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A Poker Life: Jeff Sarwer

by Brian Pempus |  Published: Feb 01, 2011


Even though poker pro Jeff Sarwer is a kindergarten dropout, he is still one of the most lucid brains on the tournament circuit.
The 32-year-old Sarwer was a chess prodigy, on pace to become one of the best grandmasters in the world, until a cruel upbringing caught up with the wunderkind and cast him into oblivion.
However, after a childhood of living on the road as a fugitive with an abusive father, and years more of existing in the world with a fake name, Sarwer re-emerged a few years ago as himself to play in a chess tournament.
Since 2007, he has been showing the world the charisma and intelligence that made him a child celebrity in the early 1980s. He recently found the game of poker as another outlet for wreaking havoc on opponents.
Card Player caught up with Sarwer to talk about his troubled past, the similarities between chess and poker, and what the future could have in store for one of poker’s best up-and-coming players.
A Lightning Chess Career
Sarwer first learned the rules of chess from his sister, Julia. It didn’t take long before the curious 4-year-old was playing against himself all day long, absorbing everything that he could.
Two years later, on a cross-country road trip with his father and sister, Sarwer stumbled across chess hustlers at a McDonald’s in New Orleans.
“They were kicked out of Burger King and Popeye’s Fried Chicken, so it was the last place they were allowed to play,” Sarwer said. “I went up to them and asked if I could play. I beat one of them, and he told us not to move, because he had to show ‘Al’ this kid. In a few minutes, Al Carlin came in. He was a massively energetic man who happened to be the Louisiana state chess champion. He was the first guy to show me some basic things about the game, and I was so thrilled. I was obsessed with the beauty of the pieces and how making structures made so much sense to me.”
Sarwer eventually ended up in New York City, studying at the Manhattan Chess Club. He began rigorous training under the guidance of famous chess instructor Bruce Pandolfini.
By 1986, at the age of 8, Sarwer had won the under-10 World Youth Chess Championship in Puerto Rico, representing his native country of Canada. While the victory helped cement the notion of Sarwer being one of the best prodigies in the history of the game, he was always looking to compete against better players.
“I always knew that it was just kiddies chess, and just the beginning,” Sarwer said. “I preferred playing adults, and, of course, playing some of the world’s best players at the Manhattan Chess Club was the type of thing that interested me the most. Some of the top grandmasters were nice enough to crush me again and again, and I was always excited about seeing what types of patterns and plans they used to do that. I tried my best to incorporate those ideas into my own game.”
With media attention on the young chess superstar and a future of becoming the world chess champion a possibility, Sarwer’s father decided to do the unthinkable — pull him and his sister away from New York and back to a life on the road.
“My dad taking me away from chess was one of the worst things that happened to me in my childhood,” Sarwer said. “As usual, he had his own issues, which took precedence over my chess career, and he certainly didn’t like all of the attention that my chess career was bringing to our family. Actually, if it wasn’t for all of the media surrounding me in my childhood, no one would have been examining my dad and his ways, which was exactly what he was trying to avoid.”
Checkmate on a Childhood
Sarwer began life in a transient state. His parents met when his father was 19 and his mother was a single 29-year-old with four kids. After having Jeff and his sister, the couple had problems staying together. Sarwer was only 1 year old when his father decided to take him and his sister on the road.
So, by the age of 10, after suddenly disappearing from the game he loved, Sarwer resumed a life of wandering from place to place. His dad provided food by collecting welfare, running various low-level scams, and dumpster-diving.
“We mainly hung around the hippie communities and sometimes ended up in squats,” Sarwer said. “It was way different than living in New York and going to the Manhattan Chess Club. We were always living an underground lifestyle, but we were forced to go further underground when our problems became so public. Part of me enjoyed being on the road and living an unpredictable life day by day, but in the end, I was someone who desperately wanted some order in my life.”
When the lifestyle of the Sarwers became the focus of media attention, the Children’s Aid Society of Ontario took Jeff and Julia into protective custody. However, life in a foster home proved to be uncomfortable for the brother and sister. They ran back to their father, and the trio began living a fugitive lifestyle.
“The last thing I wanted was to be in an Ontarian foster home where terrible things happened to people we knew,” Sarwer said. “The situation with my dad, as bad as it was, was much less scary to me than being around a foster family. I was terrified of the concept of living in the normal world, since I was raised in a different way. My father loved the freedom of being on the road, and he could also easily dodge the authorities that way.
“He was a concert violinist who decided that his life with his kids would be a huge experiment, so we were to drop out of society and live our lives with zero rules or boundaries except his own. Unfortunately, with time, those rules became hard to live by, and made less and less sense. Every cult collapses at some point, no matter how well-intentioned it is in the beginning.”
An Open File Back to Jeff Sarwer
After years of living with a fake name, Sarwer began to use his real one when he successfully became involved in business in his early 20s. However, he still felt uncomfortable in revealing who he was publicly. In September of 2007, after almost two decades away from the game, Sarwer thought he was ready to play chess again — and as himself.
“I saw a chance, so I just played,” Sarwer said. “It was a weekend tournament
in beautiful Malbork Castle near Gdansk, Poland. I did better than expected, and ended up in a tie for second place with some strong GMs
[grandmasters]. I could have won if I had beat GM Radosław Wojtasek in the last round, but since he is one of the top 50 players in the world, I had no problem accepting a draw and sharing second place.”
That chess tournament marked the re-emergence of a man the chess world once loved. Although it was a slow and painful process, Sarwer was confident all along that his troubled past would eventually tip over like an opponent’s king.
“I patiently tried to filter all of the information that my dad gave me over the years, but the older I got, the more I realized that I had to exist in the real world, and that a lot of what he taught me was making no sense,” Sarwer said. “I slowly integrated myself throughout my 20s, and found my own answers and figured out what parts of my childhood training I wanted to keep and which parts I wanted to get rid of. So, it happened gradually throughout my childhood, and eventually, when I was a man, I went on my way.
“I wasn’t ready to come back for a long time — until I had enough good years behind me. I didn’t want to be that guy who had a tough childhood and then people see that nothing good ended up with him. I knew that a lot of people expected the worst for me as an adult, and I always used that as motivation during my 20s, while I was quietly building up my life and stockpiling new positive memories to make a clear border between recent past and deep past.”
Castling to Poker
Even with success in his first chess tournament since coming back to the world as himself, Sarwer wanted to continue to find other passions.
In Gdansk, Poland, Sarwer became a regular player in a weekly €5 six-max sit-and-go at his favorite bar. The year was 2008 when the former chess prodigy found a new thinking game.
“They were nice guys, but played just terribly,” Sarwer said. “I was running bad and was never winning. So, I thought to myself, ‘OK, I am doing badly here, but maybe if I play with thinking players, things might go better.’ Just like that, I decided to buy in directly to the main event of the EPT Prague. I made it into the money, and then got it all in with Q-J on a Q-J-5 board in a big pot against an Italian who called off with pocket aces. Of course, he rivered an ace, but I realized that poker might be a good way for me to practice dealing with things that are out of my control. I have a tendency to control as much as I can.”
Since his first poker tournament just over two years ago, Sarwer has amassed nearly $500,000 in career tournament earnings, and has made two EPT final tables. Although 2010 wasn’t as successful for him as 2009 in terms of money won, Sarwer positioned himself as one of the brightest minds in the poker world.
“2010 was great because I feel that I improved my game massively,” said Sarwer, who also dabbles in $10-$25 pot-limit Omaha cash games. “I usually play about one major tournament a month, and usually a side event, as well. I had some really close calls in 2010 to having massive pyramids, only to be rivered at critical moments. My only good result was second place, for €110,000, in the Berlin €10,000 event. Of course, in a way, it was great training for my patience, and I am sure that once the live poker gods let variance come back to my side, I can do some damage. My game is becoming less exploitable, and I am finding better and better spots for sick bluffs.”
A Passed Pawn to a Bright Future
Although Sarwer thinks chess and poker are very different, he said there are many similarities in the two games — which are conducive to his way of processing information.
“When playing both games, I have some familiar feelings,” Sarwer said. “Some basic skill sets are necessary in both, like discipline and analysis, but chess is more visual and spatial. Therefore, it has more in common with the part of the brain that’s used for music composition or architecture, while poker is more about statistics and risk management. They are similar when you get near the end. All of the decisions become more important, and people sometimes tighten up. Of course, that’s why it is critical that you stay levelheaded and make intelligent moves. At the higher level, they both require an immense amount of opponent awareness and focus.
“I know what it takes to win things, and I know that it means having lots of respect for your opponents. In both games, you have to use your previous experiences, but must understand that every situation and every opponent is different, which means that before you do something automatically, you have to calmly go through your thought process and see if you can come up with a better plan. I have no fear of trying funky things and having them fail, as long as I get some new information. If you experiment with those funky things long enough and fuse them together with a little common sense, you’ll create some new weapons that can run people off the table.”
With his high-level strategy and dedication to poker, Sarwer is confident of eventually capturing a major-tournament title. Even though the resident of Poland lacks the experience of many regulars on the tournament circuit, he plans on continuing to learn during the upswing in his life in the past few years.
While poker may be the biggest gaming priority in his life right now, Sarwer has not forgotten about his talents away from the felt. He said that if he goes back to the game that made him a child celebrity, he will be shooting for a grandmaster title.
“It would require at least two years of dedicated, hard-core study and practice, especially in regard to opening preparation,” Sarwer said. “So much of chess at the higher level is about good opening preparation, and the amount of theory that I would have to learn is enormous. The main difference between poker and chess at this point is that poker at the analytical level is very new compared to chess, so the top players are changing the game every year, and are making their own new theories. It’s exciting.”
At the age of 32, Sarwer is in full control of his own success, and the future looks as bright as it did when he was crushing opponents on the chess board more than two decades ago. His dad is no longer a part of his life, he sees his sister about once a year since they live in different parts of the world, and he is at peace with a childhood that destroyed his chances of becoming the best chess player in the world.
“All that time back then, I knew that childhood was short and that someday as an adult I would make my own decisions and live my life in my own way. And, of course, I was right, and here I am now, living the high life. I love the fact that I found poker. It has been such a pleasant surprise. Traveling around and playing in these tournaments with all of these guys I know is a lot of fun, and it gives me a second chance in gaming. I think that within a few years, we will see what I can contribute to this beautiful game.” ♠