Former November Niner wins first WSOP bracelet, $267K
If Ylon Schwartz doesn’t take another breath on this Earth and somehow vanishes instantly, he will have already lived a life that most would describe as bizarre. Perhaps even exceptional.
The former chess master and professional poker player originally from New York City won his first World Series of Poker gold bracelet early on Saturday morning after topping a brutally-competitive field of nearly 900 players in the $1,500 buy-in H.O.R.S.E. tournament to win $267,081. The former “November Niner,” who finished fourth in the 2008 WSOP Main Event, out-dueled David Chiu, a three-time gold bracelet winner in heads-up play, finally managing to defeat his formidable foe on an unscheduled fourth day of competition.
The entire 40-plus hour duration of the tournament was a supreme test of mental and physical fortitude for Schwartz, who cut his competitive teeth in the musty chess backrooms of Brooklyn and anachronistic park-scene of Manhattan, an atypical background which unquestionably provided a competitive pedigree and strategic edge over many of the world’s best all-around poker players now assembled in Las Vegas.
Schwartz’s victory in this event, once again, validated H.O.R.S.E.’s long-held reputation as poker’s superlative trial and tribulation on the question of comprehensive skill. The game requires one to master, not just one form of poker, but five games in all: Hold’em, Omaha High-Low, Razz, Seven-Card Stud, and Seven-Card Stud High-Low.
The format is deceptively geared towards Stud enthusiasts (after all, three of the five games are dealt in a Stud format), which naturally favors players from the Northeastern United States, a region which has traditionally been a hotbed of Stud action over the past two generations.
But Schwartz, for all his natural talent and vested commitment, is hardly conventional, either as a poker player or as a person. Aside from his anarchistic look -- equal parts college professor and Rastafarian -- Schwartz is a man who very much does things his way. Alas, if Albert Einstein had a love child with Bob Marley, it would probably look something like Ylon Schwartz.
Known at one time by his (former) online poker screen name “TenthPlanet,” Schwartz was once asked by a reporter where he was born. “Outer space,” was his reply.
An only child, Schwartz grew up in Manhattan -- which might just as well be outer space to just about everyone else in the pedestrian universe. At an early age, he became fascinated by the rabidly anti-establishment underground chess scene, a hodgepodge of vagrants and uber-geniuses which produced the likes of prodigy and eventual madman Bobby Fischer. While still in his teens, he began playing chess regularly in public parks and managed to win $2 the very first time he played the game for real money. In a sense, Schwartz’s path in life became set at that very instant.
Schwartz reportedly hustled chess games for decades. Arguably, just one step up from being a Three-Card Monte dealer in the minds of all the similarly-smart “Manhattanites” that went on to college and joined the establishment, Schwartz could at least boast he was using his brains and talent to make a bona fide living. He also answered to no one. Of course, that “living” consisted of a meager subsistence during most of the time. He tried college, became bored, and flunked out. He was hired for odd jobs, but was never able to quite fit in. Each time he tried to depart from the comfortable, if unprofitable, path of “being Ylon Schwartz,” the temporary detour would lead back to chess and gambling games – or more precisely the people who played them.
Realizing the obvious limitations of his skill set, Schwartz’s focus moved beyond chess. He became proficient at backgammon, darts, and other competitive endeavors that increasingly morphed into gambling. Schwartz was also a fixture at New York’s racetracks, constantly searching for the Holy Grail betting system that just barely managed to escape the clutch of every gambler.
By 2000, Schwartz was on a dead end path to nowhere. He bottomed out at one point and became homeless for a short time -- oddly enough, a predicament that he neither regrets nor bemoans. For all of Schwartz’s idiosyncrasies, he would eventually discover that living the life on the edge as a master gamesman would prove to be the perfect training ground for the next stage of his life.
One day, Schwartz was taught the rules of Texas Hold’em by a friend. He began playing in the underground poker clubs scattered throughout Manhattan and even managed to make a big score one of the first times he played. Realizing that poker provided a much greater opportunity for financial gain than chess, not to mention providing another avenue that fueled his competitive spirit, Schwartz began to take poker just as seriously as he’d studied chess and other games.
To Schwartz, the similarities between chess and poker were obvious. But it was the differences in the two games that fascinated Schwartz, for which he was able to gradually make adjustments, eventually becoming a seasoned poker veteran, despite having relatively little live game or tournament experience. The primary difference, according to Schwartz was that chess was a game of complete information. Poker was a game of incomplete information. In a sense as in the case with any great undiscovered mystery, the later was much the more fascinating.
Between 2000 and 2008, Schwartz continued to grind out a living as a master gamesman, consistently concealing his real talent for the purposes of survival. Year-by-year, poker became an increasing percentage of his earnings. Yet no one –- most certainly not Schwartz himself –- could have imagined the cosmic shift that was to come when he won a seat in the 2008 WSOP Main Event by playing at one of the online poker sites.
Schwartz became one of the very first “November Nine” finalists. He took fourth in the WSOP Main Event that year, collecting the mind-boggling sum of $3,774,974 in prize money – a ghastly financial boon for a man who once considered a $100 profit playing chess to be a “great day.”
Stoked with a bankroll for the first time, Schwartz made several notable changes in his life, first and foremost deciding to move from New York City to Austin, Texas, a place he now describes as a city with the “perfect balance.”
"You can breathe in Austin," said Schwartz. "It’s a beautiful place. It’s mellow. There are no casinos there, which is good. That’s where I go to decompress. Every summer, I’m always happy when people come and bring all the money to the building and I have a shot to try to relax for the rest of the year."
Since becoming semi-famous as a poker celebrity, Schwartz has been playing on the tournament circuit. He’s managed to cash numerous times in majors, including the WSOP. However, as many times as Schwartz went deep, he always failed to win. At one point, Schwartz began earning the nickname, “the teenager,” an apt moniker given his penchant for always seeming to cash in the teens (13th through 19th).
"I’m super happy to get this bracelet," said Schwartz. "I’ve been banging away, knocking at the door a bunch of times. Forever I was finishing at the second (to last table)."
Up through last Wednesday, Schwartz had cashed 22 times in six years at the WSOP certainly an impressive record of accomplishment buoyed by the huge bonus of making a Main Event final table. At the same time, Schwartz’s name began appearing with increasing frequency on the unofficial list of top players without a gold bracelet.
And so, Schwartz entered the $1,500 H.O.R.S.E. event and took his seat in a sea of 889 of the world's best all-around players. Not being from this world, "Tenth Planet" played the best poker of his life. He not only outlasted all earthly poker beings, he vanquished them one-by-one, by making one decision at a time, one move at a time, one small victory at a time.
Just as he’d done decades earlier on the concrete chess flats of Washington Square Park, Schwartz out-thought, outmaneuvered, and outplayed each and every challenger who was unfortunate enough to draw the opposite seat. Only this time, the hustle wasn’t worth a mere $2. This win paid a staggering $267,081, plus a WSOP gold bracelet.
For Schwartz, a word that departed his breath innumerable times over chessboards during the past 30 years were spoken quietly at a poker table for the very first time. And that word was checkmate.
Chui took home $164,960 for second place, while Stephen Chidwick finished third for $112,106. Robert Rasmussen was fourth, Elior Sion was fifth, John Rogers was sixth, Jason Brown was seventh and Marlon Milne rounded out the final table in eighth.
The top 96 players finished in the money. Notable players who cashed but did not make the final table included: Allen Cunningham (10th), Rep Porter (14th), Cliff Josephy (16th), Chip Jett (19th), Tom Schneider (21st), David Williams (23rd), Sam Grizzle (27th), Maria Mayrinck (30th), Huck Seed (50th), Gabriel Nassif (52nd), David Grey (59th), Eli Elezra (63rd), "Miami" John Cernuto (73rd), Linda Johnson (87th), Martin Staszko (88th), Eoghan O'Dea (91st), and John Monnette (94th).
Modified from tournament notes provided by WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla.