A big difference between good and "great"

Updated: May 10, 2005, 11:29 AM ET
By Steve Rosenbloom | Special to ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Barry Greenstein is cranky.

As he stands inside the Bellagio, where he regularly plays in the biggest cash game in the world, Greenstein and I are discussing who exactly should be called a great poker player and who shouldn't.

No. Wait. Greenstein is not exactly discussing. More like lecturing. In that contemptuous way of his. Lovably contemptuous. But contemptuous just the same.

Now, I could explain here that Greenstein's crankiness stems from the media making stars of players who win tournaments on television, declaring them "great" players, when actually many of those tournament players are not winning players who show a profit playing poker, which is why they hawk books and DVDs, and besides, tournaments aren't nearly the challenge or barometer that cash games are, and so, the bigger the cash game, the better the player who can beat it until a player gets to the biggest cash game around, which just happens to be - ta-da! - the one Greenstein plays in.

But my writing the previous paragraph risks the wrath of Greenstein's precision, so I'll let him explain.

"There are five top players: There's Doyle Brunson, there's Chip Reese, there's Chau Giang, there's Phil Ivey, there's myself," Greenstein says. "Those are the five people who beat the biggest game. There isn't any tournament player you're going to put in our game who's going to beat it. They'd be drawing dead. They'd be the live ones. We'd play 'til they're broke. But they already are broke, for the most part. The public says, 'Oh he's a great player.' He's a live one in our game.

"You could make millions of dollars if you could beat our game. Do you really think these people would worry about making a few hundred-thousand (dollars) selling DVDs and videos if you could make millions playing poker? It's pretty obvious, isn't it?

"What tournaments are all about is beating bad players. Building up big chips in tournaments is a skill. I don't want to say they don't have certain skills. But playing good players, they'd have their heads handed to them at the highest levels.

"That isn't to say that they aren't smart enough individuals to become top players. The way you get good is by playing against the best players. You've now got to make adjustments to the adjustments they've made against you.

"The reason these other guys play in tournaments for the most part is because they are broke, because other people put them in a tournament and they've made a name for themselves. But they're not as good as many professionals out there."

When told of some of Greenstein's contention the best poker players are playing poker and not selling pokerphernalia -- Greenstein, by the way, is coming out with a book called "Ace on the River - An Advanced Poker Guide" -- renowned pro Howard Lederer raised his eyebrows and showed part of his famous weapons-grade stare, then somewhat backed up Greenstein's point.

"I had success in those biggest side games for 10 years," Lederer says. "I think I've gotten a lot of satisfaction and expanded my horizons a little bit and made a conscious decision.

"One thing I did decide, though, is I have too much respect for Barry Greenstein as a poker player and those other guys who play in the biggest games. I don't feel like I can put in a full day of business and come to Bellagio and play in a side game right now. I'm not the poker player they are right now. That's just the mental preparation thing. It's not that I don't have it in me. I just choose not to have it in me where it's all poker."

So, indeed, there is truth in Greenstein's argument. Still sounds cranky.

"The crankiness is that for years I'd just bite my tongue when the media would talk about losing players being top players in the game," Greenstein said, preferring not to name names. "I'd say, 'OK, they don't know the difference.' And everything I'd read or see on the news is, from where I sit, false.

" 'Great' is given to people who aren't even winning poker players. So, if someone's not a winning player, and I'm being told that's a 'great' player, they're being put up as top professionals and 'This is how they act.' Then they act like goofballs, and I say, 'That's because they're not (top professionals). You've got the wrong people.'

"I'm almost defending the working poker players around the country and even around the world who make a living playing poker. There are many people who do that, but it's very expensive to go around and play in these tournaments and often not the right way to make their living. They live with their families, they play in the local clubs.

"On some levels, I'm arrogant. That level is, there are cash game players - and not only that but I play in the biggest cash game; what we call the first tier - and a lot of people don't appreciate what the level of differences are between us and people playing in tournaments."

Greenstein began playing tournaments the past 18 months and has one of the better records, winning a World Series of Poker bracelet, finishing second in another WSOP tournament, capturing a World Poker Tour event and earning a bracelet in a Bellagio tournament.

What's more, to underscore the value of tournament winnings compared to his cash game accomplishments, Greenstein gives all his tournament winnings to charity, most notably Children's Inc., which is why Greenstein is often referred to as the "Robin Hood of poker."

"My crankiness is not for myself, because I have been given - whether I've deserved it or not - almost the best persona of any player in poker history," Greenstein says. "I'm defending other poker professionals."

You can doubt Greenstein's contentions about how cash game players compare to tournament players. And he will be happy to welcome you to his game. Bring money.

Steve Rosenbloom is a contributor to ESPN.com and writes a syndicated poker column for the Chicago Tribune.

Steve Rosenbloom has been contributing to the ESPN Poker Club since March 2005. Along with his contributions to ESPN.com, Rosenbloom writes for the Chicago Tribune and is the author of "The Best Hand I Ever Played."