Robert Varkonyi Re-Evaluated
Writer’s Note: Last week, Martin Jacobson won the 2014 World Series of Poker Main Event. Yet, as one former winner reveals, like a fine wine, sometimes a true champion in every sense of the word materializes not in a flash of victory, but instead following more than a decade of deeper reflection.
Of the 15 world poker champions crowned in this, the current century, has any winner been more erased from the game’s recent memory than Robert Varkonyi?
The 2002 World Series of Poker Main Event champ never quite received the respect nor the fame he was entitled to — acclaim whether deserved or not just about everyone else that won since 2000 was able to enjoy. While other champions profited from cozy seven-figure endorsement deals and lucrative public appearances, Varkonyi went back to being Mr. Anonymous — Robert Varkonyi, the forgotten champion, as in the fill-in-the-blank subject of “whatever happened to…?” Not that the 53-year-old Everyman seems the least bit fazed by this concerted oversight. Yet, somehow that makes our collective abandonment even more egregious.
Talk to Varkonyi and he’ll readily admit that he prefers a day-to-day existence of relative obscurity, even within the poker world when he so chooses to grace it, which has become increasingly rare nowadays. An argument can even be made that staying out of the spotlight became a sort of hidden blessing for the low-key financial investor who still lives a quiet life along with his part-time poker playing wife Olga, and two daughters Victoria and Valerie, in Brooklyn, New York.
Indeed, of all the so-called modern-era champions, Varkonyi is clearly the player who hasn’t changed a bit — from his lifestyle to his personal demeanor to his own self-assessment within the game of poker. He was an amateur player when he won, and remains one long afterward. Fact is, much like another far more respected contemporary of his, Dan Harrington, Varkonyi simply has plenty of things he’d rather be doing in his life than playing poker 50 hours a week or sleeping in a strange hotel room away from his family 140 nights a year.
Varknoyi’s unforeseen victory precisely one year before what became known as the start of the poker boom was either a case of perfect timing or terrible luck, depending upon how you look at it. Imagine a scenario where Varkonyi and Chris Moneymaker might have been flip-flopped in history. Remember, the 2002 world poker championship wasn’t even televised back then. What if Moneymaker had won that year, followed by Varkonyi winning the first real ESPN-driven WSOP — which was ultimately seen by millions of curiosity seekers, who flooded into cardrooms over the next five years. Would Varkonyi have become equally as famous? Might we all be praising Varkonyi today as the savior who made poker what it is now?
When contrasted among his contemporaries, it’s an odd paradox that he’s one of the few former champions who hasn’t been impaired in some way by scandal, divorce, or financial hardship. Three former winners are no longer in the game. Yet, Varkonyi has somehow not only managed to keep his life completely together, he’s thrived since winning poker’s ultimate victory.
But no one seems to get this, aside from the few people in the poker world who call him a friend. He rarely, if ever, signs autographs because no one ever asks. The last few WSOPs where I’ve seen Varkonyi, no one even seems to know who he is. And those who do know him don’t appear to give him the respect (I think) he deserves.
The defamation campaign began even before Varkonyi won the championship. While he was playing in the Main Event that year, some top pros ridiculed the amateur poker player from New York. The most vocal of his critics was none other than Phil Hellmuth, Jr. The “Poker Brat” famously pledged to shave his head right after the tournament if Varkonyi somehow managed to win it, never dreaming, of course, this nightmare scenario would come true. Moments after the final pot of the tournament was pushed over to Varoknyi, Hellmuth was sitting in a barber-like chair wearing a smock, cringing as a razor began buzzing across his scalp and locks of dark brown hair fluttered to the floor.
Even at the time of his greatest triumph, Varkonyi managed to get upstaged by someone else. That’s basically Varkonyi’s poker career in a nutshell.
Some things improve with age, and so our re-evaluation must take into account not only what Varkonyi did back then but who he is now. Perhaps it’s time to re-examine Varknoyi’s place in poker history and even to praise him for becoming one of game’s most longstanding success stories. This is especially true if we define success as it should be — which isn’t tournaments won or dollars earned as much as achieving some personal degree of happiness and contentment.
Might now be the time to re-evaluate Varknoyi’s place in poker history and even to praise him for becoming one of poker’s most longstanding success stories? I think so. It’s time.
There’s an old saying among gamblers that winning the money isn’t nearly as tough as keeping it. While several other WSOP champions in history hit rock bottom financially at some point after winning lots of prize money, Varkonyi managed not only to bag it, but also to hang onto it all. He used his MIT degree and experience in finance to invest his winnings wisely, in the process achieving even more financial security for himself and for his family. There’s a word for that. That’s success.
As for poker, Varkonyi hasn’t played very much lately, relatively speaking, despite the obvious enticements that being a former world champion affords. Even with limited participation in poker events over the past 12 years, according to the Hendon Mob database, he’s still managed to cash 18 times, including two more occasions in the WSOP Main Event. That’s three cashes in 13 tries, which is well above the norm (I don’t know if Varkonyi has played every year — probably not). He also took second place in the WSOP Champions Cup Invitational, which was a collection of all the former Main Event winners.
Despite hoisting a poker resume that just about any part-time poker player would revere, Varkonyi never pretended to be among the world’s elite. He never fancied himself as a great player. He never once jumped into the big cash games nor played over his head. While critics might claim that he never tested himself nor reached his full potential, there’s something to be said for a family man and solid investor who apparently looks upon money and risk differently than many of the rest of us. Instead of criticizing that uniqueness, perhaps we should learn from it.
Robert Varkonyi will probably never be remembered as a great poker player. But he might very well be praised for things which are far more important — like being a great husband, a good father, and a true friend to those fortunate enough to know him.
To me, that’s a real winner.