The next big thing: Jeff Sarwer by Stephen Bartley

Bluff Europe Cover February

03 February 2010

The poker forums begin to buzz; something about a chess prodigy with a strange childhood; one of foster homes and dramatic escapes into anonymity before he disappears, emerging 20 years later to make a revolutionary impression on the poker hierarchy. Stephen Bartley investigates...

“He super-uses people live, including myself, 100 per cent of the time. His thought process is so far above levels I could ever imagine.” – Shaun Deeb

Quickly, according to the buzz, he becomes not only the most original player to enter the game, changing the way it’s played, what’s more, few will be able to challenge him because the solution is locked inside a one-of-a-kind brain with one hell of an unconventional upbringing.

This is Jeff Sarwer, and he’s come to ruin everything you once held to be true.

“He’s probably the greatest mind to enter the tournament poker world in history.” This is Jonathan “FatalError” Aguiar on Two plus Two: “No exaggeration.”

It’s a sentiment shared by poker’s luminaries, those that have seen Sarwer up close. No books, no online grinder, just a gifted mind unleashed on poker a year ago. Has poker found its new prodigy?

EPT Prague, December 2008: Sarwer takes his seat in his first live tournament. He faces tough opposition armed only with enthusiasm, an open mind and a hooded claw grin. He’s oddly polite and unafraid of giving away information, instead, just soaking it up – good for a debut min-cash?

“It was a great introduction,” said Sarwer, talking in the Hilton Prague a year later. Dressed in civvies and not the shirt of his sponsor – a small Finnish based gambling site – he looks quite ordinary for a man whose stocks are going up in the hyperbole market. Articulate and funny, this was his first major English language interview since his reappearance, news of which is slowly starting to catch people’s attention. “That was my first big tournament. I was way tighter than I am now, but I was relying on pure reads and basic, basic math. I wasn’t doing all the fancy check-raising.”

Sarwer then took what he’d learned to final tables in Tallinn, Helsinki and Barcelona before the new EPT season came around. Kyiv was a false start for the Canadian, but fate had him meet Shaun Deeb, a meeting that could go down as a moment that changed the game.

Warsaw followed. Sarwer had breezed into the lead, his approach effortless. Inside, an unconventional mind was in deep thought, outside Sarwer was unashamedly genial, asking questions, restoring the self-belief in players he’d just trounced. He mostly won, but when he lost, it simply meant there were more chips available for him to win. Sarwer was having fun.

“He ravages the weak players and castrates the stronger ones,” said Jim “Mr_BigQueso” Collopy. “His style, in a nutshell, is to force everyone to get their hands dirty, to meet him on his level, to allow you to be constantly put in tough, muddled situations, which is fantastic.”

Time and again Sarwer would avoid specifics and instead target everyone. Sorel Mizzi, no slouch, admitted to being owned by Sarwer, pushed into a Q-K off-suit shove when Sarwer held aces.

“It’s meta-game stuff… I don’t know what I do,” said Sarwer, pausing to add slyly: “Well, I guess I have some idea and I’ll keep doing it.”

If Sarwer pinged the poker radar in Warsaw, he blew the circuit board in Vilamoura three weeks later. By now he had a fascinated rail of Deeb, Collopy, Mizzi, Aguiar; The Band to Sarwer’s Dylan. Sarwer reached the final, getting unlucky twice before rallying to finish third. It was enough to light up the forum switchboards.

“If he sticks to poker for another six months, I have zero doubt he'll be considered in the same sentence with Menlo,” wrote Deeb.

“His approach is kind of the complete opposite,” echoed Mike “Timex” McDonald, who played against Sarwer in Portugal. “TwoPlusTwo thrives off of staying out of tough spots at all costs, he intentionally tries to get in as many tough spots as possible.”

Was this all some elaborate joke? A divide was forming between those who had seen Sarwer and those who’d only read or heard what those people had to say. But the sceptics had to hold onto something; you do that when your entire belief system has just been flanked inside of 12 months.

It makes him scary and almost impossible to imitate: math, flair, convention and subverting that same convention, there’s no definitive technique. You can’t imitate the way he thinks or the speed in which he works. He does this for fun.

“I get to see the moves that they pull and I remember and I adapt. Confidence was never an issue for me!” laughed Sarwer. “As a kid I was a little over confident but as an adult I toned down a lot. But inside me the confidence is there. That’s already got me to a pretty good level in poker.”

That confidence runs through everything Sarwer sets his mind to, the result, perhaps, of an often disturbing background, one of incredible chess prowess and a cult-like lifestyle filled with abuse, fear and the role of a fugitive.

Washington Square Park, New York: A ten-year-old boy kneels on a park bench, leaning over a chess board. Surrounding him grown men watch, bewildered as this chatty kid in sneakers beats all comers in games of one-minute speed chess. Behind him his father, bushy hair and beard, watching his son devour chess pieces as TV news cameras roll. A chess prodigy is blooming, ready to shine.

“I loved the camera back then,” said Sarwer, who features the news report on his website. “I still love the camera. I remember I decided I loved it when I was doing that whole chess series.”

So amazing was Sarwer’s chess mind he’d been invited by Grandmaster Edmar Mednis to provide commentary on the 1986 Kasparov-Karpov World Championship match, aged just seven. Sarwer memorably anticipated a subtle pawn move long before Karpov actually made it (Karpov took more than 30 minutes, Sarwer took two), a move even Mednis, an authority on Karpov, had missed.

Sarwer became a feature of Canada Day, playing simultaneous exhibitions against 40 people on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Bruce Pandolfini, who would briefly coach Sarwer at the Manhattan Chess Club, described how his mind worked perfectly in these exhibitions.

“As he came to a board his quick sight would tell him one or more significant facts, and because everything else is placed logically, he immediately knew where most of the other pieces were without having to see them – kind of the way Wayne Gretzky could skate and control the puck without having to look at it.”

At eight Sarwer won the Under-10 World Championship title in Puerto Rico. He and his sister Julia (who won the girls under-ten title) were granted free membership to the Manhattan Chess Club by Pandolfini, an honour reserved for Grand Masters. Pandolfini saw in Sarwer things he’d never seen before.

“He had a wonderful memory – not a rote memory, but a working one – that immediately associated certain ideas to other ideas, said Pandolfini. “Jeff could see far ahead in his mind, without having to move the pieces.”

Sarwer would spend all day at the Manhattan Chess Club, dodging under the barriers to ride the subway to Carnegie Hall, the club’s home until its closure in 2002. An unconventional upbringing allowed him the time to play. His father turned his back on schools and instead taught his kids to read at three and then to write, leaving the two siblings to effectively teach themselves. It extended to chess.

Sarwer’s only formal training was the short time he spent with Pandolfini. Instead his father and sister lived a nomadic lifestyle, travelling by car across the United States to chess tournaments and exhibitions. It was a childhood of sleeping in cars, hustling chess and their father’s strict parenting.

“We were tough kids. I liked travelling around in the car. It was nice to wake up in a weird new place. But at the same time no products, no showers. I got used to that, it was the way I grew up. He wanted me to be tough as nails.”

Chess quickly became an escape.

“Things around my dad were always shaky. I had to find my way of surviving, and chess was my world I could control.”

But ultimately chess became something else his father would take away as he took charge of everything his children did.

“In the end my dad was very abusive. At the same time I was terrified of the foster agencies. One of my brothers was really badly raped and abused in there and had psychological issues and killed himself, so I always was aware of that as a kid. Being with my dad I felt was the safer option. It was something I knew more.”

The Canadian authorities took Jeff and his sister into care after an article by John Colapinto appeared in Vanity Fair. “Point Zero” documented Mike Sarwer’s cult-like control over his children, their mother and stepmother, telling of abuse, violence and prosecution.

Sarwer winced at the thought of the article. Regardless of what it said, and it makes gruesome reading, it broke up his family. So fearful of the foster home, Jeff and his sister escaped to be reunited with their father. It was the end of whatever normal life they had left, and the end of chess.

“Basically, at that point, the authorities were looking for us all the time. Even though my dad made me quit playing chess, I thought maybe I’m gonna come back. I went into this paranoid state for the rest of my childhood.”

Chess lost perhaps its best prospect since Bobby Fischer. Jeff, his sister and his father changed their names and disappeared. Jeff Sarwer wouldn’t reappear for more than 20 years. Now, people are kind of curious.

“The last ten years I’ve been out as Jeff Sarwer again but my whole story is rather complex. I lived basically as a fugitive for many years, certainly during the rest of my childhood. It was kind of messy.”

Sarwer headed to Europe, travelling on his own in his early teens under assumed names before returning to the United States.

“I made a lot of changes in my twenties, a lot of these things stayed with me through my late teens. My culture really was the little culture my dad set for myself and my sister. I feel like a guy who came out of a sect or a cult.”

Older, and back in the States, Sarwer got into Real Estate with a friend, risking bankruptcy to get credits, buying homes in Vermont to rent out to students, amassing a good portfolio before selling it all in a well-timed exit from the market ahead of the slump. Then, using his Finnish passport (his mother is Finnish), he headed to Europe, where the Polish market still had some life. There he invested in land and moved to Gdansk on the Baltic Sea. That was three years ago.

“Now it’s the first time in my life where I’m having no problems being out there as Jeff Sarwer again; there’s no embarrassment about my past because it’s so long ago.”

Sarwer jokes that he was an tipped as a candidate for craziness (Isn’t that the way child geniuses go?) but he has no regrets, and even though you suspect he keeps his father a long way away he doesn’t badmouth, trying instead to understand. He’s ditched the bad stuff and used the good. Travelling helped him pick up five languages and he’s writing the script for a biographical film, likely to be filmed in 2010.

Having always been self-taught Sarwer still prefers to “pick things up,” but he regrets not having the training he needed as a chess player. Defending his title in Romania a year after Puerto Rico, and having not played for some time, Jeff busted early.

“I knew damn well when I was a kid that I was lacking some serious study that I should have had in order to balance my game. Once I became expert-slash-master strength, that’s the time the real holes in my game should have been fixed.”

Perhaps it’s with this in mind that his approach to poker has been different. He may learn most by compiling information himself, but he’s latched on to poker’s wise men, some 10 years his junior. In Warsaw Sarwer looked to Deeb for validation, something Deeb would acknowledge with a nod, a practice that continued in Portugal.

Sarwer couldn’t predict his effect on Deeb: a public admission that he will never be as good as him and that he’d be leaving the game because of him. It sits uncomfortably with Sarwer, now a good friend.

“He’s told me it’s not all because of me, maybe those are the rumours that are circulating, maybe I had a factor in that but it wasn’t because he lost to me,” said Sarwer. “I think mainly it’s because he needs a break.”

But what of the remarks about him? Is he about to take over the game?

“If it’s true that I’ve given something new and interesting to the game, that’s great. I don’t even know I have this style and ability that people are saying. I don’t know how much of that’s hype.”

They’re questions that will be answered soon enough. While Sarwer is not the type to be pinned down – he lives in Gdansk primarily because it’s easy to leave – his immediate plan is the PCA in January. But as for the rest of 2010 it’s still up in the air.

“I have no idea what 2010 will offer me yet. I’m 31, I’m not pretending [I’m] making money playing poker professionally for a living full time. I think that would be something for me to do maybe as a young man who hadn’t done well in business.”

But with more attention on him, the cameras, the interviews, you wonder if the eight-year-old boy will be able to turn down another opportunity to be the best in the world. Not after the first chance was taken away.

“How well he copes with the truly disgusting nature [of] tournament poker could speak of how great a force he could become,” said Collopy, who watched Sarwer up close at his table in Portugal, noting the not-too-subtle arrow formation of chips Sarwer had pointed at him. “But what's clear is that there's nothing keeping him from being world class”.

Deeb has few doubts either. “He super-uses people live, including myself, 100 per cent of the time. His thought process is so far above levels I could ever imagine, it's sick to watch it in play.”

There’s another direction in which his life could turn. Two years ago Sarwer walked into his first chess tournament in 20 years at Malbork Castle, near Gdansk. No one knew who he was; he had no official FIDE rating and spoke with a dodgy Polish accent. By the end he’d defeated grand masters to finish third. The idea of becoming a grand master appeals to him.

“I would want to devote a good amount of time to chess,” he said, before adding: “For now, I’m devoting more time to poker ‘cos I’m running hot!”

Chess, like poker, is not the game it was 20 years ago, experiencing its own revolution when players, some as young as four, were suddenly online.

“I have no doubt that if Jeff were to turn back to chess he would do exceedingly well,” said Pandolfini, who still teaches and who recently met Sarwer again after his long absence. “But I’m afraid he would now be facing other Jeffs, with two years plus of essential experiences behind them, fuelled by state-of-the-art teachers and a universe of information at their fingertips.”

Sarwer has certainly prompted many questions about poker, forcing players to re-examine the common truths previously thought undeniable. A lot of people will be waiting to see which way he’ll turn.