The Bear and the Cub
Well, it's been a long couple of weeks at the Rio, and we are reaching the climax of what has been an astounding 2015 World Series of Poker main event. The money has been placed on the table, and the cards are ready to fly again as we get ready to crown a new champion. Everyone is on the edge of his or her seats waiting to see who can claim victory. What makes this so different from other World Series main events? Well, it just so happens that not only did this father and son tandem make this coveted final table, but they are now heads-up with one another for the $10 million first prize, the bracelet and of course the glory. Would it be Barry, the seasoned veteran, who has been playing poker longer than most of us even knew about the game? Or would it be Joe, the young gun, who picked up the game after being told by his father that he would have to learn the hard way, on his own? So without further ado, let's meet the final contestants:
With tournament winnings exceeding $5 million, it's no surprise that Barry Greenstein has made quite a name for himself in the televised poker era. Greenstein picked up poker from his own family when he was a kid growing up in Chicago. He was a winner from the get go, and because of his love and knack for poker, he spent many years in graduate school attempting to get a Ph.D. in mathematics, which to this day he is only a few months short of obtaining. Greenstein then headed to Symantec, where he worked as a software developer for a number of years before finally following his calling and taking the leap to play poker full-time. Playing poker as a professional those days was different than it is today. "If you can imagine, it was not necessarily a good thing to say you were a professional poker player back then, there was a stigma attached to it," he said. "I always told Joe, if his school asked, to say that I was an investor." Although the money was good, and Greenstein was known among his peers as one of the best players in the game, it wasn't until poker hit the TV screens when Greenstein became a household name.
In the times before television, tournament poker was never an area the cash game pros really looked at with much thought. Sure, most pros would play in the $10,000 buy-in World Series of Poker main event, but it was usually much more lucrative to play in the big side games, and cash games those days. Greenstein recalls his first time on a TV table for a filming of Poker Superstars: "The producers asked me what I had won, so they could put in their graphic bar below my name, and at the time I hadn't really had any big tournament wins, so I told them just to hold off. With the start of the WPT, I had already planned on taking a stab at playing on this new circuit, and I felt confident I would win one within the year, so they could add that win in when it came." Greenstein was certainly right, and he went on to make his first televised final table. It was at that table he would see firsthand the influence that the cameras would have on the game. Greenstein recalls the producers mentioning that he should be more talkative at the table, and chat more with the rest of the group, which included Chip Reese and the trash talking Randy Jensen. "Randy wanted me to talk, he was uncomfortable with my silence, my strategy was to keep him as uncomfortable as possible," Greenstein said. "I told the producers there was no way I could change my strategy to make for better TV, I mean we were playing for over a million dollars."
The win would be his first, and he has gone on to become not only feared in the cash games, but on the tournament circuit as well. He is probably best known for donating his winnings to charity, particularly Children Incorporated. "My tournament winnings go to help build and maintain some of the facilities," he said. "Many of the kids are in orphanages, and we have facilities in 21 countries around the world. My money goes to help when there are natural disasters, for instance. It helps to rebuild the facilities and keep them running. I would urge anybody to get involved and sponsor a child." His opponents can keep this in mind when they get knocked out by Greenstein, not only were they up against one of the best in the game, but their losses are the gain of many children in need.
Unlike his stepfather, Joe Sebok did not grow up around cards, as many would assume. In fact, the biggest card game they had going, if they even had a deck of cards in the house, was "War." Sebok attended the University of California-Berkley, and graduated with a degree in psychology, and a minor in Native American studies. Being in San Francisco, Joe found his way into the dot-com business, and succeeded in growing a couple of businesses. "Working in the dot-com industry was a blast," he said. "I learned right then that I loved getting a company off the ground, and working on the operations front." Unfortunately, the success was short-lived, and like many in the dot-com business, Sebok found himself without a job.
"For me, poker just seemed to come at the right time. I had been laid off a bunch, the job market was down in the Bay Area, and it was the same time that poker was becoming big. So for me, getting into poker was circumstantial. If it hadn't been poker, I would have certainly gotten involved in other things." But poker was a good fit for Joe, and right off the bat, he experienced success that others can only dream of. In the very first tournament he played at Lucky Chances, he finished third. "Like anyone who has played poker, if you have even a hint of success, it really lights your fire, and that's what happened with me," he said.
The fire was lit, and in 2005 Sebok went on to make two World Series of Poker final tables. Joe finished eighth in $5,000 pot-limit hold 'em, and fifth in $5,000 limit hold 'em, and made just over $100,000 during his rookie World Series. While he has been a bit quiet on the televised table front, he has without a doubt been one of the most consistent competitors on the circuit. In 2006, Joe won three tournaments, and made numerous final tables while earning almost $1 million for his efforts. He has finished on the TV bubble for the WPT twice in 2007, and is still yearning for that bracelet, or a WPT championship. Even Joe mentions, "While I have had a lot of success, I have not really accomplished anything." Well, that may be up for debate. Sebok currently sits as the second-ranked player in the BLUFF Power Rankings, a system devised to highlight players who continuously excel in tournaments with a buy-in of over $5,000.
Growing up Greenstein
There are often questions about Joe and Barry's relationship, being that they seem so close, yet have different last names. "Joe's mom was divorced, and had three children when we first started dating," Barry says. "It was just natural to meet the kids, so I met Joe for the first time when he was about 4 years old. Joe and I, of the three boys, probably were the closest, right from the start. I certainly would say for all three of the kids, I seemed to be closer to the kids than their biological parents. Even when Joe's mom and I got divorced, there was pretty much no question that Joe would live with me, rather than live with his biological parents."
While there were never any cards in the household, there was, however, a competitive nature that was definitely influenced by Barry. Whether it was weekly math quizzes, football, basketball or soccer, Barry was constantly driving his children to succeed. Joe says Barry would often say, "There is no excuse for being the best at everything you do."
"He pushed me, there is no question about that, sometimes I would say that I couldn't do something, and Bear would always counter with, 'Nothing is too hard,'" Sebok says. "If I came home with six A's and one A-minus, Bear would want to know what was up with the A-minus."
Barry says a weekly tradition would be to watch football on Sundays, and then go for ice cream. "Sometimes, I didn't want to go out for ice cream, or maybe the kids didn't have a good enough week," he says. "If they behaved well, did well in school and had a good week, then I would always gladly take them out. As normal kids are, sometimes they would screw up, or not clean their room. If that was the case, we had a little competition. They would have to catch three passes in a row. It doesn't look it now, but I used to be a pretty good athlete, and in those days I could throw the ball pretty long, and pretty far. I remember one particular time, Joe was about 12 years old. I would usually throw one 40-yard bomb, one out pattern, and one bullet pass, which was like a button hook. When the kids were young, I would never give the bullet pass everything I had, but this particular week Joey had just been, as he says a 'butt head,' and I didn't want to take them for ice cream. I wouldn't cheat, and to me cheating would be throwing a pass that couldn't be caught, I would never do that. But I did consciously think that I was just gonna whip this ball at Joe, with everything I had. I threw that pass as hard as I could, and Joey caught it, and I am not kidding you, he had a mark from the laces tattooed in his chest. That was Joe's first tattoo. He caught it, and my word is good of course, and I took them for ice cream."
At the ripe old age of 27, without a job, Joe figured it was time for a fresh start. Poker was no longer the taboo subject it was in his childhood, and it was time to have a look at the game a bit more seriously. During the college years, Barry's children recognized that Mimi Tran had gotten poker lessons from their father, and she was making good money, so the obvious question was, "Can you teach us?"
"Money is not what it's all about," quipped Barry. "I want you guys to get involved in something that you will be interested in, so I am not going to teach you poker, and that's the way it stood for some years to follow."
Joe followed that advice. He graduated from college, and had a career outside of poker, but still the question was there. Could Bear teach him to become a winning poker player? Barry's answer? "Yeah, I think I probably could have taught you to become a good poker player."
Things were not quite so simple, because Barry was not going to just spoonfeed his son into becoming a winning player. He advised Joe to read books, play online for free, and get some tutorial software. As Barry said, "To get good at anything, you need hands-on training, the person has to want to get good at something."
Sebok recalls it in a slightly different fashion. "At first, Bear was skeptical. On the outside, he said great, go for it. But on the inside, I knew he was thinking, go for it, fail, which you are clearly going to do, and then you can do something else. But it became apparent pretty quickly, that while I didn't have the card sense yet, but I did have the instincts, and people-reading ability to help me succeed, which to this day is one of my strengths."
The two World Series final tables seemed to solidify that Joe certainly had a feel for the game that supported him and his family for all these years. "He saw that I was serious about the game, and we started to talk a lot more about poker, analyzing hands, and trying to figure out how to improve my game," Sebok says.
Many folks remember one of Joe's World Series final tables. Before the mike's were removed, Barry already began his analysis of what Joe did wrong. Joe had called preflop with A-J, and upon missing the flop, still called a bet. The turn brought an ace, and the players got all the money in, however, Sebok's A-J was no good against his opponent's A-K. Greenstein was heard mentioning to Joe that it was a pretty brain-damaged play. I think a lot of folks who don't understand Barry and Joe's relationship may have thought it was a pretty harsh statement, but after spending some time with the two, it's pretty common banter between them.
The tables turn
Although the learning process never ends in poker, it's evident the tables have turned a bit with these two. There is a strong bond between them that while built through childhood, has been solidified through poker. It's not just Joe asking Barry questions anymore. There is a lot more back and forth, and you can see Barry now considers his son a peer as well as a student.
"It's funny, because Bear and I talk after every day of tournament play now," Sebok says. "He is in Barcelona, and I am not even playing and he calls me to chat about hands, and to get my take on how he played things."
While poker is not a team sport, they are in fact a team, unless they are at the same table, of course. There is a small inner circle, which includes Tran, that shares information on competitors.
"There is no doubt that most of the information comes from Bear, he is by far the superior player, but occasionally I will jump in there and give out a little nugget of information that may help him throughout the tournament," Sebok says. "That's the difference though, it's usually just a nugget, where he drops boulders on us."
In poker, the strong outlast the weak, and since Barry and Joe are such great competitors, it is just natural that deep in tournaments the two of them sometimes find themselves at the same table.
"I don't want to be at his tables," Barry says, "because I don't want to beat him, and he doesn't want to beat me. You always want weak players at your table, someone you know you can get chips from, so I definitely don't want strong players like Joe at my table."
When Joe first starting playing, Barry suggests it was definitely a good thing for them to be at the same table, because it gave Greenstein a firsthand look at what Joe was doing right and what Joe was doing wrong. Now, the two use their playing time together as a learning tool. Occasionally Joe will even attempt to criticize the master about playing a hand, and when asked about it directly, Barry mentions that, while on the outside it may have looked like a mistake, Joe sometimes just needs a more in-depth look into his thought process, which will take a lifetime to develop.
The road undiscovered
It's hard to believe these two have time for outside business. But Joe, in fact, has always made a place for working in the poker industry, while not playing. Whether it was on his successful poker radio show with Gavin Smith and Scott Huff or writing for the likes of Bluff in his spare time, or even his show on rawvegas.tv pinning himself against Gavin in a serious of ridiculous prop bets. When the radio show was most recently canceled, Bear let him know that in order to do something the right way, you may as well do it yourself. So the two paired up again, except this time on the other end of the felt. ThePokerRoad.com, launched on Oct. 21, is Web site which immerses its viewers in all things poker. From pro blogs, which include an audio blog from Barry, to the ever-popular radio show that Joe has been a part of, the poker road has it all.
"The funny thing with Poker Road is that the tables have now turned, because Joe is the head guy," Barry says. "I work for Joe. I think Joe enjoys telling me that something sucks when he can. The main thing I want to show him, since he has been on the other side for so long, is that I can take the criticism. I enjoy him being better at something than I am."
While, it hasn't happened yet, the fact is there is a great chance these two may square off at a final table one day in the future. When posed with the situation from the introduction, you wouldn't be surprised, but each of them would want the other to win. That is how close this relationship is.
"I would never want to play him heads-up, and I would never want to beat him," Barry says. "I would want Joe to win, instead of myself. I definitely want to see Joe win more than myself. It doesn't matter if it was the World Series of Poker main event. I would never want to try and beat my son heads-up."
Sebok feels the same way: "It would solidify Bear's legacy if he were to win, and that is why I would want him to win it, over me. I know poker will never be my legacy, and I will never be as good as Bear, so I would definitely want him to take the title." One thing they did agree on is that it would be a pretty good problem to have.
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