Playing with love and for freedom
Celebrity isn't for everyone. In the age of lights-and-cameras poker, when notoriety and charisma are rewarded as much or more than success, it's a rare thing to cross a player who wants little to do with the glitterati allure.
Ylon Schwartz is one of the November Nine, the most hyped final table in poker history. He's about to play on poker's biggest stage for the championship of the world and more money than even he could burn off in a few years. The eyes of the world will be upon him and the other eight remaining players in the main event, looking on as poker's next world champion is determined. However, one senses that he's not interested in the accompaniment of fame.
"We understand what's going on here," said the 38-year-old Schwartz. "This is huge. There's a lot of money at stake. It's about the freedom. It's not just $9 million; it's like $20 million [considering the additional benefits of world championship-sized endorsement deals]. This is a huge thing, beyond the publicity and everything happening afterward. Maybe I won't partake in the madness afterwards."
To avoid celebrity and the windfall it can bring seems like a backward thought from an admittedly backward man. Schwartz has always made his way through the world with the goal to be free. Free to do as he pleases, to answer to no one. It's an attitude that seems mutually exclusive with the ambassadorship so many feel the world championship should bring with it.
It's been 17 years since Schwartz has had an employer. He has done a lot of living in that time -- some of it easy, some of it hard. Coming from a gaming-rich New York family that saw to it he was taught the rules of poker at the age of 4, he started competing for meager amounts of cash as a way to earn a living.
"I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn in my early 20s and started playing games on the street around that time," Schwartz said. "Poker, backgammon and other games where I could make a decent living. I've been doing that ever since."
Among those games was the granddaddy of them all: chess. Schwartz played in Washington Square Park, making what he describes as "$200 on a good day," but it was about more than the money. For him, while poker is about freedom, chess is about art.
"I love it," he said. "I guess it's the fact you have to look so deeply into a problem. It's intense, man. The beauty is the artistry of a complex puzzle and never knowing the truth. You'll think about a move for a month and suddenly figure it out. It's pretty exciting stuff to a nerd."
Schwartz estimated he was among the country's top 100 chess players before his mother fell ill in 1995, causing him to take a step back from chess to care for her. Soon after that a friend took him to a New York club to reintroduce him to poker. Walking in with $200 in his pocket, he would emerge at the end of that weekend with some $12,000. He has been a professional poker player ever since.
The big money poker offered proved too strong a lure for Schwartz to avoid, but it wasn't without its pitfalls. As a man who has always lived life large, he found his lack of discipline didn't mesh well with the peaks and valleys of professional poker.
"I went broke several times, couldn't help that," Schwartz said. "My lifestyle is really crazy and doesn't suit poker. I had to tone it down because if you're a little nuts, you're going to get broke and it happened to me many times.
"I liked to hang out and go to concerts, drinking heavily when I was playing. I was so reckless with the money I was making, spending it on $500 bottles of wine and all that. My ex and I would go out and have a $1,000 dinner. I'd lose [$2000 to $3000] in a day and then do that. Suddenly, I was broke again. You have to kind of keep your bankroll in check, understand what your money means and how much you have. I didn't understand that at all until I got a little older."
Seventeen years after beginning his card-playing career, Schwartz said he has found that discipline thanks to experience.
"I'm an old dog now," Schwartz lamented. "I've seen it all; I'm done. I'm content to just hang out, get a massage once in a while, but other than that I'm pretty cool. I'm not going broke again. I'm telling you, I'm not going broke again. That is it! I've had it up to here with being broke! It's good to just have a healthy lifestyle. I prefer to go to yoga class, bike to the park, go to a movie and chill out rather than drinking a fifth of scotch."
It's a change in attitude that is reflected in his approach at the table.
"I used to love crushing people [in chess]," he said in remembrance of his younger, fierier self. "[Checkmating] them and seeing them walk away with their tails between their legs, but that's not me any more. I'm tired of competing.
"I totally changed my philosophy," Schwartz remarked of a more laid-back approach. "I don't want to crush anyone; I don't want to knock anyone out; I just want to get into my opponent's head, figure out where they come from, where they've been. Do that and your stack will grow. That's just the way it is. I just love my opponents. I love 'em! When I'm at the table, I'm just happy to be there. It's all about the love, man; it's all about the love."
It's an approach he has extended to the final table of the WSOP. "I'm going to give them as much love as I can; all eight of them. I hope I love them all to death. It would be a beautiful thing."
It's an unusual approach to the unique problem of winning what he calls the most anticipated sit-and-go of all time, but it's not unusual for Schwartz to be unusual. Others can have their fame and fortune. For Schwartz, it's all about the freedom. Will that approach change if he manages to take the title? Only time and the way the table plays out can answer that question. Be sure to watch on Tuesday, Nov. 11 from 8 to 11 p.m. to find out.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.
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