This Day in Jewish History / A Poker Champion With a Heart of Gold Is Born

Barry Greenstein studied advanced math and worked in software but found his truly reliable source of cash at the card table.

flipchip / Wikimedia Commons

December 30, 2014, is the 60th birthday of the champion poker professional Barry Greenstein.

Greenstein is known not only for his substantial earnings - more than $8 million to date, according to his website - but also for the fact that he has given so much of it away to charity.

Barry Greenstein was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in that city’s Scottsdale neighborhood, on the southwest side. It was his parents who taught him and his three siblings to play cards. Barry was playing poker by age four and playing for money by age 12.

He graduated from Chicago’s Bogan High School and received a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Illinois. He continued working toward a doctorate in mathematics there, too, but left before finishing his dissertation.

In the meantime, he was making good money at the card tables.

By 1984, Greenstein had a girlfriend he wanted to marry. She had three children from a previous marriage, whom he wanted to adopt. The couple was advised by a lawyer that the process would likely advance more smoothly if Barry was receiving a regular salary.

He took a job in California with what was then a high-tech startup called Symantec, where he worked on a product called Q&A, an early and highly successful database and word-processing program.

When his wife and a daughter both became severely ill and the family faced considerable medical bills, though, he went back to playing poker full time, leaving Symantec (today best known for its Norton utilities software) in 1991.

Dedicated to the kids

Eventually he and his wife divorced, and he received custody of their children, who by then numbered five.

Greenstein dedicated his 2005 poker memoir, “Ace of the River,” to all “the children of gamblers,” who, he says, “were told everything was done so they could have toys and clothes and a nice place to live, but all they wanted was a little more of their parents’ time.” He then apologizes to his own children, “for when I have failed as a parent.”

Financially, Greenstein did well enough playing poker that he has not only supported his children but has been able to give away more than half his earnings to charity, earning himself the nickname of the “Robin Hood of Poker.”

His favorite cause is Children, Incorporated, which provides assistance to destitute children in a number of countries.

Although initially he gave all his winnings to charity, in 2008, facing rising expenses, he decided he should limit his gifts to his net earnings.

Greenstein’s 2005 book, which he published privately, was intended to be a guide to profiting at poker.

But for someone whose profession requires him to be a keen judge of people’s character, Greenstein, by his own account, failed when it came to sussing the man who oversaw production and distribution of the book.

He discovered this when, after initially he received large royalty checks, the money stopped flowing and the publisher stopped returning his calls.

Only when he threatened legal action, says Greenstein, did his publisher admit that he had taken - and lost - Greenstein’s earnings by investing the money on a bookstore he had opened.

In a September blog entry on his site, Greenstein addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and emphasizes the need for empathy on both sides if the “cycle of violence and blame” is to end.

Though he acknowledges his own basic support for Israel, he says he’s convinced that “Palestinians need to emerge from this conflict believing they won the battle and can now reap the rewards of independence.”

Greenstein also mentions that a decade ago, he and a Lebanese-Palestinian poker champ, Kassem Deeb, discussed the possibility of bringing tournament poker to the Middle East “to make a difference.” Unfortunately, the poker boom didn’t last, he explains, and they put the idea aside.

Greenstein has won a World Series of Poker bracelet three times and is among the all-time top five players in earnings on the World Poker Tour.

In 2011, he was elected to the Poker Hall of Fame.