Garrett Adelstein: The Interview

Craig Tapscott
Posted on: March 27, 2023 05:55 PDT

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand over the past five years, you’ve watched Garrett Adelstein play poker on live streams and win a lot of money. It’s been a fun, entertaining, and sometimes bumpy journey for fans of the game we all love to hate – poker. 

Many of the top poker players in the world have touted Adelstein as one of the best cash game players on the planet. Adelstein has competed against most of the people who sing his praises.

Over his years in the game, Adelstein has earned praise for hard work and professional composure while working under television lights and the immense pressure of high-stakes poker.

Adelstein's life changed dramatically six months ago following the infamous Hustler Casino Live hand with Robbi Jade Lew. The resulting drama saw Adelstein slip into self-imposed exile during which time he barely appeared even on social media.

Now, after a week of Twitter feuding and accusations, Adelstein has granted his first full interview. PokerOrg spoke with him about his life over the past six months and his response to all that's happened in that time.

Craig Tapscott: How has life been treating you since the controversies surrounding the J4 hand on ‘Hustler Casino Live’ (HCL) last September?

Garrett Adelstein: You know, it's been a whirlwind, especially the first week after the hand occurred with Robbi Jade Lew. I was working pretty hard and compiling a post on the poker forum 2 + 2. It was a blessing of sorts, to keep my mind busy. But it was definitely a tough time. I went from a poker player who was generally well-liked in the poker community to seeing many people turn against me and say some pretty nasty things.

CT: For the most part few years, you played mostly part-time. Am I correct?

GA: Yes. But it was still a tough time. I went through definitely a challenging period after that. And I'm not looking for any sympathy for what I went through in that regard. More just describing that time period.

CT: Life had to be different without the weekly poker battles on stream.

GA: Yes. It's been a really nice peaceful time. Because playing high-stakes poker is an unbelievably stressful job, filled with many painful nights. But it’s been nice to live a lower-key existence for the past few months.

CT: How did you approach taking care of yourself in regard to physical and mental health?

GA: That’s always been a key element of daily life for me. Paying attention to those things. I've had some struggles with depression in the past. I usually have a healthy breakfast every day. You know, drink my coffee. Do my meditation practice and then start my exercise plan for the day. Whether it's just a running-only day or a cardio and weight training day. For me, exercise is the best antidepressant. There were days I didn’t feel up for any of that. And that’s fine. It’s a work in progress.

CT: I read on Twitter that you’re going to be a father any day now. Congratulations. That’s life-changing.

GA: Yeah. It's wild, you know. It's almost surreal. So different from my life ten years ago. Like just having a family, and a wife that I love so dearly, and she supports me in every way. We’ve wanted children forever. And so the fact that we're like three weeks away; I just can't believe it. I just look forward to the challenge of giving everything I got into being the best father.

CT: Back to poker. Poker Twitter has been blowing up lately with the epic fallout from the J4 hand. I discuss it in detail in my recent feature on PokerOrg. People went kind of crazy when they heard you participated in the setup of the lineups on the nights you played on HCL. It was pretty shocking to me when I first heard about it. Can you please address that in detail?

GA: Of course. The lineup construction for the games I played in was a collaborative process between Ryan Feldman and me. I think to say I set them up in any way would be, like, greatly overstated.

CT: So, how did it work?

GA: The way it went down was Ryan would text me a tentative lineup and then we would talk. We would agree on what would work on a particular evening. That relationship worked really well because our interests aligned, almost always. The reality for these games to run and for these games to be sustainable, we need to have several recreational players on board.

It's a delicate ecosystem. You take out one important VIP player, or a recreational player or two may not play; the next thing you know, you don't have a game. And Ryan doesn't have a stream that evening. It’s better to have five or six recreational players than just being stacked with pros. It creates a much healthier, sort of looser, carefree environment, which allows for more gambling. That makes for good TV. So to comment on my relationship with Ryan, I’d rather use the word - collaborative.

CT: What was your reaction when you heard Nick Vertucci’s response to Ben Lee’s question about you coming back to play on HCL during The Nick Vertucci Show show a week or so ago?

GA: Blindsided. I guess that would be the first word that comes to mind.

CT: Have you talked to Nick and Ryan since the J4 hand?

GA: Ryan, Nick, and I had a conversation when they released their investigation report. Everyone kind of agreed that we would work together again, eventually. We didn't talk at all, after that. And I expressed zero interest to Ryan or Nick since about being on the show anytime soon. The whole thing just kind of came out of left field. It went down in a sort of passive-aggressive way. That's kind of what bothered me.

CT: So it was a total surprise?

GA: Not at all. Many players had told me behind the scenes that I had been banned from the show. So both of them kind of pretending like that was the first time they had had a conversation regarding my status on the show was completely disingenuous. But still, it caught me by surprise, anyway.

CT: Did you have a good friendship with Nick? When we talked last week regarding that podcast with Ben, he made sure to tell me that he wished you and your wife the very best on the upcoming birth of your child. I believe it was very sincere.

GA: My relationship with Nick has been challenging. Sharing a friendship with him was tough, but I also think we did it. But I think my relationship with Ryan is by far a more interesting one. And it's the one I think your readers care more about.

CT: Agreed. He’s the showrunner for the whole production.

GA: Ryan is the one who does everything. And the reality is Ryan and I helped each other quite a lot. Both of our businesses grew and benefited by working with each other. I don’t necessarily think so. Poker is an extremely cutthroat business. I can't really fault them from a business perspective.

CT: How so?

GA: I am sure they ran a cost-benefit analysis and decided it wasn’t worth it.

CT: Please explain.

GA: What that means is when I win, that's not good for them. That’s less money in the player pool. I think they just probably made a business decision, like ‘hey this guy just wins too much.’  I think that's a real recurring theme about everything that's happened this past week. Follow the money.

CT: I talked about that in my recent feature. Money is what makes the poker world go round, just like most any business.

GA: That’s the reality of it. And you know what, I'm not gonna sit here and pretend like I'm some poker philanthropist. That's just not the case for me. It’s my job.   

CT: Recently you came out of social media hibernation to respond to all the critics popping up on Twitter and on podcasts. What was the impetus to do that? You’d been pretty quiet for the last six months.

GA: I think there just comes a time, where it's hard to kind of be above it and just ignore everything. I wanted to speak my truth about my own life and career. It goes back to Nick’s podcast and the ban on the show. It really bothered me. I won't lie. Why didn’t he just give me a call and explain their plans? It should have been a private conversation. It became a big public ordeal.  It's hard for me to envision why that'd be done except to embarrass me and get some clicks. They only talked for a few minutes and the posts promoting that show were centered around me. So, just clickbait.

CT: You had mentioned that you were curious about an open seat for the upcoming million-dollar buy-in game on HCL on Twitter. Did you expect to play on that?

GA: That was mostly just a troll. I really have no plans on coming back and playing any poker anytime soon. In regard to that game, I knew Alan Keating would be playing. And Keating does not let me play in games he’s in. To be fair to Alan, I think he's a cool guy, and obviously a really sharp businessman.

CT: I had been told by multiple players that you were blocked in those games with Keating.

GA: I was. That's kind of just the reality of live-streamed poker TV. But I was surprised I would not be invited anytime soon to play on HCL. I was hearing the Internet chatter that the fans and players would be excited about me coming back to play.

CT: So that’s the politics of poker.

GA: Exactly. I was blocked from the Keating game, just as I've been blocked from an endless amount of games in my career. Like, you know, games throughout my career. That’s the nature of high-stakes poker and it sucks. I saw the writing on the wall with this stuff in mid-2010. I figured if I was going to keep playing poker, I had to figure out a way to add value somewhere. When I saw that opportunity with streamed poker, I moved forward in that direction.

CT: It doesn't change the fact that many players were upset when they discovered you were involved in keeping them out of the games.

GA: I’m sure. There's been a lot of talk from a few close friends of Nick Airball, that they weren’t getting into the games. They’re upset. I really empathize with them. The reality is the difference between getting in those games regularly versus not, could make up a substantial portion of their income. And that's devastating. It would be hard not to take that personally. I get it.

CT: I also totally understand why they are upset and speaking out.

GA: The reality is they're my competition. I mean you don't see Honda writing checks to Toyota or giving their competition a helping hand. I am not sure the audience understands that dynamic. The very best players are running a seven-figure plus income business annually.

Beyond that, I think it is important to note that these things were good for Ryan and HCL as well. All the fingers have been pointed at me. Money. That's really the theme behind everything. Ryan is still the gatekeeper. Ryan is still the game builder, the owner, etc. And it’s critically important for all the players to stay in his good graces as well.

CT: Poker is tough. And violent AF.

GA: It’s a blood sport, man. It’s cutthroat as all hell.

CT: I think you stole that whole ‘bloodsport’ analogy from me when we had our first chat last week. And now you used it on Twitter.

GA: That just came to me when I wrote my Twitter comment.

CT: Huh, huh.

GA: But if in any way you feel like it’s a copyright issue, that's on me, and I apologize. (laughs)

CT: It’s all good. Checks in the mail, right?

GA: Yes. (laughs) 100%.

CT: It’s been a crazy week for sure. I really enjoyed talking to some very interesting people across the board last week. I’ve been doing this for seventeen years, mostly all for Card Player magazine, and it never gets old.

GA: I’m sure.

CT: I wanted to make sure I wrote a very balanced feature from all sides of the issue regarding the HCL lineups and beyond. It was important to me. I received and saw some feedback that some players say you came off as ‘fake’ to them. Can you address those comments here?

GA: You know, it, it breaks my heart. It really does. I don't know where that comes from. I’d have to look deep into my childhood. You could attack my intelligence, and my poker skills, those things are mostly gonna roll off my back.

But I think if someone attacks my character or calls me disingenuous, that really hurts. It’s hard when someone like me plays a role in building games that you can't play in. I think that's some really deep-seated resentment that's built up for a very long time. I think it would be hard for anyone, myself included, to separate business from personal. I just find the word ‘fake’ to be really charged and unfair.

CT: I wasn’t sure how to interpret that word also. And I heard it more than once.

GA: I just want to say one more thing in defense of those players. And I am not accusing them of being dishonest with you, Craig. When they call me fake, they very much believe that. But I think at a subconscious level, it's very, very hard not to think negative things about me personally. Especially when they are aware that I play some role in their not being able to play in the games.

CT: Sometimes reading all the hatred tossed back and forth on Twitter is hard to read, about any subject. Can you ignore the back and forth of that vitriol on Twitter by just not opening it? It can’t be good for anyone’s mental health.

GA: Good question. My whole public career over the past six years has been about poker. It had been easy criticism mostly.  An occasional person saying I played a hand badly or something like that. But after Jack4 hand, that really shifted.

I would love to sit here and tell you I've been a real stoic about this whole thing. Staying away from the Internet. I can’t tell you that. It’s painful to read. Maybe it’s an addiction. And a lot of it can be really hurtful when I have read untrue things about me in recent months. It’s very much a work in progress for me.

CT: So how do you approach your mental health?

GA: Meditation is definitely number one. Also my CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) It's about constantly challenging these cognitive distortions. An example is what we were talking about. I can feel like the weight of the world is coming down on me. People don’t like me, etc. CBT allows you to challenge those assertions. Ask yourself if this is the reality of the situation. Is this the truth? Things of that nature.

CT: Breaking it down to the core of your perceptions and seeking the truth in all of it. I like counting my blessings and having gratitude for my life.

GA: Yes. Gratitude is an incredible antidote when dealing with challenging situations.

CT: Back to poker. Let’s jump back into a discussion about the investigation into the cheating allegations during the Jack4 hand. What do you have to say in that regard around the stream that evening?

GA: I’ll talk about the Bulletproof company’s findings specifically. Their part of the investigation definitely seemed legitimate to me. The key finding of that investigation was there was a series of security vulnerabilities with the stream.

In regard to the possibility of cheating in the hand, the most likely scenario specifically would be someone from the production room communicating in some way hole card info to one of the players in the game. There was no way that they were going to be able to prove that. That’s why the investigation was very much deemed inconclusive. I think that obviously makes all the sense in the world.

CT: I have to bring up Doug Polk’s interview with Nikhal ‘Nik Airball’ Arcot last week on his YouTube show. It garnered over 360K views. What was your reaction to that?

GA: The first thing was I was surprised that the first major podcast that Airball went on he spent the entire 90 minutes just talking about me. I was flattered. Why not share some things about his own life? Beyond that, it was incredibly hurtful. The whole interview with him was filled with exaggerations and half-truths, and in many cases, out-and-out lies. That sucks. Especially when shouted out from the megaphone that is Doug’s channel.

That interview became the inspiration for why I’m going to hop on a live interview with Doug today at 1 PM PST. It will be my first live interview since the whole Jack4 hand controversy.

CT: I think the poker community has been waiting for you to speak your truth about the whole scenario for six months on a live platform. Doug’s a great choice.

GA: Yeah. I mean enough is enough, Craig. I think it's an important thing to do now. Despite not wanting to roll in the mud with someone like Airball. At a certain point, I have to defend myself and speak up about all the bullshit.

CT: I definitely will be tuned in to watch. What are your plans for the future now? You hinted about the possibility of returning to a stream on your Twitter feed last week. I’m also curious if you jumped online to play at all.

GA: Everyone's got a different theory about where I've been playing poker. The answer is I haven't played any poker at all over the past six months. I've been completely away from the game.

In terms of my future plans: If you had asked me this even just a few weeks ago I would have said, I really have no interest at the moment. But that has shifted now. I don’t know completely know why. Perhaps I felt the nudge after Nick announced that I wouldn’t be invited back to ‘Hustler Casino Live’ anytime soon. And some of what I’ve read on the Internet.

But the timing is not great right now. My wife is due in less than three weeks. I suspect I won't be playing in the very near future. I'm thinking about it. When I do decide, I don't know what frequency or any plans of sort of starting to play on a regular basis again. But yeah, I'm definitely more open to the idea of playing again.

CT: You’ve been very transparent about why you play poker. It’s your job.

GA: I have no product to sell you, Craig. I've never had a product to sell, to anyone. The only product I’ve offered is me going on streams and trying to play interesting poker. That’s it!

I hope our discussion today sheds a bit more light on the reality of my professional life.

CT: I’m still surprised that you haven’t snuck online to play. Why not?

GA: You know, that's a good question that really it's on sort of like a bigger issue, which I know is it might, it might be confusing to some people, but I’ve been playing for 20 years now. I’m tired, man.  

I'm tired of all the negative things associated with it. And of course, I'm tired of politics. And on a bigger, more macro level, with the zero-sum nature of poker. I'm tired of coming home after big losses and still just feeling pretty devastated. I’m tired of the stress of high-stakes poker.

You can imagine if I already felt this way for a long time before the Jack4 hand. But I guess dealing with those things and the recent stuff on Twitter, I will just come back even stronger after time away from the game.

CT: And this has been your business, so to speak for all these years. And poker is big business from all aspects of the industry. From billion-dollar poker sites like PokerStars and GG Poker, the WSOP and WPT events, and training sites, on and on, etc. It's also predicated on the players participating with all the businesses surrounding poker.  

GA: True. I agree. It's all the ancillary ways people are making money in poker, as you alluded to. But I think going just back to the topic of the players who play in the games. In the end, there's no such thing as a poker philanthropist. We're not out to give money to our opponents.

Nothing in our game is philanthropy. I hope that it came across today in our interview the many ways I conduct my business. Some people may read this and go, Man, that's pretty ‘strong.’ But they will interpret what I shared how they will. You know. So be it.

I know it's not the most romantic sort of notion of the game when it's they know people are running very big businesses day in and day out. Players are trying to do what they can ethically to win the most in the games they choose to play in.

CT: Thanks so much for sharing your side of the story with me. I really appreciate your time. It’s been a pleasure. Have a great time talking to Doug today.

GA: Thanks, Craig.

Adelstein is appearing with Doug Polk at 4pm ET / 1pm PT Monday March 27.