Meet Henry Orenstein, the Man Who Changed How the World Plays

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The Nazis killed his parents, and three years in concentration camps almost killed his spirit, but when Henry Orenstein created some of the world's most popular toys, he proved that playing well is the best revenge. Newsweek

Henry Orenstein was standing outside his concentration camp barracks, shivering, when the amplified voice of his salvation cut through the frigid air: “All Jewish scientists, engineers, inventors, chemists and mathematicians must register immediately.” It was January 1944, and his fellow prisoners were suffering and dying all around him—beaten during morning roll call for standing half a step out of line; hanged for trying to escape; shot in the head just because. Orenstein had just endured the latest perverse humiliation perpetrated by the SS guards, who had chased 400 wet, naked prisoners from the shower house out into the snow, then pummelled the frozen men as they climbed back inside, one by one, through a small window.

The voice blared out again: “All Jewish scientists, engineers, inventors, chemists and mathematicians must register immediately.”

What could this mean? Orenstein had heard rumors of evacuations and mass liquidations. What were the Nazis planning to do with these highly educated Jews? Experiment on them? Kill them first? He and his siblings (three brothers and a sister) were prisoners at Budzyn, a German labor camp near Krasnik, Poland, and he’d kept himself alive in the years leading up to the war by making insane, desperate bets on the kindness of strangers—sleeping in fields, hiding in empty oil drums—and trusting his sharp instincts. Once, Henry had been caught by the Nazis and was being marched toward an execution pit when he shoved his watch and all his cash into the hands of a Ukrainian police officer, then sprinted down a side street, wondering with every stride if that officer was going to shoot him in the back.

Related: The last Nazi hunter

After being interned by the Nazis, the Orensteins had lived in crowded barracks teeming with fleas and lice. They’d worked outside in numbing temperatures, wearing just thin pants and tops, and were nourished by only meager scraps of bread and soup that was little more than leaves and twigs boiled in water. Henry knew that their survival thus far had largely been a matter of luck, and that theirs couldn’t last much longer, so when he heard those words a second time—“All Jewish scientists, engineers, inventors, chemists and mathematicians must register immediately”—he once again gambled with his life, with all their lives.

He walked straight to the office of the prisoner in charge of the camp administration and declared that he, his brothers and his sister were all scientists and mathematicians.

When his siblings found out what he had done, they were horrified. Fred was a doctor and Felix had studied medicine for a couple of years, but Sam was a lawyer, and Henry and Hanka hadn’t even been to college. The Nazis would surely kill them all when they discovered that Henry had lied.

Henry didn’t care—he figured the Germans would treat their “intellectuals” better than the other prisoners, and that even a few days of decent work conditions and food meant they’d be able to live just a little while longer. Even if his insane gamble only bought them one more day, it was worth it. He’d worry about tomorrow when it came, if it came.

He did not know then that this special group of Jewish prisoners would be charged with building a superweapon to save the Third Reich. Nor could he have imagined that the entire operation was a hoax. But he was right about one thing: Signing up for this so-called Chemiker Kommando saved his life. It was one of the many risks he took to survive the systematic genocide of 6 million Jews during World War II, and it would shape his extraordinary life over the next 60 years. The boy whose teen and young-adult years were ripped from him by the murderous Nazi rampage through Europe would show millions of children and adults how to play, how to squeeze more fun out of their lives.

‘He Sings Himself to Sleep’


12_30_Transformers_11 copy “Ideas don’t come in little pieces. It’s in; it’s out. It’s there, or it’s not. It’s like a sparkle,” Orenstein says. Shaminder Dulai

“I want to beat the shit out of these poker guys! That’s what I want to do the most.” Henry Orenstein now speaks English with a borscht-thick European accent that’s just one notch above a whisper. He is still alive, still gambling and still winning most of his bets. Glancing out the window of his New York City pied-à-terre, which offers sweeping views of Central Park, he leans forward and rests his elbows on the large poker table in front of him. Wisps of gray hair and gray stubble frame his wrinkled face. He wears oversized tortoiseshell glasses, a blue and pink cowboy shirt with a cactus on the back (he designed it) and a blue visor that says Poker Superstars on the front (he created the show) and “Henry” on one side. The pleats in his navy slacks look like they’ve been pressed for him each morning for the past 30 years.

Orenstein is now 93, and his wife, Carolyn Sue (Susie), is 72, but he is too busy having fun to sink placidly into his dotage. Three days a week, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., he hosts a high-stakes game of five-card stud in his Manhattan apartment with his poker buddies. “He calls ’em friends,” Susie says, grinning. “They’re sharks!”

Ken Oakes, Orenstein’s longtime driver, brings him a glass of water and a few cough drops. “I’ve been driving Henry for 24 years, since I retired from my regular job as a manager for Sears,” he says. “I managed the toy department there. When the Transformers came out, we used to talk about it.” That’s because Orenstein was the man who saw the potential for Transformers in America. They made him a very rich man. Again.

“Transformers, more than meets the eye!” Orenstein croons.

“He sings all the time,” Susie says. “He sings himself to sleep!”

“If the melody is pretty, I love it,” he says, belting out the opening of Carmen, then a bit of the dulcet jingle he wrote for Louis Armstrong to sing in the commercial for one of the dolls that made Orenstein a titan of toys. “And her name was Suuuuuuzyyyyyy Cute!” he warbles. Next, he does the chorus of “When the Saints Go Marching In” before launching into a song he wrote years ago:

Do the best you can, la la la
Do your very best, la la la
And worry no more
About the rest

“He had every reason not to want to rebuild his life, not to want to have a family,” says Malcolm Hoenlein, who runs the most powerful Jewish group in the U.S., the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “When you come out of seeing what he saw, what he lived through, to bring people into the world, to build a relationship, to do all that he was doing for others, it’s remarkable....”

12_30_Transformers_02 Orenstein remade himself many times; he was a tinkerer and sculptor, a jingles writer, and briefly even pretended to be a mathematician helping the Nazis build a secret weapon. Shaminder Dulai

Of Poland’s 3 million Jews, just over 300,000 survived the war. “Ninety to 97 percent of Polish Jews were killed,” says Eliyana Adler, associate professor of history and Jewish Studies at Penn State. “Anyone who survived, they shouldn’t have.”

The story of how Henry Orenstein went from a small town in Poland, through five concentration camps, all the way to his 24th-floor apartment on one of Manhattan’s most expensive strips of real estate is the stuff of fiction, and science fiction. He bluffed and cajoled to survive the Holocaust, and just a few years later, armed with unrelenting drive and rare creativity, he tinkered and hustled his way to the top of America’s toy industry, helping to put dolls, race cars and one of the most successful action figures in history into the hands of generations of children. Then he transformed poker from a game played in dimly lit rooms to a billion-dollar business.

He chalks up much of his horrifying, astonishing, heartbreaking and exhilarating tale to luck, but it was luck born of guts and guile. He beat one of the most fearsome death machines man ever devised by seeing opportunities where others saw only ruin. He brought joy to millions by using that same gift—by daring to see what no one else saw, and by daring to transform himself, again and again.

‘He’ll Kill Us All!’
 

12_30_Transformers_04 Orenstein, second from left, with some of his cousins in Poland in 1937, before the war. Shaminder Dulai

Henry Orenstein was born in 1923 in Hrubieszów, Poland . Half the town was Jewish, yet as a young boy he remembers looking out the window each morning and seeing signs like, “Jews to Palestine” and “Beat the Jews!” His father, Lejb, was a self-made businessman with a fabric store, a granary and a lucrative exporting business. His mother, Golda, took care of the family—Henry, his older brothers, Fred, Felix and Sam, and their younger sister, Hanka—in a three-story house with a cook and a live-in maid. “It was a very happy and good family situation,” Henry says, but, “we knew that our future was in danger.”

As a boy, he lost himself in tales of the American Wild West and dreamt of becoming a scientist and curing diseases. In his freshman year of high school, he was the only straight-A student in his class, but at the end-of-year ceremony, the director announced that not a single freshman had earned the top academic prize. Henry was gutted. The school, he realized, would not give this award to a Jew.

Such anti-Semitism was rife all over Europe in the 1930s as Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, and Henry remembers begging his father to move the family to America. “In desperation, I threw myself on the bed, face down, started crying hysterically, and said, ‘Hitler will come here, and he’ll kill us all!’”

The German army rolled into Poland on September 1, 1939. A few days later, England and France declared war on Germany. A few weeks after that, Poland was divvied up between Germany and Russia, and the border between the two sides was just a few kilometers from Hrubieszów. The Orenstein men fled to the Russian side while Golda and Hanka stayed home. “We felt the Germans would not kill women, but they might kill men,” Henry says.

A couple months after Lejb, Henry and his brothers left, 2,000 Jewish men from Hrubieszów and a neighboring town were rounded up and sent on a death march. Only a few hundred survived.

The Orenstein men spent the next two years in Soviet-occupied Poland, where Henry studied Russian, learned to play chess and graduated from high school at the top of his class. News occasionally trickled in from Golda and Hanka, who were still in their family home, although the Germans had seized the family businesses.

In June 1941, Germany turned on its eastern ally and invaded Russia, which meant the Orenstein men were no longer safe. They gave half their money to a Polish engineer who worked construction on both sides of the border. He promised to shepherd them back to Hrubieszów, but as they crouched in their hiding place and watched the sun rise, they knew he had abandoned them.

They bartered with strangers for food and shelter, giving away the rest of their money, Felix’s herringbone tweed coat and even the straight razor they had been saving in case they needed to slit their wrists. At last they got lucky: A woman agreed to hide them in a haystack behind her house, bring them food and water, and arrange for their journey across the river. “She is one of the most brave and courageous and honorable people I’ve ever met in my life, and she is definitely responsible for me staying alive,” says Orenstein, who made sure Yekaterina Lipinskaja was named at the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem that honors gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews.

COV_RevengeFallen_1800x2400 Newsweek

“In Poland, the penalty for hiding Jews was immediate death for the entire family,” says Adler. “People had to be pure angels from heaven—or they had to be paid really well.”

The family was finally reunited back in Hrubieszów on October 1, 1942, but just a couple of weeks later, the Gestapo gave all the Jews there two days to gather their belongings and assemble in the town square. The Orensteins gathered two weeks’ worth of food and water and disappeared behind fake walls in the homes of neighbors.

On October 20, 3,000 Jews from Hrubieszów were sent to the Sobibor gas chambers.

While in hiding, Henry listened as search parties barged into homes and pounded on walls, dragging out any Jews they found. When he wasn’t sitting in silence, terrified, he read a copy of Gone With the Wind that was missing the last 20 pages. “I always remembered how regretful I was that I would never know know what happened to Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler because I probably wouldn’t survive the war.”

After a week of this, the Orensteins heard a voice in the street shouting: “Amnesty! All Jews can come out of hiding. The action is finished.” They knew it was a ruse—they’d heard of Jews turning themselves in only to be shot dead and tossed into mass graves—but they had no more food, no more water and nowhere to go. “There was no sign or possibility of help,” Henry says. “So we gave up.”

On October 28, 1942, Henry’s family walked through the thick iron gate at the local Gestapo headquarters. Trucks pulled into the yard and Polish police officers started shoving Jews inside. The Orenstein children were separated from their parents; Henry saw his father helping his mother onto a truck. She looked beaten, desperate as she howled in Yiddish, “Niuniek, ndavor define di kinder! ” “Fred, save the children!”

Henry and his siblings were sent to a local labor camp. Lejb and Golda were driven to the Jewish cemetery in Hrubieszów, where they were told to undress and lie down in rows at the edge of an execution pit. They were then shot in the head and shoved into the hole.

The Double Hoax
 

12_30_Transformers_03 Orenstein, who evaded capture by the Nazis until 1942, survived five different concentration camps before being liberated while on a forced march as the Allies closed in on Berlin. AP

Skeletal and weak, Henry stood in front of three German civilians at his third concentration camp, this one near Krakow. They were interviewing the Jewish prisoners who’d registered as scientists, engineers and mathematicians, including Henry and his brothers; Hanka had been deemed too young for the special group and was shipped off to another camp.

Fred had already passed his interview. The civilians, who addressed each other as “Herr Professor,” merely asked him how many legs a fly had.

Fred couldn’t believe his luck. He knew the answer: six.

Next up were Felix and Sam, who were only asked about their “schooling” (they’d memorized whatever details Henry put down when he’d first registered the family). Then it was Henry’s turn. “Are you familiar with calculators?” one of the civilians said.

“Oh yes, I used them a lot at school,” he replied, summoning up every shred of confidence he had left in him. The men seemed satisfied with all of them.

A few days later, guards escorted Henry, his brothers and a handful of other prisoners to a barracks. Inside were the “Herr professors.” Henry, Sam and six other were taken to a table lined with old-fashioned cash registers. They were the “mathematicians.” One of the professors handed them thick manila envelopes with hundreds of sheets of paper, each one covered with multiplication and division problems.

256.1 x 788.2 =
52,354.05 ÷
1.263 =

“We had to punch in a number, times or divide it—whatever they wanted—then turn the handle by hand. A result appeared in the window. Write it down,” Henry says. “That was the extent of our scientific endeavor.”

Outside, he could see freezing prisoners struggling to work in the snow, while Fred and Felix sat nearby, at a table with the chemists, translating textbooks on insects from Polish to German. A prisoner who couldn’t read or write German had been appointed the librarian of the group. The “engineers” and “inventors” were gathered around an automobile engine, turning it on and off. They’d been told they’d be inventing a gas that could immobilize cars, planes and tanks, but their materials had not yet arrived.

Orenstein's letter to President Ronald Reagan, published in The New York Times, April 22, 1985.

Henry marveled at the ludicrous scene—cadaverous prisoners, selected for their “expertise” and tasked with inventing secret weapons for the Nazis, were doing work that wouldn’t tax a third-grader. Henry had been suspicious about the project since those interviews—why hadn’t the professors asked more questions, or harder ones? And why was their “research” so loosely supervised? It gradually became clear that the German civilians knew Henry and his brothers weren’t scientists, weren’t mathematicians, and they didn’t care. “It was a cover-up on both sides!” he says. “German professors created this project to keep themselves from being drafted into the army. If they told the Gestapo that we were faking, we would have been killed, but they would have been drafted into the German army. To be sent to the Russian front was the worst thing that could happen. The winter and snow and all that; everyone was dying like flies. So they decided to fake the whole thing. Lucky for us.”

(Many years later, Henry asked two German historians to verify that this sham operation had been real. They uncovered a letter between the head of the SS in Poland and Heinrich Himmler, the second-most-powerful man in Nazi Germany, and another between Himmler and a high-ranking SS commander in Berlin, both of which discussed the importance of the scientific research being done by these prisoners. The historians also found a page from the Ravensbrück register listing all eight mathematicians in the scientific group, including Henry, their names written in careful cursive and “Jude” scrawled next to each one.)

The Orenstein brothers were protected by this sham for nearly a year and a half, but as the Allied forces approached, Henry and Sam were among the 33,000 prisoners sent on a death march north, toward the Baltic Sea. (By that point, Fred and Felix had been deported to another camp.) Thousands died during this march from exhaustion, illness or gunshots, Henry says. “If you couldn’t walk, they would shoot.”

After marching for 10 days, Henry awoke one morning at the edge of a forest and heard someone shout: “The guards are gone!”

‘My First Million-Dollar Doll’
 

Orenstein_Dolls_02 In the mid-1950s, Orenstein came up with the idea to fill empty grocery store shelves with beautifully packaged dolls. COURTESY OF HENRY ORENSTEIN

Dressed in a sharp suit, Henry Orenstein glided through his showroom as if he were a king on roller skates. For two weeks each year, buyers descended upon the Toy Center at 200 Fifth Ave. in New York City to shop for the latest novelties from the top toy companies, huddling around elaborate displays as finely dressed demonstrators revealed the magic of how this little oven opened or that doll’s hair grew. “Henry was always in a hurry and very busy, but very nice to the people working for him,” says Susie, who met Orenstein when she got a job as a showroom demonstrator at Topper Toys, which he founded in the 1950s under its original name, Deluxe Reading. At its peak, Topper had 5,000 employees in its New Jersey factory. “Henry could step in and do the job of any one of them at any time. He was really something,” Susie says. “Everybody used to talk about it all the time—if anything ever changed, he should be the president of the United States, because he was such a hotshot.”

In 1958, Orenstein landed his first hit, Betty the Beautiful Bride, a 30-inch doll in an ornate white dress with 10 layers of ruffles. He came up with the idea when he saw a bride doll in a dazzling white dress displayed in a department store window. She cost $29.95 (the equivalent of nearly $250 today), so he told his designer to make him a taller, less expensive version that he could sell for $9.99. “That’s how I made my first million,” he says. The next year, he launched Betty’s bridesmaids and brought in $2 million.

By then, 10 years had passed since Henry, Fred and Sam had stood on the deck of their Liberty ship, watching the Statue of Liberty slowly come into view. (Hanka had died on a death march in East Prussia and Felix had been murdered just days before liberation.) When Henry walked off the dock in New York City, he immediately bought copies of the New York Daily News and the New York Daily Mirror. He’d memorized 2,000 English words while waiting two years in Germany for his immigration papers to be approved. “I read every single word on every page [of those papers] from beginning to end, and there was not a single anti-Semitic reference anywhere,” he says. “I breathed a sigh of relief.”

His uncle rented him a room in a rough building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His hallway was full of prostitutes, and like many immigrants, his resume began filling up with odd jobs as he hustled for work. He loaded heavy bales of cotton for 85 cents an hour; bought, ran and sold a grocery store; then convinced a manager at a canned food company to hire him for a position that required five years of experience, even though he had none. His first day on the job, he signed up more orders than the company’s entire salesforce combined.

12_30_Transformers_05 Orenstein had success competing with Mattel’s wildly popular Barbie doll by offering Dawn, a less expensive alternative. Shaminder Dulai

Orenstein had always been a tinkerer and sculptor—and he’d never been content to work for someone else—so when he came up with an idea in the mid-1950s to fill empty grocery store shelves with beautifully packaged dolls, his uncle loaned him startup capital (he’s also the one who urged Susie to go out with Henry). Orenstein commissioned a series of dolls from a manufacturer and designed an attractive display box. “I took it for a test in Pennsylvania, because I didn’t want anybody to see it [in New York].” A few days later, the store had received two dozen orders. “I said to myself, ‘There it is!’” These dolls, which looked like the expensive fashion dolls sold in department stores but cost much less, came to be known as “Grocery Store Dolls.”

Creative sparks came to him anywhere, anytime. A TWA commercial inspired him to create the best-selling toy of 1964, the toy gun Johnny 7 One Man Army (tagline: “It’s seven guns in one!”). A dull social visit to a friend’s house led to one of his biggest successes: a doll with blinking eyes. He’d thought of that one as he sat on the sofa, bored; he noticed a magnet on the glass table and, near it, a small metal object. “I took that magnet under the glass and as I moved it, the metal object followed. I thought, That would be a great idea for a toy!”

The money and the patents started rolling in; today, he holds close to 100.

For more than two decades, Orenstein flooded American homes with some of the most memorable toys of the mid-20th century. His Johnny Lightning racing cars rivaled Hot Wheels. His Dawn dolls competed with Barbie. He created Suzy Homemaker appliances, Zoomer Boomer trucks and baby dolls with faces Orenstein designed. He sold “Walking Letters,” which taught children how to spell, to Sesame Street, and hired Louis Armstrong to sing the ad jingle for his Suzy Cute doll. (“Armstrong was getting so drunk that at the end he couldn’t walk,” Orenstein says. “I remember, when we finished, I had him on one side, my assistant on the other side, and we actually dragged him along the floor, down the steps and out to the car.”)

Orenstein_Armstrong For a commercial for one of his dolls, Orenstein enlisted the efforts of Louis Armstrong and directed the jazz giant during a recording of the jingle for Topper Toys’s very popular Suzy Cute doll. Courtesy of Henry Orenstein

Orenstein’s outsider status and his seemingly effortless success rankled the more established players in the toy world. “Mattel was determined to destroy Topper,” Susie says. “Former employees of Mattel would tell us how they’d have days of meetings on how to destroy Henry Orenstein.”

A Huge Transformation

Henry turned the small toy car over in his hands, gauging the weight of it. He’d spotted the thing in a showroom at the New York Toy Fair, on a shelf off to the side, so far away from the main display he assumed it had been discarded. He gently flipped the front doors open and nudged the backseat, and poof: The car transformed into a plane. He thought, This is the best idea I’ve seen in many years!

“He went into a trance,” recalls Susie, who was with him that day. “I didn’t know what he was talking about!”

It was the early 1980s; Topper had filed for bankruptcy in 1972 after the bank called back their loan (Susie calls it “the blemish on his career”), but Henry had remained in the business, pitching ideas to large toy companies. He always had an eye for the overlooked, so when he saw that car turn into a plane, he got the feeling he’d had many times before. “Ideas don’t come in little pieces. It’s in; it’s out. It’s there, or it’s not. It’s like a sparkle,” he says. “I was just an inventor. You needed a big company to do what I thought should be done: making real transformations from complex things to other complex things.”

That tiny car was manufactured by a Japanese toy company named Takara. “I knew the president,” Orenstein says. “I went to him and said, ‘I think this could be a great thing, building a bridge between Japanese ingenuity and American marketing.’” He then went to Hasbro, the toy giant behind G.I. Joe and My Little Pony, and became a matchmaker, pitching his vision for a line of transforming toys that went far beyond cars turning into planes. “Very definitely, Henry was the bridge in this one transaction with Takara,” says Alan Hassenfeld, former chairman and CEO of Hasbro. “Henry basically had a sense that Transformers was going to be something that would be transformational for the toy industry.… To be able to take a car and, with a little bit of dexterity, change it into another toy, that was something magical.”

“It was Henry who really saw the magic, the potential, that was inside all these different brands that Takara was presenting,” says Tom Warner, Senior Vice President of the Transformers franchise. “There’s a lot of toys out there, but it takes a very special individual to look at something, identify it, and say it will be a big hit in the U.S. ”

“Everyone in the toy business is looking for the next big thing,” says toy historian Tim Walsh, but coming up with a truly successful toy “takes an outsider.… The things that are huge hits, people never see coming.” Silly Putty was originally a synthetic rubber created by accident during World War II. The Slinky was a torsion spring created by a mechanical engineer to immobilize sensitive equipment at sea. Play-Doh was supposed to be a commercial wallpaper cleaner. And Transformers were just a small car cast aside at a toy fair.

Henry didn’t style Bumblebee or create Optimus Prime’s backstory—teams of writers, designers and artists at Hasbro developed the ubiquitous Transformers we know today—but he was there first, the one who saw the promise. “Henry was absolutely the catalyst that made this happen,” Hassenfeld says.

Hasbro, working with Takara, created the Transformers in 1984, and since then those multifaceted robots have become one of the most successful action figure brands in history, touching all outposts of popular culture, from comic books and a popular theme song to numerous TV series, imitators (GoBots, anyone?) and a blockbuster movie franchise. In 2007, the first Transformers movie made over $700 million worldwide. Three more films followed. Hasbro says the Transformers franchise has brought in more than $10 billion since 2004.

Show Me His Cards
 

12_30_Transformers_10 copy By figuring out how to reveal hole cards, Orenstein transformed poker into a billion-dollar industry that spawned TV shows, tournaments and lucrative online sites. Shaminder Dulai

Mori Eskandani first met the toy man in 1987, during a game of Seven Card Stud at the Bicycle Hotel & Casino, a 100,000-square-foot ocean of poker tables in Los Angeles. “We just had fun,” says Eskandani, a veteran poker player whose company, Poker Productions, produces the World Series of Poker. “Henry was entertaining, not just because of the skill level of his game but also because of how fun the atmosphere was. Nobody was mad. Nobody was cussing and fussing.”

Dressed in his signature blue suede Western shirt and string tie, Orenstein played until he ran out of money. “He asked me if I would cash him a check, and I did. If you’re a professional poker player, you always know by the way people conduct themselves if they’re good for it. It was very, very obvious he was a wealthy man. He wasn’t worried about putting his money in the pot; he was just having fun.” A week later, Orenstein mailed Eskandani a check, along with a box the size of a refrigerator for his two kids, filled with every Transformer toy on the market.

Henry had been an avid chess player since he’d learned the game in Russian-occupied Poland as a teen; he only took up poker in his 60s. He was a very wealthy man by then, so he could afford to pay for his “lessons” in some of the best poker rooms in the country, playing high-stakes games in California; Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Las Vegas. This was in the early 1990s, when poker was still a slightly shady game shrouded in cigar smoke; once a year, ESPN aired a one-hour special on the World Series of Poker, but other than that, it was where it had always been, in the shadows, or in the basement rec room. The poker world had no idea how lucky it was that day when Henry Orenstein, a man who found inspiration in the most mundane things—a magnet on a glass table, a tiny toy car—sat down to watch the World Series and quickly became bored out of his mind. Where’s the drama in watching people play poker if you can’t see their cards?

He spent six months creating the solution: a poker table equipped with hole-card cameras. (Hole cards, also known as down cards, are kept face down; only the player can see them.) By placing cameras under glass panels, Henry could bring TV viewers in on the secrets and strategies and ballsy bluffs of the game.

He patented his table in 1995, and the world of poker stood up and said, as one: pass.

The best players balked at revealing their secrets on TV. “It would take someone like Henry to tell them they’re wrong,” Eskandani says. “He said, ‘Don’t worry—you put a TV camera in front of them, and they’ll do anything you want.’”

But TV execs weren’t interested, so Orenstein tabled his table, and devoted his time to becoming one of the top poker players in the U.S. He won the 1996 World Series of Poker Seven Card Stud tournament. In 2005, he beat Chip Reese in the first round of the National Heads-Up Poker Championship—a feat that’s like beating Michael Jordan in a game of horse.

In 2002, Orenstein was ready for another transformation, another big gamble. He cold-called Jon Miller, head of NBC Sports.

“On a Tuesday morning, I came back to my office after my staff meeting and my assistant says, ‘You have a 10:30 a.m. call with a man named Henry Orenstein.’ I said to her, ‘Who is Henry Orenstein?’ She says, ‘Just do me a favor, please take the phone call.’”

Miller’s phone rang at 10:30 a.m. sharp.

“Do you have the package I sent you?” Orenstein asked.

Miller scanned his desk. No package. “Is there a package?” he asked his assistant. She walked into his office holding a FedEx in hand. “I was supposed to give this to you when you got on the phone,” she said, apologizing.

Inside, Miller found two bank statements. “I won’t tell you the numbers, but both of them had significantly large balances,” he says. “Eight- or nine-figure balances. It was a lot of money.”

12_30_Transformers_14 copy In 2014, Orenstein, still sharp, came in ninth out of 130 people in a poker tournament in Las Vegas. Shaminder Dulai

Orenstein explained that he needed Miller to understand that he was “a serious man…with a serious idea.” Henry then told him about his table with hole-card cameras, and his vision for a high-stakes tournament with a huge buy-in and the best poker players in the country, shown live on TV. Miller was captivated. NBC had walked away from NFL and NBA programming, and he was looking for new, profitable ways to fill air time. He also had two teenage sons who spent weekends playing poker. “I’ve learned a lot from my kids, and I think if you don’t, you’re kind of a fool,” he says. “I knew this was something we had to pay attention to.”

Together, they launched Poker Superstars and High Stakes Poker. Soon after, the sport exploded on TV and online. “None of that happens…without the hole-card camera,” Miller says. “This one man is the reason poker is as big as it is—that ESPN pays millions of dollars for the World Series of Poker, that Pokerstars and Full Tilt and Betfair and all these other [online poker] companies are out there. The reason poker is a multibillion-dollar business is because of this one man!”

“We called that table the Holy Grail,” Eskandani says. “Henry had to improve something all the time. That’s how his mind works. I used to say, ‘They’d give him the Statue of Liberty and he’d make it a little taller or shave the handle.’”

Johnny Lightning

Orenstein is getting antsy. He has delayed his weekly poker game by a few hours to make time for this interview, but now he wants to know where his “sharks” are, because he is ready to play some poker. Behind him hangs a framed photograph of 1971 Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser taking a victory lap in the “Johnny Lightning” car (Orenstein sat inside; he sponsored it). Next to it, a photo of Orenstein directing Louis Armstrong in that 1964 Suzy Cute commercial.

12_30_Transformers_06 Orenstein, left, directs jazz giant Louis Armstrong for his recording of the Suzy Cute doll jingle. Shaminder Dulai

These days, Susie says, their lives are all about poker. She has accompanied Henry to tournaments in Las Vegas, California and Atlantic City, and arranged three-month-long stays at the Commerce Casino near Los Angeles, where he’ll play 12 hours a day, with only a break for lunch. “He wanted to move to California to be near this casino. I mean, this is the armpit of the world, Commerce!” she says. “In 2014, he was still sharp and was in a poker tournament in Las Vegas and he came in ninth out of 130 people. He was definitely the oldest guy. Everybody was rooting for him.”

Finally, there’s a knock on the door and five of Henry’s poker buddies walk in. Most are about half his age, and they gather around the table shaking hands and catching up. “Do you know how many people in the poker world this man helps?” says Stuart Kempner, who everybody calls Stuey. He’s dressed in all black and his skin glows with a deep orange hue. “This guy got cancer and Henry was paying his rent and giving him money. He helps them all. Paid bills. Sent kids to college.” For nearly half a century, Orenstein has also supported Holocaust survivors and low-income families, helping them buy medical devices, furniture, clothes, food, even tombstones. “He took cases where there was nowhere else to turn,” says Jackie Ebron, who oversees his charitable giving at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. “And the people never knew who he was. He didn’t want you to know who it was.”

For a few seconds, all we hear is the soft, rhythmic chattering of cards being shuffled. Then Stuey deals a hand. The players assess their cards, and the room goes quiet except for their bids and the gentle thud of poker chips landing on the padded green felt table.

Orenstein doesn’t see too well anymore, so the guys call out the up cards on the table. “Ace, queen of spades, Henry,” someone says. Orenstein picks up his down cards and slowly, with almost no movement, checks his hand.

Susie puts on her coat and picks up her purse, explaining that she usually steps out during her husband’s poker games. “When I met Henry, he had all these regrets,” she says, standing near the door. “He wanted to do something important, like research—something that would mean something, or cure something. He thought making toys was not that important. Little did he know.…”

Orenstein peers across the table. “I’ve got three [of]  diamonds?” he says, referring to his upcard.

“Yeah,” someone says.

“Don’t raise me because I won’t be able to call if you raise me,” another player says.

“I raise you!” Henry says, barely cracking a smile.

Everyone laughs, and a couple of calls later, Henry takes the hand, tossing his cards into the pile before anyone can tell if he was bluffing. Once again, he bet big, and won big. Call it luck, and he’d probably agree with you.

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