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Interview: The gambling life of Steve ‘Zee’ Zolotow

I just read an interview by Michael Kaplan of the gambling life of Steve ‘Zee’ Zolotow. Never heard of the guy, but it was an interesting read. My friend Steve sent it to me, and he found it at CardPlay.com. Thanks Steve!

Unconventional Roads Well-Traveled … to Success The gambling life of Steve ‘Zee’ Zolotow

Parents who worry about their kids growing up to be professional gamblers ought to visit the home of Steve “Zee” Zolotow – especially when he throws his more-or-less annual bash prior to opening day of the World Series of Poker championship.

Sporting a Fu Manchu mustache and resembling the grooviest (and possibly most perverse) prof on campus, Zee lives in Vegas, on a small estate, with three low-lying houses (one is occupied by backgammon legend Paul Magriel and family) and a nice sprawl of property. Before the main event, Zee had a live band playing in the yard, chefs barbecuing meat on enormous outdoor grills, and platters filled with fabulous sushi (being a vegetarian, he ate none of the finest stuff).

Most impressive of all, this isn’t even his only residence. He’s also got an apartment in Manhattan, where he’d long been based, and is partnered in several restaurants and bars. The point here is that Steve Zolotow illustrates the possibility of being able to make it in the gambling world without hitting a marketing jackpot (Phil Hellmuth), being the best (Chip Reese), or enduring wild swings (Gus Hansen).

Instead, Zee has done well by devoting his life to figuring out games, getting better than enough of his opponents, remaining disciplined, and capitalizing on other players’ mistakes. Along the way, he’s won two WSOP bracelets and finished in the Series money 31 times.

Beyond poker, Zee has also excelled at backgammon, klabiash, chess, and sports betting. We meet for dinner at the off-Strip Japanese restaurant Hamada. As usual, Zee is casually dressed in khaki shorts (looking like he’s about to go fishing or on a photo safari), and he is totally engaging.

MICHAEL KAPLAN: Both of your parents are writers and you grew up wanting to be an actor. How’d you get involved in gambling?

STEVE ZOLOTOW: I’m 61 years old and have played bridge for as a far back as I can remember. My father loved games, and we played chess and poker together. Back when I was in junior high school, we were living in Westchester, and I was playing with my father and his friends in their home game. At 4 in the morning, my mother came down and told my father that he was ruining my life, that he couldn’t keep me up all night, gambling. My father said, ‘there’s no way he’s quitting now. He’s the big winner.”

MK: What sort of stakes were you playing for?

SZ: You could win or lose $20. But 50 years ago, to a 10-year-old kid, that money was monumental. By then I had built up a bankroll and tended to play against people who were worse than me.

MK: Sounds like you understood game selection from a young age.

SZ: I’ve never been sufficiently focused on any one game to become the best at it. Therefore, it’s a necessity. Someone like Phil Ivey is so into poker and so focused. That’s not me. And I think it is very difficult to be the theoretical best at something if you have too many other interests – as I do. After I started gambling full time, I got a master’s degree in creative writing, specializing in poetry, because it was something I enjoyed doing.

MK: What’s the upside of being diverse?

SZ: You don’t get bored, you don’t drive yourself crazy, you have a more interesting life. The other upside is that you never know when opportunities will arise. If you are in the poker room and happen to meet a guy who’s a fish at backgammon, well, it’s nice to know how to play the game.

MK: You honed your poker skills at the Mayfair Club [a private gaming club in Manhattan where Erik Seidel, Dan Harrington, Howard Lederer, and Jason Lester all played poker]. How did you wind up in New York City?

SZ: Initially, it was through acting. At the age of 15, I played the white lead in Leroi Jones’ play The Toilet. I took the train into Manhattan from my parents’ house and often missed the last train home. So, I went to different places to spend the night, including a chess/checkers/bridge club called the Flea House. Then, a few years later, I attended Columbia, where I majored in partying, drugs, and gambling. The poker games started on Friday and ended on Monday. They were held in frat houses and various apartments. We played stud, draw, and some high-low declare. New York City was always a big place for that. You were probably able to bet as much as $5, and could win a few hundred very easily.

MK: How were you doing?

SZ: I was a winning player, but I had no bankroll. So, I’d make some money, go out for a weekend of partying, and be broke again.

MK: This was what year?

SZ: It was 1963 or ’64. I was 18 or 19, and that was when a friend suggested that he and I go to Las Vegas. I had never been there, I was bored of New York, I had dropped out of Columbia, and I was taking a lot of acid. Plus, it was starting to get cold. So, this seemed like a very good idea. We got to Vegas, headed downtown to the Golden Nugget, and I played very small: five-card stud with a dime ante and a betting limit of $2. But the players there were all too good for me. I kept trying to bluff guys who held the best possible hand, and it never worked. So, I drifted from Vegas to California, where I got a job working for Occidental Life Insurance. It paid $400 a month and I stayed in a hotel that was $6 a week. If somebody died, they changed the sheets.

MK: What shocks me out of all this is that you actually had a straight job. You strike me as the kind of guy who’s always been able to gamble for a living.

SZ: But in those days I was continually going broke – and I had a lot of bad habits.

MK: Such as?

SZ: Drugs and drinking and partying. Plus, I always figured that if I beat one game, I could move up to the next game and win there. It was the Peter Principle: reach your level of incompetence. Eventually, I quit the job and eked out a living in Gardena, playing $3-$6, until I got drafted. I was in the Army for a couple months – playing poker in the barracks, winning, and getting beaten up by the other guys – until they threw me out for being unable to adapt to military life. Back in L.A., I moved in with an old girlfriend who was living with a porn photographer. So, I used my acting talents to do a few porn films.

MK: I’m guessing that this coalesced with the Steve Zee drug years.

SZ: I did all drugs. I never liked shooting things that much, but I snorted heroin and smoked opium. I liked the relaxing drugs. In those days, it was a lot of Tuinol and Seconal and liquor. Then I’d need to do speed to keep from falling asleep and ruining my high. Between having a hyperactive thyroid and everything else, my weight dipped down to less than 100 pounds. It was 1967, I was 22 years old, and my doctor told me I was killing myself.

MK: At that point, I’m guessing, it was impossible for you to be a winning gambler.

SZ: Absolutely. But that was when I went back to New York, straightened up, got a job in the financial department of the book publisher Harper & Row, and began going for an MBA at New York University. Except for a little grass, I was pretty much clean and figuring I’d become an executive. By then, though, the backgammon craze was taking off, and I began going to the Mayfair Club, which was favored by the best backgammon players in town. Plus, I played poker in home games and at the clubs – but a 5 percent chop made them tough to beat.

MK: Who was hot on the New York scene back then in the late 1960s?

SZ: Nobody you would know. But the real good action was in private games, where you could find rich live ones. There was just one problem: Those games were hard to get into. You had to be very nice to the hosts, get there at 8 p.m., and play until 2 in the morning. They’d call me when a live one didn’t show up.

MK: Did they view you as a live one?

SZ: No. But I wasn’t a superstar and I was honest, and the semi live ones didn’t want the game to be cancelled. I remember playing in a wonderful game in the basement of a fish restaurant on West Broadway. You could order lobster and win money from bad players. The owners of the restaurant chopped a lot, but they also played and lost a lot. By this point I was playing with some of the best players in New York – none of whom would want to be mentioned. They were basically businessmen and semipros.

MK: Was Stu Ungar around?

SZ: I’ll tell you about the first time I saw Stuey. It was a few years earlier, and Stu was with Victor Romano [the mob-connected minder for Ungar in New York City]. Victor was a medium fish and an ex-con who was a tough guy, but a nice guy; he’d take us out to P.J. Clarke’s and buy us cheeseburgers. Well, Victor was playing gin [heads up] at a club in New York. He brought Stuey over and said to his opponent, “Ohhh, I got this fookin’ headache and need to lay down. But I don’t wanna quit ya. Here, play my nephew.” Of course, Stuey, who looked like he could have been Victor’s young nephew, won the other guy’s money. Stu went on to become the best of the gin players, and the best at other rummy games like continental and bagel.

MK: What was your take on Stuey at the time?

SZ: I just viewed him as someone who was really good at the games we played. It was like seeing Bobby Fischer in the chess clubs: The guy was a little crazy and a little bit of a sociopath, but, on the other hand, playing speed chess, he could spot me five minutes to one minute, plus a rook, and win 19 games out of 20. That’s pretty impressive. Sometimes I’d play poker, and Stuey would be there.

MK: And he’d be killing the game?

SZ: Nobody killed those games except the house.

MK: OK, let’s get back to you. What was happening with the publishing job?

SZ: After six months, they had promised me a, quote-unquote, large raise, of $5,000, and never came through with it. So, I quit and figured that I would find a better job. Then, I won a backgammon tournament, for $15,000 along with some side-action money. That was huge for me, and suddenly there was no reason to go back to work. It’s 30-some-odd years later and I still haven’t taken a job. In a funny way, gambling is what allowed me to stay off drugs and have an interesting life.

MK: The transition from drug addict to professional gambler sounds pretty seamless. I know you took a lot of little steps to get there, but it couldn’t have been completely smooth.

SZ: It wasn’t. Certainly at the beginning there were rotten stages. I’m sure I went quasi-broke several times, but people always loaned me money. Plus, the Mayfair loaned money to players, so they were able to pay off gambling debts but still have funds to live on. [Zee hesitates for a beat and smiles fondly.] The guy who ran the Mayfair, back in the 1970s and into the ’80s, was crazy. He loaned money to the worst people, two of whom ended up owing the Mayfair hundreds of thousands of dollars. But those big fish – who could drop $40,000 in a session – generated games, and each game brought $1,500 a day to the Mayfair.

MK: Did the Mayfair get to feel like an office for you?

SZ: Yeah. I went there every day and played. It was a terrific life and very educational. I quickly learned that sometimes it’s better to be the best gambler than to be the best player. People may be better than me in a given game, but because of bad habits and lack of discipline and steaming, they go crazy and lose their edge. I don’t let myself do that. I’ve always looked at gambling as an intellectual pursuit.

MK: When did Texas hold’em come to the Mayfair?

SZ: In the mid-1970s, and I helped get it introduced. Back then, Paul Magriel, who was even crazier than he is now, had a backgammon proposition. I don’t remember the particulars, but he said he knew he was taking the worst of it and would do it once for $200. We played, I won, and he wanted to do it again. I said I wouldn’t, since he had promised to do it only once. But, of course, that made him want to do it even more, and he started steaming. So, we agreed to play Klabiash. But somebody advised him against playing me at that game because I was much better than him. So, he suggested that we play a hold’em freezeout, using 15 backgammon checkers apiece as chips. So we played our freezeout and began incorporating hold’em into our backgammon matches. It caught on, and the Mayfair started spreading some games. I wasn’t the best backgammon player or the best poker player, but I was way better than anybody, on average, at both games.

MK: How did things evolve at the Mayfair?

SZ: As the poker stakes built up, some very good players began coming down. Mickey Appleman, who had been successful at sports-betting and played in the top New York circles, was one of them. Mike Schickman, who went on to run the Mayfair, used to play. Jay Heimowitz played. Erik Seidel began learning poker, Dan Harrington came to town, and Howard Lederer was there. There was a daily no-limit game and we all got good. But what really helped us was going out each night, at 2 in the morning, after the game, to a bar called Streets.

MK: What did you do there?

SZ: We had intellectual discussions about poker. We all had our own ideas, talked things through, discussed the ways in which hands could have been played, and got much better. Usually, though, when somebody had a really big insight, he kept it to himself and used it to win a lot of money. But then, if he saw someone else doing something very interesting, maybe the two of them would get together privately and share ideas. Additionally, we played in the most complicated poker game in the world, run by a lawyer named Roger Stern. It was slow and multilayered, with ever-changing betting rules. I remember, for example, playing high-low with aces counting only as one. We all became very quick at figuring out new games.

MK: I know that you’ve played backgammon, bridge, and chess. Did you get into anything else at this point?

SZ: I eventually figured that sports betting or bookmaking would be worthwhile. But I had a problem with bookmaking: I was no good at collecting money from people. The Italian guys call up and threaten you. The Jewish guys [Zee, obviously, is Jewish] call up and whine. I could never get the money.

MK: But you still did pretty good with sports betting. I remember hearing about you having a computer guy in Minnesota or North Dakota, or somewhere. And he supposedly gave you really strong numbers.

SZ: Actually, he was from New Mexico. I met him after I got interested in creating models for betting on professional sports. My friend told me he was the best handicapper, and I figured that was a good thing. The plan was this: When he liked the side I liked, I’d bet a little extra; when he liked the other side, I’d bet a little less or book it. Then, I became convinced he was very, very good.

MK: And you simply bet the sides he suggested. What did he get in exchange for giving you his picks?

SZ: A freeroll. He never wanted to bet with his own money.

MK: This was long before the Internet and the wide dissemination of lines. That must have been pretty sweet for you.

SZ: Initially. At the beginning I could bet $10,000 at 5:30, and one hour later put more on the same game with the same line. Two years later, I had five people helping me – along with people helping them and more people helping the helpers – and if we got a bet down at 6:30, by 6:31 the line would have moved everywhere in the world.

MK: Your bankroll must have been substantial.

SZ: I didn’t start with a huge bankroll, but it built up. We had some weeks when we made $1 million. But there were other weeks when we lost $800,000. If we made $1 million over the course of a season, that was a pretty good season for us. But then we had a problem in New York, which is where we were based.

MK: What kind of problem?

SZ: We got arrested because the law-enforcers thought we were big bookmakers. It was Howard [Lederer], me, Howard’s mom, her boyfriend, and a couple girls. We all got taken out in handcuffs and brought down to the Tombs [then a notorious jailhouse for holding arrestees]. They had busted a bunch of bookmakers that night. I remember there being a guy named Earl who’s a grandmaster. He and Howard were playing mental chess. They sounded like they were speaking in code, and people were trying to decipher the language. There was one guy who used his single phone call to lay off money. They busted us on a Friday, and we had to spend a long weekend suffering in jail.

MK: I assume that you all made bail on Monday morning.

SZ: We did, and I went with our lawyer to meet with an assistant district attorney. I told him that we were bettors, and that betting [as opposed to bookmaking] was perfectly legal in New York state. The law-enforcers had confiscated everything in our office – including computers, cash, air conditioners, and the tapes on which we recorded our transactions, due to discrepancies we’d had with some bookies – and I told the assistant DA that I could prove our innocence by having him listen to the tapes. “If you hear us taking bets,” I told him, “convict us.” They dropped charges, but kept our money – which included people’s Christmas bonuses – and we moved to Vegas. But it became real problematic when [the FBI] seized money from our safe-deposit boxes in another bust. That was when I totally gave up on sports betting. The handicappers get greedier, the lines get tougher, and we have to deal with these a–holes in law enforcement.

MK: That’s when you focused on poker?

SZ: I played more poker. I played a huge amount of cash games. I used to go to L.A. for the Larry Flynt game. I played as high as $1,500-$3,000, which used to be the big game. But, in general, I found that sitting down with Chip and Doyle made no sense unless there was a bad player in the game. Chip and Doyle played better than I did, and my results against them were not particularly good. But if Greek George happened to be in town, I played and won. At $400-$800, the players were a notch worse, and I was a steady winner. I’m careful about picking my spots. If a game gets really bad, even if I can win, who needs it? I can always go to a movie.

MK: Did you ever get into hustling wealthy amateurs at backgammon?

SZ: Not really. I’m not into chasing live ones around the world. If a situation is convenient and I enjoy myself, though, that’s something else. The Larry Flynt game, for example, was fun. I liked a lot of the people, Larry was charming, his wife was interesting, and they had a nice dog. Barry Greenstein [who played in the game] is very funny and Eric Drache [who organized the game] is a raconteur. But I wouldn’t want to spend time with a bunch of weasels or with people who are unpleasant. If I’m playing in a poker game and someone is losing a lot of money but he smells bad, I’ll go home and worry about it tomorrow.

MK: I know that you’re primarily focused on poker tournaments these days. But I wonder if you’d take another shot at the “big game” – with the right sort of lineup present.

SZ: Probably not. I’ve managed a relative degree of prosperity, and I’m not trying to rock the boat. So even if there was a $4,000-$8,000 game full of live ones, would I really want to be in a situation where I could lose a million dollars? Winning a million [won’t do much], but losing a million would be a quasi-disaster.

MK: In light of your years of playing poker, and the fact that you came up long before anyone could have conceived of sponsorships or websites and the riches they’ve generated for certain players, what do you think of the current poker boom?

SZ: I think it’s wonderful, and I think it’s great for the game. Online is good; I like playing two tables at once while I watch movies on TV. It’s fun to see people spotting Dan Harrington and asking him for an autograph. But sometimes I feel like one of those guys who played football in the early days, with no face mask and very little padding, and got paid $300 a game. On the other hand, though, it’s hard for me to feel very bad. Back when I was scraping by in Southern California, playing $3-$6 in Gardena, if someone had told me I was going to have an apartment in New York and a house in Vegas, and X dollars as a bankroll, I would have shaken my head and said, “Come on. Nobody’s got that kind of money.” spade

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