Except for the Victorian-style chandeliers, Hustler Casino in Gardena looks like an oversized neighborhood card room, with its round indoor arena filled with dozens of poker and blackjack tables. Several hundred people fill the room at any hour of the day, all of them playing cards, or waiting to get a seat. There are no looky-loos.
Those who come to Hustler are there to gamble, at whatever level they choose, from Easy Poker in a glass-encased room in the middle of the floor to games that run into the many thousands of dollars.
In spite of its name, Hustler Casino does not feature busty, scantily clad women. Employees dress conservatively, and those who come here to gamble don’t even notice them. The gamblers here are a varied lot, all ages and races, many of them risking paychecks or pensions. But there are also some high rollers. Some very high rollers.
At the farthest reaches of the casino is the main table. And, one day last fall, sitting there, facing the room, was one of the highest rollers of them all: publisher Larry Flynt, best known for his Hustler magazine and stores, whose early struggles were portrayed in the movie “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” Flynt owns the casino, so he’s king of this table, and he likes to compete with some of the world’s best poker players. To Flynt’s right is Phil Ivey, known to television viewers as the “Tiger Woods of poker,” a brilliant, relentless player who pounces on weakness as if he were indeed a tiger going after wounded prey.
Across from Flynt, sitting with his back to the room, is Barry Greenstein, a man in his early 50s, whose beard, receding hairline, deep-set eyes, and slim frame give him a serious aura. Greenstein is also a poker superstar. And yet … he seems out of place at this casino, as if he were a middle-aged yeshiva bocher who has suddenly found himself in an alien, sinful environment. Perhaps to distance himself from his surroundings, he maintains the unemotional, detached air of a researcher studying the native habits of big-time poker players.
Greenstein is a passionate student of the game, a man who’s made a lifelong study of poker and has written a book about it, “Ace on the River” (Last Knight Publishing Co., 2005), aimed at professionals, or would-be ones.
He’s well-educated and articulate, and he’s also generous, having given millions to charities: $1.5 million to Children, Inc., which provides food, medicine and clothing to needy children in 21 countries, including the United States; plus another $1.5 million to a dozen other worthy beneficiaries, including the high school he attended in Chicago.
Because of all this, he represents the transition that poker has been making from smoky, disreputable card rooms to glittery tournaments showcased on ESPN and other national TV networks.
And like more than a few of the big names of the poker world, Greenstein is Jewish. Actually, he says that he’s “of Jewish heritage” and is aware of the traditions, but that he doesn’t “practice the religion.” Still, he acknowledges that “the morals and ethics of Judaism are a part of me.” Is his giving so much to the needy an example of that?
“It’s a mitzvah,” he said. “It makes me happy to have the opportunity to do the right thing.”
Greenstein is not the only Jew at poker’s highest levels. There’s Mike “The Mouth” Matusow, who wears a chai necklace and is known for his nonstop chatter and emotional outbursts. And Eli Elezra, an Israeli.
“When Eli plays poker,” Greenstein notes on his Federation may face lawsuit over fundraiser Prizant’s firing