The once packed Rio hallways are now empty and emotionless. All you see are poker players drenched in sadness. People who have just busted from the main event and have nowhere else to go. It’s not just the end of the main event that produces the tears; it’s the end of Vegas. The best six weeks of the year over in a blink of an eye.
I catch Jeff Sarwer walking down the empty corridor. He’s lumbering back to his room after a quick check on his investments in the main event. He has only played four or five events this series; he has failed to cash in any of them, but could still have a profitable summer if Simon Charette or Ramzi Jelassi can grab a huge score with just 344-players remaining.
“He wins everything.” Says Sarwer referring to Jelassi who earned the Canadian 40k after his EPT Prague victory back in Dec.
Sarwer isn’t the only poker player that I have spoken to who has come to Vegas with a much reduced schedule. It’s been a concurrent theme this summer. There just isn’t that much surplus cash in people’s poker bankrolls these days.
“Live poker is very expensive. Back in 2009 when I was up a couple of hundred thousand everything seemed fine. But lately I have noticed the costs, especially travelling. I have a 100% ROI. I have cashed for over $600k and have spent around $200-300k on buy-ins, but there isn’t much of that money left, because travelling is so expensive. When I had that money I invested some in real estate and I am so grateful that I did.”
Sarwer hits the nail on the head with a sledgehammer. Poker players need to look at the wider picture. It’s not just the costs of buy-ins that need to be factored into the poker player’s balance sheet; it’s the travel costs, hotel costs, food costs and playtime costs. Too many of them just don’t take care of these things and before they know it they are being forced out of the game with very few options left.
“I play about 15 tournaments per year. Maybe I’ll set 40-50k aside for poker…maybe less? But I’ll always buy and sell action as well. I’m never going to try and put in the volume that I once did.”
The Canadian now calls Gdansk in Poland his home. He lives there with his partner and their young baby boy. He’s not a young single man anymore. He has responsibilities, and that changes your life; even a poker life.
“That’s why I’m always going to have my day job – real estate investment. That’s the business I understand and it’s my bread and butter. I have spent a lot of time learning the strategies of poker, and I don’t think I’m ever going to miss the WSOP Main Event for example. I’m not a full time poker player. It’s more of a hobby to me.”
When Sarwer was a child he was a chess wizard. Allen Kaufman, head of the American Chess Foundation, said that a nine-year-old Jeff Sarwer was stronger than Bobbie Fischer at age eleven. When you consider that many experts claim that Fischer is the greatest chess player that ever lived, that’s some honor; an honor that the ever-humble Sarwer was keen to play down.
“Now I’m sure that today there are kids who are six years old that are way better than I was when I was eight. Maybe in the 1980s I was something special for my time, just like Fischer was in the 60s, or whatever. Time periods change and the development jumps are huge. But I might not have been a top ten player in the current decade.”
Chess expert, Bruce Pandolfini, said that, ‘of the several thousand kids I’ve taught, Jeff is certainly the most amazing young player I have ever seen.’ I assumed that the reason Sarwer received such a verbal halo was because as a child he was consumed by chess. I wondered if, at the beginning of his poker career, he tried the same tact?
“All I did was think about chess and play chess, so I know what it takes to be a professional full time gamer; the sacrifices you have to make to be mentally abstract. The best thing the poker world gave me was the chance to meet so many incredible people. So many young sharp minds who are extremely honest and reliable people. I have never met so many young men with so much intelligence and integrity in my life.”
I don’t think I have written an article recently where I haven’t touched on the darker side of poker. It’s been hiding under every stone I have upturned. So it was refreshing to hear Sarwer talking about the poker community with such vigor and verve.
“I would hate to generalize by age but I am going to do it anyway. Generally the younger online generation is much better than my age group and beyond. I also believe that generally they have more integrity and are nicer individual’s, but I am talking in general terms of course.”
Sarwer’s comments got me thinking. I wonder if the younger generation has more integrity because their relationship with money is different to the old school live grinder. In the live casino when you are down, you just take a loan from the players at the table, and it’s given to keep the game running. This is a very different climate to the one the younger players are used to if they come up through the online ranks.
“It could just be the way they grew up. The older players had to deal with angle shooting and hustles where the kids are learning the purity of the game. They are understanding and mastering fundamentals that haven’t been mastered before. They are all hooked up to software; constantly analyzing the mathematics, the plays and the strategy of the game, and that’s a pure form of art in a way. Those people are pure souls. They have taken poker to an all new level.”
I wondered if Sarwer still played chess. So I asked him if there was room for the game in his life?
“I played a chess match at EPT Deauville against a Russian player, and there was some side bet action going on. It became quite a circus. I’m sure in the past I would have had a strong edge against him, but we were about even. It’s quite clear that I’m not that good anymore.”
Sarwer stops for a moment and ponders those words.
“Just saying that out loud, and hearing it, is refreshing to me. It’s quite clear that I’m not a very good chess player anymore. And that’s understandable because I don’t play that much.”
He was a great chess player, is a great poker player and is a great human being.