By Nathan Mayberg
SULLIVAN COUNTY December 9, 2005 Pokers all over television these days, but you may not know that right here in Sullivan County, there lives a poker legend. Not just in the summer, but all year long.
Jay Heimowitz, 68, with six gold World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets and two final tables at the Main Event of the WSOP, is unquestionably a champion of the game. He is one of the most successful WSOP players of all time, finishing third behind poker immortals Stu Ungar and Doyle Brunson in the main event in 1980.
He has shared tables with nearly every great American poker player over the last 30 years, as well as big-league poker-playing celebrities such as Ben Affleck, James Woods and Tobey Maguire.
Why does he live in Sullivan County? For 40 years, he operated a Budweiser distributorship named United Beverage across from Fialkoffs on Broadway in Monticello. In 2001, he was forced to sell it after Budweiser moved to consolidate its wholesalers.
I would have never sold it, he said.
His story really begins, however, in the Lower East Side, where he became involved with poker at a young age. At 9 years old, he was playing against friends for baseball cards and comic books. He held an advantage, as his stack of comic books was quite large courtesy of an uncle who worked at the Daily News and had access to many comic books.
When he joined the Army after high school, he went on a rampage clearing out fellow servicemen of their cash through the game of poker. By the time he was finished with the military in 1958, he had accumulated over $10,000 quite a bit of change at that period in time. In 1961, he used the money to buy the soda and beer distributorship in Monticello with three other family members.
He always wanted to own his own business.
I was never crazy about telling people what to do, but I didnt like being told what to do, he said.
Before he bought the business, he met the love of his life Carole, a Brooklynite right here in the Catskills at Nob Hill Bungalow Colony in Kiamesha Lake. The colony was one of several that Caroles family stayed at, including Schifrin Bungalow Colony. Her grandmother, Esther Schifrin, owned the Willow Lane Hotel.
They remain married, with four children and six grandchildren. They take care of one of their grandchildren.
Carole calls her husband a great teacher because he taught her to play poker nearly 30 years ago. He taught her so well that she went on to win two tournaments of her own in the card game Pineapple at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas.
One of their sons still lives in the county and owns a car washing business in Monticello. On the side, of course, he plays poker the only one of the sons who plays.
Heimowitz gave each of his sons a gold bracelet that he won at the WSOP. His wife also was given one.
What are you going to do with them? I dont want to keep them on a wall, he said of the bracelets.
Most poker professionals only dream of winning a gold bracelet. But Heimowitz has six. That puts him among a highly select group of all-time greats.
Heimowitz is also one of very few players to have so much success yet not play professionally.
Since he first started, it has always been a side game for him. He played it on the side when he ran a business. And he continues to treat it as a side game now that he is retired. He still keeps his playing time down as he has a grandson to raise.
World Poker Tour co-founder, commentator and poker great Mike Sexton considers Heimowitz to be one of the best amateur players around, along with Lyle Berman who financed the WPT, has several gold bracelets and is in the Poker Hall of Fame.
Not only does Sexton respect Berman and Heimowitz for their greatness but also for their manners. According to an online profile of Heimowitz, Sexton said of the pair, They not only are sensational players, but conduct themselves impeccably both at and away from the table at all times. They set a standard of behavior that all of us should emulate.
For Heimowitzs part, he considers Sexton to be the best commentator on poker anywhere. Heimowitz also respects Brunson as one of the classiest players out there.
With just a hair more luck against Brunson, Heimowitz would have had a legitimate chance at a World Series of Poker title in the main event. In 1980, he made it all the way to the final table where he met three of the greatest players of all time: Brunson, Ungar and Johnny Moss. Moss won three WSOP titles, tied for the most with Ungar. However, the first championship awarded in 1970 was voted on by his peers. In 1980, Moss was 73 yet still on top of his game he died in 1997.
Heimowitz outlasted the senior titan and found himself with pocket aces against Brunson. With the 24-year-old Ungar waiting in the background as the chip leader, the Texan and the New Yorker battled it out. Heimowitz put him all-in with the best hand in the game. Brunson had a pair of jacks, but got lucky . . . and caught another jack on the board to take nearly all of the chips of Heimowitz effectively defeating him.
But Heimowitz was no fluke. He returned to the final table at the main event the following year and finished in sixth place. Ungar, now 25, won his second world championship in a row.
Heimowitz captured his first gold bracelet at the WSOP in No Limit Holdem when there were only four such bracelet events in 1975. These days, there are many more opportunities to win bracelets with as many as 35 events this year. But there are also thousands more players.
Heimowitz won his last bracelet in 2001, when he took home the Seniors No Limit Holdem tournament. Still, he regularly cashes at the WSOP including three this year.
The explosion in the popularity of the game has meant many more people entering tournaments and playing in live games. At one time, the WSOP featured a little more than 100 players. This year, there were over 6,000.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Heimowitz said that all of the players at the final tables were great. It wasnt until 1991 that Brad Daugherty became the first amateur champion. Since then, several amateurs have won the main event. This years final table featured only one professional Mike Matusow.
Over the years, his trips to the high-stakes tables of Las Vegas have led to playing alongside a long list of colorful characters from hall of fame Texans such as Amarito Slim Preston and Puggy Pearson to Mike The Mouth Matusow and even a millionaire cocaine kingpin. The cocaine trafficker, Jimmy Chagra another Texan of Lebanese descent allegedly ordered the killing of a judge who was supposed to hear drug charges against him. Chagra allegedly hired known hitman Charles Harrelson, father of actor Woody Harrelson, to do the work. Chagra was convicted of conspiring to kill the judge but reportedly was released some time over the last several years. Harrelson is still in jail for the killing.
What was it like playing with Ungar, as Heimowitz did a number of times?
He could have been the best card player who ever lived an amazing mind, but a drug addict. He died in 1998 from a drug overdose, one year after his poker comeback and final win at the WSOP main event. The money for his buy-in was put up by champion poker player Billy Baxter who was so confident of Ungars abilities, said Heimowitz. He is reported to have won one-third of all the high-stakes tournaments he ever entered. If not for his addictions, he likely would have won much more. He is said to have been a dominant card player, who lost most of his money on sports betting.
They say he had an IQ of 180.
Heimowitz used to play in the poker clubs of Monticello there were three of them, including one in the middle of Broadway. One day, Ungar stopped by, as he used to spend his summers in the Catskills. He promptly cleared out the towns best gin rummy player.
One of the players Heimowitz most admires is Barry Greenstein, a friend of his, who donates all of his winnings in tournaments to charity particularly childrens charities.
I told him I root for myself and my son first and second, and I root for you.
Greenstein recently donated $1,000 each to 400 people who work with underprivileged children. Greenstein has gotten other successful players to donate more to charity as well including Brunson, Chip Reese and Phil Ivey.
What is Heimowitzs favorite game? Omaha hi/low, because you can play so many hands, he said. He just recently taught himself a new game, too triple draw, where you have to make the lowest hand.
So what is the key to success in poker? Being aggressive, he said. He remarked that he used to be more aggressive in his younger days but is now more subtle.
Self-discipline is a major part as well picking good hands to play. He recommends plenty of sleep and said you should leave when you get tired, hungry or notice you are off your game.
For up-and-comers, he suggests reading books such as Super System 2 by Doyle Brunson. One of the passages is written by Berman and explains a high-stakes Omaha hand between himself, Heimowitz, hall of famers Reese, Johnny Chan and bracelet winner David Grey.
He also recommends books by Dan Harrington, a WSOP winner who made the final table in 2003 and 2004. Heimowitz considers that to be an incredible achievement considering he had to beat two of the three largest fields of all time.
He said the computer is also a great tool to learn.
He does not recommend playing poker for a living, however.
Its not good for you to play all the time, he said.
And Heimowitz himself avoids gambling on sports, something he learned from his father who was broke for most of his life due to sports gambling. (He was a good person who never raised his voice to his mother, Heimowitz added.)
Heimowitz said he himself has made about ten sports bets in the last ten years.
While poker is a lot of fun for him, he gets more joy out of his grandson, who is now 10 years old. Heimowitz and his wife have been taking care of him for over eight years now, when they took custody of him.
Thats also stopped him from taking trips out to Las Vegas. He once went away to a tournament for three weeks. When he returned, his grandson told him, Papa, you were gone for a long time.
He stuck a knife in my heart, said Heimowitz.
Together, they enjoy tennis, bicycling, basketball, skiing, fishing, chess, and yes, even poker. The young boy has learned quickly and has recently beaten his grandfather at both chess and poker.
He is the best thing to ever happen in my life. He is such an important part of my life. . . . He is an absolute joy. Its a reward every day.
At 68, Heimowitz remains in great shape. He attributes it to regular exercise, including stretching for 20 minutes everyday and avoiding meat. When he was younger, he used to lift weights for tone.
So what does he think about pokers future? It will continue to grow, he predicts, as it has been doing with multiple television shows.
Its a highly skilled game, explained Heimowitz. Its at the height of its popularity, and everybody wants to be on TV.