Life-long gambler Schwartz looking for storybook ending at WSOP
By Gary Trask
If Ylon Schwartz goes on to win the World Series of Poker's Main Event next month, it won't exactly take a Steven Spielberg or a Martin Scorsese to produce an Oscar-worthy motion picture about his life.
Heck, even if the 38-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y. native is the first member of the November Nine to be bounced, the material is there for a fascinating screenplay. The script has already written itself.
Schwartz has been using gambling as a means to get by in life ever since he got hooked on the game of chess at the age of 13. By the time he turned 15, he was cutting out of school early and heading to Washington Square Park in Manhattan where he would challenge men twice or even three times his age to games of chess for money. Paydays of anywhere between $50 and $200 were commonplace. Playing chess for a living eventually turned into competitive games of darts, billiards, backgammon and even golf -- all, of course, with a monetary prize going to the winner.
Then in 1992 a character by the name of "Fat Nick" pulled Ylon aside and told him that if he was going to be a hustler for a living he needed to add Texas Hold'em to his arsenal. Schwartz took his mentor's advice to heart and in the 16 years since that moment, Schwartz has continued to ride the wave of life as a street gambler. He has been completely broke on a couple of occasions. He has won $12,000 in just three days of playing poker in an underground card room in Manhattan. He has been married. He has been divorced. He has lost his mother to cancer.
The Ylon Schwartz File
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York.
Occupation: Professional poker player
Chips heading into final table: 12,525,000 (ranks fifth out of nine players)
Bodog odds of winning the Main Event: 8-to-1
What he liked about the 117-day final table delay: "Absolutely nothing. I think it was a horrible idea.'"
What he disliked about the 117-day final table delay: "It destroys the integrity of the game. The Main Event is supposed to be a marathon. After eight days, you're supposed to sit down at the final table and watch the guy with the most endurance win. I've been gambling for my life for 23 years. I've played a lot of final tables and that kind of experience could have helped me. Now, you've given guys who have very little experience three months to be coached and to sharpen their games. I'm being deprived of that advantage. I understand that these companies want to make more money and see the numbers go up. But I don't think it should be done by destroying the integrity of the game."
Three things you didn't know about Ylon Schwartz. 1. He just got his driver's license last year. 2. His online handle at PokerStars is "TenthPlanet" because he says he is into astronomy and because a lot of people tell him that he is "out there." 3. He enjoys yoga in order to keep himself in strong "mental and physical shape."
What's the story behind the failed eBay auction that tried to secure bids for advertising space on him at the final table?: "It didn't work out. My agent thought it would be a good idea to try and auction off some space, and I went along with it because I thought it would be great to get $100,000 just for being at the table. But I guess we didn't get any bids. No big deal. I just want to get there and start playing poker and not have to worry about all of this other stuff."
What's the first thing he'll do if he wins the $9 million?: "I want to buy myself a place to live. I would actually probably buy two places. One on the East Coast, because I love seeing the seasons change, and then one down south or our west somewhere."
And on Nov. 9, Schwartz will be one of nine men to sit down at the most-anticipated final table in WSOP history with the hopes of being crowned Main Event champion and taking home the $9 million prize that goes with the title.
If you think this is something that could only happen in Hollywood, guess again. The legend of Ylon Schwartz isn't "based on a true story" or "inspired by actual events." It's the real deal.
Ylon Schwartz didn't even realize he had those competitive, gambling juices flowing through his veins until junior high, when a classmate challenged him to a game of chess. Schwartz's mother had taught him the game as he was growing up, but he never really took it serious.
"But this kid said he was really good and that he would beat me easily, so I took him on one day during recess," Schwartz remembers.
The chess match went on until Schwartz got a tap on the shoulder from the school principal. He wanted to know what the two students were still doing in the playground nearly two hours after recess had ended. Schwartz and his chess rival were scolded and told to get back into class. But as soon as the final bell of the day rang, the game continued.
"And I ended up kicking his ass," laughs Schwartz.
That's when Schwartz began hanging around the notorious Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, which has long been known as a hub for culture, politics and chess games.
"It was a real party atmosphere," Schwartz says fondly. "People would just be hanging out drinking beer and smoking a lot of herb. The money was good, but I wasn't going there just for that. I enjoyed being there. It was fun."
Schwartz's mother thought that he had a future in acting ("I played a mean Dopey in a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs play," he adds) so he attended Quintano's School for Young Professionals after junior high. The school's most famous graduate is probably Gregory Hines. Schwartz's biology teacher was the mother of actor Ed Begley, Jr. The hours for Quintano's were not typical. Classes didn't begin until after 10 a.m. and students were released by 1:30 p.m. in order to schedule and go to auditions.
Schwartz, however, was sitting down at a chess table in the park by 2 p.m. every day. And his skills went well beyond Washington Square. He began playing in tournaments across the country and at one point was ranked 86th in the U.S.
"I think I had what it took to be even better, but I didn't have the discipline to become a Grand Master," he admits. "But I knew how to make money."
After graduating from Quintano's, Schwartz attended a small community college for a year, but hated it. He knew what he wanted to do with his life and it did not include sitting in a classroom all day and going home to write term papers.
That's when he began participating in matches other than just chess. There was big money to be made playing backgammon and he remembers traveling the country to compete in an assortment of tournaments where he faced off against future fellow poker pros Gus Hansen and Phil Laak.
But poker didn't enter into Schwartz's mind until "Fat Nick" put the bug in his ear. The older gentleman who was a hustler his entire life taught Schwartz the basics and began taking him to local clubs.
"I started by playing $10 or $20 freeze outs and I was winning right from the get-go," Schwartz says.
"Fat Nick," who now lives in Las Vegas and is still friendly with his protégé, began organizing trips to Atlantic City where Schwartz would always make decent money in $2- $4 and $3-$5 games. Once in a while if he was feeling good, Schwartz would try his hand in a few $75-$150 games. Either way, he usually left with more cash in his pockets than what he entered the casino with.
In 2000, Schwartz became a regular at a card room in Manhattan.
"I would be there every day playing in the same $4-$8 game and I was burying it; usually making around $300 a day," Schwartz says. "I saved up a bankroll and started to play in a $10-$20 game. But then I got cocky and started to spend like crazy. I hit a bad stretch and before you knew it I was broke. Completely broke."
Schwartz's longtime girlfriend at the time was starting to get worried, and with good reason. Then, one Friday afternoon, Schwartz picked up a quick couple hundred dollars in a cash game. He used it to enter a couple of big buy-in tournaments, which he won and then he continued his hot streak right through the weekend. By Monday morning he was sitting on top of a $12,000 bankroll.
He celebrated by getting married. He also started to treat his poker games like a job. By 2004 he began cashing in United States Poker Championship events in Atlantic City on a regular basis. But even as the money was getting better the life of a gambler put on strain on his relationship with his wife. There were still plenty of ups and downs and moments when the bankroll could barely pay the bills. Eventually, the couple decided a divorce would be best for both of them. Today, the two are still amicable and close friends.
"She's a saint for putting up with me as long as she did," Schwartz says. "I'm just glad that we got divorced before it got ugly. We're still on very good terms."
A huge setback away from the poker table for Schwartz came in 2003 when his mother lost her battle with cancer. Since his father left the picture when he was 2 years old, Schwartz's mother had been his only family for nearly his entire life. Naturally her death took a toll on him. On his Web site www.ShipTheCheese.com – named after one of his favorite sayings at the table after he snatches a big pot – he has a link to Ian's Friend's Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to pediatric brain cancer and tumor research.
"I have a special place in my heart for cancer research," he says.
Considering his extensive playing career and success in WSOP events, Schwartz's run to the November Nine shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Not counting his winnings in backroom poker games or online where he is a renowned mult-tabler at PokerStars, Schwartz has amassed nearly $300,000 in tournament earnings. He has 12 WSOP cashes -- four each in 2005 and 2006, two in 2007 and two in 2008, including the Main Event.
But of those dozen cashes, none have seen him finish better than 15th overall. Schwartz admits that he has been hampered by playing a reckless style during the late stages of tournaments and it has cost him. He doesn't see that happening on Nov. 9, however.
"In the past I think I've made some bad moves when I'm sitting at the table thinking about my financial situation, but that's not too much of a concern for me now," says Schwartz, who has already been awarded the $900,670 for finishing at least ninth in the Main Event. Also, since the break he finished 26th at the EPT High Rollers event in England and had a decent run at the Borgata Poker Open in Atlantic City last month. "I play my best poker when I'm calm, cool and focused. I play my best when I show no emotion. That's what I did to get to the final table and that's what I'm going to do once I get back there."
With 12 players remaining in the Main Event, Schwartz was the chip leader. His stack dropped down to 12,525,000 by the time the November Nine was decided so he will enter the final table with the fifth-highest stack, trailing chip leader Dennis Phillips by nearly 14,000,000.
"I think I can win it. It could happen," he says with confidence. "It would really be complete vindication for me for all the madness that I've gone through. And believe me, it has been utter madness.
"It would be great to win because then I could just go and play poker and not think of it as a job. I do love poker, but when you do anything too much, it becomes monotonous. I'd like to get away from that kind of life. I think I deserve to after all these years."
Either way, the Ylon Schwartz Story is a compelling one. Only time will tell what kind of ending it will have. Stay tuned.