More than chips at stake in poker pioneer's best bluff

The Kickoff

July 04, 2006|By BILL ORDINE

Henry Orenstein, perhaps the father of televised poker where the audience can actually see when a player pretends to have a good hand, knows a few things about running a bluff.

More than 60 years ago, his life literally depended on it. And so did the lives of his brothers and several dozen other prisoners of a Nazi concentration camp.

For most of World War II, the 82-year-old Orenstein - who developed and patented the camera concept that allows TV viewers to see poker players' hole cards - was held in a succession of five such horror camps. Three brothers and a sister were also imprisoned; two siblings died. His mother and father were killed.

The reason the Polish-born Orenstein and most of the 50 prisoners who were part of a group of so-called mathematical "kommandos" survived can be traced to a stone-cold bluff arranged by German scientists who themselves were trying to avoid being conscripted into the military.

With the war going badly for Germany, the scientists told their Nazi overlords that they were working on secret military plans and they needed the help of Jewish mathematical geniuses being held in the camp. Orenstein signed up himself and his brothers as mathematicians.

The prisoners, however, were not geniuses and the secret plan was a ruse.

"The scientists would bring us ordinary grocery receipts and we would do nonsense arithmetic - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division - all day long," Orenstein said.

"We were playing for time," he added. Discovery obviously meant death.

The bluff worked, and the majority of the 50 prisoner math "geniuses" survived the camp.

Now, six decades later, Orenstein, a resident of Verona, N.J., and a millionaire, finds himself being honored as a genuine genius. He was recently inducted into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame, whose inaugural membership includes Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison.

But Orenstein's famous inventor status doesn't come so much from his TV poker connection as it does from the pursuit that first made him a wealthy man - toymaker. He invented the Transformers action figures, turning space-age vehicles into superheroes; a racecar that runs without batteries; and dolls that had lifelike characteristics.

Still, it's the camera concept of revealing poker players' cards that has helped elevate that game to pop-culture phenomenon and television staple.

"I was once at the Bellagio waiting for a [poker] table to open and David Sklansky came up to me," Orenstein said referring to the famous author on poker theory and play, "and he said, `Henry, this has all happened because of you.'"

In addition to collecting royalties from the World Poker Tour and others for the rail camera concept, Orenstein is also a prolific producer of poker TV programming, counting Poker Superstars, High Stakes Poker and the Intercontinental Poker Championship currently on CBS among his projects.

He's also proved that he can make money at the tables even without knowing the opponents' hole cards. Orenstein, who does most of his playing in seven-card stud cash games at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J., won a World Series of Poker bracelet in stud in 1996 and he finished eighth in the No-limit Texas Hold 'em main event in 1995.

However, despite all the good times and riches that have come as a result of his fertile imagination, the memory of the terrible years in the camps never did completely go away for Orenstein. He has been recognized for his philanthropic work donating generously to programs for the elderly.

And while a crafty and courageous bluff allowed him to survive the Holocaust, that was far from the most influential thing that he took from that grim time.

"The great lesson that I learned in the concentration camps was about humanity," Orenstein said, "and that has served me well."

Local updates

At the World Series of Poker being held at the Rio casino in Las Vegas, Baltimore player Mark Schaech - one of the so-called New Cut Crew from an Anne Arundel County home game that includes last year's main event runner-up Steve Dannenmann - finished 33rd, winning $11,368 in the first open event this year. Last July, Schaech had raced to Vegas to cheer on Dannenmann at the main event final table.

This year, Schaech was making his own run in a 2,776-player field in a $1,500 buy-in No-limit Texas Hold 'em event, when his pocket 10s ran into pocket aces being held by then chip leader and tournament pro Carlos "The Matador" Mortenson. Brandon Cantu of Las Vegas won the tournament and nearly $758,000.

Another local player, Josh Schlein of Owings Mills, finished third in a $1,500 buy-in Limit Texas Hold 'em event, winning more than $101,000. Last year, Schlein had a $440,000 payday for a second-place finish at a World Poker Tour event in Aruba. bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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