Jeff Sarwer sounds as though his last year was quite pleasant overall, if a little quiet.
“Oh, you know, just keeping things simple, a little bit of online chess and poker, nothing much,” is his response to my now-standard ‘how’s lockdown treating you?’ opener. “Not much live or anything.” I remind him that no-one’s played a lot of live poker recently. “Yeah,” he laughs, “This has been a crazy year for everybody.”
Chess has blown up like crazy
Like most of the community, Sarwer’s had to shift his life online for the past year. He’s not just been keeping it to poker, though. “Chess has blown up, like, in a crazy way.” He’s suddenly very animated. “With the Netflix Series The Queen’s Gambit and everything... I’m really happy with what’s happening with chess these days. Like, probably triple the amount of people playing compared to last year, it’s insane. So I’ve been doing a little bit of coaching here and there with chess. There’s just been so much overwhelming interest in the game.” His enthusiasm falters though when I ask if he’d like to see chess added to The Festival’s schedule in future. “Well,” he says diplomatically after a brief pause, “Some drunk speed chess is always fun.”
Sarwer’s spent the past year at home in Gdansk (although he retains the easy, relaxed drawl of his native Canadian accent, he’s been a Polish resident for many years), which he describes as, “Unusual, like everywhere else, shut down and everything. I’m in my little bubble… Yeah,” he sighs, “Let’s hope things open up and everything goes back to normal.”
Sarwer’s enthusiasm returns as the conversation moves to the return of live events generally, and The Festival in particular. “It sounds great,” he enthuses. “Not to mention with Franke - since he’s probably one of the five most electric personalities I’ve ever met in my life. His electric energy, it’s always been great, and he always runs a really good show.”
The Festival is definitely an interesting experiment
The mixed poker and casino games format is also a draw for Sarwer. “Yeah, that’s good,” he says, “And you were also mentioning sports betting as well, which is something I’m always interested in. Especially tennis. I’m a big tennis fan, tennis betting’s always an interesting one for me - so yeah, I think it’s definitely an interesting experiment. Cash games as well will be good. I’ve been playing lots of cash games online - it really blew up in the last year. So I’ve been working a lot on Omaha cash, so that’s been really fun the last year. But yeah, between cash games and casino games and sport games, I think it’s a great idea. And knowing Franke, ah, just” - here Sarwer, a veteran of several Cash Game Festivals, chuckles in a knowing way that I am beginning to recognize in many of my interviewees who have previous on The Festival chief, Franke von Zweigbergk. “There’ll probably be some other things going on, there’s always some surprises.”
Although obviously the Covid situation in June is still unknowable, Sarwer very much hopes The Festival In Tallinn will go ahead as planned. He’s a big fan of the city, and he’s had a fair bit of success there in the past, including a 3rd place finish in the 2016 Kings Of Tallinn Main Event and 13th in the 2011 EPT Tallinn Main Event. “It’s a good city for me. It’s a lucky city. I love Tallinn very much, it’s great, and yeah - it would be good. After this last year of, just, you know… Being housebound. It’s the year where the least amount of things have happened in my life, because as you know I have traditionally really been a traveller, but you know, I look forward to things opening up again, that’s all I can say.”
Sarwer’s definitely not the only one who’s ready for real life to return. Your move, Corona.