Lost and Found: An Interview with Jeff Sarwer
By Jennifer Shahade   
January 8, 2010
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Jeff Sarwer
Jeff Sarwer's own story seems as much like a feature film as Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), in which the character Jonathan Poe ( a foil to Josh Waitzkin) was based on Jeff. Sarwer was born in 1978 in Kingston Canada, and was considered to be a promising chess prodigy, winning the Under 10 section of the World Youth Championship in Puerto Rico, 1986. His sister Julia was also a rising chess star, winning the Girls Under 10 section of that same tournament.
 
Sarwer's rocketing career in chess came to an abrupt halt in Jeff and Julia were sent to foster homes after allegations of child abuse in a
Vanity Fair article. Sarwer spent the rest of his childhood and teens on the run. Since resurfacing, Jeff has experienced sudden success in another game. Jeff cashed in his first ever live poker event in Prague 2008 (European Poker Tour). A year later in an EPT event in his homebase Poland, he took 10th place out of 203 players and a $30,943 cash prize. He followed it up less than a month later in Villamoura, Portugal where Jeff got 3rd place out of 322 players, good for 156.170 Euros ($224,028).

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Jeff Sarwer with Bruce Pandolfini
Bruce Pandolfini said of Sarwer, "Everything seemed to come naturally to Jeff. He was a ferocious competitor who intimidated most kids, regardless of their strength, typically reducing them to cowering cringers who couldn’t think in his presence. The main exception was Josh Waitzkin. That these truly stellar individuals should leave the battleground of competitive chess, considering the great pressure they were under, doesn’t surprise me....But it also doesn’t surprise me that they became stalwarts in other disciplines (Josh in the martial arts, Jeff in poker)."
 
It's evident from his own website and his interviews with poker media that Jeff is still very passionate about chess. Sarwer talked to CLO about the differences between chess and poker, his 2007 outing in a rapid championship in Poland and how he would approach a potential comeback to chess.

Jennifer Shahade: 
   Tell me about the one tournament you played as an adult in Poland. How did you end up playing after so many years?    
Jeff Sarwer: It felt great, so spontaneous. A couple of days before the tournament started I played some of the old fellows at the stone chess tables by the Gdansk beach.  One of the guys was a little drunk and in Polish basically came close to calling me chicken and told me that if I wanted to play I shouldn't harrass the beach boys, I should go and play in the nine round weekend G/30 rapid tournament in Malbork castle. He told me that some of Poland's best GMs show up as well as a bunch of strong local masters. So I took the 20-minute train ride from Gdansk, checked into the castle hotel, met the mayor of the town and just like that I registered for the tournament as the "foreign unknown."

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Shahade: How did it feel to pick up the pieces again?
Sarwer:  I felt quite good and won my first few games against club level A player/expert types, but in Round 4 had my first real test against GM Bobras. I didn't play that well. I thought I could play a line with an interesting passed pawn that was in reality terrible. So eight or nine moves later when I reached the position I had calculated and saw in reality it was losing, I saved both of our time and just resigned. Thankfully that was the only game I lost in the tournament. I was quite pleased with the way I played the last five games. I followed less pointless plans and won three games against decent masters and had two draws with GM Jedynak and GM Wojtasek.


 
I had at least two chances to win the game against Jedynak on move 27 with Qd3! and 34. Qd2! but missed those in the heat of the battle. At the end of the weekend I had to settle for a 2nd place tie with 7/9 when in the final round GM Wojtasek simplified a position against me and drew me as black to secure outright 1st place by half a point. (7.5/9)

Shahade: How did you feel about your play in the tournament?
Sarwer: My biggest strength was that I trusted my positional instincts throughout most of the tournament. My biggest weaknesses were definitely having a tendency to waste too much time exploring offbeat ideas that led to nothing, (and in one clear instance decided to try it anyways!) And of course a lack of opening options since I know little theory.

Shahade:  How did you choose your openings after such a long layoff from the game?
Sarwer:   I didn't choose the openings, the openings came to me in a dream :) Just kidding, seriously, I played a few offbeat lines that I felt would avoid theoretical blunders and get me out of the openings without a big disadvantage. (Lines like the 4.Qb3 variation of the Nimzo-Indian)

Shahade: What tournaments do you think you might play if you cameback to chess?
Sarwer:  I love Budapest, it is one of my favorite cities in Europe, so certainly their monthly "First Saturday" tournament would be of interest to me. On the other side of the ocean, maybe the World Open. I think tournaments in countries like Portugal or Spain would be a great option too.

Shahade: In an interview after your big European Poker Tour cash in Villamoura, you say that if you came back to chess, you'd be shooting for the GM title. What would your training program consist of? Would you choose a coach or training partner?
Sarwer:  A training partner might be the way to go, maybe a young up and coming master with fresh ideas, but there would be so much basic stuff I would have to learn too. To study and get a basic opening arsenal would probably be the main key and be the most time intensive. After that, probably just standard practice and analysis, I am sure using computers would be critical these days too.

Shahade: Do you still follow major chess tournaments and news?
Sarwer: I don't follow too much but I check in every once in a while. I must say I love the type of chess played these days, it is exciting and breaks all the traditional "rules" that were so common back when I played in the 80's. Back then there was never so many "g4" type moves in almost every opening as now. I always knew that exposing the "safely" castled king and playing moves like g4 anyways for the attack was the way to go! If it works it works!

Shahade: Who are some modern players you admire?
Sarwer:  I admire GM Carlsen who to me is a mix of many great styles, GM Anand who is a brilliant machine, and other exciting players for example the Cuban GM Dominguez-Perez.

Shahade: You were depicted as Josh Waitzkin's foil in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. Did the film have any positive or negative impact in your own life?
Sarwer: Didn't have much of an effect, positive or negative. At the end of the day it was a Hollywood film, a work of fiction, and it helped popularized chess more so that's always a good thing. But I have a lot of distance to the actual book and film, the way I was portrayed was nothing at all like how I was in real life so what's the point in comparing myself to it?

Shahade: The game you played against Waitzkin in the 1986 Primary Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina was very different from the one in the movie:
 

What memories do you have of the game and the tournament?

Sarwer: The only reason I even played that tournament was because they wanted to ban me playing because I was home-schooled.  When I sat down to play Josh, just before we started he said "I am all prepared for d4." So when we got to the King's Indian Defense I played the Four pawns attack since I never played it before and I knew it would unsettle him since he was "prepared" against my supposed theory knowledge. Once I got the winning endgame I simply lost my focus and didn't take the game seriously enough. Anyways, we shared the title (that's how it was in those days, I even remember the photo of us together in chess life as co-champions) and I soon forgot about the game and was on to better results.

Shahade: It's interesting to me that so many people struggle to be good at one thing, while the two of you have totally moved to other fields. Nowadays, Josh is a martial arts champion and a successful author. How well if at all, did you know Josh growing up? 
Sarwer:  I didn't know him that well, but I always thought he was a nice kid. We played a couple of tournament games and I always felt sorry for him because it seemed like his dad put a lot of pressure on him. I remember feeling like he maybe didn't love the game much at all and if that read was correct, then he did extraordinarily well for someone in his position! I am happy that he has found a lot of satisfaction with the martial arts, that most likely makes him a very balanced trustworthy person.

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Julia and Jeff Sarwer
Shahade: On your website, you write that your sister and you were taken away after "a huge negative media mess" and that you ran away. How'd you manage to escape?
Sarwer:  We planned the escape by checking out the floor tiles and seeing which ones squeaked, and snuck past the guards at 4 AM while they were asleep.

Shahade: Why was it so important for you to escape?
Sarwer: We escaped simply because the life we knew with our dad was the only one that we knew, our alternative culture, one that may have been abusive but one that we understood. We were much more scared to end up in real foster homes, places where my older half brothers ended up getting raped. One of my brothers was so traumatized by his experience that he commited suicide later on in life after not being able to deal with the issues it left him with. Having known that happened to him we ran away as soon as we found a good opportunity, and were very scared of getting re-captured afterwards. Thus the "fugitive" feeling for the rest of our childhood.

Shahade: The way you describe it on your website sounds both glamorous and scary: "We ran away, changed our names, and I spent the rest of my youth living an underground obscure life traveling around Europe and living around hippies." What names did you and Julia choose for yourselves, and how did a typical month go for you in those times?
Sarwer:  We were "Crystal and Ray".. In the summer we went around to a lot of hippie "Rainbow Gatherings" which were fun. (But we also spent time with our dad) in the winter and he was lying around in bed depressed and making our lives miserable. We were way more isolated than we were before, now that we were afraid that authorities were out there to capture us. During one year while hiding out in Montreal I had swimming as an outlet, and wandered over to the pool in my bare feet every day. I made huge progress and played water-polo as well. I became a pretty decent center, but as talk started about sending me over to CAMO where all the kids train for the national team and end up playing Juniors, my dad took us off to Holland. To this day love swimming and water-polo which is a tough sport that should get more respect than it does.

In Europe we travelled and hitchhiked around, and soon I was independent and travelled by myself a lot. I even ran a little ticket scalping business of my own during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when I was 14. People used to ask me, "Aren't you a little young to be here by yourself at 16?" (The age I told them I was.)

Shahade: Did you end up learning various languages in that period?
Sarwer:  Yes, a decent level of Dutch, with some French and German.

Shahade: How did you come back to me known as Jeff Sarwer again?
Sarwer: When I started doing business in my early 20s I had to use my real name, but publicly and socially only when I started living in Poland did I start feeling comfortable being Jeff again (2-3 years ago). The Malbork tournament was one of those great moments for me where I finally felt comfortable coming back to chess as Jeff Sarwer. Now I don't mind being Jeff out West as well :)

Shahade: Why did you decide to settle in Poland ?
Sarwer: First of all it was great for me to get a fresh start in a new country. I had travelled around so much in the last 20 years that I had no problems being in a new place with a foreign language and culture. The business climate for real-estate was still very good back then as well, and I am happy that I got in on some very good investments. On top of that I was lucky enough to meet a few intelligent caring people, who became close friends. Gdansk also happens to be a nice small cozy town, yet at about 1 million people has enough things to do as well. The beach is nearby, there are lots of nice trails in the woods for mountain-biking, living is more affordable than almost anywhere in Europe, yet the crime rate is one of the lowest. People love to party till 7 AM, and there is a lack of snobbery that is very refreshing. Even people with money are very laid back and easy-going. It is a great Central-European base overlooked by many people and perhaps that's why it is still so affordable and nice!

Shahade: What were some of your memorable childhood chess experiences?
Sarwer:  I always loved entertaining so one of things I remember most fondly was my yearly 40-board simul on July 1st in Ottawa. I would put on all this face paint, and have this huge crowd of people watching me as I would play all these friendly strangers for Canada Day celebrations. I was thrilled that I could play so many fun games at the same time and show the world how great chess is and how much I loved it! It was also the polar opposite from the way my life was at home so I wanted to embrace every moment I could of being socially out there.

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Shahade: I notice that your sister was often featured alongside you in articles about you, but she did not have as strong a rating. Was she also serious about chess?
Sarwer:  If there is a competition of who is a bigger gamer between me and her I definitely win :) She had a lot of talent when she played chess, but when we were taken away from the game it didn't hurt her nearly as much because she didn't have the same love and passion for it like I had. She has more passion for creating characters through other mediums like writing and I hope to see her sharpen those skills when she has more free time.

Shahade: How is she doing today? 
Sarwer: She is doing great! She is taking care of her little family and living a relaxed happy life at the moment. I am thrilled for her and miss her very much. One of my only regrets living over in Europe is that I only see them about once a year which isn't nearly enough.
 
Shahade:  Now for some poker questions. In what way did you draw upon your chess skills to become such a respected and successful player so quickly?
Sarwer:  I think the way I was raised and the situations I had to deal with in my life has translated over to both chess and poker. More than me being a chess-playing poker player I feel that I am more just a thinker that absolutely loves games. I would say I come from a "core training" mental background. I rely on instinct, focus, and quick information processing at both games, much like the way I approach day to day life. I feel I have become better at games and life over the last years mainly because I have learned a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of my own mind, and have developed new operating systems that deal with handling my emotions and feelings as well as filtering the most important parts of the information I am receiving around me.
 
Shahade: How did your intense childhood chess training affect your approach to poker?
Sarwer:  I believe there was a lot of good things about the way I was raised even if most people and the media focused on the obvious bad sides. The fact that my dad home-schooled me from a very young age and trained me to question everything around and only follow something if I had personally thought it out myself and agree with with it, has been critical. His extreme demands like for me to be focused at 100 % at all times, brutally honest with myself, and to never show any weakness whatsoever made my childhood very difficult and left emotional scars. At the same time it left me with a fighting instinct and good work ethic. My main goal as an adult has been learning how to relax and turn my brain off, and am happy to say I feel I have become better and better at that each year.

Shahade: You mention multitabling in one of your interviews, but I heard that you don't play online. Do you play online even occasionally? Isn't it hard to get experience in lots of spots without playing online and how do you overcome that?
Sarwer:  The reason I don't play online much is it simply doesn't excite me the same way, like in chess too. If I was super-serious about poker I should play more online than I do. As it is, by playing in about 15-20 live tournaments this last year (If we include side events and non-EPT tourneys) I have gotten quite a few weeks of live playing experience as I have had the good fortune of going deep in many of them. I have also studied some books and had talks with some of the top young players, so I may still lack some playing experience, but I feel that I am less often thrown into really bad spots. I have become better at planning moves ahead depending on the board texture, pot control, etc.

Shahade: There's a cliché that chessplayers tend to make good poker players but not great poker players.  Do you feel that there is any general truth in that? And is there some particular way in which you defy this? (To be fair, many others have: Ylon Schwartz, Dan Harrington, etc.)
Sarwer: Don't think the cliché has much merit. After all how many "great" players are there at anything? Since that would refer to lets say 100 good players to one great player, how much unfair pressure does that put on average chessplayers who take on poker? Of course they are way more often good not great, like all the other non-chess players too! Very few chess players are great at chess, why should they suddenly be great at poker when they most likely have the same psychological road blocks that prevent them from becoming great at most things? Or if you are talking about the few great chess players who have tried poker, I am sure statistically they have a way better success rate than an average Joe from the street, but should they have a better chance than say an NFL player has a chance to make it to the NBA?

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Jeff Sarwer stacks chips
Shahade:  Do you think chesspoker players lean toward being too tight or too loose? In my mind, there's an argument for both. They may be too loose cause they like to be in the action like in chess or too tight cause they like to control things like in chess. 
Sarwer: From the little I have seen and what the players seem to say here on the European Poker Tour, chess players tend to be too tight. Generally they are too afraid of getting their chips in bad (like a poorly formed chess attack) that they are totally missing the math of fold equity. If they learned to properly choose their targets well at the table, and made the following correct plays that represent so much strength in the hand that their opponent can hardly ever call, then how much do their cards matter? So the best advice I think for chess players is that cards matter less in deep-stack tournament poker than chips. So instead of having the king be the king and queen be the queen, replace it with a stack of red and stack of yellow :) 

Shahade: I can't imagine that chessplayers are worse than average at the math-oriented aspects of poker, but if we are too tight...maybe it's because we're used to this fear of embarassment in chess, of blundering and looking like an idiot, and playing too tight protects you from being embarassed.  Did you lean toward too loose or too tight when you first started?
Sarwer:  In the very beginning I was way too tight for my nature, after all I played my first tournament after reading Harrington's book. (They are still great books of course!)

Shahade: From your video interviews on various websites, I gather you are adept at paying attention, reading your opponents and gathering tells. Can you give us an example of one spot where paying attention really paid off, where an equally knowledgable but less attentive player would not have been able to capitalize?
Sarwer:  I think I have a couple of recent good examples for you. When play was 3-handed in EPT Vilamoura, I took almost half the stack of Pierre Neuville by calling down his river bet with a bottom pair of 4's on a dangerous board of overcards. When I made the call I was 99 percent sure I was ahead, that's why I smiled over to the rail like saying "check out this hero call". When I made the call and Pierre had to show his ace high bluff and saw my J4 was good, he ran over to the rail and asked Jason Mercier in a big French accent "do I ave a tell?" Then he ran over to me and asked if I would tell him after the tournament, so if he is a chess player here it is :) How did I know my flopped bottom pair of 4's was good? That had to do with a hand Pierre played against a strong young player Ryan Franklin (Hitthepanda) over an hour earlier. Pierre is an old guy so people tend to think he doesn't bluff, but he does, and when he does he tends to go all the way with it. Against Franklin, Pierre made a decent river bet as well, and after tanking for a minute Franklin came up with the correct call with his Pocket 8's, making Pierre flash King high. Well when he played me, He flicked the chips in with his wrist in the exact same way as the hand with Ryan! What do you know, when he doesn't have it the man flicks differently :)

Speaking of Franklin, when I was playing with him two days before in the last hand of day 3, we got involved in a bluffing war playing complete trash cards, and both hit runner runner club flushes! In almost every situation I would raise his river bet with my unlikely great hand, but the way he tensed up when he saw that club made me only smooth call because I had a Ten high flush and thought the odds were his flush was better. As it happened he had an 8 high flush, and so my read cost me earning some extra chips, but I am still happy that I got it right!

Shahade: Are there any similarities between the way you approach poker and chess?
Sarwer:  My favorite time during poker tournaments are the breaks. Much like a chess position where you take a bit of time away from pure calculation to analyze how your opponent feels... You can feel who's stock is going up or down, who to engage, who is becoming edgier, who is becoming more passive, and set up particular plans for individuals at the table. That planning feels so chess-like!

Shahade: How does winning in chess compare to winning in poker?
Sarwer:  They both feel great but different. In chess you sometimes have that happy but drained feeling like you went through a titanic struggle and came out ahead after your opponent tried to complicate things in a losing position for the last few hours and you used every single second calculating, making sure you closed it down properly. In poker the winning feeling can be more sudden, more explosive, like a quick knockout. The closest thing in chess is when you just realize that you found an unexpected winning combination. So poker would maybe have more of a fun feeling attached to winning, and chess more satisfying like a slowly cooked meal? But one thing is clear, after a long day of playing and being focused both are exhausting.

Shahade: How do you compare the wrenching feeling of blundering in chess to the wrenching feeling of getting knocked out of a poker tournament?
Sarwer:  Can't compare, blundering in chess feels much worse for me. In poker getting knocked out usually doesn't hurt as much because you lose a coin-flip that was out of your control or someone sucks out on you, things like that. Those type of things tend to effect me very little these days, simply because they have nothing to do with myself, it's just life playing variance with me. Occasionally in poker you feel bad when you do make a mistake, like a bad read, but since it is a game of incomplete information usually it doesn't feel that bad. It's more like a "hmmm got it wrong this time". Not a "how could I miss this? I just missed this stupid knight fork?"


Shahade: A major challenge in poker is to play your best when various cash-outs are obsessively circling in your mind. Walk us through the final table of your big success in Vilamoura, what was going through your head in regards to various possible cashouts?
Sarwer: I definitely was thinking about the payout structure, and was focusing on playing the best possible way to win first. It was a wild ride at one point when I lost almost all of my stack to a Portugeuse guy when my all-in AA lost to his KK. A king came on the river, and the crowd erupted. It made me sink in my chair for a minute, and I just folded my next few hands because I felt a little shaken up.

After a few minutes I announced to the crowd that I was officially off tilt, and that was the right move because I did that for my table image. I joked and smiled and got back to my style of re-raising and calmly stealing chips. The players at the table would have played back more if they thought I was tilting, but since they saw that I was suddenly in a good mood they got psyched out and started folding again perhaps thinking I was hitting good cards.

Finally when play became three-handed I was particularly aware of the fact that Antonio Matias wanted to go home and watch his football team play. That made him dangerous as he was getting tired and was willing to play loose, but of course meant that if I hit a hand I could perhaps easily take all his chips. As it happened, he ran like god and hit about every possible flop, almost always landing top pair. The nice thing for me was that every time I would fold my something, like middle pair, he would show me that in fact he had me beat. I tried to get Neuville out of the way, but two flips doubled him up twice instead of knocking him out! So obviously I was hoping to have them battle each other, but it simply wasn't happening. They would play tight against each other and then play loose against me "the young guy." Overall though it was a very fun final table, even if it was a bit disappointing (in the end). At least I caught Neuville in a big bluff :)

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Jeff Sarwer with Finnish poker pro Jani Karke
Shahade: You seem to be a very popular person on the poker circuit, with a lot of friends and fans. For instance, there is a long thread on you on the 2+2 forums and I've never seen fewer jealous insults or slights on that particular forum. And this is despite a very tumultuous family history and life. What draws people to you?
Sarwer: I have nothing but respect for every person I meet as long as they are nice to me. I feel thrilled to be in a good situation in my life these days. I like to listen to people and get to know them, and if I can give them energy or help them out in any way I am more than happy to do so.

I try my best to be real at all times and see other people's perspective (which) helps people have trust towards me. I don't take life too seriously either, so I will be the guy to take the piss out of myself or anyone else around me at the first opportunity!

Shahade: For a long time, I've been toying with the idea of getting a chess/poker tournament together where players do a blitz or rapid tournament and with each point, earn chips toward a poker tournament (i.e. buy in $500 with 1000 chips to start plus a maximum of 1000 more chips based on the score in the blitz) Would you play in such an event and how do you think you'd do?
Sarwer: In general, if any fun is happening and I am around, I'm there! I love creative new game ideas. Your idea sounds like a blast, could be a ton of fun especially if the participants are showing up in a good mood. How would I do? Perhaps I might be one of the first guys on the rail cheering on some new friends :)

Pokerstars.net is the sponsor of the US Chess League. Previous CLO articles on chess poker phenomena include IM Greg Shahade's story on the $50,000 game, a profile of original November-niner FM Ylon Schwartz and the Top Ten Reasons Not to Quit Chess for Poker.  CLO editor Jennifer Shahade also writes about poker occasionally on her personal site.