Barry Greenstein: Poker Player, Golfer, Father

by Wil Wheaton

Barry Greenstein looked tired last night. Resting quietly on one of our fine Corinthian leather couches (no actual Corinths were killed in their construction) Barry looked like a guy who just needed a break, so when I sat down near him to work on The Usual Suspects, I figured I'd just leave him alone while he was on his break.

I typed for a few minutes, until I hit one of those little writer's walls that occasionally stymie me, and I looked away for a moment to find my way through it.

"How are you doing tonight?" Barry said.

"Actually, I'm doing really well," I said. "How are you doing?"

"I'm good," he said. "But I'm a little worried . . . I have to play golf at eight thirty in the morning for ESPN, and I have a lot of chips right now, so I may be playing until one or two."

He took a deep breath and said, "I can play poker tired; that's not a problem, but golf is something that requires a good night's sleep, especially when we're playing for twenty thousand per man per hole."

Okay, you know how you may say to someone, "I can't stay out late tonight, because I have a test tomorrow," or "I'm going to the store to pick up some cheese, do you need anything?" That's how casually and normally Barry said that he was playing golf for "twenty thousand per man per hole."

I kept my best poker face, hoped Barry couldn't get a read on me (unlikely) and said, "Oh?"

"Yeah," he said. "ESPN wants to film me, Doyle, Daniel and Lindgren out on the golf course, and when we play, we play twenty thousand a man per hole."

"Okay," I thought, "Now I know why it wasn't a big deal for Daniel Negreanu to spew forty-nine thousand in the rebuy tournament; that's less than three holes of golf for him."

"Is it for the Nuts?" I said.

"Yeah," Barry said. "I think so."

Barry and I have developed a bit of a rapport over the last couple of weeks, and I've grown to really enjoy his (always brief) company and how frankly and honestly he talks with me. I've respected his game and admired his generosity and kindness (and his book is fantastic) but I'm always reluctant to meet people I sort of look up to, because they so often let me down. Barry Greenstein, like Greg Raymer, hasn't let me down at all. In fact, they've both exceeded my expectations.

Aside: Today, Greg gave Isabelle some crap about the post I wrote a few days ago where he crippled her. Isabelle didn't realize Greg was just teasing her, and apologized profusely. Greg said, "Hey, it's okay to be upset. Even though we're all friends here, I'll still get upset if any of you knock me out of a tournament." He pointed to me and said, "I like Wil a lot, but if Wil busted me, I'd be upset about that . . ."

"I don't think you need to worry about that, Greg," I said.

Barry is a very controlled and measured man, so when he truly enjoys something, or finds something amusing and he laughs, he really lights up. I saw him do this and he got as animated as I've seen him as he explained to me how this golf outing works.

"Doyle and I play on one team, and Daniel and Erik are on another," he said, "and you know that Doyle is a heck of a golfer, even with his leg." (Doyle Brunson's leg was crushed under a ton of sheetrock back before any of us were born.)

Okay, I'll admit that I thought it was kind of cool that Barry was talking about these guys like we were all part of the same club, even though I know that's not the case.

"I used to complain about Doyle getting all these special rules to compensate for his age and his leg and stuff, and then I just decided to make him my teammate." A huge grin spread across Barry's face. "And he has made me a lot of money ever since!"

In Tony Holden's classic poker book Big Deal, he writes, "Poker may be a branch of psychological warfare, an art form or indeed a way of life - but it is also merely a game, in which money is simply the means of keeping score." When Barry told me that Doyle had made him a lot of money, I could tell that it was about a lot more than the cash in his pocket; it's about the score.

"So of course I want to win the tournament," he said, "but I hope we don't play too late tonight."

I made some notes, and Barry's son Joe came in. Joe is a producer as well as host on Cardplayer's internet radio show The Circuit and is a serious poker player, too. He walked over to our corner of the room, and sat on the edge of the couch next to Barry.

"Have you met my son?" Barry said.

I said I hadn't, and Barry introduced us. I instantly liked Joe, and that didn't surprise me at all; he's clearly come from good stock.

"How are you doing, dad?" he said.

"I just tripled up," he said. "How are you doing?"

"Just above average," Joe said.

I watched them relate to each other as fellow professional poker players, but also as father and son. The former was cool, but the latter tugged at my heart. I won't get to see my kids until the middle of the Main Event, and it's been almost a month since we spent more than one day together.

"Here's a good story for the blog," Barry said. "Just before dinner, Amir raises from under the gun. Late position calls, and the small blind comes way over the top of them both. I look down at ace king, and I have to stop and think for a minute. The small blind must have a pretty good hand, because he's coming over the top of an under the gun raise, but then I realize that he was a young kid, probably in his mid-twenties, and I wonder if he knew that Amir will play a lot of hands from that position. You know that Amir's a very aggressive player, right?"

"Yeah, I do," I said. "He busted me in the 2005 WPT Invitational, but I crippled him in the championship at Bellagio right after to repay the favor."

"Okay, so you've played with him. Good. I think for a second, and I decide that he does know that, so I jam for my last five thousand. Amir folds, late position folds, and the small blind calls all-in. He shows ace jack, and I held up."

"Nice job!" Joe said.

"So we were all playing a game-within-the-game," Barry said, "called 'can we beat Amir?'"

It's a great story, but it's so much more: it's an example of why Barry is one of the most successful big cash game players in the world. He's not just thinking at multiple levels about his hand and his opponent's hand; he's also thinking at multiple levels about what his opponent thinks about an entirely different opponent's hand. Barry also knows that he needs to build a huge stack to make it deep and to the final table, and he's willing to take what could be a race to get there -- but not recklessly. As I listened to him talk about that hand, I realized how much I have to learn about this game, and how much closer I am to the starting line in my poker journey than I thought I was.

Barry and Joe hung out for a few more minutes, and as I watched them interact, I saw much of the same dynamic between them that I have with my kids. I'm sure they know how lucky that makes us all.

When I came into the suite just after noon today, Barry was on my couch, so I took a seat nearby and took my stuff out of my backpack.

"How did golf go this morning?" I said.

"Oh, I played bad," he said. "I stayed in the tournament until almost two, and I busted out right on the bubble, and I was really tired this morning."

"Yeah," I said, "I totally understand. I was up late last night and I played Hot Shots Golf on my PSP this morning. I'm sure that was exactly the same thing."

If he got my attempt at dry irony, he didn't let on.

Brad Willis
@BradWillis in World Series of Poker