionary fable without once resorting to "what it all means."

What made Stuey run?
As it turns out, this was no oversight, according to Dalla, who had extensive access to Ungar, through which he came to know him as well as anybody ever did. "In my early drafts, I did render judgment and analyze behavior," said Dalla, about a book that was many years in the making. "However, this did two negative things, which caused me to revise the content. First, this book is not really about psychological issues -- addiction, compulsion, etc. It is a biography. Second, it should be up to the reader to make his/her mind up about what the story means. I think 10 people could read the story and get 10 or more different things out of it. Some readers will love Stuey and others will dislike him. That's the quality of a 'good' story -- something that has many dimensions."

Some observers, both in and out of the poker community, have wondered whether Dalla would have enough distance on The Kid to present him fairly, warts and all. "For the most part, I was able to divorce myself emotionally from Stuey's plight," he said. Before he could find this distance, however, Dalla went through a few authorly stages. At first, he wanted to do what he called "a Robert Caro-esque master work" on Ungar (Caro is the award-winning author of monstrously long and detailed biographies of LBJ and New York City politician Robert Moses). "Caro immersed himself so deeply in his subjects' lives that he altered his own," Dalla said. "In the end, Caro 'became' LBJ and Moses. I'm not sure I could have ever become Stuey, but I initially wanted to go way overboard and provide excruciating detail of Stuey's life -- plus interpretation. I eventually realized such a book would not have been nearly as commercial. Few mainstream readers want to read a 600-page bio on a gambler and drug addict. But, they will read a 300-page bio on a figure that is less well-defined, and can be interpreted in different ways."

This is where Dalla's co-author -- Peter Alson -- comes in. Alson's role was to take Dalla's draft, plus his extensive notes, and commercialize the project. This was a smart move on the part of the book's publisher, because he fulfills that role with distinction.

For me, one of the tricky parts of the book involves Ungar's so-called good qualities. Some observers, like Mike Sexton, who was a fine player and a great admirer of Ungar's before Sexton's current reincarnation as host of the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, speak in unabashedly glowing terms about The Kid's greatness as a card player and his magnetic personality. Yet, based on many scenes in "One of a Kind," Ungar sounds like he could be pretty annoying and arrogant and dismissive, not to mention how he used people, even his so-called friends, especially at the end. He reminded me a lot of my father in some ways -- infantilized by the significant adults in his life. In The Kid's case, it was his mother and father, Victor Romero (his mob "handler"), his Vegas dentist, his female friends, even his daughter, ultimately, not to mention all the players that enabled him. I asked Dalla if he had to strain to portray Ungar as sympathetic in some way.

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"I think 'strain' is an accurate way to describe my attempt to make Stuey into an appealing figure," Dalla admitted. "Early in the project, one of the things that skeptics accused me of was that I would soften the story or gloss over the bad things. I think this came from my being an establishment poker writer for years, that the perception was that the book would be a glowing testament to his genius. So, going into the project, I was fighting this perception. I struggled to find qualities that would endear him to readers. However, Mike Sexton does indeed get emotional when he thinks back on Stuey. I have seen him misty-eyed at times, so I respect that there is a very real human connection there. And there's no doubt that, in some ways, Stuey was a very powerful figure. There's a line in the book about how he 'was impossible to say no to.' What this means is, when he asked for something, you really wanted to help him. I don't fall for things like this normally, but with Stuey it was very true. Perhaps it was his childlike stature or blatant lack of social graces. I don't know. But I can see how, if you were in his group, he was very much a beloved figure."

Ever since he began working on this project, Dalla has been asked if he liked Ungar. "I find that to be a difficult question to answer," Dalla said. "I would describe myself as an existentialist, and black and white do not exist in the spectrum of humanity in existentialist thinking. We are all shades of gray. Stuey was the grayest of the gray. On some levels, he was overly likeable, even lovable. On others, he was a horrible person."

Dalla does not believe Ungar's life says anything about the poker life, in general. "The fact that Stuey was a poker player is irrelevant to the question of his character, moral compass and place in the ethical universe. Stuey just so happened to play gin and poker and gamble. I do believe the gambling lifestyle and persons in it were 'enablers' to his compulsions, but I do not believe Stuey is indicative of any particular oddities in poker or gambling, other than being part of a 'golden era' when a small group of gamblers were essentially the 'Rat Pack' of the town. The meaningful lesson of the Stu Ungar story is this: Stuey was a master at his craft, perhaps the greatest ever in a certain field. Yet for all of his talent, he failed miserably at things which are far more meaningful and essential to human happiness. In that sense, he is a symbol of modern imperialism and consumerism. We as the most advanced society in history -- put a man on the moon, split the atom, have enormous advances in science -- but for all of our worldly achievements, we remain emotional infants. This describes Stu Ungar, and more importantly, much of collective humanity."

The Anti-Kid
While I tend to agree with Dalla's assessment of the general state of humanity, Barry Greenstein is no emotional infant -- and in some ways, at least implicitly, he wrote "Ace on the River" to make sure people understand that about him.

While Ungar was all instinct all the time, Greenstein is the ultimate cerebral poker player, a man always looking for -- and almost always finding -- the most rational way to play his game, and to live his life.

Because of this, "Ace on the River" is a fascinating interweave of things that would not seem to fit together: how to win more money playing poker combined with how to be a better human being. It's hard to describe the book accurately without making it sound less interesting than it actually is, so let's break it down, beginning with the quality of the playing advice.

In his obviously heartfelt introduction, Brunson writes, "Some interviewers have asked me what top players know that average players don't. I consider many of the differences to be matters of feel or instinct. These differences are difficult to put into words. However, Barry has put a framework on what the top players do and has written about some very high-level concepts. While I was reading his manuscript for the first time, I frequently said to myself, 'Yeah, I know that, but I've never seen it described that way.' This book contains a lot of stuff I knew but had never seen written -- and some things I didn't know. 'Ace on the River' is a book that no player will outgrow."

Some things Brunson, only the greatest player who ever lived, didn't even know! That's about as close as you are going to get in the poker universe to an endorsement from God.

To me, the more interesting aspect of the book is what it reveals, both intentionally and otherwise, about Greenstein himself. Everything about "Ace on the River" -- from the untouched cover photo of the author, to the unvarnished and unsentimental description of "My Poker Career," to Greenstein's philosophy of life and poker -- feels honest and genuine. Agree or disagree, this book is all about Barry being Barry, a man of essential decency and good values, even if he's only a poker player.

How decent? Well, there's the well-publicized charitable donations, which Greenstein alludes to without aggrandizing himself (his belief, given his own good fortune, is it's the least he can do). But more subtly revealing is a pair of chapters called "The Poker Society" and "How to Behave in the Poker Society," in which Greenstein describes all the invisible behind-the-scenes people who make up the world of casino poker, and how these people should be treated by players.

It's as if Donald Trump wrote a book about his career as a casino owner and included a section of appreciation on the busboys who work in his restaurants.

Between the chapters on Poker Society and how to improve your game, Greenstein presents a series of short essays on an incredible smorgasbord of topics, including:

-- Superstition (he's only got one: avoiding situations in which he continually loses)

-- The 25 qualities that separate winners from losers (everything from a sense of humor and pride (least important) to real self-knowledge and psychological toughness (most important)

-- Brain chemistry (many players are borderline compulsive, so take care of your brain to avoid going over the edge; Stuey, can you hear me?)

-- Holding onto money (or how to protect your bankroll, the most vital tool of a player's trade; uh, Stuey, can you hear me?)

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-- Poker and your family (taking care of your loved ones should be Priority One)

-- Poker and sex (best before you go to sleep, so you'll be well-rested and less distracted when you play)

-- Best poker player in the world (an interesting argument, which can be looked at in a number of different ways -- cash player vs. tournament player, biggest winner vs. one who makes the largest percentage of correct decisions, specialist vs. all-around competitor, head-to-head -- but the bottom line is, well, I don't want to give the bottom line away).

Though you wouldn't know it to observe him while competing (when he hides behind a blank, almost dour, expression that is impossible to read), Greenstein has a wonderfully sly sense of humor. This is reflected in "Ace on the River" in many ways: the marvelously creative use of epigrammatic quotes, the wry and ironic tone of some of his writing, even the sly placement of photographs. On Page 151, for example, under the heading "Holding on to Money," is a picture of Dan Harrington, who, "despite being a millionaire, is so tight with his money he doesn't even own a car," Greenstein says.

Actually, I have personally felt the sting of Greenstein's deadpan jab. We were talking about the book in a hallway outside the Rio's huge poker arena, when a couple of fans came up to ask Greenstein, who was carrying three or four copies of "Ace on the River" under his arm, if he had any extra copies that he could sell to them. Greenstein, who, as far as I can tell, never brushes anybody off, politely explained that these were a handful of copies he was giving to "important" reviewers. Then he pointed to me -- characteristically dressed down for the occasion in my well-worn Mel's Diner T-shirt with a pen clipped to the neckline -- and said, "This guy happens to be a very important person … though he may not look like it."

Greenstein is publishing the book on his own dime, not because he had to -- "I had major publishers stalking me to do the book for them," he told me -- but for personal reasons as complex as the man himself.

"Initially, I started writing because Doyle asked me to write a chapter for the sequel to 'Super/System.' I told Doyle I could write a chapter explaining why people who read his book and other books will still end up broke. I thought I could write about poker the way I think of it, which is very different than how most people do.

"Several times I questioned whether I should continue working on this project, but my drive to produce something special kept me going. I take pride in my work and I enjoy working on long-term projects. I didn't dash this off to get it out. I worked on it for two years.

"Playing poker for a living has, for the most part, deprived me of having accomplishments. This book should help fill that void. I also wanted to set an example for my children, to show them how to work with passion, since I have often criticized them for not giving their best efforts. It is not always easy to convince them that I work hard as a professional poker player."

As those who have followed the financial saga of the self-published "Super/System" know, nobody in their right mind does this to make money. Greenstein could make more in a typical day of high-stakes poker than he is likely ever to make from "Ace on the River."

As Brunson writes in his intro, "As I did, [Barry] took time off during the prime of his career to write a book to educate players, some of whom are or will be his opponents. I often asked myself why I was doing it, and I'm sure Barry has asked himself the same question. Poker books are normally written by players who hope to make more money selling books than they can playing poker. Barry and I each gave up a substantial amount of money we probably would have made playing poker while we were working on our books instead. We can never recoup that money from book sales. And for what reason? So we could help our opponents become better players? We must be sick.

"I have had the dubious honor of getting knocked out of a tournament by a younger player who thanked me for improving his game. And then, before I could make my exit from the table, he asked for my autograph. Well, now I will be able to laugh when it happens to Barry."

Greenstein isn't sweating this problem.

"It's true that I have given away a lot of information that has not been formalized before, which will help many players," he said. "I think it will help people away from the poker table more than at it. My philosophies extend well to any situation that requires clear thinking under pressure or where there is emotional interference. But I'm not too concerned about helping my opponents at this stage in my career. My main asset is who I am as a person and how I am able to solve problems."

Which, of course, is something Greenstein couldn't give away, even if he wanted to.

In its own way, "Ace on the River," like "One of a Kind," is a cautionary fable. Unlike, for example, Brunson writing in "Super/System," there is no joyfulness about poker in Greenstein's book. When I asked Greenstein about whether he was conflicted about being a poker player, he said, "I have always played poker for money. It has been my job. It is a good job, where I am my own boss and my hours are often flexible. I am not at all conflicted about my choice of professions, especially when I am able to find a way to be productive, as I have with the book and the charity work."

So clearly, he wrote this book to fill a gap in his life: "My book shows that I am more complex than to be thought of as just a poker player."

In other words, poker alone -- no matter at how exquisite a level -- is not enough for Barry Greenstein, just as, ultimately, it was not enough for Stuey Ungar.

Maybe they were not as different as they seemed. Maybe, as Nolan Dalla says, we are all shades of gray.

Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for and also writing a book for HarperCollins.

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