There are a lot of words you could use to describe Justin Schwartz’s presence in the poker world, that also apply to how he utilizes his Twitter account – controversial, polarizing, hard-hitting, and even nonsensical at times. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and doesn’t pull a single punch, but Schwartz’s life, unlike his undeniable talent at the table, has been down a path that even he would likely admit has been far from ideal at times.
Schwartz, best known by his longtime handle of ‘stealthmunk’, has rubbed some people the wrong way in the past, and his occasionally confrontational nature put him directly in the sights of Daniel Negreanu a few weeks prior to the start of the 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event. Negreanu offered what was basically a freeroll in a $100,000 heads-up Sit & Go to Schwartz, with a number of conditions put in place with hopes of helping Schwartz improve himself.
While there was some back and forth on the parameters, the 2015 WSOP Main Event got underway and Schwartz kept advancing, day by day. Things got serious as Schwartz bagged to end the night on Day 5 with just 68 others, keeping alive his chances of balancing out some of his well-documented struggles in the world with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the Main Event.
When the chip counts were released, Schwartz was put in a position where he could discuss his potential heads-up match with Negreanu face to face, as the six-time WSOP bracelet winner was also in the midst of putting together one of the best runs of his career.
Me and @RealKidPoker really starting off on same table? This is all a simulation guys.
— stealthmunk (@stealthmunk) July 13, 2015
“A lot of people don’t understand, but he’s doing it because he’s a nice guy and he’s thinks he’s going to change my life,” said Schwartz. “I’m just excited to play him in a $100K freezeout.”
Schwartz spent the entirety of Day 6 playing with Negreanu and Max Steinberg, but at a certain point the other players at the table simply stopped talking. It was right in line with a lot of the play going on in the later stages of the day on the ‘Thunderdome’ stage, with the pace of everything dropping considerably in the late parts of the day.
“It was a pretty tight table, a lot of amateurs except for Negreanu and Steinberg and we were generally staying out of each other’s way,” said Schwartz.
Without much experience in terms of playing under the bright lights and in front of the TV cameras, and nearly six full days of grinding hard already behind him, the circumstances started to wear on Schwartz until a well-timed dinner bell rang in the Main Event.
“I was really tired right before dinner break, and it really showed,” said Schwartz, “But then I had a good rest on dinner and I think I’m playing perfect now.”
Both Schwartz and Negreanu managed to make it through to the final day of WSOP play in the summer of 2015 with healthy stacks, and as luck would have it the random redraw at 27 players has them sitting right next to each other again on Day 7.
Aside from Negreanu and Steinberg, who also joins the pair for the second straight day, Schwartz feels he’s well-poised to make a run at the November Nine after the way things shook out Monday.
“I feel like a lot of the best players that were in at the start of the day all busted,” said Schwartz, “Which is really awesome, because I want to be at a weak final table if I make it.”
Schwartz offered that it was a little bittersweet to lose a couple of friendly faces whose dreams were dashed as his carried on, most specifically mentioning the likes of Steve Gross and Brian Hastings.
It is the way that poker tournaments go, though, and after spending a full day on the main stage with another visit likely to come on Day 7, Schwartz feels he can be an asset to this year’s broadcast.
“I don’t know what ESPN needs, but I’m quite the character, quite the story,” said Schwartz. “I talk, a lot of the kids don’t talk. But I’m not a poker producer.”
No matter how his presence came across for the ESPN cameras, there’s been an undeniable groundswell of support from some truly prolific names in the game of poker. 2004 WSOP Main Event runner-up David Williams and five-time WSOP bracelet-winner Daniel Alaei have both thrown their support behind Schwartz, as have a number of players who came up with him in the online poker world and have already gone on to big things.
When coming up through poker I was convinced @stealthmunk would become more of a "name" in poker than any of my peers. Make this happen man!
— Mike McDonald (@MikeMcDonald89) July 13, 2015
“The internet’s going wild, and I think that they’re a good demographic [indicator],” said Schwartz. “But I might be too off – I truly don’t know.”
The elements that make Schwartz’s run towards the November Nine all the more compelling involve run-ins with the law, problems with drug abuse and even homelessness. Some of that stems from conflicts Schwartz had with his mom and dad.
“My family didn’t want me playing poker,” said Schwartz. “A lot of people had supportive parents.”
It went well beyond the pale with his mother, whom Schwartz alleges took the sum of his winnings in a major online tournament that he played while he was still just 17 years old. With his father things were a little different, and the issues that Schwartz has had to deal with in the last few years got bad enough where someone had to step in.
Schwartz’s father was the man who stepped up to help him in his darkest hours, and likely saved his life.
“My dad never really got poker, but he’s been very supportive of me and I would be dead if not for him helping me out the past couple of years,” said Schwartz. “Giving me an attic to crash in.”
Serious issues with drugs put Schwartz out on the street at one point in his life, with Oxycontin addiction leading to other drugs and a slip into the darkest levels of abuse. Schwartz lost friends that ended up as junkies, dead, or in jail doing the same thing he did, but some of the people Schwartz met during his time in poker, along with the help and patience of his father, helped save Schwartz from the worst of that.
“I’m lucky I have good friends, and I’m lucky I’m an honest person and I’m good at poker,” said Schwartz.
Even with the improvements he’s made to his life, Schwartz nearly didn’t even get to come to the 2015 WSOP. Legal issues stemming from a November 2013 arrest for Possession of Narcotics in New London, Connecticut, had Schwartz in court in April of this year.
“I thought I wasn’t even going to get to come out here,” said Schwartz.
The judge ultimately offered two options – a drug rehabilitation course that would have wiped the slate clean and probation, or a one year suspended sense with a conditional discharge that would stay on his record. The rehab and probation would have kept Schwartz from traveling to Las Vegas, and that simply wasn’t an option in his mind.
“As I was leaving the courthouse that day everybody thought I was an idiot. It was just a bullshit possession charge that would’ve been dropped,” said Schwartz.
He has no regrets about how he handled the situation, and Schwartz genuinely believes he got the deal of a lifetime. Schwartz also maintained that he should not have been charged in the first place.
“Anything a consenting adult is doing alone in his room should not make him a felon,” said Schwartz.
The WSOP bracelet means everything to many of the final 27, but for Schwartz it’s mostly about claiming one of the nine seven-figure payouts.
“I’m playing for the money, I don’t really care about the bracelet,” said Schwartz. “I want to win $1 million. But I mean, yeah, it’d give me a little social validation, it would be cool.”
During the best times in his career, Schwartz was considered one of the top online players in the world. Those experiences helped him play for some dizzying sums before, which should suit him well on Day 7, but considering what he’s been through over the last few years every pay jump will be a big deal.
“In 13 years I’ve played the highest stakes – I’ve been nothing, and I’ve been everything,” said Schwartz. “I’m not saying it’s not amazing – every pot is worth insane equity at this point. Playing the Main Event’s awesome, and running deep’s even more awesome.”
Through his trials and tribulations, Schwartz needed to borrow money for various reasons, be they poker-related or simply to make sure he didn’t starve. If things break the right way, he could be looking at a fresh start.
“I’m going to be debt-free if I win this, I’m not going to anything to anyone in the poker world, which is awesome” said Schwartz. “And I’m going to have my own place.”
Beyond settling up financially and striking back out on his own, there’s not much that Schwartz wants for in the world. In rebuilding himself financially, Schwartz hopes to provide himself the opportunity to play his game of choice for years to come.
“Money affords you the chance to do things that you like,” said Schwartz. “I don’t like doing much, but I like to play poker.”
Just 18 players stand between Schwartz and a spot in the November Nine, and if things break right he feels like he’s well-suited to represent a generation of online players who see things a little bit differently.
“I embody the internet generation,” said Schwartz, “And let’s hope I run good and win it all.”
Kevin Mathers contributed to this story
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