POKER LIFESTYLE

Interview with Steve Zolotow, still grinding and winning at poker after 40 years

There are very few players who are still active winners on the poker tournament circuit after having played for 40 years. Steve Zolotow is one of them. We recently spoke with him about his long, colorful career at the felt, and he had some very interesting stories to share about Stu Ungar, Doyle Brunson, New York’s Mayfair Club and what tournaments before the 2003 poker boom. He also gave us some great advice for beginners in mixed games.

Zolotow was born on March 30, 1945 and grew up in New York in a house where games were common: “My father was a writer and loved to play games. When he was just a little kid, he was already playing checkers, chess, canasta, bridge and poker. On the one hand it was good to have started so young, but on the other hand I faced bad players and I acquired bad habits. My father gave me enthusiasm for the game.”

Steve Zolotow

Steve during our interview

The Mayfair Club

The Mayfair Club, which helped inspire the movie Rounders was one of the most famous clubs in New York and legendary players like Stu Ungar, Erik Seidel and Dan Harrington played there. Steve was a gambler and spent a lot of time there first playing bridge, then backgammon and then poker.

“At the Mayfair you could find the best bridge and backgammon players in the world. But over time poker came to replace both games. I remember we started playing heads-up duels mixing poker and backgammon with Paul Magriel, using the backgammon chips. That way those who were better backgammon players could beat those who were better at poker and vice versa. Erik Seidel also did it with Bob Amish, and that’s how poker began to be played at the Mayfair.”

Two cash game tables thus emerged, one with higher levels and another with a medium level: “The games became regular and there was a big game and a small one. In the Big Game the level was very high and Dan Harrington, Mickey Appelman, Jay Heimowitz and Howard Lederer used to play. When Mike Schichtman began organizing games in 1988, a mixed games table was added to the No Limit Hold’em table.”

It was mainly cash games that were played, but some tournaments were also held: “There was a person called Sonny who organized monthly tournaments in different clubs including Mayfair and all the champions could play in a Tournament of Champions at the end of the year. There was one year when I was able to win some of the monthly tournaments and I organized a betting system so that people could bet on who would be the champion of the final tournament with odds for each player. I was able to win the final tournament and in addition to the prize I won the bets of the players who bet on other people.”

Playing there was a great poker education for Zolotow: “Yes, it was a great education for bridge, backgammon and then poker. The people who were there were very intellectual and were willing to share their knowledge after the games, where we discussed the hands we played.”

Mayfair club players

Mayfair players during a Poker After Dark special | Photo credit: PokerGO

Steve Zolotow’s Memories of Stu Ungar

This is how Zolotow remembers the first time he saw Stu Ungar at the Mayfair: “Victor Romano was a mobster from New York and since he liked to play bridge and gin rummy he came to Mayfair often. One day he arrived with a boy who looked like he was 9 or 10 years old and introduced him as his nephew. He said they could play gin rummy against his as he had a headache. The boy beat everyone at gin rummy, he was actually 15 years old and his name was Stu Ungar.”

According to Steve, Stu had two great abilities: “The first and what everyone knows is that he was a great player in all games, especially gin rummy. His other ability was to exploit the fear and passivity of his rivals. He was a specialist in stacking chips in the early days as no one wanted to be eliminated, especially in the WSOP Main Event. It was very common to see him being among the chip leaders on Day 1. While everyone was waiting for Aces and Kings, he played a much wider range and grew his stack.”

Zolotow also remembers Ungar having several weaknesses: “He was degenerate with sports betting, a very bad loser and in cash games he was not usually a winner. He couldn’t have money in his pocket, since he had to bet it.”

stu ungar wsop

Stu Ungar playing in the WSOP | Photo credit: Ulvis Alberts

Zolotow on Poker before the Boom

The original Poker Boom took place 20 years ago, after Chris Moneymaker‘s triumph in the 2003 WSOP Main Event. Before that, tournament the fields were significantly smaller and the bracelets awarded had less value than now. Zolotow reflected on those days: “The WSOP was a gathering of bettors and players were more interested in playing cash games than tournaments, since they had fewer players and distributed less money. That is why when the players fell short in the tournament they ended up giving away the chips to go play the cash games. The first to value bracelets was Phil Hellmuth. If Doyle had valued bracelets in the first editions of the WSOP, I think he would have won 25 or 30 of them.”

What does Zolotow miss about that time before the boom? “Before when you sat down on Day 1 of the Main Event you knew almost all your opponents and you knew if it was a good or bad table. Nowadays, if you’re lucky, you recognize one or two players on Day 1. There was one year when I shared a table with a lady who had won her entry via a raffle and had a sign with the ranking of poker hands, since she hardly knew the rules.”

Steve achieved his first cash on the live poker tournament circuit in 1984 and between 1985-1988 he made five WSOP final tables, placing fifth on four occasions.

Steve Zolotow’s World Series of Poker Bracelets

In 1995 he won his first WSOP bracelet in a $5K buy-in Chinese Poker event that had 50 entries. To win the bracelet, he had to beat the legend Doyle Brunson: “It was in a variant that is hardly played today and there was a lot of money at stake on the podium. After many hours of play we were heads-up with Doyle and we had two friends on the rail who were betting on who would win. One one of them was drunk and shouted ‘Zee!’ every time I won a hand. At 4 in the morning there were just the four of us in the casino with the dealer and the tournament director. I was happier to just finish playing that night than I was to win the bracelet, but I really wanted to have a bracelet and I was able to finally win it.”

At the 2001 WSOP he won his second bracelet in a $3K Pot Limit Texas Hold’em event that had 226 entries. Zolotow recorded his best live result: $243K. This is how Steve remembers it: “It was with Pot Limit Hold’em and I think that there you need more skill than in No Limit Hold’em, since there is not as much all-in pre-flop and there was much more play post-flop. In Pot Limit you have to make a greater number of strategic decisions.”

Zolotow wsop 2007

Steve during the 2007 WSOP / Photo credit: The Hendon Mob

Studying Poker During the Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic forced the suspension of live poker and Zolotow took advantage of it to study tournament strategy: “I started reading poker books, watching final tables and I signed up for several online training sites like PokerCoaching, Run It Once and Upswing Poker. I tried to analyze the hands I saw at the final tables of PokerGO, analyze their expressions and see possible errors, tells or betting patterns.”

In 2021, live tournaments returned to Las Vegas and Steve achieved outstanding results in PokerGO Tour events, making eight final tables with winnings of $525K. That year he also managed to cash in the WSOP Main Event, placing 283rd for $38K.

Zolotow wins the 2019 WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic Seniors Event

Steve Zolotow’s Mixed Game Poker Tips

Over the course of 2023, Zolotow has cashed in mixed game tournaments at the WSOP and on the PokerGO Tour. Does he think mixed game poker tournaments will become more popular? “I think so, especially Pot Limit Omaha because of the great action it has and Omaha 8 or Better because of the possibility of playing high or low.”

We asked him for some tips for those starting to play mixed games and he shared a few:

  1. “When you play any form of Seven Card Stud you should first look at your cards when you receive them, since you should know well what to focus on when you see the new cards you receive. But if you are playing Hold’em or Omaha I recommend you look at your cards when it is your turn so as not to give any information about the strength of your hand.”
  2. “You can read Dylan Linde‘s book, Mastering Mixed Games, to start with and sit down and play to gain experience.”
  3. “In Big Bet games, whether No Limit or Pot Limit, if someone makes a bet the size of the pot you should fold unless you have a good reason to call. But in Limit Hold’em you should call a bet on the river with a decent hand, since you have a better price to call.”

HORSE

Steve Zolotow’s Poker Book Recommendations

We asked Steve about poker books that he has enjoyed reading and he told us: “Poker advances very quickly over the years and the good thing about reading books is that you can learn different lines of thought. I really liked the Pot Limit Omaha book by Fernando “JNandez” Habegger. I think the book “Modern Poker Theory” by Michael Acevedo has good ideas, but I think it has some theoretical errors. Another one that I enjoyed reading was “Poker Face” by Katy Lederer, since it is a true story of how she grew up in a family of gamblers.”

Has he ever thought about writing an autobiography? “I come from a family of writers and I like to write, but before my biography I would like to write some fiction. It could be a mystery novel set in old Las Vegas with poker, gambling, sports betting, corrupt politicians and why not some gangsters. What I read about those topics is usually not realistic and I would like to show how things really were.”

Motivations, the Poker Hall of Fame and Zolotow’s Future

Nowadays, Zolotow spends his time in three places depending on the weather and tournament offerings: New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco. What motivates him to continue playing poker 40 years later? “Long ago, my main motivation to play was money, but nowadays I also play for pleasure. I currently play poker for money and bridge for pleasure. A few days ago I was in Madeira playing a bridge tournament. In addition to playing I also like to study the game: reading, watching others play and discussing hands and ideas with other players.”

Can he imagine getting inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in the future? “Before it was called the Poker Hall of Fame it was the Gamblers Hall of Fame and well-known gamblers like Wild Bill Hickok and cheaters were in there. For many years I was more dedicated to sports betting and I did not dedicate my entire life to poker. It would be nice to get in, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do it.”

How long can he imagine himself playing? “Ozzie Jacoby, a famous bridge and poker player, said that he would rather die at a poker table than in a hospital. I think the same as him and would rather die at a poker or bridge table than in a movie theater or a Chinese restaurant. I can’t imagine stopping playing over the years, but I can lower my level if my game warrants it. I would like to try to win one more bracelet, even though the WSOP requires much more stamina than decades ago.”

Steve Zolotow wsop 2023

Zee during the 2023 WSOP / Photo: Matthew Berglund

Featured image credit: Alec Rome

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Santiago Garcia Mansilla
Written By.

Santiago Garcia Mansilla

Santiago is a longtime veteran of the poker industry, having written primarily about the game in Argentina since 2009. He has published hundreds of articles in Sudamerican Poker and Pokerlogia, and has provided live media coverage at the WSOP Main Event in 2015 and 2019. In addition to being a former columnist in PokerFace Magazine, […]

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