At eight years old, Canadian Jeff Sarwer won the Under 10 World Youth Chess Championship in Puerto Rico.
By the time he was nine, he was travelling around North America taking on 40 players at a time in a series of simultaneous chess demonstrations, playing the world’s best speed chess hustlers in New York’s Washington Square and earning himself a lifetime membership in the revered Manhattan Chess Club.
He quickly became a darling of the media, was pegged by Grand Masters as a future World Champion and even became the inspiration for a character in the famed poker film Searching For Bobby Fischer.
But it all came to a crashing halt.
His father pulled him out of chess and the alternative lifestyle he had them living, including refusing to enroll Sarwer and his sister in school and having them sleep in the car as they travelled around, came under intense scrutiny.
Canadian authorities soon removed Sarwer and his sister from their father’s care, but they ran away to be reunited with him, spending the better part of the next 20 years in anonymity, traveling around Europe under a cloud of secrecy.
“I had a pretty tough childhood,” Sarwer said. “My father was quite controlling. But he was a really interesting character and there are a lot of good sides to him as well. As an adult I’ve just called it a wash and moved on with my life.”
In 2007 he resurfaced on the chess scene entering a tournament in Poland, where he now lives.
However, the 31-year-old was soon bitten by the poker bug.
“I’ve always loved poker as a game,” he said. “It has gotten so popular over the last couple of years it just finally grabbed me as well. Poker is all over TV, all my friends play. So I just figured let’s get into this, it’s a fun game.”
Sarwer read Harrington on Hold 'em by 1995 WSOP Main Event champion Dan Harrington and headed for Prague to play in the PokerStars European Poker Tour’s annual Czech Republic stop last year.
“I really knew nothing but the basics,” he said. “But I did manage to cash, so that was good for my confidence.”
The €7,000 he earned for a 54th place finish was just the start. By February of this year he had managed to make the final table at the European Masters of Poker event in Tallinn, finishing third for €29,760.
He booked a few small cashes in lower buy-in events across Europe and then this October, things really seemed to click as he absolutely dominated play at EPT Warsaw before busting tenth.
But Sarwer would not have to wait long for a real breakthrough.
Just a few weeks later he made the final table at EPT Vilamoura, finishing third for €156,170.
“I’ve developed and I think I just started to realize exactly what’s going on here,” he explained. “All I needed was a few good conversations with some really good players in order to get my game there.
“My confidence has always been up there. I believe in admitting I’m wrong when I’m wrong, but genuine confidence, I have that from chess and from life.”
When it comes to poker, it appears his chess background has given Sarwer a lot more than confidence. He believes there are several parallels between the two games.
“There are a lot of similarities and a lot of things that are different,” he said. “The things that are similar include having to pay attention, gather information and think a few moves ahead about what types of moves people will do, what your opponent is feeling and what he’s thinking. All that stuff is a little bit like chess.
“Certainly at a Master level, or a decent level of chess, there is a lot of meta game and that transfers over to poker for me.”
And while Sarwer’s poker experience is still quite limited, he has already grasped that the game is infinitely more intricate than it appears on the surface.
“In chess you can see things on the surface, look three or four moves deep, and eventually you are going to lose when someone traps you into something less obvious,” he said. “It’s the same with poker. You can just play ABC and not pay attention to what’s happening at the table and somebody is eventually going to catch you.”
While experience and a willingness to learn from others have played a big role in Sarwer’s recent success, he also attributes it to a newfound aggression.
“I’ve really opened up and become quite an aggressive player,” he said. “A lot of chess players tend to be a bit nittier and more technical. I just don’t happen to play that way right now because it’s not in my character.”
After an up and down day on the EPT Prague felt Thursday, Sarwer eventually busted, ending his string of deep finishes on the EPT.
But despite business commitments in Poland and the fact he claims he’s still just a “poker hobbyist” and not a professional player, it appears his new found love for the game will keep him coming back.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends amongst the online players,” he said. “They have that rare combination of being sharp, analytical and fun. The top poker players all seem to have that and I have a lot in common with that mindset.
“I love hanging around them. I’m nowhere near the top yet and I suppose it’s still too early to tell if I’ll make it there, but we’ll see.”
PokerStars EPT Prague continues with Day 3 Friday. For comprehensive coverage from the Czech Republic, tune into PokerListings’ Live Updates.