For Ylon Schwartz, poker and, before that, chess were not just games; they were ways to avoid having to work a steady job. He’s scratched out a living for 15 years, but he is about to enter a higher tax bracket than most gamblers dare to dream about — the million-dollar club.
When Mr. Schwartz was starting out, no wager was too small or too far-fetched. Like the day he bet several people on the street that he could throw a lemon across Church Street from Liberty Plaza and onto the roof of a Burger King near the World Trade Center. Unbeknownst to the bettors, he had practiced the night before. He walked away with $340.
Mr. Schwartz, 38, is one of nine finalists in the World Series of Poker Main Event, which is considered the unofficial world championship. He beat out more than 6,800 competitors to get to the final table, which will be held on the weekend in Las Vegas.
First place is $9.1 million, but even last place will take home $900,000. Going into the final table, Mr. Schwartz, who lives in Brooklyn, is in fifth.
Mr. Schwartz, a highly ranked chess master who has played in many tournaments, said that some of the skills needed to succeed at chess are also useful in poker. “Chess players are trained to have excellent memories,” he said. “In poker, you need to remember betting patterns.” And strategic skill is essential in poker as well as chess. For instance, keeping the other poker players from folding when you have a good hand depends on how much you bet early on.
He said that both games had geometrical aspects. In chess, it is the shape and size of the board and positions of the pieces. In poker, it is the positions of the players betting on a hand and the number of chips they have.
Of course there are differences. In poker, players do not know what cards their opponents are holding. In chess an opponent’s plan can be divined. “Poker is a game of incomplete information,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Chess is a game of complete information.”
He said that it had been useful to start out in chess rather than poker. “All the patience I got in chess really helps me out,” he said.
Mr. Schwartz has not always been so disciplined.
He grew up in Manhattan and was, by his own admission, an uninspired student. He flunked out of Borough of Manhattan Community College after a year.
He then worked at a succession of jobs — at a day care center, in a restaurant preparing food, and as a special education assistant in a public school. While there, he started playing chess for a few dollars on the side and that, along with gambling on backgammon, horses and even darts, soon became his full-time avocation.
Mr. Schwartz’s personal life was also unsettled. An only child, he was raised by his mother. She developed cancer and he helped care for her. Mr. Schwartz said, “My 20s was spent in oncologists’ offices watching women getting chemo drips.”
His mother died in 2003.
He said that his father, who left when he was 2, had little contact with him — until he called after Mr. Schwartz made it to the final table of the World Series of Poker. Mr. Schwartz said he wanted nothing to do with him.
While chess was his specialty when he was younger, he also spent a lot of time with backgammon players. One of them, a man he called Fat Nick, taught him the rules to Texas Hold ’Em. Mr. Schwartz said that Nick owned a small poker club and one weekend in 2000 he entered a couple of tournaments there. He won both and walked out with $12,000 and a new career.
There were adjustments. In chess, losing is difficult to accept, but in tournament poker, Mr. Schwartz said, the best players win money only about 15 percent of the time, so they have a different attitude toward money.
Citing one of the best-known poker players, Mr. Schwartz said, “Doyle Brunson said you have to have a disdain for money.”
Even so, Mr. Schwartz said he had not been prepared for a losing streak that haunted him for two years. He was living with a girlfriend in a moldy basement apartment and he said that he developed allergies that affected his play and his mood.
“Every day, I would lose two to four thousand dollars and then I would go home and say, ‘Baby, let’s go out,’ and we’d spend like a thousand dollars on a dinner,” he said.
The relationship eventually deteriorated and they broke up several years ago, on Christmas Day. “She won’t talk to me any more,” he said. “And she shouldn’t.”
He started seeing a therapist and said he came to realize that he lacked empathy. He vowed to turn his life around.
“When you get to the bottom, you realize you want to get off this rock,” Mr. Schwartz said.
His new sensitivity to others helped him start winning again, he said.
“Empathy is the most important thing in poker,” he said. “You have to really be aware of what your opponents think. The best thing about poker is that it exposes all your weaknesses.”
If he wins the top prize, Mr. Schwartz said, he plans to take it easier. Referring to Mr. Brunson’s credo about money, Mr. Schwartz said, “For me, I value it more than most others.”
Maybe he’ll even play more chess, which he has never given up.
“Chess is a purer game,” he said. “It is my passion. I love poker, too, but I don’t know who gets together to play poker for fun. There is always something on the line.”